The thing about Madison was this: if I went home for a holiday, it was likely I’d run into someone I’d known at college. I’d go to the Union and see an ex getting ice cream cones with her kids; or I’d get a drink at a State Street bar and an old professor would flag me down for a catch-up. The town called people back. Still, I didn’t expect to ever see Shamar James getting cheese curds at Culver’s the day before Thanksgiving.
We’d been teammates, on the basketball team, years before. He was a sophomore when I was a senior and he got drafted that year. He wasn’t the only one of the team from the Final Four year to play professionally, but he was the only one to become a star doing it. He played Power Forward, but easily could have been a Center—with his bulk and towering height. I was 6’5 and he dwarfed me when we’d stand in front of the lockers, me leaning and him staring off at nothing. After every game, win or loss, he’d always shake his head. I never asked him about it, what he was going over in his head, but I liked to stand near him and watch how he studied the wall while doing it. I used to wonder if the game was replaying in front of him, if he was seeing ways it could’ve gone better.
In the Culver’s he leaned forward slightly at the counter, lowering his voice a little. “One small order of curds and a root beer float, please.”
“Will that be all?” the cashier asked. It was obvious she didn’t recognize him.
“No, thank you,” he replied. She rang him up and he pulled out his wallet. I saw a flash of a photo inside, some person he wanted to keep with him—though he wasn’t married and had no kids, as far as I knew.
I walked up to him, as he finished paying, “Shamar!”
He turned, a smile plastered on his face without reaching his eyes, his ready for a fan look, I imagined. Then he saw me and the smile disappeared. “Tay?”
“Yeah, man! How you doing?”
He went in for a swooping hug, which I didn’t expect. “It’s been a lifetime.”
His arms encircled me, tight, and I could feel the heavy pound of his heart. The last time another guy had hugged me that closely was the year we went to the Four. The pile of us all hugging each other, knowing we were so close to everything. He let go of me and we both stepped back a half pace.
“It has, it has. What are you doing back here? It’s wild to run into you.”
He shrugged. “Just visiting. You?”
“Visiting my folks, for the holiday.” I shifted my weight from foot to foot, aware of us blocking other customers.
“I was gonna walk down to the lake to eat.” Shamar’s voice had dropped a level again. I remembered that, then, how he’d been when out in public. He kept his voice quiet. He’d told me why once, how every other part of him seemed to intimidate people, so he tried to control the only aspect he could change. I try to make myself smaller, he’d said. I’d laughed, at the time, though it made more and more sense as the years went on. I did the same in shops, walking down the street, anywhere that I didn’t feel I quite belonged, where people might see me as a threat.
“I always miss the lake,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I was trying to keep the conversation going or if the words had just slipped out.
Shamar, though, seemed to sense something in the comment. A suggestion being made. He took a moment before saying anything else, weighing possible outcomes perhaps, all the ways the ball might reach the hoop. Finally, he asked, “care to join me? Catch up?”
“That’d be great. I end up at the lake most nights, I’m here, anyways.”
He smiled. “I dream about that lake sometimes still.”
Once, when I was a kid, my older sister Ellie had pushed me into the lake. I’d been only four or five and couldn’t really swim. My parents weren’t watching, not until Ellie had started screaming. I’d nearly drowned. But instead of being terrified of the water after, it was like I couldn’t get enough of it. I’d beg my parents to walk us there every day—and I’d reach my hand in and touch the surface, looking for patterns and shapes in the way the water rippled out. I didn’t tell people about that often, about why I always visited the lake when I visited my parents, how it seemed like some friend I needed to say hi to, but I told Shamar the story as we walked. He held his float with one hand, but the other draped down at his side and he moved it every few seconds, as if bouncing an invisible ball beside him. I could almost hear that familiar slap of ball against skin, ball against skin.
“I get that. There’s things I don’t let go of, or maybe that don’t let go of me.” He laughed, one sharp burst of sound. “Probably why I’m back here now.”
“You have friends here, still?”
He shook his head. “Not that I know of.” A pause. “You become a good swimmer?”
I tried to say it casually, “I never learned.”
