The voice is still the same even twenty years after Dan and his girlfriend, Rachael, and I hung out together. He was smart but reserved. My sister told me once that Dan could do anything – he was dux of his school, did commerce at university, and was a natural horse rider. We drank wine and discussed philosophy and were proud of our intellects, Rachel and I passionate and embarrassing and Dan just calm and smiling.
He had a smile that was so deeply beautiful that it could make you stop talking.
Anyway, then he went to Europe and America and when he came back people said he was mad. I didn’t believe it; thought he had always been mildly eccentric and perhaps travel had just accentuated this. I rang him and he came to visit me and we got drunk. I was relieved that he seemed just the same as ever.
Then, late into the night he says to me, “Did you hear about that plane crash in Washington D.C. a couple of years ago?” Sure, I remembered; iced wings in winter, most everyone died in the freezing river. “The FBI and CIA tried to blame me for that,” he says. I look at him and wait for the punch line but there is none. “What are you talking about?” I ask.
“The FBI chased my friends and me all across America trying to blame us for that crash.”
And he has gone; I know I have lost Dan just as sure as if he too had gone down into the icy Potomac River. The next time we meet he is worse, keeps going off into strange reveries and when he returns to me just smiles like we have both shared some wonderful secret. He looks and sounds like Dan but he is like no one I know.
Later he is diagnosed with some form of mental illness and moves into a home for people like him. He never works or loves or travels again. He finds God and probably talks to him personally. I go north and never hear from him or try to contact him.
Now here is his voice on the phone. I want to ask him, “Are you still mad?” but I don’t have to; he has that way of talking like he is a ghost, like he is the memory of himself. It is like talking to the dead.
My stomach is churning for the Dan I loved and who went away. And I am sick with the guilt of not loving this sick stranger who looks like someone I knew.
He wants to catch up, have a drink. Sure, I say, give me your number and he does. “I’ll call you,” I lie. I have no pen, no paper. I just stand there listening to a memory of a boy called Dan who was and then was not.
When I hang up, my daughter asks, “Who was that?”
“No-one,” I tell her.