He Walked Onstage with a Trumpet

In 1993, when I was 15 years old, I sat in a high school auditorium and watched a boy walk onstage with a trumpet. I was seated at least a dozen rows back from the stage, but as he and his bandmates filed onto the risers and took their places, I felt an absolute clarity. There was a beam of energy flowing straight out of my body and into his, like we were the polarized elements of an atom, straining to return after cosmic forces had wrenched us apart. I turned to my two girlfriends and said, “That one. I want to know him.”

He was part of the high school jazz band in the town we were visiting for an annual music festival. After their band finished playing my friends and I giggled our way to the front to meet that boy and his friends. What followed were three days of innocent love-creating of the kind that may only be possible when you are so fresh in life. I cemented a bond with that boy — Michael — that will last into my next lifetime, and beyond. It’s a bond I am certain originated in a life before this one.

Two days later I was curled on the floor of the ferry on my way home to Juneau, tears of despair and heartbreak flowing out of me. My best friend, Jack, picked me up at the ferry. When my mother got home from work I tried to tell her about what had happened. I tried to explain the strength of the bond and the catastrophe of our separation. She dismissed it, cool and nearly patronizing. Jack, who essentially lived at our house and viewed my mom as a second mother, stood up to her. “Cindy,” he said, “leave her alone. This is real.”

These were the days of long-distance charges and my paychecks from my coffee shop job went to my mom to pay the bill. One day in the early summer I called Michael’s house and his father answered. “He’s on the ferry on his way to Juneau,” he said. I had no idea he was coming. It was meant to be a surprise.

Six hours later he and his friend, also named Jack, stepped off the boat. My Jack and I were there to meet them. They had tents, guitars, skateboards, and a plan to stay indefinitely. They set up camp in the public campground three miles from my house. A few days later my mom and dad welcomed them into our back yard, and they became part of the extended family crew.

From the left, (my) Jack, Paige, and Michael. And me, lifted off the earth. This photograph captures a moment in my life where I believed completely and innocently in divine guidance and love. It is, perhaps, the happiest photograph of me that exists.

Many years later I discovered that Michael rarely spoke. Somehow I didn’t notice this during that season of our love. I barely had the chance to know him in our adulthood, so I’ve never been able to find out why. Was he an introvert? Strong and silent? Touched in some way? A friend of mine who grew up with him recently told me, “A lot of people believe he was truly magic.”

I know that relating to him on the three occasions I spent time with him after that summer of love was an incredible challenge. Perhaps in that magical month in 1993 we were so busy kissing and looking into one another’s eyes that the absence of words wasn’t noticeable. Perhaps the energy and chatter of our constant pack of friends left a natural space for him to hold relative silence. Perhaps we were so busy listening to the cacophony of birdsong that was perpetually outside my bedroom window that words weren’t missed. All I knew was that he was the most beautiful, talented, and trustworthy being I had ever known, and that he loved me.

It’s also possible I didn’t notice because Michael didn’t create life with words. He embodied life. Music passed through him, beating out of his palms and fingertips, ripping out of the guitar he held like it was of his own body. He could skateboard like he had wings. He could play baseball with a smooth, perfect swing. He ran up mountains, and sprang from peak to peak like an animal, wild and free. He was visceral and alive. In the years after I knew him he went on to be a surfer. I’ve never been able to surf well, but I’ve spent enough time sitting on a board out beyond the breakers to know that the Earth’s breath comes in the rise and fall of a wave. I can imagine Michael riding that breath. Perhaps he was that breath.

That same summer, just a week or two before Michael stepped off the ferry and began his month-long stay in my life, my mom had announced that we would be selling all our belongings and undertaking another one of our family’s cross-country relocations. During the weeks that Michael camped in our back yard we held yard sales and got rid of everything we owned that didn’t fit into an 18-foot shipping container. When we left to drive east we had no destination, as my parents had yet to decide where we were moving. I sat in the car on a month-long cross-country journey feeling the bond between me and Michael stretch tighter and thinner and tighter and thinner. In campgrounds in Canada and Montana I would peel pieces of birch bark from trees and cover them with words of love, which I’d send from the next town’s post office. By the time we reached the East Coast, the anxiety of uncertainty had begun to take over, and the swirl of extended family kept my attention until my parents finally chose a place (Massachusetts) to alight, just days before the start of the school year.

With the start of school I was cast to the wolves. After two weeks at the local public schools my mother transferred me and my brother to a tiny private day school full of cruel, privileged children who knew nothing of Alaska or mountains or the breath of souls. The one person who would speak to me was also a transplant, and because he was a boy he became my boyfriend. I cast Michael from my mind because I had to, to survive.

