City of departures

IT HAPPENED again last week - a friend left town. One more time I was sealing cartons, lifting couches, saying goodbye. For me, it has become a ritual in this transient city. After eight years in Washington, I've been through four generations of friends. I've known Don for only eight months. We met playing squash and I liked him at once - he was gritty and competitive, but scrupulously fair. We played intensely, probing for weaknesses, game after game past the point of exhaustion. Only then would we quit and begin, very slowly, to open up. It took me three matches to find out he wrote novels, three more to learn he was engaged. I made him join the squash ladder, escalating our competition to a new level. I tried to win every point, but secretly I was glad I didn't. Since Don and I were evenly matched, we had better reason to play again.

As winter turned to spring, our rivalry moved outdoors, to tennis and golf. And finally, six months after we'd met, there were signs of a real friendship. Don helped me with my writing, told me about his family, introduced me to his fianc'ee one night after a grueling tennis match. We watched the Mets blow two games on national TV and grumbled about what went wrong (Don thinks they miss Ray Knight). We talked easily about the Bakkers and the Harts, more awkwardly about writers we admired. Slowly, we were building the web of connections and shared experiences that make a friendship.

If Don had stayed, we might have grown close. But now I'm not sure we ever will. Will I really call him when I'm visiting New York and haven't seen my family for three months? Will he call me if he comes here for a weekend? I'd like to think so, but after eight years of saying goodbye, I wouldn't bet on it.

Before I moved here, I imagined Washington's population turning over in great waves after each election, but the migrations are actually less dramatic. Thousands of people grow up here and never leave. Others move in from around the country and settle into comfortable jobs as lawyers, consultants, and civil servants. They may still talk about Montana, but you know they won't go back.

For every outsider who comes to stay, 10 more are just passing through. This is a city where middle-class people float in alone, without families, without roots, to make their name. They work tirelessly for a few years, then move on to better assignments or a quieter life. They're just marking time here in Washington; they sign one-year leases and wonder if they'll even stay that long.

So every few months, someone calls me to say he or she is leaving. Don and Linda missed the excitement of New York. Spencer flew off to Korea to write for UPI. Susan despaired of dating lawyers and moved to Maine. Julie went home to Georgia when her father got sick. People leave for a hundred reasons - they find Washington too hot, too crowded, too political - so they keep leaving.

As I watch them rumble off in their rented trucks, I try to find solace in all the departures. I have friends now in Boston and Buffalo, San Diego and San Juan. Spencer promised me tickets for next summer's Olympics in Seoul. Wherever I go, there's a cadre of ex-Washingtonians, graduates of my Spanish class or the YMCA or my old law firm. And maybe the turnover makes living here more interesting; there's always someone new on the tennis court or down the street.

But to be honest, all this is cold comfort. I miss the philosophizing with Spencer and the warmth of Susan's smile. I miss seeing Julie careen through Rock Creek Park on her silver racing bike. And next fall, when some less-driven opponent leaves the squash court while he can still walk, I will linger for a moment and hit one last backhand for Don.

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