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Gossamer Wheel(…continued from Part 2…)

Elin disappeared through the portal known as “early graduation.” That she had the credits was no surprise; it was a given, really. But her sudden departure struck hard and deep. There had been no hints, no warning signs. We said no good-byes and threw no farewell soirée. She was just there on Monday. On Tuesday, gone.

It broke us. The remaining trio played on for the next four months, out of tune and all syncopation unintended, limping through to the end of term. Finally, a week after graduation, walking down the main street of our dusty hometown, the remnants flew apart.

It was a hot, dry day. Bright light fell from the sun with a weight, reflected from storefronts, and bounced up from the pavement, pressing in on my flesh from all sides. The air smelled of hot cement and unleaded exhaust. I squinted as I walked with Simon and Zander—to where, I cannot remember, only that we crossing “D” Street when Zander struck his blow.

“I’m going to New Orleans. To join a ballet company. I’m leaving next week.”

Zander was five-nine and stocky. His thighs, like Simon’s and my own, were well-muscled from our bicycle tours. He was about as far from the lithe, supple, corded men I had seen bounding across the ballet stage as a man could be. Simon and I exchanged looks of befuddlement; in a decade of friendship, Zander had never expressed the slightest interest in dance. We stood, the sun hammering down upon us as we stared at the man we thought we knew.

There may have been a discussion—I may even have participated—but all I remember is the harsh light and the silence that rang in my head.

A few days later, again without warning, Simon told me he was leaving to study at Ann Arbor. By month’s end I was alone, suddenly small and rudderless in a great, empty sea. The breakup of my heart was complete.

Ten years later, Zander resurfaced and we tried to renew our friendship.

“It was something that was mine.” He fidgeted as he sat in my tawdry, one-bedroom flat down along the canal. “It was completely mine, you know? I didn’t want to share it with anyone.” It was his father, all over again, I realized.

Poor Zander. Poor brilliant Zander. He did dance in New Orleans, and in San Francisco, too. He also built houses to fund his education when he finally returned to it, and at Berkeley he became Doctor Zander, going on to build machines no wider than a human hair and experiments that flew on the Mir space station. Yet, for all his amazing intellect, he could never see how much that one act of selfishness had hurt me. He never saw it and thus never changed his behavior. Perhaps it was incumbent on me to explain it to him, and perhaps in that way I failed him as well.

Simon’s path was more predictable. As the son of two psychologists, he had been guaranteed two things: a lifetime of therapy and a full college education at the university of his choice. Our last year, he and I spent mild winter afternoons sitting in the wan daylight, leafing through brochures from prospective schools. Simon viewed each one with a critical, objective eye, while I merely looked through them, dreaming. In the coming years, his achievements would outstrip both our dreams. Ann Arbor would be merely a stopping point on a journey that would lead him to the Sorbonne, back to Ann Arbor, and thence to New York and many exotic places in between.

But never would his path lead him back home.

The quartet, my family of trusted intimates, the people I trusted to always be there, had fallen apart like a wild rose in late summer: one moment whole, cogent, filled with fragrant beauty, then gone at a touch, broken away, scattered.

Understanding came with time. Zander and Simon, the longtime friends of my youth, eventually became comprehensible strangers. But Elin…did I ever know her?

Elin had disappeared so quickly, so thoroughly, it was staggering. Her mother, a gentle, soft-spoken woman, did not know where her daughter was. She promised to pass along my messages but I could hear the pain in her voice, the quiet futility, and I expected no response.

I sought any information I could find on my missing friend. Rumors said she was growing pot in the woods of Humboldt County, riding with bikers through the L.A. Basin, and deep in the Haight-Ashbury district amid counterculture activists. All true? All false? I never knew. After two years, without word or sighting, finding the thick, cloistered air of my hometown ever more stifling, I gave up and began to concentrate on my future instead of my past. I went forward and tried not to look back.

One grey morning, I took the M-car down toward the Avenues and SFSU where I was studying. I stepped off the mist-windowed car, but instead of crossing the street, I turned and looked up toward the end of the platform. I can’t tell you why—a chance gesture, the whiff of patchouli—but I looked up and saw Elin, turning from the platform and heading up the hill. It was just a glimpse, but it was her. Then, like an antelope into the tall grass, she disappeared in the throng of commuters.

