I’m still waiting for a phone call from my friend Justin M. Pray, who overshot a sharp curve on a lonely stretch of Route 413 late one night a couple weeks ago. His compact car skidded into a heavy-duty telephone pole just a creek and a cornfield away from the Buckingham police station. The first officers on the scene found him in the driver’s seat, dead. It’s a safe bet he never felt a thing. One second he was a healthy, robust, smart, witty and often charming 28-year-old and the next—just a memory. I’m waiting for an explanation, but the phone doesn’t ring.
Young people die every day, of course. A week before Justin died, a little girl was killed on the 611 bypass when the van she was riding in was rear-ended by another vehicle driving at high-speed. Then there were all those children murdered in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. The day Justin died a local young man overdosed on heroin.
I’m no stranger to death, especially among the young. When I lived in New York in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic had bloomed into a conflagration, most of the people in my extended social circle were gay men in their twenties and thirties. After the first couple dozen had died, I would occasionally get into a funk and for catharsis would write down the name of everyone I knew who was gone. I quit when I passed a hundred.
Unlike Justin, those men faded away. First you’d notice the unsettling thinness, the bunched pants around the waist, like they’d been on a vegan diet and had shed all their body fat. Then the eyes got bigger, and the cheeks sank in, and you noticed the make-up on the chins, necks, and arms that couldn’t quite cover up the blood-red sarcoma welts.
Finally, they didn’t go out in public anymore. If they were close friends, they stopped answering their phones. One day you’d read an obituary or get the phone call. Didja hear? So-and-so’s parents came and cleaned out his apartment. There were never any funerals or memorials. Parents loaded their sons’ belongings into the family car and stole away in the night, leaving behind the leper colony that New York seemed to have become. When they got home, they made up other causes of death to tell friends and neighbors.
I have never lost a friend the way Justin died—alone, on a dark stretch of road, with multiple possible explanations. There were no witnesses. I wanted answers, so I went to the scene and stood on the spot where he died. The only evidence was a set of faint 25-foot-long skid marks, fresh gouges in the wooden pole, and a debris field of bits of shattered plastic that the cleanup crew left behind. Commuters, moms picking their kids up at school, contractors hurrying to a job site—all flew past, oblivious to the drama that had unfolded there.
Every untimely death feels wrong, but you usually have a story to tell, and often someone or something to blame. A 16-year-old gets hooked on drugs, an attempt at rehab fails, and one day his mother finds him slumped in a chair in his bedroom, cold, the needle still stuck in his vein. A reckless driver causes an accident. A disturbed young man goes berserk in an elementary school.
Justin Pray killed himself by accident and, strangely, that’s making it harder to comprehend. He didn’t have a string of DUI’s. He was a light drinker, proud of pacing himself to avoid getting into trouble. He’d never been in rehab. He’d recently started a new job he liked after more than a year out of work. He’d met a girl he liked. He’d been able to afford his own place again. He didn’t have to take anti-depressants and he’d never talked about or attempted suicide. He was happy, for God’s sake! Happier than I’d seen him in three years.
Did he fall asleep? It was 3 a.m., after all. Was there a deer in the road when he came around the bend? It was below freezing. Was there a patch of black ice? The curve, marked “25 MPH” with a big yellow sign bearing an arrow with a 90-degree turn, is hidden at the end of a long, smooth straight-away by a row of trees. Was he daydreaming and didn’t realize until too late that he was going too fast?
It shouldn’t matter. He’s just gone and I miss him. But it preys on my mind, and every time I look at Justin’s picture I wonder why he doesn’t call and tell me what happened.