Missed Connections, Rediscovered Friends

By

JEFF rolled up his pant legs, filled his shirt pocket with pens, and strapped his calculator to his belt. I draped myself in a dark garbage bag, with a bent coat hanger for antennae.

Jeff, the Geek. Karen, the Cockroach.

It was 9:30 p.m. We were too tired for work, too awake for sleep. The pressure of work and school combined with the close quarters of married-student housing had finally sent us over the edge. Surely John and Yvonne would understand.

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They did. The four of us took pictures, ate bowls of ice cream, and had a good laugh at ourselves before going back to work.

During our two years in Cambridge, Mass., Jeff and I were both neighbors and friends with John and Yvonne. We went to the $1 movies together and shared tactics in the endless battle against the bugs. From them, we learned the cheapest places to eat out, and how to find coupons for more expensive restaurants. One night the after-dinner game was to write down all 50 states as quickly as possible. John won, getting them all in 90 seconds, a feat all the more impressive since he and Yvonne were Canadian.

When Jeff and I predicted our futures - he would run an airline and my books would be on the bestseller list - we always planned that John, an architecture student, would design a house for us.

After we moved to Texas - when Jeff started with an airline and my first novel was published - we stayed in touch with John and Yvonne. Once we even went up to Vancouver for a visit. Like old times, we stayed up late, went out for dim sum, and talked as fast as we could the whole weekend. Yvonne was doing counseling. John had just designed a $4- million chemistry lab. All of us, it seemed, had successfully negotiated the leap to the real world.

A year later, on a final fling before our first baby was born, Jeff and I took a vacation. From New Zealand, we wrote John and Yvonne about the impending good news.

Our card was returned by the post office. "No forwarding address." We never heard a word. For six years.

"Friend" is a word that should exist only in the present tense. But in these times of geographic and economic mobility, many people lose old friends and make new ones almost as a matter of course. Some friendships seem to come with a natural life span, and the later distancing is natural and painless. But when a friendship has strong emotional underpinnings, the separation is keenly felt and mourned.

In the case of John and Yvonne, Jeff and I wondered a great deal. Our Cambridge years have taken on a fine luster that we like to take out and polish. Since John and Yvonne were an important part of that time, we often speculated about them. Surely we could track them down. John was an architect, after all, with professional affiliations. They couldn't be hard to find.

But we never did try. Maybe they had a reason for losing touch.

It's logical for students to befriend one another. Softball players fall in with other softball players, and young mothers with other young mothers. But if one softball player takes up badminton, or one young mother resumes a career or moves two states away, does that mean the friendship ends?

The easy answer is "of course not," but the truth is that the relationship will shift, and some survive better than others.

My friend Gail has moved seven times - twice to Europe - in the past nine years. "I've lost a lot of people along the way," Gail told me recently, "but you never would let me get away." That is both a treasured compliment and a good summary of the way I feel about my friends. So when Jeff and I visited Vancouver, this time with daughters in tow, we headed straight for the phone book.

There were 30 listings under "Graham, John."

The only architect was "Graham, G.R." The number had been disconnected. I made a random call or two but was not enthusiastic about making 30 cold calls. I checked under Yvonne's maiden name, which she'd kept. Nothing.

Still, my eyes roamed the yellow pages. There it was, the "Architectural Institute of British Columbia." The office was closed on the weekend, but I took the phone number home to Texas. From there it was easy. The Architectural Institute referred me to a prominent Canadian architecture firm. The receptionist put me right through.

"Hello, John Graham."

"This sounds like the John Graham I used to know, at 203 Westgate."

"Give me a second," his voice brightened in recognition. "Don't tell me ... your last name is ... Ray! Be patient," he joked, "our new video phones are a little slow this morning."Six years dropped away in an instant. He told me about his new projects, and I told him about our two daughters. He sounded exactly the same, like someone I'd enjoy being friends with.

"I don't remember exactly when we lost touch," said John, "but Yvonne and I split up in 1984." I nodded into the phone. Without a precise reason, that is precisely what we had suspected.

"I always knew exactly what I wanted," he said, "but after the focus of graduate school, Yvonne wasn't so sure. I dropped out for two years, traveled in Asia, copied the Old Masters, did things I never would have had a chance to do otherwise." That made sense.

The John Graham we knew was always going to be an artist first, architect second. "To do the kinds of projects I want," he said, "means I have to teach myself how to do world-class work." As he described a recent competition he'd won - designing six city blocks in China - it sounded as if he had a very good start.

"I've lost track of a lot of people over the years," he said, "and felt guilty about it. But things are going well for me now." Yvonne, he reported, is director of counseling for a local college. John is happy and planning to marry soon.

As it happened, he was scheduled to move again the very next weekend. We carefully copied, and read back, one another's addresses. The conversation was winding down, but after six long years it was hard to hang up.

"Remember," John asked, "that time you and Jeff came over wearing those silly costumes?"

"The cockroach and the geek?"

"I still have that picture of you two," he laughed. "I show it to people sometimes and say, `These are the kinds of friends I used to have.' "

He still has us.

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