Grief be nimble, Elliot B. Quick; or, I’m still not over it and now there’s a fucking pandemic

I lost a friend a little over a month ago. After weeks of processing, I shared some thoughts about him with our mutual acquaintances. They probably won’t mean as much to someone entirely outside of our circles, but I wanted to put them out to the world anyways. Both because I’d love to talk about him to as many people who will listen, and also on the chance that anyone else who is experiencing the conundrum of grief, where something vital has been lost and yet the affairs of the world somehow continue on, especially in a time so heightened as this, might find something here to be shared.

Other people have eulogized Elliot B. Quick so wonderfully that it feels uselessly performative of me to do so at this point. You were either lucky enough to have known him or you weren’t. He was brilliant, passionate, kind, and funny. He gave great hugs. He had a magnificent laugh.

I hadn’t wanted to make this loss about me and my grief – not when it’s the person who has passed, of course, who should be at the center of this all, and not when there are those who were so much closer to him. But it stopped being a thing that I could just keep to myself without affecting others when all of my wrestling with myself led to more and more days passing without my getting in touch with folks I’d meant to get in touch with. And “Sorry I haven’t texted you about getting together, I’ve been kinda depressed since my friend died in a freak accident” seems like an awful lot to throw at a person. Maybe just a little rude.

It was unexpected. It was a shock that literally knocked my legs out from under me.

And then it’s a series of small events. Being found sobbing in the bathroom by the assistant director after you get off the phone with the friend who’s been centralizing the information. Solidifying arrangements to miss work on the projected day of the memorial service. Finding out that the memorial service will actually be on a day when it’s impossible to miss work. Reading the obituary: “He was 35 years old.” Each chipping away a little more at the world that existed where he was around; each one more brick in building a world without him in it.

There’s also an odd feeling of unfairness that’s uncomfortably founded on privilege. It’s not as though this is a wake-up call to seize the moment and follow one’s dreams, a reminder to not put off one’s passions because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. We were already doing that. My circle of friends and I, we have the gift of doing this work that we love, often together. So it’s not as though I can say, well, he might be gone but this has inspired me to reexamine my priorities and devote myself to what I believe really matters. We were already doing that, for fuck’s sake. So… good job, don’t change anything, keep carrying on? Where’s the narrative arc in that? Terribly unsatisfying.

I first worked with Elliot on a keen, vigorous production of The Seagull at Yale. Not that every production doesn’t have its challenges and emotional stakes entirely unrelated to the material at hand, but this one was particularly juicy, what with being scheduled so that we reached that dreaded Week Three of rehearsal (i.e., when everyone is feeling like absolute shit about their work) right at the end of first semester, when most of our cast also had large projects due for their classes. Everyone was exhausted and at their wits’ ends, and that was before even uttering a word of the text. It was the dead of winter, and so dark and cold outside. The production design had the audience sitting onstage facing the house, and the heat in the building was definitely not built to accommodate that, so the production team in tech was bundled up in coats and running space heaters. As we began our very short tech process, the director (fearless leader Alexandru Mihail) realized that he wanted every door to open magically each time a character entered or exited, instantaneously creating dozens of new deck crew cues (all called). At one point, a crew member was wheeling a full tea cart across the stage when a wheel of the cart fell off, and we all got to watch in nightmarish slow-motion as the entire fragile tea set went crashing to the ground. This was, of course, after we had already earned the ire of the entire props department by possibly setting a record for the most furniture broken during rehearsal, a streak which we would continue to build upon throughout the performances because true winners never stop winning. The post-production seminar class, during which the entire technical design and stage management departments had a post-mortem discussion about the recent process, became a debate of theatrical pedagogy between the heads of the two departments who were seated on the far opposite sides of our onstage house, the rest of us stuck between them like spectators at an immersive tennis match that was also a surprise production of No Exit.

That play was beautiful.

My main memory of the production was during one rehearsal in the lovely, warm-hued Room 221 at 149 York Street. Alex had proposed some idea, the exact nature of which I have absolutely zero recollection. What I do remember is that Elliot vehemently objected to it on fundamental artistic grounds. “But no, I want to do it,” Alex insisted (please be sure that you have applied the appropriate Romanian accent to his words). “Sure!” Elliot nearly shouted back with the incredulous smile of a man absolutely mortified and offended by what he was witnessing. “Sure, you can! I’ll just never speak to you again!” Alex was undeterred.

We took a break. Alex went downstairs for a cigarette. Elliot went with him. When we got back from break, Alex thoughtfully reported that he had ceased pursuing his original idea but we were going to try something else. The rest of the room breathed a collective sigh of relief that mommy and daddy hadn’t gotten a divorce.

If I had to pinpoint any one thing as being a turning point in my understanding of the meaning and potential of artistic collaboration, it would be that show. And it would be because of Elliot and the artistic family that could not have existed without him. It was possibly one of the most valuable things that I took away from my three years of graduate education.

We went on to bring most of that production group back together for another production that was, again, absolutely bonkers, both onstage and off: The Last Days of Mankind at Bard College. For most of the process, Alex, Elliot, and I were the daily presence together in rehearsal with our cast of delightfully unique undergrads. Alex and Elliot were roommates in some weird shed-turned-lodging situation. I lived alone in an isolated house of taxidermied horrors where I wasn’t allowed to leave my toothbrush in the bathroom. I remember the three of us going out for pizza relatively early in the process as the realities of our situation sunk in. One thing we did determine at that dinner was that I was, unquestionably, a heavy eater.

Something that was so interesting about The Last Days of Mankind is that Karl Kraus began writing it in 1915, while the Great War was still in progress – indeed, while it was just getting started. He finished it in 1919, one year after the war ended. That’s been on my mind as the COVID-19 pandemic has been working its way around the world, devastating lives and also upending an entire artistic landscape like a high-magnitude earthquake that has stricken permanent changes into our fundamental topography and whose aftershocks are just beginning. (Canceling a memorial service. Making a chip. Laying a brick.) We have no choice but to live it; we have the choice to also write it.

It’s a very self-centered thing, but for me, I feel like the blow of our current circumstances has been a little softened by the fact that my preconceived notion of the future, which I hadn’t even been aware that I’d held, had already been shattered just mere weeks earlier. It certainly wasn’t the first loss I’ve had in my life, or even nearly the closest, but it was the one most sneakily threaded into That Which I Had Assumed Would Be. When that ripped apart, I realized that my hands were clenched in ways that I hadn’t been aware and that I needed to open them still further in order to let go. And then I found myself with a framework of thinking that left me more prepared than I otherwise would have been to process what came next.

And then I think: oh, fuck you, Elliot.

Most of this ran through my head as I stood at the second highest altitude in Manhattan, a stone-walled overlook where you can regularly hear the seagulls circling above. The connection was so easy that it felt almost cheap. But sometimes, one thing just naturally leads to another. We’re always collaborating with our pasts, whether it’s building upon them or fighting against them. I’m still mourning for the in-person collaborations that won’t happen – to say nothing of the late-night drinks and the too-indulgent pizza dinners and the entirely too-niche jokes and completely universal laughter. But I’m never going to stop working with him, whether I want to or not, because I’d have to stop working with myself for that to happen.

I can hear the seagulls right now from my room. Farther away, and I can’t see them through the buildings that block the view from my window. But even though I’m crying again, I’m also smiling. And I’m looking forward to gathering with any and all of you again, in whatever forms that takes.

One thought on “Grief be nimble, Elliot B. Quick; or, I’m still not over it and now there’s a fucking pandemic

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