Essay:Untitled (EB Saldana)
By EB Saldaña
Look at the faces of the people around you. Watch their expressions, the motion behind their eyes and mouths. I crouch in my corner and observe the faces of my classmates; John doesn’t know that his jaw juts out when he writes; Michelle doesn’t notice her hair in her face like a waterfall. They are all clearly oblivious to my gaze.
I love this summer class, this summer program. I’m at an academic camp called CTY in a writing class, and after about a week here, I’ve fallen in love with these faces. Some are familiar some are foreign, and my head says, “Memorize them!” We write about our experiences in class, and surprises spill from the mouths of these faces. Already, we’re close, but I crave knowing more about them. Why? Because I know that I will never see some of them again. Trains and planes and cars will separate us, and I want the ability to remember every detail about them. That way, I can re-live the glorious days of making faces at Daniel during study hall, or watching Jeremy do his ‘backwards sailor’ moonwalk move. I want to remember my time here, and the details lie with my friends’ faces.
I will never see some of these faces again. Some of them will never re-enter my life. I already met someone like that, someone who will never again cross my path. I met this person two years ago. His name was Philip Gunn.
I met Philip Gunn at Talent Show tryouts at CTY Lancaster, session two, 2005. Like an old school hip-hop group, I was in a funk, due to some unforeseen drama; the usually chipper EB felt low the day she met Phil. In any case, I went to the tryouts and sang my a capella number. I sang distractedly, still in awe of Phil’s earlier recitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm.” His voice glided over the words in crescendos and decrescendos, rising and falling like the hills of Lancaster County. We had free time after we tried out, so Phil tried to get me to play cards.
“Hi, I’m Phil. Would you like to play cards?” he asked me, charming and innocent.
“No, that’s alright. I don’t know how to play ERS,” I said.
“Oh, we can teach you!” he said.
“No, I really don’t want to. Thanks, though,” I replied, a little sadly.
After several more fruitless attempts, he settled down with the other girl in our group, and they talked and played cards. I was touched by his determination to get me to talk, to get me to play cards, to get me to be social. I liked Phil already - he was kind and outgoing, and of course, gifted with words. I was eager to see him perform in the Talent Show. Plus, finding a friendly face gave me hope that the rest of the session would improve.
Normally, finding someone twice in a crowd would be difficult. However, because we were at CTY, Phil and I met again, in an activity whimsically called “Dance Party.” It was what it sounded like - dancing for an hour in Marshall-Buchanan lounge to rowdy techno music. When we finally got tired of “Dragostea din Tei”, we relaxed on the floor and sang Disney songs.
Our activity consisted of some wild girls and several gutsy boys, which included Phil. I waved hello to him when he walked in, and we talked a little and danced in the same general area. He struck me as slightly hilarious. He seemed clumsy and uncoordinated, but happy with his hour of disco and Disney. I also remember internally laughing at his sandals. They, too, were awkward on his feet. Sweaty and grinning and slowly becoming friends, we laughed and shook hands after our hour of dancing and headed out for our other activities.
Phil and I ran into each other several times during the rest of the session. We were more than acquaintances, but not best friends. However, I knew him well enough to seek hugs after the Talent Show, when his performance demanded a standing ovation. I also sought him out for a personal request; a signature in my CTY yearbook.
After spending three hours in the morning on the last day, toasting our joys and bemoaning our sorrows, we gulped down swigs of fruit juice at our “Passionfruit” ceremony. Class time was drawing closer as I approached Phil with my yearbook and a spare bottle of Peach-Mango Fuze.
“Hey Phil! It’s our last day, huh? Do you want to sign my yearbook?” I blurted.
“Sure!” he exclaimed. I bent over for him to write on my back, simultaneously placing my bottle on the grass. I was sweaty and sticky, and the 9AM sun did nothing to improve my bodily conditions. I sincerely regretted my wardrobe choice for the day- my CTY shirt made into a skirt, worn over pants.
I felt the pressure of a pen on my back, and the scratching of ink to paper. I waited patiently while he wrote.
I don’t even remember my thoughts at this point. What I am able to remember are seemingly insignificant details, like the grazing of his hand against the page and glaring morning sun. I remember sobs from the Electric Tree with the electrical outlet, where the students who weren’t returning stood weeping. I remember the after-tastes of artificial sweetener and peaches settling themselves comfortably on my tongue. I’m surprised I still remember the details after almost two years. I think that my senses were so alert, awake and buzzing for those couple seconds because I’ve rewound and played them over and over again in my mind. Or maybe I realized, even then, that those final few moments, with Phil writing n my back and the sun beating down all around us, would be so important to me later.
