Written by Luke Copley
Peyton died a long time ago. It’s odd to say so because it feels very recent, but it’s true; it’s been five years now, which is longer than any romantic relationship I’ve ever had by about three years. The last president Peyton knew about was Obama. Kobe Bryant was still playing basketball when Peyton was alive. Prince was still alive. These things feel like they happened ages ago in my world, but Peyton’s death never feels more than about 8 months behind. It’s just always a little fresh.
I was in high school when he died, so when I came home from the funeral, I was still expected to learn about the essential subjects of geometry and chemistry. I was still required to read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. From the moment I had left the funeral I was back to jumping through the hoops of Public Education, and was left emotionally stunted. I hadn’t grieved, not really, and wouldn’t for some years to come.
About a year after his death, a large selection of some of Peyton’s most famous shirts were turned into a quilt. It was a lovely gesture, and when my mom showed me the photo I said something like, Wow, that’s so sweet, he would have loved that, and meant it. Then as I walked away from my mother, I started clenching my jaw. I made it to my room silently, but when I got there and shut my door, I let out the ugliest donkey sob of my life, crawled across the floor and lied prostrate on my couch, heaving so hard I thought I might vomit.
I was more or less shellshocked by how fresh it felt for the rest of the evening, and when my romantic interest (at the time) asked why I had been MIA, I told her my cousin had just died. She asked when. I realized then it had been some time. It has been even more time now. It’s been a half a decade. That’s a long time to be grieving.
That said, I’m still waiting on my grief to make me better somehow. That’s what they say isn’t it? Grief made me kinder. My trauma made me who I am. What didn’t kill me made me stronger. Or, my personal favorite: my trauma made me funnier.
It’s a shame that none of that is true.
I was funny before he died, and I am funnier now, but that’s not causation, it’s just getting older.
My default operating system is to revere my grief like a teacher. When I came back to the real world from the funeral I felt, in some sick way, that I could finally be taken seriously. I was 15, so I was far away from the world of adults, and all of my problems had been menial misunderstandings with friends from middle school, grades on exams that I hadn’t studied for. Then, suddenly, I had a real life. I had experienced real loss, and wielded a corrupt sense of pride. I could walk the halls of my quiet little high school, look at my peers, and think: they haven’t felt this, they still don’t know. I thought grief had matured me, that one week in a house that lost a child I had been become real, and that it was only a matter of time before all the other promises came to fruition: I’d be more understanding to other’s feelings, I would understand new nuances about myself as an individual, I would be strong and noble and brave without trying. It would be easy.
I don’t know what Peyton’s favorite movie was, but both of the movies he talked about a lot starred Leonardo DiCaprio. After he died my sister, Lily, had long text strands with him that she read while she grieved, and when I went to look at my own, it was minimal and I felt embarrassed, like that by missing the proof of my relationship with Peyton I was somehow less valid in my pain. I started trying to find evidence of things that he said to me that were meant for me specifically. In that same vein, I wanted to believe that his reviews of The Wolf of Wall Street and Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby were reflections of what he thought about me, that that recommendation was tailored (it was not).
That said, it still offered some insight to what Peyton thought of himself. Favorite movies can often offers effigy characters for us to model ourselves after: if your favorite movie is Braveheart it’s likely that you are a white man from the suburbs who tries to be stoic like Mel, if your favorite movie is You’ve Got Mail you’re likely a woman who loves books and really wanted to move to New York in your twenties. Our favorite characters are often more distilled versions of what we want to be. Peyton did a Gatsby disappearance in 2015, and came back fit instead of rich, and partied in a somewhat like Jordan Belfort, but with notably less cocaine, Percocet, Xanax and strippers.
Conversely, my favorite movie of all time is the live action adaptation of Speed Racer, directed by the Wachowski Sisters. It’s a kids movie with early CGI, but offers a surprisingly poignant message about legacy and competition. Over-analyzation of children’s movies aside, the film starts with Speed Racer racing for the record of fastest track time, a record previously held by his older brother Rex, who died in a crash in a race years before. As he goes, he’s drawing closer to the ghost of his brother, chasing not only his record, but chasing to know what he knew, to do what he did, to be great like Rex had been.
I don’t want to be Peyton, but all of those things I mentioned earlier, the kindness, the humor, the nobility, these were all things Peyton wielded in excess. He was easily admired. I wanted to have long text strands between us. I wanted photos with him from stories I’d have told in my old age. I wanted to be a part of his life, just as him and his friends were a fundamental part of mine when I was a child.
Either by divine irony or just regular irony, I was supposed to have read the Great Gatsby for a Modernist Literature class by the time I got back from the funeral. Once I finally did so, I read it like a zealot reads a holy text. Then I waited. I waited to become suddenly kinder, suddenly stronger, suddenly funnier, suddenly braver and more noble. Suddenly become like Peyton was. I was chasing the ghost driver then already, and in some ways I’m chasing him now still, waving my arms as Fitzgerald’s green light fades into the distance, saying wait, wait, before you go, I am like you, I am like you.