Every year of college, someone I love dies. Freshman year, my grandfather succumbs to lymphoma. Sophomore year, my grandma has a heart attack and is gone in hours. Just last month, Henry dies, but this time it is different. Henry is 21, just two weeks older than I am.
Henry, Alia, Simone, and I meet at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio in the summer of 2017. Walking through Prairie Lights, I spot him huddled over a book. He is striking, his pink hair a halo around his head. Henry has a distinct aura, welcoming yet also intimidating. That day in the bookstore, I don’t approach him. He’s too cool for me, I think.
After Simone, Alia, and I approach Henry in the cafeteria, we become fast friends. We listen to Lorde’s Melodrama, writing poems in the grass and watching cars go by. We spend hours at the same coffee shop, gossiping about workshop, and discussing our plans for after we graduate high school. Henry, Alia, Simone, and I hang out so much that the closeness of our friend group becomes a running joke. We ink stars on our foreheads and jokingly refer to ourselves as the Star Cult. As someone who has always felt like an outsider, this closeness is foreign, yet I cherish it with every fiber of my being.
My favorite memory: Henry dying my hair in the laundry room. I can still feel his fingers as they work their way through my hair, expertly spreading the color down to my roots. He holds my head under the sink, the water cool on my scalp. When Henry’s done, I am reborn. I am no longer the anxious, socially awkward teenager I once was. With cheap hair dye and nimble hands, Henry transforms me into a better self, someone more confident, someone more like him.
After Iowa, I keep in touch with Henry the most. We talk about boys, share music we love, and complain about applying to college. Henry is so many things: a singer, a dancer, a songwriter, a choreographer. In our conversations, there is never a dull moment. He is always writing a new song, choreographing a new piece, pouring his creativity into the world. When I start at Wesleyan, Henry starts at NYU, just blocks away from my house. October of my freshman year, I come back to the city to see a concert with Henry. In a coffee shop before the show, we talk about the promise of our new lives. We have changed so much from the people we once were. We are so different yet still the same.
This is the last time I see Henry in person. No matter how much we try to get together, life always gets in the way. I live in New York; Henry lives in L.A. The pandemic happens, stealing a year of our friendship. We keep in touch over text, but it’s not the same. I yearn for those days in Iowa City when everything was simpler, when it was just the four of us. The world was so full of possibilities.
Over the summer, Henry lives in Brooklyn while I’m in Manhattan. Finally, it seems as if the stars have aligned. Despite how close we are, we never see each other. Life has other plans. Henry goes to Maryland to shoot a film, and I go to Montreal with my brother. Henry has back surgery, and I get my wisdom teeth out. I text him several times to hang out, but he’s never available. When I get back to Wes, I text him and say, “Sad we didn’t get to hang out this summer.” He replies, “Me too, I’m sorry I was on hosting duty full time. I’m gonna visit Wesleyan as much as I can.”
Three weeks later, I wake up to a flurry of text messages. Simone texts the group chat and asks if any of us have checked Henry’s socials in the last few days, followed by a series of screenshots. I try to make sense of the endless posts remembering Henry on his Facebook wall, the deluge of comments on his Instagram: “Rest easy you beautiful soul.” “I want to hug you again.” “I love you with my whole fucking soul Henry.” “I LOVE YOU—-SLEEP MY ANGEL.”
It doesn’t feel real. None of this feels real. I walk to class in a daze. I try to write a paper in the library, but I can’t focus. Grief consumes me. I break down in my room four times in a single week. At a party on campus, I run into Henry’s best friend, and we hold each other for a long time.
“I would love to hang out,” she sighs, “but I don’t feel like a person right now.” I tell her to take all the time she needs. I don’t feel like a person either.
I listen to a song Henry wrote on SoundCloud, letting his words anchor me to my grief:
“I’m always grieving
Lost in nostalgia
Following my mind is just a painful reminder”
Suddenly, I’m back in Iowa City; all four of us are sitting on a picnic blanket in the grass. Henry is alive and smiling. We are young and reckless and so full of hope. Life stretches before us like a promise.
Ben Togut can be reached at email@example.com.