I ran. I called her name.

She turned. We met.

We spoke.

When overwhelmed by events, I forget details and remember only sensations: the sound of blood in my ears, the flush of my cheeks against the cold morning air. I do not recall what we said to one another—the words are gone—but I remember the pale blue of her sweater, the iron lid of the sky, the summer wheat of her hair, and the crisp scent of dark green pines that held their boughs over our heads. I remember, too, the sadness in her eyes and the question that pounded in my head: why why why?

It was not a reunion. It was the chance meeting of strangers who shared a bit of history.

That she did not enjoy the encounter was plain from her frown and furrowed brow. That she wanted to be on her way was obvious from the way she slowly stepped toward the stairs. I soon felt like some sort of stalker or worse, like a cat toying with a captured bird. I had no idea why she might have felt that way, had no idea what I did to deserve such treatment, but to prolong it was agony for us both, so I raised my hand, wished her well, and watched her melt away into the crowd.

Fifteen years later, when I told Alice I hadn’t spoken to Elin since she walked out of our lives, it wasn’t the whole truth, but that memory was still so bitter, still so incomprehensible, that I couldn’t bear to mention it.

Learning that Elin was now living in Seattle brought some comfort. That we had both gravitated to the same town, so unlikely a place considering our separate paths, seemed to prove that we had, indeed, been kindred spirits and that perhaps some vestige of that connection remained.

Sir John pointed at me as I stood there dumbly holding the phone. He mimed speaking into the mouthpiece.

“Um, where?” My voice was gruff and I apologized. “Where does she practice? What’s the name of her firm?”

“I don’t know. I called the local bar association but they don’t have her listed. No one by Abington, at least.” She hesitated. “I heard she got married.”

“And took her husband’s name?” For some reason, that seemed the least likely thing of all.

“I guess she finally settled down.”

I looked at Sir John and mouthed Should I?

He shrugged unhelpfully. It was up to me.

“Do you know why? I mean, why she…why she fell out of sight like that?”

Alice sighed. “No.”

“Nils didn’t say anything about it?”

“No.” Her voice was stern, unemotional. The Alice I knew was a strong soul who didn’t like to show her feelings. She was a big heart with a tough skin, but I could tell there was something she wasn’t saying.

“You’ve been looking for her.”

“Yeah. On and off. Whenever I had the time.”

“Why?”

She paused. “I don’t really know.”

We left the topic, chatted for a few minutes more, and then Alice rang off with a parcel-load of good wishes from me to all those she knew back home. But the damage had been done. The hounds of my youth had scented their quarry and gave voice.

The hunt was joined once more.

Sir John grumbled when I asked for his help

“It’s all your doing,” I told him. “I wouldn’t have even picked it up but for you and your…glare.”

He folded the international news section with deliberate precision, put it down on the table, and stared at me. Then he picked up the arts section, sat back, and opened it up. Tonight he would be sitting by the fire. Tomorrow would be soon enough.

He was right. I went back to my chair and picked up my book.

Then my houseguest posed a question, echoing my question to Alice: What compelled me to seek this woman?

It was something I’d never asked myself, but it deserved an answer. “I knew that woman for years. I loved her. I thought the best of her. You say that there is nothing so remarkable as friendship. I think that it’s a wonder it exists at all.”

He challenged me, pointing out that my response was not an answer.

I considered my words. “I suppose I want to know why my friendship was so cheaply laid aside. I want to know if I was naïve, or just blind.”

That seemed to satisfy him, as he asked for another brandy and went back to his paper to read reviews of the latest West End shows.

(…concluded in Part 4…)

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Gossamer Wheel(…continued from Part 1…)

You really haven’t heard from her?

Alice’s disbelief was understandable.

Our quartet was Elin, me, and our longtime friends Simon and Zander. The last time Alice saw us we were likely all heads down, noses in books, or playing pinochle across a picnic table in the quad. She would never have seen one of us without the others. We were the Gang of Four, a diminutive Academy of Arts and Sciences, each of us wildly independent, each with complementary strengths and weaknesses. Alice, like everyone else, saw the four of us as a unit, but from the inside, we knew that we were all as different from each other as the homes in which we lived.

