It's been 17 years since we sat on the front porch and talked that night. It was a college graduation party, in Atlanta in a neighborhood behind the Majestic diner. It was probably 2 a.m. Someone had broken out a pipe, and a circle had gathered inside to pass it around. That wasn't our thing, and we went outside to escape.
By then, we rarely saw each other anymore because you were still in college and I'd graduated, so we needed to catch up. You and another girl -- her name was Michelle, I think -- were going to Paris in a few weeks. One of our friends was getting married and you were going to the wedding and then on a tour of Europe, if my memory serves me. You'd saved and saved, and you were so excited. I was excited for you.
I wish I could remember more of what we talked about that night. If I'd only known what was coming, I would've burned it in my brain, that night, and every other moment I knew you, whether it was two hours hanging out in a dorm room or two seconds saying "Hi" in passing.
We had an easy familiarity, you and me. We'd always talked like old friends, even when we barely knew each other. It was never anything romantic, more like big brother/little sister, although I'm pretty sure you were way more mature than I was.
As much as I loved it, I sometimes felt out of place in college. You made me feel like I belonged, as much as the sun belongs overhead and the grass belongs underfoot. You were easy to talk to. You never judged. You were always happy to see me. You were incredibly rare.
I guess that was late June, that night in Atlanta, the last time we talked. The next time I heard anything about you was when I saw your name in a list in the paper.
TWA 800, bound for France, exploded and broke apart at 13,000 feet shortly after takeoff from New York. I didn't know your flight number, but somehow I knew that was your plane. The passenger list confirmed it.
The crash was the stuff of nightmares. The plane broke in half and plummeted into the ocean from two miles up in the sky. To this day, I can't think of it without tearing up and hoping that you were unconscious and didn't have to experience that terror.
There were rumors it'd been shot down. The government said no, a fuel explosion. In the years since, there have been news and magazine articles, websites exploring the conspiracy theories, even a TV show or two. I suspect by now that to most people TWA 800 is just another newsreel, something that happened to someone else. To them, it might as well be a movie.
And, in fact, it is now. A new documentary is coming out, and a bunch of people who investigated the crash want it investigated again. They say there was a cover-up.
I'm not sure what I think about all that. Most conspiracy theories are born from denial, from the inability to accept something unfathomable: Elvis can't be dead, a lone nut couldn't have killed JFK, no way did a bunch of guys with box cutters hijack those planes without the government helping them. But most of that stuff is nonsense, coping mechanisms masquerading as mass delusions.
Whatever message the movie delivers, TWA 800 will always be a tragedy that took my friend -- a friend who was too young, too bright and too genuine to be taken that way. It's a reminder of the brevity of life and the unfairness of it. But it's also a reminder of the significance of a human life, and the effect one can have on another. You never saw 21. I'm twice that age now and I often think of you and the happiness you brought me. I will always be angry at the way you were taken, but more than that, I will always be thankful that you were here in the first place.
Email Nate McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.