Throughout my four years in college, I worked at the on-campus coffeehouse, a large, dank space in the basement of an administrative building called — appropriately — The Underground. It was primarily meant to be an event space for student activities and monthly open-mic nights, but Sunday through Thursday evenings from 6:00 p.m. to midnight it served terrible coffee and terribly hip indie rock to the ten or fewer patrons who deigned to enter it. Old wooden dorm couches were pushed against one wall, drinks were served in tacky mismatched mugs, and it sometimes had an inexplicable foul odor. I loved it.
It was there, as a shy freshman, that I met Alex Naden.
I had heard his name before we actually met, at the staff meeting to determine the schedule for the semester. He was the one Underground employee not present, but was probably the most talked about. Where’s Alex? When is Alex working? Katy, he’ll be with you tomorrow. I nodded, having no idea what that meant.
The next night when a smiling blonde guy strolled down the coffee shop steps in shorts and skate shoes, I immediately knew what all the fuss was about. Sure, he was hot, but it was more than that. When he came in, the room seemed to buzz with energy.
I learned quickly: this guy was amazing. He was game for anything and involved in everything — not just the Underground, but also Senior Class Council, the rugby team, weekly pickup dodgeball games (which I eventually joined too), and anything else that struck him at the moment. He greeted everyone with a huge, easy smile that almost never left his face, and when he was talking to you, you felt like the only person in the room. To this day, he’s the most charismatic person I’ve ever met. He was like the Zack Morris of Mary Washington College.
Naturally, I developed an immediate and intense crush on him. In my first year of college, my friends and I gave everyone nicknames (Graeme like the Cracker, No Socks Boy, et al), he became known to us as my Unattainable Love. Pessimistic, yes, but really there was no question — with his clique-busting popularity, senior status, and cadre of girls making themselves readily available to him, he was out of my league.
Still, I tried as hard as I could to be cool enough to be his friend. I looked forward to each night we worked together with the same nervous excitement as a date, and wore only what I thought to be my coolest outfits (often an MxPx t-shirt and Sketchers, because that’s how you woo the most desired man on campus).
Soon after we met, when I was still trying to navigate the area outside of the campus, he pulled a napkin from the counter and drew me a map of our small college town, explaining how to get downtown, where a few good restaurants were, and off-handedly mentioning where his own apartment was (of course, this detail was of the most interest to me). He even added a rectangle for the school’s rugby field and inside it wrote 3 pm, the time of his first game of the season, which I’d promised to attend.
I folded up the map, put it in my wallet, and teased sarcastically that I’d keep it forever. Except I wasn’t really being sarcastic at all, and I did. That map came in handy a number of times when I got lost exploring the city. At least, that’s what I told people when they asked why I still carried that napkin around with me.
My memories of the Underground from that year revolve almost entirely around Alex. He helped me with my German homework and taught me everything I know about making a latte. He and a fellow UG staffer named Mike blasted Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” on the sound system and danced around the space, while I giggled behind the bar. He changed the label on the Vanilla Nut coffee container to read “deez vanilla nutz”, and it stayed that way for years afterward. He only drank his coffee out of a tiny orange mug. He fell asleep on a couch in the middle of a shift after a series of all-nighters. After the college’s annual Battle of the Bands, while the musicians were packing up, he break-danced onstage to “Apache” by the Sugarhill Gang, surrounded by friends and fans like the climax of a ’90s hip hop movie. Days later people still talked about it as the most entertaining part of the night.
Once, he threw his leg on the counter and insisted I feel the odd little scar on his calf from a brown recluse spider bite. That moment, the feel of the tiny indentation beneath his skin (“it liquefied the muscle,” he explained), had me reeling for weeks.
In the spring of that year Alex got it into his head that we needed t-shirts for our weekly dodgeball games, to make it seem like a legitimate club. He designed them himself: black shirts with white lettering that read “Sportsmanship, no head shots … because benchwarmers need a sport too”. He had to work on the night they came in, but he delivered them to the court across campus, played a few games, then went back to finish his shift at the Underground. He left with one instruction: everyone was to wear them the next day, to show our support for the dorkiest sport on campus.
The next morning I proudly donned my t-shirt and was glad to see my fellow dodgeballers wearing theirs as well. But there was one person whose eye I wanted to catch, one person with whom I wanted to share a smile at our matching shirts. I walked by the spot where, on beautiful days like this one, Alex’s professor often held class outside. I saw a class that could have been his, but I didn’t see him. I spent the rest of the day off campus with some friends, but I still wore the shirt.
I didn’t see him because that day was April 29, 2003. The day when, at approximately the same time I was looking for him on campus, he was killed in a car accident on I-95. The assumption is that he fell asleep at the wheel after pulling another all-nighter. The car hit a concrete column and he died instantly.
When I got back to school late that afternoon, the entire college felt different. It was quiet, and seemed as if the air felt heavier when he wasn’t around. Everyone had loved him, so everyone was affected. Administrators comforted students, strangers prayed together, and people I barely knew became my best friends … some just for the night, some to this day. The senior class left an empty seat for him at graduation. They wore black stickers on their caps that read “I Love Alex”.
I spent my nineteenth birthday at his funeral. Then, just days afterward, the semester was over, and I went home to a place where people didn’t know him. Where I pretended to be happy and cried in the shower, and no one truly understood what had happened. That my Unattainable Love was, ultimately, exactly that.
It’s writing this now, eight years later, that makes me realize how much I’ve forgotten about him. I can’t bring to mind any full conversations we ever had. I’ve lost the sound of his voice in my head, the way he called everyone “babe” (pronounced “beb”, a habit that I affected after his death and no one seemed to notice). Now I wonder if I’ve truly lost him. Or worse, if we were ever really friends at all.
I still have the napkin map, though I haven’t looked at it in years. When I started writing this essay, I thought to take it out and let it jog my memory. I opened up a large manila envelope of my keepsakes, still on a bookshelf, and pulled out the map, glad that it hadn’t disintegrated or been crushed since the last time I looked for it. Then, thinking better of it, I put the map back inside and pulled out the entire envelope, afraid that I might lose it if I pulled it out alone.
And then, just as quickly as I had found it, the napkin was gone. When I looked in the envelope again, it wasn’t there. It wasn’t in my hand, I knew that, and it wasn’t on the shelf or on the floor or stuck behind a book or under the bed or in the trash or anywhere.
I emptied the envelope and sifted through its entire contents. Twice. I found the program for his funeral, his two-page obituary in the school newspaper, and the invite to the dedication of his favorite bench on campus. But I didn’t find the one thing he had given to me personally, the thing that connected us and somehow made him mine. I had it in my hand, and then it disappeared.
Just as I wonder if I ever really knew Alex, I now ask myself, was it really there? Am I crazy? Did I really feel it and pull it out, or was it something else, something I hoped was from him?
The only answer to these questions is: maybe. But it doesn’t really matter.
While looking for this tiny article of Alex ephemera, I came across my own graduation cards, notes from old boyfriends, letters to camp, baby pictures of my nieces and nephew, and countless postcards, love notes, and birthday, anniversary, and Valentine’s Day cards.
In searching for one reminder of him, I found pieces of my own life, one that is still affected and inspired by him. I still take special notice of every April 29. I still call people “beb” and think of him whenever I hear “Apache” or Dire Straits. And most importantly, I still recall him when I meet someone new, or when I’m with the people I love, or when I notice that I’m a little less shy than I was when I knew him. When he died I made a resolution to be more like him, and I still, often instinctively, ask myself what would Alex do? The answer, always, is to be fun and kind.
I’ll probably never stop looking for that napkin map. But I also know I can find him somewhere else.