My family was as white-bread as they came. We lived in a large boxy house my father had designed: a 1970s mélange of Better Homes and Gardens tradition mixed with Sunset Magazine experimentation. From its raked roof to its slanted outer wall, it was unusual without being outlandish. But it had a secret; though it looked fine from the outside, a series of mishaps and misunderstandings between my father and the contractors had left the inside a little off, a little awkward. The landing of the main stairs was four feet from where it should have been. The foundation was dug five feet too deep, so our view of the bay could only be seen through a snarl of telephone wires. The front half of the house was eighteen inches lower than the back half, necessitating the introduction of small, unexpected, three-step staircases between rooms.

Likewise, our family—though constructed of Dad, Mom, four kids, dog; all the standard parts of the 1970s model—appeared different from within than from without. On the placid surface we were happy, normal, and well-adjusted, but underneath we roiled and boiled with what we all would later learn to call “dysfunction.” We didn’t talk about my mother, who had died when I was young, for fear of insulting my stepmother. We did not discuss my father’s difficult youth or indeed much of anything about our ethnic Italian heritage. As the kid in the middle, I was caught between a dead past and a living present, trying to honor one while pleasing the other, but the only thing that really worked was to avoid notice altogether, which distressed me. I did not want to be unnoticed. I wanted to be distinctive. I wanted to be fascinating.

I wanted to be memorable.

My parents discouraged this with small, subtle directions. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t be obvious or proud. Remember that there’s always someone better, smarter, richer than you. It’s all right to shine, as long as you do so quietly, and none too brightly. And preferably in a small corner, where you won’t attract attention.

I learned to please. I turned my musical ability away from excellence and instead picked up whatever instrument my teachers needed. I started with violin, then taught myself bass guitar to help the jazz ensemble, learned tuba to fill the empty spot in band, and eventually settled on viola because as every high school music teacher knows, you can never have enough violas. I turned my hunger for self-expression into writing, read pithy, social fiction, and wrote dense, verb-filled essays. I won prizes for my poetry and awards for my writing, but never top prize, never the highest award. I learned to achieve without standing out.

I learned to be invisible.

Simon was not invisible, though he wanted to be. A violinist, Simon was my stand partner for many years, but he was also Jewish and therefore (by our community’s waspish standards) exotic. With curly hair and sleepy eyes, he came from a quirky family—mother, father, siblings, two dogs, and an indeterminate number of cats—that lived in a dusty, bleary-paned house hanging on a hillside amid a eucalyptus grove. The trees were nature imitating Simon’s family, always shedding outer layers of bark in search for their essential, inner truth.

There was nothing about Simon’s home life that I did not find fascinating. His parents limited the kids’ television viewing to a few hours a week, enforcing it by installing European-style outlets and hiding the adaptors. His family bickered and laughed and shouted at each other from one end of the house to the other, and I wanted nothing so much as to be one of them.

My family’s early traditions were agnostic followed by a pogrom of Roman Catholicism that never really “took” with us kids. I believed in God, but the stuffy, wool-suited Sunday gatherings seemed more a garbled, poorly choreographed line dance with bad music than any real celebration of life. By comparison, Simon’s religious life was vivacious. I attended services at his synagogue and loved the cantor’s voice, the bright colors of the congregants’ clothes, and the exuberance of the songs. Over the years of our friendship, Simon and I would speak the same words at the same time, finish other people’s sentences with the same thought. I knew his heart like I knew my own, and I was sure that, if only I could be bar mitzvahed, my life would become the predictable, joyous, desirable thing I believed it should be.

Where Simon was heart, Zander was brain. The product of what the ‘70s still called a “broken” home, my friendship with Zander was marked by empty weekends as he shuttled between mother and father. Zander’s father was the first gay man I ever met, but I met him only once, as Zander built a wall of silence around his father that kept the rest of us out. He did not build it out of shame, though. Rather, he adored his father, was profoundly possessive of their time together, and refused to share him with anyone.

