About 30 years, when the temperature dropped below freezing, I would carry my worn blanket and pillow up the stairs of our falling-apart bungalow to sleep on the carpeted floor in Gary’s attic bedroom. Months earlier, when I chose the sleeping porch as my bedroom, I didn’t understand why my three housemates weren’t fighting me for that lovely space, but then again, logic and winter in Columbia, Missouri weren’t my strong suit back then.
Lying in the dark on sub-zero nights, Gary and I talked about our lives during this pivotal time: our senior year in college (University of Missouri), which is to say we talked about boy problems (me), girl troubles (he), and what in the hell we were going to do after college (we). Gary was my friend and one of my hands-down favorite people of all time then, and he is again now.
That’s because we reunited in a bookstore coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis
on Sunday where we arranged to meet. As soon as I saw him, right across from the Rosetta Stone display, I started laughing, and we had to hug several times, amazed we were still here, still ourselves after three decades of no contact. Why the lack of contact for such a good friend? For us and our gang of pals, it wasn’t just the launch into the perils of total post-school adulthood or lack of social networking back then, but who brought us together in the first place: Gayle, one of the kindest and most loving people I’ve ever known.
Gayle and Gary went to high school together, and Gayle and I ended up living together in a large house with six other women during our junior year. Gayle used to sing Joni Mitchell songs while doing everyone else’s dishes, then make us hibiscus tea.
Then she got sick, only to be diagnosed with leukemia. When it turned out that Gayle was so sick that she couldn’t move to the little bungalow where a few of us were going to live during our senior year, Gary took her place.
The year was punctuated for all of us who loved Gayle with bus trips to visit her at Washington Medical Center, where she tried to cheer us up with stories of special brownies her grandmother sampled, jokes about our twisted love lives, and songs. She especially loved to sing Stevie Nick’s “Landslide.” I remember holding her hand near sunset as she sang, “Oh, mirror of the sky/ What is love?/ Can the child in my heart rise above?/ Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?/ Can I handle the seasons of my life?”
So many changing ocean tides and seasons of my life later, I’m back hanging out with Gary, and to say both nothing and everything have changed would be an understatement. Gary is married with two beautiful young sons, living in Minneapolis for the last decade and navigating the wild waters of what comes next after he was laid off from his last teaching job. He’s worked in teaching and school administration as well as in business, and has lived in Chicago, San Francisco and Missouri before moving to Minnesota.
Sitting at a small table with him, Ken, and Natalie, I tell Gary how Natalie’s middle name is Gayle, in memory and honor of our friend, and we talk about our lives now and decades earlier. Natalie is surprised that I did things like stop going to biology class, but never bother to drop the class. Or that I worked crazy hours, spent myself on naive political organizing schemes, hardly did homework, and aimed myself only at men who would thoroughly reject me.
Okay, so it was a messy time in my life, and for good reason (but that’s another story). But had some friends of the soul back then, and Gary was one of them, despite how Gayle’s death in April of 1981 was the landslide that brought us down…..and apart from one another. Just on the verge of finishing college (although it seems most of us left with incompletes), we didn’t know how to be there for another, what to say or do, where to go next now that life showed us how fragile, precious and dangerous it was.
Gary and I told each other how we still think of Gayle every now and then. He also asked how long Ken and I had been together, and when I told him, he shook his head and laughed with me. Neither of us could have imagined the girl who spent her senior year sleeping in spurts on couches and floors in between running herself ragged and off-balance would find home, although I did imagine Gary, with his good heart and clear seeing, would become a very good father, husband and someone who enhanced the lives of people around him.
All of this has come true, and now I’m so glad to have my old friend back in my life.