And then, he was gone again.

Willie was shy. That is what we all assumed.

I don't remember him ever saying more than what was necessary to answer a question. It didn't matter if the questioner were a classmate or a teacher, Willie kept it brief. So why is it that I can still hear his voice echoing in my head so many years later?

Willie and I either met in kindergarten or first grade which is to say a very long time ago. He was shy. Or at least that was the conclusion I quickly came to.

I was not shy. If anything, I was even more of an extrovert growing up than I am today. Talkative and outgoing, but also sensitive and anxious too. I wanted people to like me. Through the years, I always tried to win Willie over, to gain his trust and become actual friends.

For a quiet person, Willie was popular. He was handsome and smart. Girls had crushes on him. He played football and had a circle of friends to whom he seemed close. But in retrospect, who really knows--maybe he was as much of an enigma to the guys as he was to me?

If you can find me, you can see Willie. He's just over my right shoulder.

If you can find me, you can see Willie. He's just over my right shoulder.

After high school, Willie and I went our separate ways--him to Penn State and me to Cornell. I didn't give him much thought until we had class reunions and he wasn't there.

Growing up, Willie lived right near my friend Kristin and she seemed to be able to pierce his bubble a bit better than me. After college, Kristin was my only source of info about how he was doing. I heard he was sick with a chronic illness and living at home with his parents. While I felt empathy for him, I didn't understand why that would cause him to become even more withdrawn.

This part is on me: I didn't reach out to Willie. I didn't call his house to ask how he was doing and to tell him he was missed. I assumed he would not care to hear from me because as time passed, I started to wonder if he and I were ever really friends. I feared rejection. I worried about being intrusive.

Years passed. Kristin would run into Willie in their neighborhood sometimes. I remember bugging her for details about him but there weren't really many. 

This summer, Willie joined Facebook. I was shocked and thrilled. Once we connected, he and I spoke more via Messenger than we probably had during four years of high school. He asked me about life in Brooklyn. I asked him what made him suddenly appear on Facebook and he told me about his desire to rejoin the workforce and reconnect with people.

I thought about telling him how welcome he would be at our next class reunion, but I didn't want to overwhelm him. I considered suggesting we meet up during my upcoming trip home for Labor Day Weekend but didn't want to pressure him.

And then he was gone again.

A few days after our last exchange of messages, Willie was found dead in an apparent suicide. When police went to his house to notify his father, with whom he lived, they found that he too was dead. 

I never could have imagined Willie's story would end in such a dark way and my heart aches for his surviving family members. 

Please know this: I am not saying that little ol' me could have prevented this tragic outcome. But I will always regret not asking Willie more questions in an attempt to connect with him and to let him know I cared. 

I learned a hard lesson

When I was eight or nine years old, I learned a lesson. It came via ballet class, like so many of my early life lessons.

On my way to stardom - obviously

On my way to stardom - obviously

I started taking ballet when I was four, added jazz at five and tap at six. From the start, there were milestones we were taught to look forward to: first tutu, first recital, first performance in The Nutcracker, going en pointe, etc.

My classmates and I had already made our Nutcracker debut - as clowns naturally - but now we were ready to take on a more sophisticated role as children in Act 1's party scene. I looked forward to a fancy dress with pantaloons underneath and ribbons in my hair.

Mrs. Reynolds, my beloved instructor, had us line up by height. And then we counted off: 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2. We then split into groups. 1s would be girls in the first act of our ballet school's production of The Nutcracker. 2s would be boys.

I was a 2.

Bursting into tears, I made a huge scene.

If I recall correctly, Mrs. Reynolds called my mother that night or the next day. She explained that while she'd had no intention of making me a boy, because I made such a big deal of it, there was no way she could make the swap now. 

So I was a boy in The Nutcracker

Is anyone surprised that there are no pictures of me dressed for that year's performance? If so, you must not know me very well. 

Costume fittings were pure torture for me, watching the girls who got to stay girls trying on layered, flouncy dresses. Instead of ribbons wound through hair curled into ringlets, I would sport a severe bun (which, I'm sure, did little to make me look like a boy, but that's what we were told to do). 

My mother's sweet concession to me playing the part of a boy? She had a tunic custom-made for me. In dusty rose velvet, naturally.

It was a hard lesson to learn at a young age, but I learned that it's a lot easier for people to bail you [and your fragile ego] out of a [mildly unpleasant] situation if you keep your trap shut.

When I was ten, I got to play Clara. And for a long time I was able to forget that I ever had to play a boy.

As Clara when I was eleven. Please do not speak to me of my haircut.

As Clara when I was eleven. Please do not speak to me of my haircut.

As a bonus, here's a pic of my friends and me when we played clowns.

Nutcracker clowns.jpg