When your heart is an empty room

Perhaps no figure looms larger in the last decade of my life, the one that began at the quarter-century mark, than Michael Zigmund. That’s not a particularly surprising admission: he was my direct “boss” for the better part of that decade. But our unique bond far superseded that relationship – in fact, when we both found ourselves out of jobs last October from the organization where we’d worked together, we both half-joked that at least our friendship wouldn’t have to end.

But Michael was even more than my friend. I idolized the guy, to an extent he was probably unaware of. (It’s such a cruel irony – I alluded to his impact on my life in my last email to him a couple weeks ago, but he was already gone.) Everything about him, from his past as a BMX wunderkind and his exciting Los Angeles lifestyle to his love of New Order and the easy and confident way he wore a suit, were the epitome of cool to me. He was the real deal, and next to him I felt like a charlatan, a poser. Nevertheless, despite being well-read and well-versed on everything from science and technology to politics and economics, he’d always ask my opinions, prefacing his questions with “I always like to know your take on things.” Made me feel like a million bucks.

If I was a pest to Michael, an annoying little brother figure, he certainly never let on over the decade we knew each other. For one thing, he was happy to let me know the name of his landlord (Lou) when an apartment opened up right next door to him in Hershey. We were ultimately neighbors for four wonderful years, and while we were smart enough to avoid each other when necessary, we’d often sit on our shared front porch in the dimming sunlight of early evening and talk about everything from the books we were reading (he enthusiastically lent me Andy Weir’s The Martian one night) to the music we were currently into (“I’m so excited Zooey Deschanel left Ben Gibbard,” he once said. “Maybe he’ll make another Transatlanticism.“)

Yes, the realities of the workplace hierarchy affected the depth of our friendship somewhat, but Michael still wouldn’t hesitate to ask me for help when he needed it, and it made me feel good to be as reliable to him outside of the workplace as I was within its walls. I’d take care of Taj, Michael’s beloved cat, when he was on one of his fairly frequent adventures to New York or L.A., for example, and he also wasn’t outside of shooting me a text and asking to borrow a kitchen tool. Being Michael’s neighbor meant I could officially be more to him than just his colleague, so I was fairly devastated – though thoroughly delighted for him – when our work office went virtual and Michael packed up for Los Angeles. It was a good move for him, for sure – he belonged in a progressive town with things to do and places to see. Central Pennsylvania couldn’t contain him. 

I sneaked into his empty apartment late one night after he moved out, knowing Lou left the front door unlocked. I sat on the floor in his living room, where his couch used to be. I stared at the wall, missing my friend. I thought of Ben Gibbard’s lyrics: “Burn it down / till the embers smoke on the ground / And start new / when your heart is an empty room.” It’s an image I think of a lot these days – the loneliness inside of that apartment that night.

Michael was different after his cross-country trek to make L.A. his residence. “I saw America up close,” he said. “And I was shocked to discover it’s filled with decent, kind people.” Michael was probably a cheerful cynic until his last breath, but the balance shifted more toward the cheer than the cynicism after he was unburdened by the sociocultural atmosphere of the “Pennsyltucky” part of the Keystone State. He really flourished, at least from my perspective, out there in Los Feliz, and he regaled me with tales of Dodgers games and stage magic performances and bizarre Tinder dates with Q-Anon devotees. I was so pleased that he seemed to be in his element.

Quite some time passed before Michael and I saw each other in the flesh again – a work event in New Orleans allowed us to reconnect, and I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he saw me. “Hey man,” I said, and extended my hand. “I haven’t seen you for two years and the best you can do is a handshake?” he responded, and gave me a hug. I was deep in the throes of alcoholism then, so I can’t really elucidate the details of that trip or the next one, the last time I saw Michael, in Philadelphia. I have some brief, fleeting images: Michael leaning against the bar with a drink at some jazz bar on Bourbon Street in the Big Easy, or eating a cheesesteak (never with onions) at some hole-in-the-wall in Philly. If I had known those couple times would be the final times we’d spend together, I would have paid more attention, clung to his words, syphoned out some wisdom. Instead, it’s all kind of a drunken blur.

Michael and I grew briefly closer last October, after we were both laid off. It threw me into a panic, and I took it hard, but I think he took it harder. “I’ve got to be okay through this,” he told me on the phone in one of our post-career conversations. “I just have to. I’m not leaving L.A. I’m going to make it.” We had plans to help each other through the job search process, and Michael gave me some excellent advice on how to make my cover letter and resume pop, but he never asked for any reciprocation. In fact, one November Wednesday, Michael canceled our scheduled Zoom meeting just a few minutes before we were to go over his job search materials with a text. “Can’t meet tonight. Going through a breakup. Brutal.” I told him to let me know when we could reconnect.

My last real contact with Michael came in a thank-you email. I sent him a Christmas gift (the excellent HBO Watchmen TV series, figuring if he didn’t care for the action set-pieces maybe he’d dig the phenomenal Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross soundtrack), and he sent an email thanking me almost as soon as Amazon alerted me that the packaged had been delivered. “We’ll catch up soon,” he promised me. But outside of liking each other’s posts on Instagram over the next few months, we never did.

I found out on July 6 that he’d been gone for a month.

Pain and suffering are complicated. In my grief, I’ve been trying to make some sense or meaning out of Michael’s passing, but I’m coming up completely empty, just like that apartment on Cocoa Avenue.

But I still have the memories. That late night where we shoveled our shared parking lot out of three feet of snow because Lou was out of town and couldn’t reach his snowplow. Work lunches over Dos Equis at El Rodeo or Sapporo at Sakura. Listening to Depeche Mode in his living room or the Beastie Boys in his car. The weird gifts that came to my apartment door, like a creepy porcelain figure and a framed poem about the passage of time that, in hindsight, were probably practical jokes from the mind of Michael Zigmund – boss, neighbor, and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

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