And there again, his short burst of a laugh. Then he went silent. I looked where he was looking and saw the lake had come into view. At night, the water glistened with the city lights but not in a lit up way. I had never known how to describe it to other people—how the waves seemed to hold their own glow. I felt my pace quicken, without meaning to, my body pulling me to the water faster.
It was an unseasonably warm November and I was glad that the water hadn’t begun to ice. On the docks, a couple sat, legs swinging just above the water. The girl had her head on the guy’s shoulder and they looked like a scene from a romance movie or a stock photo of young love. I wondered if they were students here. If they’d met in some class or a café—some chance occurrence that would seem fateful right up until they fell out of love. Then it would just be some ordinary thing, no longer a private joke between them.
It made me think of my wife. If she was watching a show, back home. If she was waiting for me to call her, say goodnight. It was the first year, since we’d gotten together, that she hadn’t come to my parents for Thanksgiving—unable to get out of a shift at work. She never went to the water with me, not at night. I’d take her during the day, act like it was just some pretty spot. She liked to sit on the dock, dip just one toe in. It’s so cold, she’d say. And I’d touch it and it would feel like the sun had been soaking into it for centuries.
They look happy, huh?” Shamar said.
And I realized I was still staring at the couple. “Yeah. College love, right?”
“You know I never dated anyone in college? Got drafted that second year, just never had the chance, I guess,” he said.
“Whoa, really?” I thought back to all of the girls who’d try to date anyone from the sports team. There never seemed to be a shortage.
He nodded. Then walked to the edge of the lake. He sat down, started to sip what remained of his float. I went and sat down next to him. The water lapped just out of reach of our feet. I tried to will it to splash me.
“Did I ever tell you I wanted to be an astronaut?” he said, not looking at me, but at the stars reflected on the lake.
“An astronaut?” I paused, thinking the comment over. “Like when you were a kid, you mean?”
He shook his head, still dribbling the ball idly against the ground with one hand. “Nah. Like through college even. That’s why I was majoring in engineering. Only played ball for the scholarship.”
“Why’d you go pro then?”
He laughed. “Did you know there’s a better chance of becoming a pro-baller than there is of becoming an astronaut?”
I let out a huff of air. “You glad you went pro instead?”
He didn’t answer, so I turned to him. He stared at the water, shaking his head, some play he didn’t make bouncing across his mind.
I went back to looking at the water, letting the silence fill up our lungs. The water shushed and whispered.
After a while, Shamar stood up. “I’ll leave you to the lake, man. It was good seeing you again. You were my friend, Tay.”
I smiled up at him, but in the darkness I couldn’t quite read his expression. “Still am.”
He waved at me, as he walked away. I only watched him for a moment. Then I turned back to the waves.
I didn’t think about his use of the past tense. Not until months later, when the news broke. I didn’t believe it at first. Read a few different news sites, trying to grab any info I could. But the details they had weren’t the ones I wanted, I didn’t want to know how he’d done it, who he’d left behind, what other famous basketball players would show up to his funeral. I wanted to know why. But, of course, there wasn’t anyone to tell me that. For a while I searched through stories about him, his Wikipedia page even, trying to find an answer. He’d gotten where all of us on that team had wanted to be. Or at least where I thought we’d all wanted to be. A photo I found online showed him after a win, a playoffs game, and his whole team was grinning at the camera, but Shamar wasn’t. He was looking off to the side and up, as if there was something up and away from him that he so wanted to see. I tried to follow his gaze, enlarge the photo, but I couldn’t find anything at all.
I didn’t go back to the lake much after that. Not at night. On trips, I’d go with my wife during the day. She’d splash me and I’d splash her back. But the water didn’t call to me like it used to. It was just water, a memory, some place I thought I could turn to.
And I rarely think of Shamar. He had been my friend for two seasons, then a decade without, and then again for one night. It wasn’t much really. Not in the long expanse of a life.
Years later, though, one night while laying on my front yard, as I played connect the dots with the stars, I remembered our conversation about what he’d wanted to be. I thought of his grace, the way his jump shot looked as if he was bursting up out of water, and imagined him arcing through space, reaching out for comets as if they were passed balls he had to catch. The stars flickered in and out. The crowd roared with applause. But he was still looking off into the dark.