Phone rings. Giant Swede. Or maybe his wife; she’d called a while ago about setting a time to get together for dinner. But it’s him. Been a few weeks - he started a new job, I had weekends consumed with the Trouble Molar, so hey, let’s catch up. What’s going on, as Facebook asks.
“Lisa,” he said, “is dead.”
I was halfway down the stairs, going for some lemonade, and stopped on the landing. Looked out at the backyard. She’d visited once for a Fourth of July party. A year ago - no, two - I ran into her while waiting for daughter to finish karate, and was delighted to see she’d moved into the neighborhood. We exchanged phone numbers and caught up - never seemed like any time had passed, but when two people are glad to see each other, each works a little more than usual to make the chance meeting work. It’s one way of apologizing, I suppose, even though there’s nothing to apologize for. Things work out that way. Tracks run parallel until the moment they diverge; that’s how it is.
Your first question is always how. For women I think the first thing said is oh no. For men it’s a bad word.
There’s no how, the Swede says. He doesn’t know anything. She’d had lupus for decades, but no one ever thought that would take her down. If I recall the conversation - and it was just an hour ago - he heard about it because someone sent him a Facebook link. He read off some of the names from people who’d posted on the funeral home site a roll call of people I barely knew and had completely forgotten.
I hang up and call Wes the Filmmaker. The Swede knew Lisa because she went out with the Swede’s old friend, the Poet. It’s complicated, as they say.
How complicated? For a while Wes, The Poet, The Swede and myself lived in the same ten-unit apartment building on the outskirts of Dinkytown, and I took over the apartment from the Crazy Uke.
Before that I lived in a house in Dinkytown proper, and Wes the Filmmaker was one of the tenants. (He was making films, too. He now teaches filmmaking at a local college.) Lisa moved into the building while I was down south selling seeds for Northrup King. We met when I came back and became immediate friends. Some of you may understand what I mean by this: there are times when you meet an absolutely smoking hot person and you realize, from the very first moment, that you do not have a chance, and you’re glad. Best just to get that off the table, pal. And even if you did have a chance, that would ruin it down the line, and you’d never be just friends. Sometimes, you realize, that’s the best: friends.
She was smart, funny, sarcastic, empathetic, loyal - until not; things could change, slights could be given without realizing it, and the means to repair the damage required a tool not in your kit. She had an incandescent smile and a bright palette of laughter and a way of saying hello that made Veronica Lake sound like the Wicked Witch of the East.
And so we were friends for a few years - at the house, late nights at the Valli (which, I believe, she came to endure with gritted teeth. Then I moved to the place across from Ralph and Jerry’s, and she moved - with said paramour - to the Annex, a dingy 50s building behind the three dilapidated buildings known as the Berkshires. At night I’d go over, chat, hang out, and we’d complain, laugh Then she married - the first in our circle - and moved over by the lakes, and had a kid. There was another. They’re grown.
Somehow that happened between the time her track went that way and mine went the other.
“What happened?” Daughter asked as I was on the phone. She sensed it. I said everything was fine. Later it struck me: Lisa’s brother taught math at my daughter’s grade school. She didn’t have him, but knew him, and I’d dropped in to chat a few years ago. Would never have thought in a million years, back in Dinkytown, that something like that would happen. I’ll lose track of you, but my daughter will know your brother. Never.
And then I remembered something else. The last time we were all together, I think. My apartment in Uptown. Possibly my birthday. Wes took video of it; I’ve seen it. Video from 1986: I’ll bet he has a copy. We sang, in four keys, a loud drunken version of Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” a song we would occasionally belt out with operatic power and utter insincerity, mocking the hackneyed lyrics. If I remember the video, we’re on the floor singing down into the camera, commemorating the last great meeting of the
old college friends ten years later. We’re belting out something we hadn’t done in a decade, a tune we derided with words we belittled.
She was laughing so hard she couldn’t finish the song.