A friend by any other name ...

This is my bad news/ good news friendship story. The bad news was that I somehow misplaced my dear friend Gail. The good news is: I found Isabelle.

Gail and I became buddies because of my/her shirt. We met the September after the winter I inadvertently donated all my summer clothes - every sleeveless shirt, pair of shorts, and bathing suit I owned - to the Salvation Army (a swift but painful lesson in the value of labeling boxes).

The first day of college, I noticed a girl with a red bandanna triangled over her blond hair. What really caught my eye, though, was her shirt - or should I say "my" shirt?

She was wearing my favorite of the oops-to-the-Salvation-Army summer shirts. It was undoubtedly mine, for it sported a telltale sign: a small, nearly unnoticeable faint pink South America-shape stain near the hem. I knew that stain well.

As it happened, the stranger in the familiar shirt and I ended up in the same career program, taking classes together. In one early group conversation, she mentioned that she hated her name, Gail, and was shopping around for another. (She was seriously considering "Diana.") She described her dog, Bear. She mentioned that she'd worked at the San Francisco Salvation Army before moving north to attend college.

Aha! I blurted, "Did you buy that cream-colored, sleeveless, knit shirt there? The one with the embroidery and the pale pink stain? Size 'small'?"

Gail stared at me, mouth open. "Why, yes, I did - as a matter of fact."

"I can't believe it ended up in San Francisco," I said after I told her my story. "That shirt is more well-traveled than I am!"

The two of us were rather taken with the whole weird shirt coincidence. We found other quirks in common: We both loved to cook. We adored whimsical old houses. We loved big placid dogs. We both had more houseplants than furniture.

Gail was the type of friend who, when she had a dime and I didn't (during our dirt-poor college days), shared her red-licorice rope with me, even-Steven. We wore the same size, of course, so we had frequent clothes-swapping parties. I always felt prettier in clothes Gail had swapped to me. She taught me to cook a cheap comfort-food dish I still make: "Naked Spaghetti" - noodles slathered with butter, Parmesan cheese, and garlic. Best of all, I could tell her anything. She was the best listener I'd ever met.

At our last clothes swap before graduation, she gave me the shirt that had been mine and then hers - and had brought us together. I kept our shirt for years, long past the time I quit wearing it. I'd occasionally take it out of the closet to remember my friend Gail.

But eventually I decided I didn't need the shirt to remember the friend. (So far, it hasn't boomeranged back from the thrift store wrapped around a new friend, although I watch for it.)

Graduation brought moves for us, in quite opposite directions on the California map. We visited each other whenever we could. Once, when she came to stay, I paid her the ultimate compliment: "Gail, you're the type of company I bathe the dog for, instead of vacuuming the house."

She laughed, appropriately flattered. "I love it!"

Our visits and phone calls became less frequent as time sped by. But, whether it had been six months or six years between calls, I knew her voice. All she had to say was, "Hi, Terry?" and I'd yodel, "Gail!" into the phone, making us giggle wildly. "How do you do that?" she'd ask.

The calls dwindled further. And stopped. One bleak January day, I found my Christmas card to Gail returned to my mailbox stamped "Addressee Unknown." Her old phone number was disconnected. Directory assistance found no trace of her.

I'd lost Gail. "Well," I told myself, "these things happen. Get over it."

A few years passed. At odd moments, memories of Gail pierced me with joy - and with pangs of loss. More than once, I woke in the night and wondered about my friend: Where was she? Was she happy?

I wished I'd told her, in so many words, how much her friendship had brightened my life. I searched for her name on the Internet and found several Gails who might be mine. I left messages on many machines, but not one Gail returned my call.

Then one Christmas, I received a card from New Hampshire. Inside, I found Gail's photo. I wrote to her; she called me. And so, in that way life sometimes has of giving us unexpected second chances, I get another chapter of Gail in my life. Only she is no longer Gail.

While I've been placidly gardening and writing in Oregon, my old friend has been busy. She lived a year in Spain. Then, back in the States, the California girl bought a home clear across the continent. Her whimsical old house lies as close to her ocean, the Atlantic, as mine does to my ocean, the Pacific. She learned to tap-dance, became a cat-lover - and changed her name to Isabelle.

This morning, the phone rang. "Hello, Terry?"

I yodeled, "Gail - I mean Isabelle!"

After we were done giggling like poor but rich-in-friendship college students, Isabelle and I settled in for a good long chat.

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