The last time I was in the same room with Victor, at a college reunion, we avoided each other. I could hardly blame him. I’d failed to return his calls. But then, he’d stood me up not once, but twice.
Victor (all names here are pseudonyms) and I met our last year in college, when we lived on the same floor of a dorm. A man whose solid presence seemed to fill the hall as he came toward me would make some arch comment about the time in the academic year, an article in the college’s newspaper or just the weather. Each brief encounter never failed to make me smile.
Incongruously, I might have been most aware of him through his girlfriend, though I don’t recall ever being introduced. One day I asked Neil, a guy across the hall with whom I was on more conversational terms, if he’d ever heard a woman’s orgasmic cries emerging from Victor’s room. “I’ve never heard anything so eerie.”
“No. Next time, let me know.”
The next time, I knocked on Neil’s door, and he joined me in the hall. Another unearthly, sustained single note tore through the air.
“Wow,” Neil said. We retreated inside his room.
Rather than suggest physical pain, Victor’s girlfriend’s piercing screams were the sounds of someone lost in space, all alone and disconnected from earth—surely disconnected from her lover, Victor. Was this the fundamental truth of sex, the most intimate possible of linkings: that the closer we get to another, the closer to aloneness we become? More immediately, what did the absence of any other sound from Victor’s room say? Not that I wanted to give it much thought.
I have no other clear memory involving Victor during college. We never took the same courses. He was an athlete, which I wasn’t. Yet after we graduated, we went on to become close friends for a decade and a half. Secretive about things I couldn’t even guess, he would disappear for months at a time. But for the days and weeks when he resurfaced, he was charming, funny, interesting and showily well-informed. Re-reading his letters brings it all back.
While I went on to law school, he took a year or two away from academia before applying to law school himself. “Remember,” he wrote, “your cumulative experiences in first year law school may do much to determine whether I eventually subject myself to the grind.”
In another letter, mocking both my English origin and enrollment at Harvard, he wrote:
Seriously, mate, is it as tough as they claim, or is that just some convenient rumor circulated by some sour puss old solicitors intent on keeping competition at bay? Or, as yet a third alternative, have you and your fellow swindlers of America already taken some sort of blood oath, probably on your first night in sacred Cambridge with a ceremony at the steps of Widener Library ominously lit up with candle-bearing fanatics from the philosophy department?
During those years, we’d meet when he drove up to Cambridge and when I went to New York during breaks. His letters reveal that he lent me a tie. What for, I no longer recall. I must have apologized for being unable to return it to him because he ended a letter: “Do not concern yourself about the status of my peripatetic necktie. … At least my tie got to Harvard.”
The career paths we were each pursuing were somewhat akin to walks on the wild side. While I was a summer legal assistant at a public defender’s office, Victor was involved in labor union disputes, even though “equally fed up with both” sides. He wrote: “As you put it so well in your letter when writing about that interesting array of characters in prison who now apparently make up your summer peer group, I don’t intend to draw moral conclusions from all this.”
Not that he didn’t have opinions. On August 11, that summer of 1977, he commented:
I am writing this just a few hours after the New York City police have taken into custody the Son of Sam, the mass killer who’s been stalking the streets of the city and shooting couples in lovers’ lanes around the area over the last year. … I think it says something about the character of the entire decade of the 1970s that the largest man hunt in the history of the nation’s largest city should culminate in the apprehension of a man named Berkowitz who lives in Yonkers. … At least when this chap Berkowitz was still at large, one had the powers of his own imagination to call upon and could muster some element of alien evil about the subsequent images created. But hating David Berkowitz from Yonkers is like hating cancer. Both kill in horrible ways, but the nebulous and unconfined borders of each killer seem to call for too great a passion.
Victor might have been disappointed in the triviality of the solution to the Son of Sam mystery, but the triviality in itself intrigued him. He was fascinated by the social symbolism in current events.
Boys will be boys, and all that, but while many of my men friends at that time wrote about the highs and declines in their love lives, as did I, Victor carried with him an aura of magnetism to women. In one letter, he wrote about his trip to see an old college girlfriend, Ellen, probably the woman whose cries I’d heard (unbeknownst to him) in our dorm:
Suffice it to say that I still seem to stimulate unwittingly the insecurities of the women that I know and meet. Fortunately, I have come to feel less guilty and more resigned to that unenviable part of my character. That also goes for the loneliness that inevitably accrues from it now and then.
I figured his claim to “stimulate unwittingly the insecurities” of women said at least as much about him as it did them. But then, we’re always revealing ourselves by what we say about others. Meanwhile, I doubted he admitted to his other men friends his “now and then” loneliness.
Here I come to an issue fraught with complexity and vagueness: What impact did my being blind have on our friendship? I viewed Victor as a macho man with a feminine side. I don’t mean effeminate—definitely not. I mean “feminine” in the sense of sensitive, thoughtful, observant, empathetic. He well knew that my relationships with women at that time were sporadic. He undoubtedly saw in me a fellow lonesome traveler, if lonesome in some qualitatively different way. But did he also see in me someone less fortunate due to my disability, and therefore in no way a threat? He would have been ashamed to admit it if true, and I would have been ashamed to ask, as well as hurt to find out it was so.
