Tuesday, July 27, 2004

As cold water to a weary soul

After several exchanges of voice and e-mail messages over the last few days, DL and I finally connected for a nice chat. To give you a sense of the significance of this event, I'll note that of all the people with whom I attended school — that's fourteen schools, including colleges, over sixteen academic years — DL is the only one with whom I keep in touch, or would wish to. For someone to hold my interest and attention after 27 years (and yes, I do feel ancient typing that number, thank you very much), she has to be remarkable. And DL is certainly that.

I don't retain images very well, but I have a mental picture of one of the first times I noticed DL in school. She, then a sophomore, was wearing a long coat (she always wore a long coat in those days) over an anachronistic dark green corduroy (I think?) dress — the latter of which wasn't all that common in high school even then. She carried herself with a commanding, almost forceful presence and sober demeanor that made her seem immediately older than everyone else in our peer group. She had this focused look that I always thought of as "intense intelligence," and a dark-edged, mature voice that reminded me at the time of Kate Jackson on Charlie's Angels. DL may not have been the smartest person in our school — though she was surely in the top five percent — but she had a way of conveying her intelligence in her face and body that wasn't "teenaged" in the least. Reminiscent of KJ but on a somewhat grander scale, she was an old soul from the beginning, never seeming like a "girl," but rather like a 35-year-old woman playing undercover at high school. A female Cameron Crowe.

DL was the first editor for whom I ever wrote. She managed the school newspaper, and I contributed a column that at the time seemed humorous. Were I to see it today I'd probably be appalled at its sophomoric bent. It meant a great deal to me then to be respected as a writer — not that it doesn't matter now, but these days I get plenty of recognition, some of it in the form of checks. DL was perhaps the first of my peers who not only appreciated that gift in me, but actually said so.

And, of course, I harbored a secret crush on her for the better part of two years. (She had…well…never mind. That’s a memory best left unrevisited.)

Remember the argument between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally about whether a man and woman can be friends without being lovers? DL is proof that Sally was right and Harry wrong. As attracted to DL as I was those last two years of high school, I valued her friendship more than I ever could have appreciated her as a girlfriend. (Of course, the fact that she — like every other female on the planet — wasn't attracted to me in the least made the question moot.) I was only then beginning to understand that there were people who were meant to be friends and people who were meant to be romantically involved, and that it was the rare individual with whom one could be both. By the time I graduated (DL was a year behind me), I'd figured out that "friends" was a plenty good thing to be, and that "my friend" was what DL was. Some time later, when we actually attempted something like a "date" once, it was insufferably awkward — I couldn't find the path back from "friend" to whatever I'd once hoped to become. (Ironically, DL was the person who, when my mother was on one of her customary tirades about my latest girlfriend, would often get mentioned in the conversation-slash-argument in the context of "Why can't you ever date someone more like her?" The always unspoken answer was, naturally, "Because she's my friend.")

I did learn, purely by happenstance, that DL was an excellent kisser — though we both probably wish neither of us remembered how I discovered that. (She may not, for all I know. We've never talked about it.) Finding out that interesting but purposeless fact was like l'esprit d'escalier — that "staircase wit" that inspires you to think of just the right thing to say after the other party leaves the room. When I could have used the information, I didn't have access to it; by the time I obtained it, it was too late for the knowledge to be useful.

Anyway, fast-forward a couple of decades and more, and here we are. DL moved to Maine — land of lobster and Stephen King — got married, had a family, developed a life. She and I communicated sporadically over the years — a letter here, a card there. A few years ago, we came to the mutual realization that we missed our friendship, and made a concerted effort to keep in more frequent contact. I'm glad we did. I'm now the proud godfather of her youngest, who was born on KJ's birthday a year and a half ago. (DL recently sent me a darling pair of photos of the baby eating her first ear of corn.)

Talking with DL on the phone today, she sounded as she ever did, with that spectral voice that seems as if it emanates from a body older than her own, and with the odd, almost mannered phrasing that makes her sound like an actor in a Mamet play, only without all the profanity. She still sounds far too serious and infinitely wise. She still makes me laugh without trying. And I'm very pleased she's still my good friend.

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