Over Christmas, my fiancée and I both came down with mind-numbingly bad colds which cut our vacation short and forced us back into the frigid confines of Connecticut to heal our wounds. No chance to visit with friends from college. No opportunity to exchange gifts with some of our favorite people. No New Year’s party. Instead we lay on a dirty couch amidst cough syrup and boxes of Christmas goodies, rocking in the New Year with Regis and trying not to get up too fast when we went for our inevitable bathroom breaks every 15 minutes.
My fiancée got the worst of it. She was up nights coughing. I had headaches and sneezing fits, but I was able to sleep. I got to dream.
And what a bizarre dream it was on New Year’s Day, after another full 24 hours of recovery sloth. I don’t remember much of it now. I know that I was still a student at Yale Divinity School, but somehow my high school journalism teacher was there, goading us on to meet a deadline for some fictitious paper that the Div School was printing. And I just couldn’t get myself in gear to move fast enough. I woke up in a cold sweat with one thought on my mind.
I’ve got to find Beckie Taylor.
Thus began a 2-day quest to get back in contact with an old, dear friend from high school. But I’m getting ahead of myself: I should start with the basics.
In grade school, your friends come mostly from geographic proximity. Whoever lives closest to me with the best toys is my best friend. High school is where that first starts to change. People are becoming individuals with access to automobiles. Suddenly it’s mutual interests that bring people together. At least, it should be interests. So many of the old cliques from your early years hang on, though. The youth caste system holds a cloud over who can really associate with whom until you finally get to college and the true bonds of affection and debauchery begin to take hold.
I went to Glenelg High School in rural Maryland. Glenelg. Yep, it’s a palindrome. That’s about the most sophisticated thing you can say about the place. Confederate flags on every other belt buckle and a gun rack for every pickup. It wasn’t a terrible place to go to school. But it wasn’t exactly a cultural epicenter.
My group of friends came together in a most unlikely way. We were all from different social strata, both in the material world beyond the school doors and in the made-up caste system within. Somehow, though, we’d all gotten into our hearts this soft spot for working on the school paper. We’d spend endless hours on it, sometimes staying late into the night, sometimes coming in on Saturday. It bonded us together. It gave us a purpose and gave us something to take pride in. It gave us each other.
Beckie was one of my best friends. She and I were definitely from opposite worlds. She had good looks and a reasonable amount of popularity. I had long hair and an unparallelled collection of concert t-shirts. Her father was a staunch conservative Republican, and she lived in a house that resembled Wayne Manor. My father was a liberal Democrat, and I lived on a farmette where my chores included mucking stalls and checking the barn cats for ticks. We were not the kind of folks who became friends. In middle school, we would give each other the evil eye from across desks in English class.
But somehow working on the student newspaper changed all that. As with many of my other friends from the paper, Beckie and I discovered that we had more in common than we thought. She was a painter and a lover of words. I fancied myself a poet. And our divided politics made for wonderfully insane debates. Not to mention that romantic relationships were both our greatest pleasure and our greatest source of vexation. Whenever any other topic of conversation died away, there was always that one. We spent hours baring our souls to one another.
And then, suddenly, we had graduated from high school, were off to separate colleges, and the friendship vanished. Not that we didn’t make some efforts to keep in touch. We chatted on the phone a little that first semester, but we quickly fell out of the habit of calling. All the new experiences of college were getting in the way. So we slid out of that friendship and into new ones.
It wasn’t until after September 11 that we got in touch again. Beckie sent me an e-mail, trying to rekindle our lost connection. We wrote back and forth for a few weeks. The letters were personal and deep. But as the busyness of life resumed and the shock of 9/11 became a numb fact of life, so too did our correspondence subside. After November of 2001, we lost touch.
Of course, it’s not like Beckie was the only friend with whom this happened. There are only a handful of folks from high school left whom I would still call my friends, only two or three whom I might call close friends, and none who are a part of my daily life. But what I realized that morning, the day after New Year’s, was that Beckie had not just slipped out of my life, she had disappeared completely.
Most of the other folks I haven’t spoken to since high school I could still track down pretty quickly if I wanted to. Some I have e-mail addresses or phone numbers for. Some even still send me the occasional mass e-mail or Christmas card. But Beckie’s e-mail had gone dead long ago. And none of our mutual friends seemed to know what had become of her either. Internet searches for her name or any information about her came up dry. It was as if she’d never existed.
