Derek Graber holds a cigarette over the shadowed midnight fire escape. The drag smoke rises through the iron canopy and disperses under the grey-copper-purple sky. New York City glimmers through an early August dampening. He sweats in droplets down sun-burnt skin peeling from his neck, and squints to follow his cigarette, his kiki, spin into the void and collide imperceptibly against the pavement. It didn’t spark, it didn’t scream. Thousands of kiki have fallen from rooftops, fire escapes, through open windows of buildings and cars. They die, and they rot, an ashen tobacco strewn across city streets, sidewalks, empty roadways and bleached sand dunes. In dirty sink cups and standing drain pools they drown. Up here, he cannot see kikis death.


New York City has a pulse that keeps you running on high, distorts time and the aging process of time. One year here is actually several years. Five years will evaporate into a sun dried memory, the fruits of time passed having grown smaller and sweeter than the ripe moments of our first six months to first year. Other people, our friends and lovers and colleagues, they form and fade. Whole groups of like minded friends congregate to live in mutual lust forever, then separate within the year. The mere pace of it all alone is enough to drive you away, and you will go away and feel relieved to be gone. But come back and see the skyline as you roll across the first bridge and the pulse finds you again, it takes hold and unravels us in exquisite pleasure. We cannot leave this place and never come back. The city will not allow it.


I met Graber at my current job where he was the only one who knew about or had previously played Magic. We share a first name, spelt the same way — an uncommon occurance among Dereks — and both last names beginning with G. We answered to our last names almost immediately, and as my presence in the store began to take hold our customers found the question “Graber or Gallen?” unreasonable when attempting to reach us. We laughed and apologized. It’s a strange form to bond from, but Graber and I built our relationship upon this foundation. And being the only males at work didn’t hurt any.


In November at Grand Prix New Jersey when I made my first day two, I was scheduled to work the next day — mostly because I didn’t think i’d be making it — so, nearing midnight I blew up everyones at work’s cell phones begging for someone to cover my shift. And when everyone replied, tied up in Sunday plans, it was Graber who forfeited tickets to cover my shift. He knew what it meant to me to play, and this small sacrifice brought us close. In fact, after GP New Jersey we began the small exchanges: little coffees on break, sharing lunches and old stories. When I was suddenly broke earlier this year, he bought me a train pass so I wouldn’t have to worry myself into a grave. “Shut up,” he said, “Just get to work on time.” I had trouble with that at one point.


His body lies in a coffin within a strangely carpeted and wallpapered room at the back end of a funeral home on 14th street. Kate and I had been drinking all day. His husband was hysterical. His pain was everywhere, in every rising flower that stared us down and every stiff chair we squashed our weight into. His wailing for his husbands life terrified me. The nonsensical denial of death, the heart so violently and abruptly torn from its tenderest embrace it refused to believe, to see what was there before him. I stared at Graber. I stared and stared as the tears crept through my eyes and pores. I shrank into a hole full of horrible gravity and desparation.


In this place, this repulsively carpeted room staring down a young life primed to appear so peaceful, my mass of flesh and spirit expanded its particles to absorb the din. Graber was there, a phantom on a pedestal, his lips moving but his voice echoing inside me. He told me to shut the fuck up and stop crying. The bastard. He was sick of seeing everyone so sad over him. But there we were! Ha, he said. And thats when he took complete hold of me. My jaw grew an unbearable ache. You cannot wait. You cannot be denied or prolonged forever. It is in this we live. It is in this we die. You cannot waste life nor regret anything not done. Do not live without action and risk. Do not die with regret. These are both the biggest failures, the grandest loss. Go. Go!


I turned to Kate. Let’s go. And we got up and left, the death rinse complete. Sure, I remained spilled over with sadness. But the dose of mortality had uncoiled my complacency and as the day grew dark and night poured over New York I held her closer to me than that morning and closer still than I could care to remember. My commitments to myself had never surfaced with such astounding clarity. There he was, a man of thirty, atop the simple iron escape route and then, the next, shimmering above. He does not lie dead and broken in a grave or ash in a jar forever, but up, up. Floating over everyones breath among exhaled moments of death still feared, of life somehow wasted without perhaps ever questioning why. It is in stars like Derek’s we can look to glean whatever we think we need to remind ourselves we are alright. These electric bursts of mortality that explode our hearts into action are not trivial, but reveal to me the cold certainty of death as food for our knowing who we are and what we are here to do.


New York breathes. It calls to me. Demanding my energies, my time. I look to it like the sun looks over a plain, revealing the endless world as a pathway to my future. I leave, I return. Thank you, Derek Graber.

Derek Gallen lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.

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