David was a genius.
I knew David from the university. He approached me casually one day, hoping to come up to speed on The Death of Ivan Ilyich. He'd noticed I was in many of the same classes as him. That is, he was just hanging out on campus, sitting in on what he thought was an interesting sample, but eclectic mix, of classes, in a couple cases officially auditing them. Metaphysics, 19th Century Russian Literature, Computer Logic, Modern British Poetry. And there I was, actually enrolled in them.
We went for coffee. He quizzed me a bit on my course of study, mining me for information really, how to consolidate these interests into a practicable academic path toward... something.
Of course, I didn't know the answers to his questions. We were essentially doing the same thing, trying to find ourselves, only I was paying a lot more money for the privilege.
The year passed, measured out in coffespoons after class.
Eliot's Four Quartets.
He pressed Cortazar's Hopscotch on me; I loaned him my Calvino. He stopped by my place whenever he was passing by. We had tea and listened to my Philip Glass.
We saw Man Facing Southeast, twice, and argued Bach's mathematical head versus Beethoven's wild heart.
We stared at Francis Bacon's pope-in-a-box.
I didn't know anything about David really, beyond his ideas on art, literature, music. Maybe that's all that matters; I knew him in a "pure" way. He was very private. I think his mother was ill, very ill. Or maybe she just had the flu that week.
I, on the other hand, was an open, and, that year, very emotional, book; he heard all about my family, friends, and romances.
He took me to a Christmas party, hosted by a Polish friend of his. In the kitchen was a young Jesuit studying for the priesthood. That night David argued him out of God. Later we heard the monk had packed his bags, hadn't returned to school, hadn't been heard from since.
After much research David had found a college he wanted to attend. He spent months bouncing his essay for application off me, how our perception of art is a product of our experience.
Before he left for the States, he brought me a cassette tape of Beethoven's Late Quartets. To this day, it's the most excruciatingly beautiful music I've ever heard. (I have it on CD now, many recordings of the same pieces, in fact.)
We exchanged a letter or two, then fell out of touch.
Something happened to him. He'd seen things that terrified him, but fascinated him. Terrible beauty. I don't know if he finished his program.
I saw him once — no, twice — after he came back. We ran into each other in the street. The first time we immediately adjoined to the nearest coffeeshop.
I don't remember the details; I think now that whatever it is I heard frightened me too much at the time to seriously consider it. It seemed so unreal. I was incapable of deciphering the truth of it. He admitted his own memory of the events was sketchy. I don't know if it was part of his studies or a job he took or a cult he joined. A charismatic entrepreneur and mentor. They travelled (Africa? South America?). Something about isolation tanks, mind control experiments.
Frankly, I have no idea what he told me that day. The impressions I retain are as likely to be a feeble interpretation I pieced together from his cryptic behaviour as to bear any relation to the conversation that transpired between us, let alone to what really had happened to him. He told me because he needed to tell, but as if in confession, as if no living soul, myself included, could bear the weight of knowing what it was. I wonder that he didn't hypnotize me himself to erase all — most — traces of what he'd said.
The second time we passed each other in the street was insignificant. The connection was lost, both of us still, I think, trying to find ourselves, but too caught up in the practicalities of the day to day to devote ourselves to that task properly. Maybe I should've looked for myself more carefully; I think he could've helped.
Years later I was dating someone who, it turned out, and I don't recall how we figured it out, had been at that Christmas party and knew David. I heard he'd married, was working in IT.
I don't remember when it was, whether soon after first meeting or the last time I saw him, David told me I had to read Middlemarch. Had to. His urgency scared me. I didn't read it then, but I'm about to.
Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to David.