I met Ilya Zhitomirskiy in eighth grade. He was new to Lusher School, and sat, as alphabetical order dictated, at the last chair of the last lab table in Mr. Donolo’s homeroom. He was small, thin, and enthusiastic, with perpetually clogged sinuses. He made interesting sartorial choices. He had a Russian accent, which I thought was charmingly exotic. His last name was impossible to spell.
Ilya was not very popular at Lusher. Conversations with him would often turn into wild adventures through his plans for elaborate inventions or problem-solving schemes, and not many middle-schoolers had the patience to listen. But I liked Ilya’s snark and odd humor, his sharp sly grin when Mr. Donolo called on him for an answer he didn’t have. I liked Ilya.
I was sad to hear that Ilya would not be following most of our class to Ben Franklin High School, instead moving first to Massachusetts and then to Philadelphia to attend Lower Merion High. In the two years that followed, he and I occasionally reconnected by phone: rambling late-night conversations punctuated by his thoughtful silences. Ilya would call me out of the blue, leaving me long messages with a casual invitation to call him back. It touched me that he remembered me enough to keep in contact. I’m good at remembering old friends and acquaintances, but even if I weren’t, it would have been impossible to forget Ilya.
In 2005, after Katrina, I ended up at a boarding school just outside of Philadelphia. On a rainy afternoon after class one day, I rushed to the Newtown train station and rode the SEPTA into Philly, where I met Ilya on a wet street corner. He’d grown a couple of inches, but mostly he looked the same. He was wearing a green plaid shirt and rainbow-streaked jeans with writing on the back of one thigh. We spent the afternoon walking around South Street and the surrounding neighborhoods, ducking into galleries; I probably spent a lot of it talking about the storm and how I didn’t feel like I was fitting in at my new school. When it started to rain harder, we went to the station to wait for my train back to the suburbs.
Ilya and I sat on the tiled floor of the platform, watching damp passengers hurry by. Spending the evening with him had made me want more; I sat hoping for a kiss while the red minutes changed on the station’s digital clocks. It didn’t happen, and I got on the train feeling as if I’d missed a chance at something.
In college, Ilya called me a few more times, and once or twice I called him. I didn’t know that, briefly, he also attended Tulane. We lost touch.
Last month, I searched for Ilya on Facebook and sent him a friend request, which he accepted. I looked at all of his photos–he’s smiling in almost every one–but didn’t write anything on his wall. I don’t know why I didn’t write to him immediately, to ask how he was doing, what he’d been up to. I was reminded to contact him every time I looked at my own profile, which boasted that I was “now friends” with Ilya. I just didn’t click over.
Today, I went to Ilya’s Facebook page, finally intending to get in touch. I started to type, “ilya! how are you?” and noticed that the post below what I was typing included the words “RIP Ilya.” I was too late. Ilya died nine days ago, on November 12, 2011, at the age of 22.
It’s hard for me to believe that there’s no way for me to talk to Ilya anymore, even though we hadn’t spoken in several years. I don’t understand how someone can just cease to exist–that there’s no channel through which I can reach him, that he’s just gone. It seems impossible that the cheerful, quirky boy I knew in middle school, who became a caring, passionate, brilliant mathematician and hacker, could bring his own existence to an end.
I spent this morning crying at work. But I almost feel as if my tears aren’t valid, because I didn’t know Ilya as well as I could have, as well as his friends or family or others he cared about. It’s like my grief is embarrassing, too much, like I’m not entitled to feel this sorrow. My life won’t change in any tangible way because Ilya is gone; I didn’t know he was dead and it’s already been nine days. I wanted to do something, to share my pain, but my impulse was not to, because it might be offensive to others who knew Ilya better, who are grieving in their own ways. I know that it’s all right to grieve, but I feel crushed. I’m angry at myself. If there was even the slightest chance that my getting in touch could have changed anything–but I know better than to think of that as a real possibility. What if I had reconnected with Ilya, just in time to lose him permanently? His number is in my phone, and I want to call it. My heart is breaking for those who shared their days with him, who knew the man he had grown into, who recognized his amazing potential and his generous spirit. How can it be that Ilya will never smile again?
Ilya, wherever you are now, you are loved.