A year and a half after we had moved east, in the spring of my senior year in high school, I received a phone call from Michael. A lifetime had passed. I had shape-shifted into something entirely different from what I’d been. I was fending for myself each and every day, pulled out of the mountains that had been the backdrop to my youth, cast up on the long sandbar of Cape Cod. My family moved house with every changing season because it was the only way we could find places to live. I’d been dumped by the boyfriend, spent another year flailing in the cruel cliques of my school, and was now secretly sleeping with the same boyfriend at parties on the weekends. I wanted desperately to matter to someone. I was finishing up applications to some of the country’s top tier private colleges. I was utterly lost.

I could hear the buzz of a large public space behind his voice on the telephone line. We hadn’t spoken in more than year. He was at a Greyhound station in Chicago. “I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon,” he said. “Be where?” I asked. “Boston.” For a minute I had no words. That other boy, the one who I was sleeping with, the one who a clung to with a survival instinct, pounded in my head. “How long are you staying?” I asked. Michael didn’t know, but he suggested it might be forever. “I’m leaving in a week for a school trip,” I replied. “You can stay until then.”

That week was an agony. That was the week when I learned that Michael didn’t speak. We spent days together, sitting in my basement or driving around. I would ask him questions and he’d give monosyllabic answers. The silence was maddening, frightening, desperately uncomfortable. Returning home after a four-hour car trip we’d undertaken as I’d tried to make the time pass by, my mom had scolded me for being a terrible hostess. “Mom,” I’d whispered in a frantic voice, “help me. I don’t know what to do. He won’t talk.”

Except one afternoon. Sitting in our family basement, while I hammered out an essay for my final college application, I’d turned to him and tried to ask him more about himself, what was going on in his life, why, ultimately, he was there. “Do you have a girlfriend?” I asked. “No,” he replied, looking straight at me. “I haven’t been with anyone since you.” The choice of words struck me as strange, as we hadn’t actually ever made love. But it wasn’t an accusation. Just the truth. I shrunk inside my skin, ashamed of who I had become, and what I’d had to do to make my way. I turned back to the essay.

I saw Michael twice more in this life. Once in a huge house in the late ’90s that friends in common were renting in Salem, Oregon, kids piled upon each other to pay the rent. He showed up that evening, on his skateboard. I attempted small talk and he nodded his head to the beat of the music, looking at me from his perch on a staircase with eyes as soft as a doe. He was already a wandering spirit at that time, skateboarding and surfing and living closer to the veil than I’ve ever been.

I saw him again in 2008, over the course of two days during a visit with friends in Portland. He was driving truck then, and during the evening we spent catching up at a bar we talked about Alaska and whether he should move home. I told him he should. I told him I couldn’t imagine him anywhere else. He was a child of the mountains. I also told him I had thought of him constantly over the years. That he visited me in my dreams all the time. That when he did, he was invariably rescuing me. Showing up like an angel sent by divine powers, to walk through flooding waters or catch me as I fell from great heights. I told him all of this earnestly, looking straight in his eyes. I did this because I believed those dream-state visits had all been real and I was seeking their confirmation.

A day later I called him in the wee hours of the morning after I’d been partying at a rave. I wanted him to come be with me. He declined, but he came later that day to play board games. The game of the evening was Cards Against Humanity, which demands a cruel cynicism and raunchy bravado of its players. He was terrible at it.

I never saw him again. When I spoke of him to people, it was dismissively. It was easier to discard him than to try to puzzle out who he was. For years I’d believed we were destined for one another, and when it became clear we weren’t I’d felt lost once more.

Michael died in an avalanche in 2011, just weeks after he had returned to his Alaskan hometown after a decade and a half away. Despite the brief encounters, we were already more than 15 years into our separation in this life. During the long spring months when his body lay buried beneath a violent pile of snow and debris, I would run on the treadmill at the gym in the dark early hours, thinking of him. I was too confused to grieve.

Twice in my life the heavens have sent a mortal into my life for a fleeting moment, to teach me, in times of great need, that I was lovable. Michael was the first of these. I do not doubt that he was entirely human, flawed and strange and confused like we all are. But for me he was a divine gift who gave me vision and a truth that stayed with me for years.

One night, in the year after the avalanche, I woke in the darkness. Michael was in the corner of my room.

“I thought you died,” I said to him, sitting up. The gray shadows were everywhere around him, in my eyes and in my mind.

“I’ll always be here,” he replied. He smiled, a beautiful, lopsided grin. I smiled, too, and went back to sleep.