It’s a rainy Thursday morning. Nikki’s on my couch, deeply immersed in the colored lines of a New York City bike route map. The dog’s on her back, waiting for someone to scratch her belly.
I’m sitting the floor, wedged between the yellow chair, and the bookcase. I’m rearranging my books.
“I guess I have to get a bike,” she moans. “I’ve never met someone so hard to cyber-stalk.”
“Maybe because the only thing you know about him is his first name.”
“There can’t be too many bald men named Bob in New York City.”
It sounds like she’s on the outs with her married boyfriend, so it’s imperative that she have a conversation with her married boyfriend’s wife’s boyfriend. Bob.
“I need to know if he was lying when he said he loved me.”
“What would Bob really know?”
“He’s the type of guy women open up to. Non-threatening.”
We’re drinking coffee. I wish it were wine. Or Bloody Mary’s. Brunch would be nice. But, currently, I am flat broke.
“It’ll take a lifetime to find him,” she pouts. “Even with a bike.”
“Don’t give up,” I say. “Bob is out there. Somewhere. Sleeping with your boyfriend’s wife.”
“At least someone’s getting laid.”
She shoves the map onto the floor where the dog promptly tears it to pieces.
“How old is this sofa?”
“It smells like dog.”
I open folder crammed with old letters, expecting to see the familiar scrawl of a friendship gone sour. Instead, on top there’s an envelope addressed to me with an uncertain hand. I don’t recognize the handwriting.
“Quite frankly,” Nikki chimes in, “I was disappointed in your blog on your Alaskan dates. Where are the burly mountain men? Where are the rugged individuals? Where are the stories?”
“My vacation was hijacked.” I admit. “The Hurricane wanted to come along and I told him could. And then he hijacked it.”
That was Fairbanks, where people wear their loneliness like it’s a badge of honor. “I was alone in Anchorage, but there was less facial hair and more savior-faire. And a few drag queens…”
“I think you should go back.”
“I think I will.”
“I wish it would stop raining,” she says.
I open the letter. It’s written in the blue ink of a cheap fountain pen. “Dear Amy,” it begins, “forests have died for the amount of half-written and unmailed letters I throw away…”
“… a rugged Alaskan man would be just the thing for you. When’s the last time you had sex, anyway?”
The letter’s dated 1991. I was in Berkeley, California, recovering from my first failed love attempt with a guy who stalked me after we broke up. Confusion swirled around me like a dark cloud and life was an operatic production.
“I’m not at college right now,” the letter continues. “I’m doing chemo at Sloan-Kettering, in New York City.”
It’s from a college friend, Alli. She was a year behind me at school and legally blind. She wore coke bottle glasses and walked with one of those white canes. Her winter coat was bright orange; you could see her tripping towards you from across campus. She’s someone I lost touch with and then forgot. But I can see her now, clear as day. I can hear her voice.
“You look like you’re going to cry.”
I fold the letter and set it aside. I’ll read it later, when the rain clears and the coffee’s cold and Nikki leaves.
“I think I might be reading too many self-help books. They are depressing the hell out of me.”
“Stop reading them.”
“I recently paid someone a lot of money to tell me to read them.”
“You’re paying someone to tell you to figure out how to help yourself?”
“In essence. Yes.”
“You know you could easily cut out the middle man and save yourself some money. Or you could take drugs.”
I shrug. “I have a lot of patterns.”
Obi’s dating a Russian dancer and is caught under her spell, Nikki will leave me soon to resume her mad summer search for Bob, I’ve lost my best friend and drinking buddy to pregnancy. Everyone’s changing but me.
“Smoke pot. Drink yourself into oblivion. Or get some Ritalin. You’ll be happier and more productive. And your apartment will be spotless.”
“I feel like – I’m -”
“But you’re not. You just think you are.”
She slides off the couch and sits in front of me. We’re face to face and I suppress a hiccup of a laugh. She’s not good at this at all.
“You have snot running down your -”
I pull my hand under my nose. “I don’t know what I’m doing. Ever.”
“No one does,” she says. She cranes her neck and looks out the window. The dog stops chewing on the map to watch her. “It looks like it stopped raining.” We smile sadly at one another for another moment. And then sweetly, she says, “well, I guess I should go.”
And then she goes.
There was a late night when Alli and I were leaving the college theater. She was telling me about her cancer, when it was discovered, where it lived. For no reason, I changed the subject to dinner, or something equally mundane. Alli was as excited to talk about the dining hall as she was about describing the tumors growing behind her eyes. I’ve often wondered at that organically abrupt non sequitur. I don’t know why I remember the moment.
Conversation is rarely a one-way or even a two-way street. It’s a labyrinth inside a playground in the middle of an obstacle course littered with flowers and land mines.
I’m not going to share her whole letter. But, here’s a small bit:
“My life has not been so hard. Even if it has been tough, I would never change it. Once I played a very old woman in Master’s Spoon River Anthology, or rather, her ghost floating around the graveyard. She talks about how she went to dances as a young woman, how she met her husband, her twelve children, how they died… She turns to the other souls in the graveyard and says, ‘irreverent sons and daughters, how silly you are. Life is too strong for you. It takes life to love life.’”
I think Alli died a year or two after she wrote that letter to me. I was off on my first adventures, kissing strangers, working odd jobs, learning how to be a friend. I didn’t think much about anyone those years, except myself. I heard she died well after the fact, when I ran into one of our professors on the subway. And, honestly, after a few days, she slipped from my mind again. But today, I see her everywhere.