He was wearing a paisley scarf on the chilly spring day I finally spoke to him. I'd watched him board my train at the same time every morning since I'd started my job; in the afternoons, we got off the train at the same time — at the same stop, a different one from the morning train — and rode the same bus eastward toward civilization.
He was tall, dark and handsome, a bit flinty. I never saw him speak to anyone.
But channeling my inner high-school freshman, I approached him one afternoon and told him I noticed him every day at my stops. Thought I should say hello. Oh, and that I liked his scarf.
And just like that, Doug Bastianelli and I were friends.
Months later, I was in the middle of a tailspin into the wildest, most emotionally turbulent summer of my life, and he was suddenly my best friend. Reveled with me throughout my escapades in dating, hung on my every hung-over word. And knew when to offer advice as I embarked on one of my many "man fasts" — or just leave me alone. He remained tall, dark and handsome, but the flinty wore off quickly. He got gayer by the day, loud and flamboyant, all air kisses and flagrant innuendo. And, as it turns out, he'd speak to anyone with ears to hear. I loved him like I'd never loved anyone I'd met on the bus. The prospect of seeing him in the afternoon was often my only motivation to get through a day in the suburbs.
We harassed our conductor on the Metra, nicknamed him Sunshine. Some days, we drank as many beers as we could put back on our way back into the city then rode the bus across town. And made up arias about our heinous commute and our fellow passengers, singing at the top of our lungs. And sometimes we did that even when we hadn't been drinking.
We were freakishly tall 12-year-olds around each other.
We went out one beautiful summer night for tapas in Chicago's gay neighborhood. We each drank about a pitcher of sangria, and after we'd finished our bacon-wrapped dates and Spanish omelets, we wove among the tables, hand in hand, toward the exit and spilled out onto Halsted Street looking for trouble. For the next two hours, we stumbled through every tawdry sex shop in Boystown, slapping each other with dildos. We bought matching black T-shirts printed with "Lady" and "Tramp," with a big checkmark next to the "Tramp." He forgot his on the bench as we rushed into our cabs home.
That's just Doug.
He had so many stories. I heard many of them many times; he was a notorious repeater.
Every story was about people. His drag-queen hair stylist. His brother the dentist. His boss. His ex-boyfriend. His flavor of the…hour, who he'd met some Sunday afternoon at Sidetrack, while show tunes played on the bigscreen TVs. So many of the stories were lewd and shocking to my innocent-white-girl sensiblities — I'm not a badass; I just play one on TV — but they were all kissed with this guileless glow that made them somehow acceptable, unabashedly Doug. And for the repeat: There was always one anecdote, word for word, that tipped me off to the fact that I'd already heard it; I could stop him then. Kindly.
He sent me e-mails, apropos of nothing, with stupid photos and videos to distract me during a long day at the office. Shoes. Muffins. Lucky Bitches. When there were words, they were often contained entirely in the subject line. Case in point: a message I received on Sept. 1, my final day at the office in the suburbs.
Subject: LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAST DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
A few months ago, long before an end was in sight for me, Doug was laid off from his job in the suburbs. I knew he'd be fine: He was well connected in his industry and could network himself into a frenzy. True to form, I was more worried about myself: He was leaving me, just like that. I hated my job, my relationship was falling apart and I needed his spirit to distract me, buoy me, more than ever. And he left me. Not by choice, but he left me.
And I was a pouty, petulant child about it.
It was a hard spring for me — and an even harder summer — and I retreated into myself in a lot of ways. I screened his calls, knowing his guileless glow would be more annoying than endearing given my state. He had a tendency to gloat jokingly that he was sitting in his office staring at Lake Michigan; I had developed a tendency to take jokes far too seriously in the months before I quit my own job.
So I put him off. For weeks. Months, really. I apologized halfheartedly and promised I'd make time for him soon, but I rarely made good on it. All he ever said was, "That's okay. We're going to be friends for life — I'm not going anywhere."
Except that last night, he died.
I was finishing my last wine flight at Bin 36 when I got a text message from a mutual friend that he'd gone into cardiac arrest and collapsed in the bathroom at the restaurant where he was eating dinner.
They took him to the hospital and tried to resuscitate him, but they were too late.
I don't know anything else. Just that he's gone.
He's gone, at 44 years old. My friend for life, cut down in the prime of his.
Just like that. He left me again.
Left me, left his parents, left his crazy bird Conrad, left an organization that had only begun to recognize his talent, left a city he adored, left countless friends all over the world to crawl out of the woodwork of Facebook to lean on one another for support and a way to make sense of it.
But I was not petulant. I was not a child.
I woke up this morning, shook off my flinty shock and wrapped my own paisley scarf around my neck before biking off for a big breakfast. I spent the day living like an overgrown 12-year-old and reminding everyone that I love them. If you're reading this, I love you, too.
And now here I am, repeating stories about my friend, stone-cold sober, because some stories are just worth telling over and over.