The first time I met Aeryn Gillern, he walked into a study room in the mens’ dorm where I was cramming for a midterm with some friends. He was wearing a full length nightdress, an actual nightcap, and carrying a candlestick. He looks like a very manly and handsome Wee Willy Winkie. He swung open the door, muttered something about having a productive evening, slowly passed his disapproving eyes over the three of us, and dashed out. I remember being equal parts alarmed and amused.
Aeryn was a memorable character that I had seen around campus and town. He used to ride his bike to and fro, dressed impeccably with starched shirts and an interesting armband, the meaning of which I never did learn. His posture was flawless, even on his bicycle. He would have been a shoe-in for the part of Rolf if The Sound of Music film was ever re-cast. For the first couple of years on campus, I don’t think we ever spoke to one another, although I would see him from time to time in classes and on the rare occasions I made it to the gym, he was always there, headphones on, laser-sharp focus on his fitness routine. He was a bit of a mystery character – very reserved, stately, and not one for casual conversation.
It wasn’t until my semester abroad in Austria that I got to know Aeryn. As there were only about a hundred of us, it was impossible to avoid getting to know on another to some extent. But with Aeryn, I was happy for the close quarters. We took Austrian folk dancing lessons together, and we sang in the Latin Schola choir together. He was a fiercely loyal friend. I remember one time being asked to sing a part by myself, and feeling extremely self-conscious about it. One of the other choir members poked a bit of fun at me, highlighting just how quivery my voice had sounded. Aeryn stared him down, and in his booming baritone declared, “It’s called vibrato.”
Aeryn guarded his personal life closely, and it would several years before he was fully open with me about his reasoning. But even when I was a nineteen year-old spaz of a girl, he looked after me and tried to help me understand some of the world that my sheltered upbringing had left out. I didn’t even fully comprehend it at the time, but Aeryn came out to me one early Spring day as we sat on a bench outside the Kartause, our Austrian campus. There on the lawn of this centuries-old Carthusian monastery, bundled under our wool coats, he was trying to help me sort out my confusion about a mutual friend. I distinctly remember his tapdancing around the word gay, never uttering it in fact, as he went to great lengths to explain just how he was able to empathize with our friend. I still have no idea why my fiercely-private friend shared so vulnerably with me that day, but I am honored he did.
Aeryn only let most people know him at arm’s length. If you look through photo albums of our semester abroad, for example, there aren’t that many pictures of him. He didn’t come out to the pubs, he rarely traveled with any of us unless it was part of the school program, and he was fond of turning up his nose at most of our adolescent antics. Once, on the bus trip back from Rome, he even convinced our friend, Libby to take some Nyquil, pretending he thought she had the sniffles, but really just hoping she’d konk out and stop pestering him.
It would be years before all of the pieces fit together in that particular puzzle of his guardedness, but just as they were coming together, my friend disappeared. He hadn’t answered my latest email, and I wondered if I’d somehow offended him with my intrusive questioning. I only wish that had been what happened. I wish that he was just giving me the silent treatment, but sadly I would learn months later that he was really and truly missing.
The last time anyone saw my friend Aeryn was eight years ago today.
Today his mother, Kathy, stands vigil in Vienna, taking cold comfort in being close to where her son last stood. I wish I could be there with her – that I could kick down some doors and get answers for her.
But above all else, I really just wish that my friend were still here, still making me laugh, still making me think. While his last email to me was a bit of juicy gossip from our old stomping grounds, (he always had the dirt!) his second to last email started like this:
Greetings! You know, it just occured to me today, I like you! Not in that kind of way, but in the sense that I like hearing from you by e-mail and I look forward to the chats we have on line. It is funny, we have ekpt up with eachother for a good while. That's it. It just popped into my head today. Just let it go to your head, I know, I am wonderful, but, I am already taken!
Miss you, friend. You were one in a bajillion.