He was crying on the stairs- Simon, my best friend from high school.
He looked just the same, same dark pseudo military clothing, uncut hair, clumsy hands. You'd think he was goth and into punk rock, but he wasn't. He was into biology and when he talked about the elegance of a virus strain, he looked like a choir boy singing hallelujah.
It'd been forever since I'd seen him. Well, okay, more like five years, but it felt like forever. I had fallen in love with leaving. I had gone all the way to the northwest coast, found a job, a tiny apartment, a few funky relationships.
Simon had stayed in the sleepy southern town. He could have gone anywhere, with his grades, but he stayed in the same ramshackle house he'd grown up in, balancing the pedestrian demands of the local college with the needs of his ailing grandmother.
That was what had made us friends, in that first, miserable year of middle school- the fact that neither of us had any parents to speak of. We had grandmothers instead.
His grandmother was tall and lean, like a strip of tanned leather, with a shock of short hair, a barking laugh and rough voice we should have paid more attention to. Mine was round and deceptively frail, wearing her print dresses and horn rimmed glasses with a kind of graceful dignity that hinted at the beauty she'd had once, years earlier.
Despite everything Simon had done and everything he had spent, his grandmother lost her battle to lung cancer the year he graduated. He sold the house to pay the medical bills. He took a job at the local chemical company, a large complex to the north of town.
I learned all this from my grandmother, who stayed, perennially, it seemed, in good health, weeding her flower beds and marching to church every Sunday in her sturdy polished pumps.
She called me on Tuesday nights, to give me my weekly, liberal dose of love, advice and guilt for not visiting- after everything she'd done for me, and did I know how long it'd been since she'd seen me last and surely Easter meant something even to a heathen granddaughter, and what did she have to do to get me to come back home again, die?
So I came home, despite the rising price of gas and all that waiting history I'd been so happy to escape the first time.
I'd arrived the night before, and the first thing I did the next morning, after eating my grandmother's buttermilk pancakes, was to make my way along the path that wound into the gully behind my house and back up to the alley that ran behind Simon's apartment building.
We'd fallen out of touch; the only way I had been able to leave at all, was to leave completely, so he had no idea I was back, let alone at the foot of his stairs. Even I hadn't known, exactly, where I was going that morning, until I arrived there, to see him in the fresh spring sunshine, looking heartbroken, abject and just like my best friend.
It hadn't been forever. It was yesterday that I'd seen him last, on the back porch doing our homework, listening to the radio down low, so my grandmother wouldn't overhear the jazz from the kitchen. I'd seen him cry before.
He looked up when I said his name, his hands going up to smear the tears across his cheeks in furtive movement. Then his hands froze.
"Sylvie?" he asked, the amazement making his voice crack.
And it was so familiar a sound, and so unbearable, that I marched right up the stairs and threw my arms around his shoulders, as if I could bridge all that time and all that sorrow just by my reach alone.
"What happened?" I whispered.