The room was dim, and “Ghost Town,” by The Specials, boomed from the speakers. Mark hung wet photographic prints on a clothesline to dry, while I sat and watched and wondered what the hell I was doing there. You don’t barge in on a sacred ritual, after all—step on the wrong toes, offend the wrong idol, and the whole universe will go off balance. Watching Mark developing photographs had that same holy echo. In his darkroom, he worked quickly, methodically. I didn’t bother to make sense of the whooshing and clacking sounds I heard; they were in a language I couldn’t understand, a secret language between Mark and his god.
I met Mark in gym class during sophomore year at our Coney Island high school. He was this skinny kid with blue eyes that spun around while he talked animatedly. When our class would wait their turn to perform some new physical activity, I would find him beside me, already halfway into a statement or monologue about something. He wouldn’t leave me alone, and that was how we became friends. After listening to his lively ramblings, I grew to like him and the quick, amiable way he moved his hands, where he had cut holes in the sleeves so he could poke his thumbs through. A smile lingered on his face all the time, because he knew something that you didn’t, something he’d never tell.
At 16, he already had a place of his own.
There was a situation with his parents. He wouldn’t talk about it, but what it boiled down to was that they didn’t get along and mutually agreed that they would rent him a small living space in Bensonhurst. I gleaned, from what he didn’t say, that they wanted him out of their sight. From then on, Mark was pretty much on his own, and by all accounts he liked it that way. He painted his bedroom orange and purple and set up a drum kit. He partied as much as he wanted to, came and went as he pleased.
He grew into punk rock. He dyed his hair sherbet colors and ripped and patched his clothes. He wrote poetry, picked up the drums. Nothing seemed to speak to him as much as photography, though. Mark had this way of connecting things and putting them into images that were striking. Looking at his photographs, things you saw in your mind previously as being disjointed, unrelated, suddenly came together and made sense. It was a revelation: You realized how things could be.
You could know Mark encyclopedically without really knowing him; he kept a high fence around everything personal, and before you could approach anything that was really in his head, he would carefully and promptly steer you off the path.
Mark always had a plan. He was always going somewhere, rushing headlong into something—most of the time even he didn’t know what. The 24-hour limit of the day rarely accommodated his passion for life; he left projects unfinished, ends loose. He perambulated from job to job, usually taking courier or delivery positions—anything that required a mission, a destination, speed.
He was reckless with his body. One day, he came to school with his hand in a cast. What happened? “I got trampled on at a show,” he said with a smile. He willingly pushed himself into chaos, embracing it, letting it kick and whip him. His exploits got wilder and wilder. Sex, drugs, violence. He approached it all with a measured intrigue; the same smile he always wore, the smile that took everything in and gave nothing away.
We would hang out around the city and during class breaks; we passed notes back and forth in English class. Then we started drifting apart. I saw him around campus sporadically; sometimes we would talk. He was going in a different direction, transferring to another high school. The last time I saw him was at a school fair. We walked around a bit and sat on the grass. I can’t remember what we talked about, but there was a sense that things were changing under our feet, things neither of us knew.
A month later, Mark was riding his bike in the street and a car hit him. He died several days later. The day we heard the announcement, all the people at my school who loved him gathered in the photography classroom, arguably his favorite place, and tried to make sense of this ugly new reality. I heard, from his other friends, that things had been getting better for him. That he wasn’t so lost anymore, that his life was finally going in the direction he wanted.
I never found out the details of the accident, whether the driver was speeding or whether Mark was speeding and didn’t see the car. I try not to think about that moment or that day, only a few months after his 18th birthday. Because that just isn’t Mark, it’s not who he was. Instead, I think about the boy with a smile on his face that you couldn’t wipe off and a supernatural glow in his eyes. The boy who was always going somewhere at the speed of light, always burning, burning for something straight ahead. I think about the boy who wasn’t afraid of anything, least of all to live.