The day after my father’s funeral I flew back to San Francisco and was sitting on the cliffs by my apartment at Ocean Beach watching the sun go down. About a hundred feet to my left was Jonathon, the British guy who was subletting the apartment next door to mine. He was an extremely soft-spoken, shy sort of person, a couple years younger than me. As I sat there crying and watching the sun disappear I couldn’t help thinking how funny it was, he and I both sitting there on that cliff watching the same sun going down over the same ocean, but how in terms of what we were actually experiencing, we might as well have been on different planets.
After the sunset, our paths converged as we started back to the building. Avoiding him seemed rude, so I just walked along with him and said “I’m sorry I can’t be too sociable right now. I just lost my father.” Jonathon stopped walking and stared at me with the weirdest expression I’d ever seen. I thought to myself, “You heard me: my father just died. Stop staring at me like that.” And for a second I almost felt like hitting him.
“That’s funny…” he said quietly, “I just found out my father died too.”
Then it was my turn to stare like an idiot. It was a very long, weird moment.
“I’m sorry.” I said finally.
He’d gotten the call from his mother just a few hours before and she’d said that it happened the previous night. He asked me what had happened to my father and I told him about the cancer and the failed operation – how quick and unexpected it all was. When I asked him about his father, Jonathon’s face twisted up a little and he said, “He… umm… He took his own life.”
I said “Oh Jesus…” and for the first time in days stopped feeling sorry for myself.
As it turned out we were watching the sun go down from different planets after all, and that his was a lot darker and colder than mine would ever be.
We became pretty good friends after that. Not the cheeriest pair you’d ever meet, but good friends nonetheless.
As he described it, Jonathon’s dad was one of those people that Pink Floyd and T.S. Eliot used to write about: a British civil servant locked into a meaningless job and, apparently, life, from which the easiest way out was to go down to the garage, start up the car and fall asleep.
Jonathon, halfway through a yearlong trip around the world, had to decide whether or not to continue traveling or go back to England for his Dad’s funeral. He decided to keep traveling - probably one of many decisions he’d go on to make by guessing what his father would’ve done and then doing the opposite.
A few weeks later I drove him down to the Mexican border and he started traveling south. About two months after that I got a letter and a photo of him in the mail. After taking busses and trains through Mexico and Central America, he’d tried to walk across the Darien Gap, the jungle between Panama and Columbia through which there are no roads. At one point he became lost entirely and was rescued by Indians who took him in and gave him a canoe ride further south to the Columbian border.
The face in the photograph was barely recognizable as the quiet guy who’d lived next door. His skin had grown tight, and his eyes were dark and sunken, as if he’d been up for days. He was standing in the middle of a dense jungle, staring at the camera like one of those self-portraits hikers take as a goodbye when they don’t know if they’re going to make it out alive. Except for his smile, which didn’t come from someone who was facing death, but someone who’d just cheated it, and would continue to do so for a long, long time.