I lost two life-long friends in two months: one to cancer; the other to what I can only describe as cyber-world Miami. I was so looking forward to seeing my college roommate, and Miami. I was confident that seeing my old roommate, and Miami, would snap me out of the grief that has flattened me since the April death of a high school friend and brilliant athlete.
Dave Hedgepath was only 51, associate principal for Baraboo High School, Wisconsin, and the husband of a childhood friend, Joyce Witte. When I lived in the Netherlands I learned that “Witte” means “white.” As early friends blend into your psychological DNA, you notice details like that: Witte is Dutch for white.
And heaven is a place where life-long friends remain loyal and make time for you up until their last moment on earth. Cyber-world Miami is where a beloved friend looks the same, but has been abducted by an alien cyber-being. She e-mails you when her hotel room is only three doors down from yours. She sends you text messages about the hyper-importance of her career when she is in a boardroom only five feet from the bar where it occurs to you that something has gone terribly wrong with your friendship. You’ve lost your best friend somehow in cyber-world Miami. Maybe the $700 per night hotel room went to her head or froze her heart. What did you do wrong besides drive across the state to see her? It was her idea: “Cn u meet me in Miami in May?” Sure.
In cyber-world Miami, a salad and three drinks costs 75 bucks. No wonder the uber-rich look like they’re starving. Everything in the Fontainebleau Hotel reminds you of ice cubes down to the translucent cerulean tiles lit from beneath. Is the floor supposed to resemble an ice rink, the airport in Reykjavik, or the Atlantic as fractal geometry? It feels cold. It feels like the death of a friendship.
In cyber-world Miami strangers tap on your cone of solipsism and ask what you do for a living. You want to say, “Cryptozoologyst,” but because you’ve had a few drinks you admit you’re an English professor. You try to explain that it’s not exactly a living when the pretentious stranger asks/states: “Don’t you think it’s a crime against humanity that Philip Roth has not won the Nobel Prize in literature?” And you say: “No, the Holocaust was a crime against humanity. Philip Roth is merely boring.” The cyber-stranger has some dim realization that you’re speaking from another dimension, but continues to knock on your impenetrable cone of solipsism: “How can you say Roth is boring?” (‘With my vocal chords, moron.’) “Who do you teach anyway?”
“I teach Hemingway and Wallace Stevens; Beowulf; Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’ and Saul Bellow’s ‘Seize the Day.’ I teach Dickinson, Whitman, and Frost. I teach as many World War I poets as possible: Apollinaire, Tzara, and Wilfred Owen, because WWI is the historical hinge where human conscience was forever altered — where “the ceremony of innocence was drowned.” (‘Where cyber-world first took root’). Oh yeah I teach Yeats and Hopkins. I teach Plath and Hart Crane — and Shakespeare always. That’s just for starters. My favorite 20th century novelist might be Graham Greene. Yeah, Greene. He never won a Nobel Prize — Ronald Reagan prevented that, but it doesn’t matter. Greene’s books change your life anyway.”
Your free lecture is interrupted by another text message: “thngs r crazy — cant fit u in schedule this weekend.”
From somewhere in cyber-world Miami a giant stone has been dropped upon your rib cage — you feel like a wrongly accused Puritan squirming beneath a thick square of granite. You knew that men had the capacity to cause such pain — but your college roommate? This is worse somehow in quality and quantity.
Long-forgotten details surface like lime pulp in your vodka tonic. You remember when you first met in 1979 and scraped 40 bucks together to buy a stereo for your dorm room. And you agreed: disco sucked. A bond was formed. She somehow slept through your nocturnal paper-writing habit. And you tolerated her complete inability to organize her side of the room, which spilled over onto your side of the room. You just didn’t care — so what, if, like Moses, you had to miraculously part the sea of debris that was your shared room?
You remember coaching each other through the elations and heartbreaks doled out so blithely by college “men.” You never fell in love with the same boys. Was it a matter of taste or loyalty? You may never know. There was the time you both were so broke that you searched through the sea of debris for exactly 29 pennies to buy one mint chocolate chip ice cream cone, which you shared. You remember dragging her to the college infirmary after she returned from Africa with some unforgiving parasite. You vaguely remember her dragging you to the college infirmary after you returned from East Asia with malaria. You remember begging each of her professors not to flunk her when, junior year, she had some kind of breakdown and simply fled to England one week before finals. The worry and angst of that event drained all the color out of summer. The relief and joy you felt when she returned to school, whole and strong that autumn, is still palpable.
You remember discussing the “new” phenomena of single motherhood; and how surely this would never happen to either of you. You applied to the same graduate schools: she was accepted to the University of Chicago, but rejected by Northwestern. You were accepted to Northwestern University; but rejected by the University of Chicago. How arbitrary, you both mused — the university selection process.
She married one of her English professors; you married a wonderful man who you did not love enough to marry. You picked out a poem by Robert Pinsky to be read at her wedding. And she read a poem by W.S. Merwin at your wedding. Two children later, her marriage imploded. After your own marriage failed, you fell in love with, yes, an English professor. Fast forward: your college roommate is a major labor lawyer, and you’re an English professor: both of you are single parents.
These memories whirl and plink around your cone of solipsism like pennies you cannot catch. So you decide to check into your room, order a steak dinner, and the movies, “The Reader” and “Quantum of Solace.” There was not one quantum of solace in “The Reader.” It felt only too real. So you try to drown your sadness in the Jacuzzi tub from which you have a perfect view of the flat-screen TV. As the vodka usurps your nervous system, the aerodynamic remote ejects like a torpedo through your soapy fist and dives into the Jacuzzi tub. Maybe you weren’t meant to be rich for a good reason.
The only thing to do then is sit on the balcony where the full moon mocks this pungent taste of emptiness, like a bitter clove you bit down on in some destitute Taiwanese village 25 years ago that made your eyes smart with tears. And the ocean, always a source of comfort, suddenly betrays, and the betrayal reaches beyond the horizon. You contemplate the word “remote” and the movie “The Reader.” It feels like a wooden stake is being hammered through your sternum, but you’re no vampire. You think of your 12-year-old daughter’s obsession with “Twilight” and all things vampire-lite. You think, perhaps, this is the true nature of love — that it possesses the blood running through your veins, for better or worse. That the people you loved when you were young permanently shape the dimensions of your life — even after they die, or become someone you never really knew.
All you want is to get back to Marco Island — back to the land of Hemingway and Wallace Stevens. Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning” plays inside your head like an Oscar-winning film: “Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be the blood of paradise?”
Pamela Sutton is taking time off from teaching writing at the University of Pennsylvania to finish writing her first novel, “Tamer of Horses.” The first chapter of her novel is forthcoming from Glimmer Train Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Scribner’s anthology “The Best American Poetry 2000” and “The Best American Poetry 2009,” forthcoming. She is contributing editor for the American Poetry Review.