This fueled the flame for me. The desire to find her consumed me. I just couldn’t accept the fact that she was someone I had lost completely. I had to find out where she was and what she was doing.
I re-read old letters, notes, and cards looking for clues that would help the search. I asked for ideas from mutual friends. I scoured the ’Net for information. And in the process, I learned quite a bit about some folks whom I had only tangentially known. Beckie’s friend Tim is in a band in Maryland which seems to be taking him places. Her friend Marianne was in an indie movie called “Ghostwatcher.” All of these half-remembered faces were popping up, showing themselves to be full, vibrant people whose lives had not been held in stasis since the late 90s. And yet, no Beckie.
Finally, mid-afternoon yesterday, a breakthrough. An e-mail from one of Beckie’s old friends revealed that she had gotten married in October, moved to Virginia, and changed her name to Fink! Now all I had to do was track down a phone number. A few creative searches later and I had the number in hand. I was so excited that I called my friend Colleen to tell her all about it. Colleen was another newspaper friend from high school, but one whom I’ve kept in touch with.
“Wow, that’s crazy,” Colleen told me after I recounted my adventure. “You’re like major stalker boy. The next time I need to find someone, I’m calling you.”
I laughed, but it also gave me pause. Was I Major Stalker Boy? Why was it so important that I find Beckie? And just what in the hell was I going to say to her when I called?
It was enough to make me think about putting the number in a drawer. I didn’t want Beckie to think that I was some psycho. Nor did I want to get on the phone with her new husband and have to explain why I wanted so desperately to talk to his bride. “Um, you see, sir, your wife and I were buddies back in high school, so I just figured I’d spend a day tracking her like game. You understand, right?”
No, that didn’t exactly sound rational. Plus he might get the idea that I was angling for a date with her. And it was never about that between Beckie and me.
I never had an interest in Beckie as anything other than a friend. Our friendship had been about something else, about recognizing and respecting each other, about truly seeing each other amid all the fantasies that animate our lives. Neither of us would let the other degrade themselves.
When she would tell me that she didn’t think she was smart enough or that she thought she was fat, I didn’t coddle her — I told her that she was full of shit. When I bemoaned my entanglements with girls, Beckie would be the first one to call me out for being a drama queen rather than being a man. We supported each other, whether that meant being complimentary or being real.
But that’s not why I wanted to talk to Beckie again. At least, it’s not the only reason. So many of my friendships over the years have drifted. There have been so many beautiful, wonderful people in my life whom I’ve let fade or disappear. And now, as the new year was being rung in — a year that will hold my wedding, a large portion of my work towards becoming an Episcopal priest, a new series of recordings, my first published piece of fiction, and who knows what other moments of importance — I realized that I’ve been sinking more and more into myself.
I’ve been allowing only a small few into my world. I’ve had all these changes, accomplishments and defeats, and there have been so few people whom I’ve been able to truly share them with, so few people who’ve actually been along for the whole ride.
And what if it isn’t even about her now? What if what I really want is to talk to 18-year-old Beckie, to tell the Beckie I knew back then that Jonathan is going to do alright for himself, that Jonathan is still somebody worth being able to see?
My fiancée looked at me like I was nuts. “Just call and ask for Beckie, the way you would any other person. Mention that you’re getting married if you get her husband, and he won’t worry about it. Just do it.” Colleen had said something similar, although the word “wuss” may have been involved.
So I did. I called her last night and we talked for the first time in years. She told me about her life, her job, her dreams, her husband and stepdaughter. I told her about my fiancée, my hopes for my life in the church, and my schooling. And we decided that we would meet some time when I’m down her way and have lunch.
It wasn’t an earth-shattering revelation that I had needed to hear when I talked to Beckie. It was just Beckie. It was just that familiarity that close friendship can produce, even when the lines of communication have been down for a very long time. Will we keep in touch from this point? I hope so. I hope to meet her husband and hope that she can meet my fiancée. But even if our friendship falls into disrepair again, at least I’ve learned that it never really died. None of them ever do, unless we slam the doors closed. Connections grow and fade as we move through our lives. But once people have truly seen each other, the ability to see never goes away.
“Should old acquaintance be forgot,” the song goes. I should hope not. But it happens to the best of us. It’s not the end of the world. We remember eventually. I’ve learned that forgetting and disappearing are two different things. My New Year’s resolution is not to lose sight of the importance of that distinction.