Regardless, Victor’s sense of humor in connection with my disability showed in his awareness that someone else would be reading aloud his letters to me in those days before email, which has since given me independent access to my friends’ words.
During my summer working in Wisconsin, he wrote: “My apologies to your reader if he, or hopefully she, is an anti-Eastern establishment ardent Midwesterner, in short, a fanatic with poor taste.”
Such comments directed at my readers put me in the difficult, but undeniably hilarious, predicament of having to explain, apologize or otherwise appease the feelings of whichever kind soul was reading my correspondence to me.
Graduating from law school, I moved to New York City, where I’d been offered the job I most wanted. A year or so later, Victor and I arranged to meet outside the 72nd Street subway station on the 2/3 subway line. I’d be traveling up from my downtown Manhattan office and he driving in from the suburbs. Those were also the days before cell phones, and so we had no way of reaching each other while in transit. I remember that evening not just because he never showed up, but because while I was waiting, a woman approached me as I stood at the railing fence that separates the subway island from 72nd Street. She complimented me on the rhythm I was drumming out with my fingertips on the railing. As we talked, I realized it was one of those rare, magical moments when I need only suggest we go somewhere for a drink and she’d accept. But I was committed to meeting Victor, and after a while she wished me goodnight.
A year after that, I find him writing from the Virgin Islands and sounding somber after having earned his own law degree: “The bar exam looms large in the future, but thank God for graduation.” Apart from postcards written in other parts of the country and the world, I have no other mail from Victor for the next seven years. But we did phone and see each other.
On one memorable occasion when he happened to be in the city, we went to a topless dance bar in the Village. I’d interviewed a woman to take a position at my office, but some logistical problem made it impossible for me to hire her. Nevertheless, we stayed in touch. Pam had been a topless dancer, and now in her thirties, she was a bartender at the place where she’d used to perform. She still wore very little, she told me, but no longer went topless. She invited me to drop in sometime. It didn’t take too much persuading to induce Victor to join me. Pam’s welcome when we ordered drinks was warm, despite the hordes of men crowding around her. Then Victor did his best to give me some images. One so-called dancer rolling around on the tiny stage peeled off a black stocking but kept the other on as she bared her chest. Why is it that even ploys of furtiveness intrigue?
“Let’s go,” Victor said, and we headed out to a nearby restaurant.
In the eighties, I think Victor saw himself as a hard-headed realist and me as a woolly-headed idealist. He was intent on making money, while I saw money as necessary only to the extent that it paid for a home, food and other essentials. Yet I was pretty realistic, and would become even more so about money as the decade drew to a close, while Victor had a deep streak of idealism. Our differences were in emphasis. Still, there remained between us the realism/idealism divide to exploit for humor but perhaps also to separate us.
When I next heard from Victor by mail, it was a postcard announcing he was taking “the big plunge,” meaning marriage. By then, he’d stood me up a second time. On that occasion, at least I hadn’t left for our rendezvous location because I’d been waiting for some sort of confirmation. Still, while waiting in vain for his call, I’d felt a mix of anger at feeling taken for granted and anxiety about his well-being. When he finally returned my calls several days later, he explained something had come up. He never seemed to understand how or even why I was unhappy over such lapses. But unhappy I was, and I found myself withdrawing.
The last item of mail I have from him is a Christmas card: “It saddens me that conversation between us seems to have become so strained, but I hope sincerely that the coming year brings success for you and your writing project, and I hope that success brings you contentment.”
Yet that wasn’t our last contact. Two or three years later I took a train to his suburban home, where he was his usual funny and incisive self, proving to me once again just how much he’d read and absorbed. I stayed several hours, during which his wife and children were expected back any moment from a trip to the store. She never did appear while I was there, an unfulfilled expectation that felt increasingly awkward as the time approached for me to leave.
My partner of the past twenty-six years remembers meeting him, but neither of us recalls the occasion. Later, she saw him at that college reunion, where neither Victor nor I could so much as cross the room to say hi.
Writing about the loss of a close friend can sound uncomfortably like writing about a lost lover. Freudian innuendo is inevitable. Apart from that, friendship is to Hollywood and Harlequin what crime is to Yonkers. While the world is obsessed with romance, friendship has neither genre nor market. Yet even though the intensity and atmospherics are very different, the loss of a close friend, like the loss of a lover, can bring us up against that existential aloneness that had been my earliest association with Victor.
I know people who are good at accepting friends who wander in and out of their lives, and still others who are gracious with friends who stand them up. My own flaws have tried friends, as Victor could undoubtedly attest. At worst, his flaws were human, while my reactions could be called intolerant.
The online edition of Merriam-Webster defines “friendship” in terms of “friends” and “friendly.” The first entry under “friends” is “attached to another by affection or esteem.” I’m struck by the affection and esteem I still feel for Victor. In that light, a philosophical way of looking at our parting ways is that the circumstances that oxygenate a friendship simply changed.
Still, I do sometimes wonder what became of the tie that went to Harvard.
Note: It was re-reading Victor’s lively letters that inspired this essay. I’d like to have quoted much more extensively, but I honor both his privacy and his copyright in them. I’ve done my best to shield his identity, and I quote only to the extent allowed by “fair use.” Although much of his wit and intelligence is lost, I think a flavor of it comes through.