My old friend ghosted me.
A few years ago he stopped writing back; not answering his home email, or the email at his business. Not answering the phone. Not returning calls. He didn’t even return the message I left in his second language; I wrote out the script, got a couple of native speakers to coach me until it sounded just right to them, left the voicemail, and waited eagerly for his reply.
It’s not unusual. People are busy, they start families, they move away and move on. His temperament and mine were implausibly different. He had a large creative life in broad brushstrokes, and it’s a wonder that he bothered to keep in touch with me at all. But since we parted ways in 1992 he reported his whereabouts, making sure I always knew where to find him. Even his sweet warm-hearted devout Catholic mom sent me a Christmas card and a family letter every year. Naturally, life being life, he weathered some exhausting setbacks and losses. But always he landed on his feet, and with resilience and a positive outlook would re-chart his course, make new plans, and charge ahead. He started his own company, designing high-quality products for a niche customer base who needed his services and could not pay market rate. For 20 years he worked day and night. His clients adored him. I got to witness him in action, working hard while engaging their hailstorm of banter in two languages at once. Next, he called to let me know he was moving again, teaming up with a large established organization with the resources to sponsor his idea and make him manager. Their collaboration sounded ideal, with a real financial incentive for all his hard work.
Last time I called him, he told me a detailed story about upper management, and how it took over and mass-produced his ideas with disappointing results, and left him and his guidance on the sidelines. The top brass, it seemed to me, failed to grasp that the unreproducible ingredient in the method was the intuition, charisma, and rapport of its founder. In one sense I was an unqualified listener, someone with no ideas worth stealing who had never been courted by any organization. But I recognized an established precedent: pioneering founders are too often rejected by their own good cause (even St. Francis was sidelined by the Franciscans, and John of the Cross imprisoned by his own Carmelites). During that call I listened hard, scanning around for the wellbeing of other areas of his life. I was sorry to hear that an important relationship was over, and very concerned to hear that his mother, who he cherished and revered, had passed away after a long illness. For the first time, he sounded weary and disillusioned. Fortunately, a trip to his town was in the works the following summer, and I looked forward to extended time with him. But by then, I somehow wasn’t able to track him down.
Every few months I look him up. He’s right there on Linkedin, and on his business website, and in listings here and there of accomplishments and achievements, even rocking with his band on You Tube in 2016. Then, a search last Sunday turned up a poignant discovery. It was a lovely Catholic memorial notice for his father, back in the old hometown. The obituary listed the whole rich dynasty of descendants. It mentioned that Dad was pre-deceased by his late wife and by his late son.
Memories have surfaced ever since. He was 24 when we first met, 31 years ago in the fall of 1990. Our group house placed a newspaper ad, looking for a roommate. His was the last interview appointment. The doorbell rang after supper. I answered to find a tall fit extremely handsome young man in a leather jacket with long thick curly hair and glowing blue-green eyes.
“Scarf trick,” were his first words to me. He whipped off a gray cashmere scarf and made knots appear and disappear again while holding both ends the whole time. Then from his knapsack he handed over a double pan of still-warm homemade brownies, and the five of us talked until midnight. It felt as if he’d always lived there.
The new roommate had a good Biblical name starting with Z. But to his friends he was simply Z, or Zorro, Zuzu, Zagnut, Zippy the Pinhead, Zeppo, or Zooropa. Z was a recent music institute graduate. He was always in motion and talked a great deal about an eclectic range of topics, particularly his projects and plans. He worked at two jobs, some contract landscaping, glass engraving at a studio, splendid calligraphy in three languages, artisan micro-brewing, crafting traditional musical instruments out of culturally authentic hardwoods, and of course music theory and practice.
But Z was not joking the time he picked me up at a Catholic church after a social mixer. The parish hall was rented out that night by a Christian language and culture group promoting international friendship. When I got into his van he sat a while, silently studying the organizers getting into their cars. I wondered what he was waiting for. “If I start a world service non-profit,” he asked the thin air, “Can I buy a car like that too?” He then spelled out for me the make of the founder’s vehicle, its optional luxury features, and the price range of such an optimized model. “Thaaat’s niiice,” he concluded in a robotic vocal-fry bass voice that probably came from some space alien movie on Mystery Science Theater 3000. “That’s nice” was a catch phrase used among his friends, when they encountered some form of malicious ignorance or hypocrisy.
