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Into the Sunset

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On the last day of my Utopian writers' retreat in the Midwest, we passed around an e-mail list. To stay in touch.

I know this drill. An e-mail or two will hit my in-box, and I will respond enthusiastically the first and second times. By the third cyber exchange, should one occur, the vortex of my real life will have sucked me back, and I will labor over what to say that will interest us both. And what was that great story they wrote? It will be difficult to recall whether the main character should split or take up fencing.

People fade in and out of our lives every day. These minor characters alter us in subtle ways we can't name. The woman we see at the park with two Labradors stops appearing. The man with the cane disappears from his 7:40 a.m. bus bench. Perhaps one of them sparked a conversation that flared up a lifelong passion. Or, less dramatically but just as momentous, made a comment about the fat in Chinese food that changed the way we ate. Whatever sticks, those moments, those people, shape who we are.

But still − it's downright heartbreaking, these endless goodbyes life serves up.

A work colleague is leaving. He has a contagious energy I love, a swaggering sense of fun. Plus, he has two little girls, a convenient repository for the odd books and kid CDs I still find under my sofa.

Bye.

When I was in the fifth grade, my friend Colleen moved. Her mother was our Girl Scout leader and my sixth-grade teacher. I still walk by her house when I go home to visit my father, whose own farewell looms.

That's where Colleen lived, I think. But they've dismantled the redwood fence we used to climb. Since Colleen, I've said hundreds of goodbyes. And I'm not even counting boyfriends. Or deaths. (Those separations require special categories.)

It doesn't help that I've moved nearly a dozen times. A move generates a ripple that reverberates for years. Today, I get occasional e-mails from Milwaukee, Chicago, Prague, Lone Oak, Greensboro, Hendersonville, Charleston, Alexandria, Atlanta, Columbia and there must be other forgotten towns. Left Hand, W.Va.

Do men think this way? I'm not sure. Once my husband got a call from a friend he hadn't seen since college, but he was out. I took a message. I chatted with Sam (whom I'd never even met!) and assured him that he'd get a return call, that my husband would love to reminisce about old times silk-screening anti-nuclear T-shirts. My husband never got around to the call, though. I almost called Sam myself until I reined myself in. What was I thinking?

The finality of goodbye didn't register until my mother died. I was convinced that I'd later see everyone who attended her funeral − don't ask why. I'd said, "See ya later!" And really meant it.

What did I imagine? That there would be a Betty Joyce reunion where everyone I'd ever known would show up? We'd tell tales and I'd introduce them to each other − people from student, motherhood, career, artist and other life phases − until we were all one big happy family.

I did imagine it.

And so when my colleague announced his departure for a distant city, I urged him to look up Jim, a friend from Milwaukee who once shouted at the car in front of us because it bore a Reagan bumper-sticker until I threatened to slap him.

One thought led to another, and I realized he'd probably not call Jim. In fact, I probably would never see Jim again. But I still laugh at his shouts, something along the lines of "You happy now? Huh?"

That laugh. Maybe that's enough. After all, I think of it every time the day pops into my mind.

I met an Australian émigré along a Tuscan road. It was a dreary December day just before the century turned. We passed "Where are you froms" and political commentary. When it was time for goodbye, against a backdrop of olive trees, he shook my hand. "Take care now," he said, turning for a dramatic gaze over the valley. "And have a noice loife, ya heah now?"

It stuck, so that now when I click with strangers whose paths will veer from mine, I memorize faces and settings. A river thick with carp. A meadow twitching with chamomile. The camera of life closes in on a tilted nose or a frown, a pose or an expletive. "Heckfire, Jethro," one guy used to say.

And then I tell them to have a noice loife. I probably won't see ya later.

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