The first night I met Nick Tucci, I kissed him. One of my oldest and dearest friends, he died last week, of an illness, and I have been spending the last several days not processing, not even mourning really. I’d need to process first and I just can’t. But I suppose I should back up.
It was our sophomore year of high school, fall of 1996. My buddy Brian Biegen, who I had befriended that semester, had invited me to his Halloween party, and I was excited and intimidated in that way of high school social events. I had my tight crew of friends already, Ben and Adam and Matt and more, and in that wonderful way when you’re young, my social world was also growing, with no loss to my old friendships. (Make new friends and keep the old, you know?) And I needed it, as my home life was wreckage and was destined to get worse in the months to come. So I needed things to go to, people to spend time with, anywhere to be but home. And Brian had asked me to his party, and I was surprised and charmed.
Brian specifically mentioned it as a chance to meet Nick. Through some strange quirk of scheduling Nick and I had never shared a class or club or sport together. (For some inscrutable reason in Middletown CT grades 6-8 students are always divided into three “clusters.”) But Nick and I knew each other by reputation – even beyond the fact that he had kicked my ass in an all-district spelling bee. It wasn’t hard to know of Nick’s reputation; he loomed large, even then. There was always a quality about him that was larger than life. And he had come up in Bio, as I chatted with Brian, my old friend Jamie Clark, and Scott Walsh, who I would go on to become close friends with. So that was one little part of the reason I was excited for the party.
It was outdoors; we really just kind of kicked it around Brian’s neighborhood. (This made my “costume” of my father’s pajamas somewhat less then ideal, given that it dipped below 40, but oh well.) Some people got candy, if I recall correctly. I seem to remember that the party kind of split in two, two separate groups. Other than the cold I had a fine time, as we just wandered and goofed around (yes there were girls there), threw rocks at street signs, talked shit. And I got to know Nick a little bit.
Oh, so the kiss. At some point the topic turned to gay rights and gay panic, which was probably as sophisticated a conversation as you can imagine. Nick mentioned that he was progressive and secure enough to kiss another man, and I quickly said that I felt the same. The challenge was basically on – if I remember correctly Jason Coleman dared us – and so we exchanged a quick peck, maybe two hours into our friendship.
Looking back now, of course, in a world of woke discourse, you could see it as unenlightened. There is a macho quality to that sort of display, and on some level the point was “see how not gay I am, I can even kiss another dude.” But give us a break. We were 15. And as ridiculous as it may be it was a declaration of principles for both of us. That’s one of the things I loved most about him; he lived according to principle. He had a stern and unapologetic sense of how he thought life should be lived.
The following Monday in class, Brian asked me what I thought of Nick. In some words or another, I told him the truth: that Nick was the heat. He was the heat. I’m not trying to be arch or poetic, here. I’m just trying to use the best language I can. Nick was someone who burned, all the time, burned with intensity. And it was clear from the moment I started to get to know him. He was someone who was fully himself, and that person was totally unconcerned with other people’s attachment to the quotidian and laid back. He was going to feel deeply and to display those feelings without reservation.
That year I would get deeply involved in the high school newspaper, Blue Prints, as he already was. In time we would both go on to be editors, and spend many long hours with our friends Rachel Kamins and Jonah Schulz and Heather Cosgrove debating the editorials that we took so seriously. (That paper was really, really fucking good, by the way, no joke. 987/1000 from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and frankly I think they sold us short.) And I would come to share classes with Nick, and to see him at the gatherings put together by the burgeoning Party Crew. But mostly we just became friends in the uncomplicated way that you do when you’re young and that you spend the rest of your life wishing you could get back.
One day we were talking shit about the tattoos we’d get once we were old enough, and he was saying how cool it would be to have them going down your fingers, spelling out a phrase. A couple years later, when we were 18 or 19, he got sick and had to take some time of from school and went off to Chicago to recuperate. And when he came back he had tattoos on his fingers. So of course the challenge was on, and that summer my friend Cara Frank Brooks and I went to get our first tattoos, and today I have tattoos on my fingers that I am only half-embarrassed of. (I wish I could follow his example and not feel any embarrassment at all. The man once got a skull tattooed in the center of his palm.)
Here was a guy who was a football star, champion track runner, amateur boxer, weightlifting enthusiast his entire life. He was certainly macho. He was also one of the most wonderfully pretentious artists I’ve ever met, someone who attacked the work of being an actor with the same blind conviction he did anything and who was willing to wax philosophical about whatever abstruse aesthetic theory you can name. I’ve seen him cry on multiple occasions. He was so traditionally masculine and also such a sensitive, feminine guy, so surprising in his emotions. And he wore it all without pretense or artifice.
When I moved to New York I was intimated, though I never would have admitted it at the time. And of course Nick was there, helping me move into my new apartment, introducing me to cool people he knew, showing me Ridgewood. It was such a comfort to have someone like him nearby. We didn’t see each other often, the last few years; we didn’t have to. We’d reconnect after six months and go belly up to some bar and talk for hours, him hitting me with his idiosyncratic (to say the least) politics, me waxing philosophical about what it meant to be a man in the world today. And me telling, for the hundredth time, how I could have gotten an A+ from our teacher, and his father, Mr. Tucci (always Mr. Tucci to me, always) if I had only bothered to proofread.
When I think of Nick, and I think of his intensity, I think of the fact that he gave me permission. Because his intensity was so direct and so defiant, it gave me permission to be intense myself; it made me think that intense was a thing that a person could be, that it wasn’t embarrassing, but rather a facet of being fully alive. I never had any choice; we are what life makes of us, not what we make of ourselves, though Nick and I spent decades trying to prove otherwise. In being his own intense self, his ceaselessly direct and utterly committed self, he showed me another way, though I have never been quite strong enough to take it.
After I ended up at the hospital, two and a half years ago, wracked with mania once again, I didn’t want to see anyone. Well, that’s not quite right. I went into a year of almost total exile because I did not want to see any acquaintances, to see anyone with whom I had any kind of a normal relationship, to see anyone who was a casual friend. Being forced to go to work to see people who knew my name and did not know me was torture. But I was comforted by the faces of strangers, and New York mercifully provided them. And I survived because of the people with whom my relationships were as intense as my heart, even as my fire was doused by a half-dozen drugs – my family, my Snow School brothers Ben and Adam and Ben, Matt, Heather, Cara, my ex-girlfriend Liz, and a handful more that I wish I could name. And of course one of the first people I called, when I was ready, was Nick. I did not tell him about it. I didn’t need to; it wouldn’t have made any difference. In time it became clear that he had heard about it, and of course he didn’t care. He was who he was, and he took me for who I was, and as in all things he was thoroughly and only himself, and he was my friend.
It’s been more than a year since I’ve seen him. Like I said, it was like that. We’d drop in and out and it was always like no time had passed at all. I always trusted that it would always be that way. And now I’ll never see him again.
Here I feel like I should end with some wisdom, with some saying that explains it all, some uplifting thing. But I can’t. I want to see my friend, and he’s gone forever. I feel like I’ve been cut in half. All I want is to hear his voice again, with that endless conviction, telling me that someday we will understand all things. All things. All things.