“Okay, all done,” he said.
I looked up at his face, the wide eyes and squirrel-like structure I had become so fond of staring right back at me. He was smiling. Breaking away from his grin, I tried to read the nonsense he had written in my yearbook. It took quite some time to translate, and the message struck me as abnormal. I found it odd that a fourteen-year-old boy would wish me “the best of luck and health in all my endeavors.” I shrugged it off, attributing the comment to the eccentricity of CTY.
“Thanks so much, Phil,” I mumbled gratefully.
“Anytime. I can’t wait to see you next year!” he grinned in response. I opened my arms for a hug, and he walked right in.
“We’d better get to class,” I told him.
We both turned and began walking toward our respective buildings, he to Stager and I to Keiper. Something compelled me to turn around for one last look. He caught me looking at him and kept the smile on his face. I knew that I would miss seeing him walking under the arches near the dining hall, or hanging out with friends on the Quad, and for maybe the thousandth time that day, I felt genuinely sad.
We had our own Passionfruit toasts in class that morning before heading out for a game of Balderdash. Phil and I didn’t cross paths again, so I packed my bags and said my goodbyes, then left Lancaster.
Of course I was sad without CTY. I missed my friends and class and I definitely wanted to wallow in my CTY –withdrawal. Unfortunately, I had two weeks before the first day of school, and an infinite to-do list. Although I was fantastically busy, I still made time to get online and talk to my friends. The evening before school began, I got an instant message from my friend, Trevor.
“Do you remember Phil Gunn?”
“Phil? Of course. He was a really cool guy.”
Those two words changed everything.
“Trevor, that’s not funny. You shouldn’t joke about things like that,” I reprimanded.
“I’m not joking,” came the response.
“I’m not joking!”
We debated online awhile. Trevor had managed to really unhinge me, and I was on the verge of a complete freak-out. Finally, I asked him for Phil’s home phone number, which he gave me. I wanted to prove to myself and Trevor that Phil was still alive and kicking. I just wasn’t sure what to say to him when he got on the phone.
Heart racing, I dialed the number. A woman answered.
“Hi, is um…Phil there?”
“Um, may I ask who’s calling, please?”
Oh, she just wanted a name. Well, that was a positive sign.
“Um, it’s EB, a friend from camp?” I phrased it like a question, because I still wasn’t sure what to believe.
“Oh, EB! Phil used to talk about you all the time!”
…Excuse me? I tried to sound happy about this terrorizing statement.
“Oh, wow! That’s so nice! I didn’t expect him to remember me.”
“I’m so sorry to tell you this,” her voice confirmed, “but Phil didn’t survive his surgery.”
And there was the answer. I somehow managed to get off the phone in one piece, only to crumble into a million when I hit the floor. Questions exploded like fireworks in my head. I literally collapsed.
What happened? Why Phil? I didn’t even know he was having surgery! Why? When? How? I didn’t even know him that well, why am I so upset?
I must have lost a pint of saltwater that day. My mom held me and did her best to comfort me, but there was little she could do. There one thing that really bothered me as I lay in bed that night, awake with aching red eyes, was that it must be so much worse for the people who were actually close to Phil. I barely knew him and his death made my heart drop into my stomach and my stomach leap to my mouth.
“Phil? I know you’re there. Maybe it’s crazy that I’m talking to empty air, but that’s just how I am.” It felt weird, sending my voice into the dark void of my bedroom, but I needed a way to talk to him, so why not?
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to know you well. Now I’ll never get the chance,” I wept. I told Phil many other things that night, and I felt closer to him then than I did when he was alive.
And that’s the truth. Knowing Phil better might have made it easier to deal with his death, because at least then I would have known what had been taken out of my life.
But now, my remnants of Phil are a few scattered memories, an unreadable note in my yearbook, and some fuzzy faded photographs on some CTY sites. The memories and the pictures, battered though they may be, still capture his face. He might be smiling or laughing or crying, or any of a thousand expressions, life shining through.
I never saw his face in all his expressions, because I didn’t know him well enough or spend enough time with him. Now I never will. His face haunts a few special places, but mostly, he’s slowly making his way out of my life.
The way Phil drifted into my life and then exited so suddenly was like the opening and closing an eye, or the soft breath in and out through a nostril. Faces change and disappear, and the ones with red cheeks and life coursing through them are there for you to learn, to love, to know. A glance at a face won’t enable us to remember details- you have to take the time to memorize and learn. That way, you’ll remember them, and not regret the inability to picture a face in a thousand expressions. Faces are here to be memorized- you are here to learn them.