I felt hurt and embarrassed that he seemed so unimpressed by my new group, and disappointed a week later, right before my group’s next party, when Z showed up at my bedroom door and said “It’s your life, but I hope you don’t go back to that group.”
“What!” I’d been looking forward to that social. “Do you think I’m stupid or something?”
“I believe you know the answer to that question,” he replied. “I can only repeat that I hope you stay in the house tonight, and that you are here when I get home.” He headed out to his weekend music gig. I stayed home.
Two weeks later, he sat me down quietly to explain. During that time, he and his musicians had driven by the parish hall, done some observing, researched the group. The group was not at all the international Christian friendship project that it professed to be. In fact, they soon moved their operations out of the parish hall for parts unknown. His intuition had been right.
Those protective instincts extended to my faith. He didn’t seem to pay attention to religion himself, but after life with his devout mother he recognized the similar trait in me. He believed that I had some special spiritual connection with God, one that earned his absolute respect. By association, even his drinking buddies from home picked up this protective behavior. One night a group of them were on the balcony below my bedroom window enjoying some beers and swapping recollections of high school days and their high-spirited youthful pranks. Getting into bed, I turned out the light and overheard one of them saying “Hey, that’s her window. We got to break this up; she’s probably praying the rosary.” In a flash they were down the steps and gone, taking the beers with them.
The friends were equally serious about protecting me when he briefed them before taking me along to a “Yes” rock concert at a packed stadium. “You can not take your eyes off Mary tonight,” he warned them. “She’s never done this before. She’ll be pretty overwhelmed.” No wonder: this was long before cell phones, and if we were separated I couldn’t have found them. For a moment I froze at the first sight of 14,000 excited spectators and first sound of a rock concert sound system. For the opening notes of “Rhythm of Love,” the four men linked arms around me and rushed me up and up the stairs through the crowd to settle me safely in our row.
On quieter nights, when he had no music gigs and no date, Z would play me selections of music while explaining the finer points of each musician’s technique and style. One night the topic was Joe Walsh; but the nuances of guitar licks went over my head, and my tutor could see that it was time to call it a halt. I had to go to bed to catch an early plane flight, so he headed out to a night of practice at his studio. At 3:00 am I was getting up when he was getting home. He washed up and changed and grabbed a mug of coffee, and we hit the road. It was 4:00 am, summer solstice in a northern city. A first firestreak of dawn sparkled on the river, fragmented into rubies in a skyline full of metal and glass. The streets were deserted as he cut through downtown.
“Here’s one,” he remarked, and punching some buttons on the stereo system he picked out a Joe Walsh song for me.
The song swept me in right away. It was poignant and reflective, with wonderful shifting key changes and harmonies. The city of rubies arranged itself to fit the song like a music video with us in the middle; a perfect moment of shimmering chords in shimmering light.
Tonight it’s summer solstice in another northern city. The sunset is flaming in the windows, announcing a heat wave tomorrow. Cleaning out some files I found a diary note about a valentine he engraved and sent me from overseas. The original was lost when I moved away. But in memory it’s beautiful; a red heart motif with hand-drawn calligraphy, ending with wishes for “…All the love that you deserve. It will come. Your friend forever, Z.”
Typing this, I sat and wondered: What could that song have been, that he picked out for me in the car? My mind reeled around, rummaging the archives of memory, and suggested that the lyrics mentioned a second hand store.
A quick look turned up a Joe Walsh song called, in fact, “Second Hand Store.” For the first time in 30 years I sat back to listen, and the lyrics wrung my heart.
Maybe somehow I can track down someone from Z’s family? There are dozens of stories to write down and share with them, nice ones; maybe his nieces and nephews would like a letter like that as a keepsake. And there’s a whole address book of people left to care for and check on while we are here, living our lives. And there’s prayer. He believed in mine, and he believed in me.