Zander’s intellect resembled his home: a large, rambling, dark-shingled, fin de siècle craftsman surrounded by towering horse-chestnut trees. Conversations with him never kept on course. They rambled beatifically from room to room, wandering the halls, pulling books off shelves in search of a substantiating fact, taking a turn into the kitchen for a snack or running outside for a game of Kick the Can. In every room there was a knickknack, some remembrance of a different time, a different place. A camel saddle. Leather from an elephant’s ear. A sabre of Toledo steel. A brocade tapestry woven with thread-of-gold. Zander could read a book in an afternoon and tell you everything about it over dinner. He could explain the smallest particles of matter yet known to the mind of Man and discuss with ease the nature of the cosmos.

But he was entirely incapable of telling you how he felt. About anything. Such was his curse.

If Elin had a curse, it was her name. As long as I had known her, teachers mispronounced it, calling her “Eland.” It was an easy trip of the tongue, especially in those days when unusual names were still…unusual. But, even though “Elin” and “eland” are relatively homonymous, it betokened a certain disrespect to turn and essentially label her “a large African antelope.” If she really had short, twisted horns, I know of at least one English don who would have been gored.

As for her home, she lived in a small, clapboard-sided, post-war house with her mother and brother. There were no pictures in the home. There was no banter between the relations. There was also never a mention of a Mr. Abington (though that fact didn’t strike me as odd until many years later.) Had Mr. Abington left? Had he died? We never knew nor did we three boys ever think to ask. It was just the way things were: Mrs. Abington, Elin, and the oft-absent Nils, all snug in their small, plushly upholstered home on a quiet, sunny back street, all without history, seemingly without ancestry, as if they had simply appeared, dropped from the sky the day before we all met.

That was us. Four different kids, drawn together by our distinctive natures, our feelings of isolation, and the overlapping leaves of our intersecting passions.

Simon, Zander, and I were a trio of back-road travelers who had forged our bonds on hundred-mile bike tours up and down the long, winding highways of the California coast. A different trio was formed by Elin’s French horn, Simon’s violin, and my viola, tempered by the pressure of rehearsals, performances, and shared stage-fright. Simon and Zander were the gods of science. Zander and I played in dramatics. Elin was the political beast of our group, keeping our social conscience aware and well-informed. She was also our goddess, adored and desired but pristine and inviolate. We joked about it over partnered pinochle, over smoked joints, during rehearsals, and in class, but we three boys—shame us or laud us—never acted on our carnal urges. Personally, I felt I would probably catch flame if ever I tried.

Together, we passed through our high school years, breezing through our specialties and slogging through the rest. It was in many ways a blissful time for me, happy in the company of three dear friends who I was sure would be with me for the rest of time. And why wouldn’t they be? My formative years were peopled with televised examples of friends who stayed friends forever. Dick and Laura had Jerry and Millie. Ralph and Alice had Ed and Trixie. We might fight and argue, but in the end we four would remain close, bound by shared history, held together by love.

Then, one February, with graduation on the horizon, the foursome fractured.

One day she was there…

(…continued in Part 3…)

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Gossamer WheelIt was May, 1995, a rainy spring in Seattle, when Sir John Gielgud told me—all right, he wasn’t speaking to me personally, but I heard his words as if they were meant for me alone—that there is nothing so remarkable as friendship. For friends, we often do things with no expectation of return.

He imparted this wisdom with a sidelong glance and his sly smile, as if telling me something we both already knew, a common truth upon which everyone agreed.

Except it wasn’t a common truth. Not for me, and I told him so, frankly.

“That’s bullshit.”

He was not pleased.

Sir John stayed on for the next few days, following me from room to room, recounting tales of friendship through the ages. We argued back and forth. He gave me Achilles and Patroclus. I gave him Becket and Henry. To his Adams and Jefferson, I put forth Caesar and Brutus. When he said Hope and Crosby, I said Tupac and Biggie.

But I couldn’t dismiss Sir John’s assertion out of hand—living legends can have that effect—so I continued to ponder his words. Why did he see as basic something that to me seemed so foreign? Naturally, I wanted friendship to be as he described—I expected it, in fact—but life had taught me otherwise. Based on evidence, friendship was transitory, inconstant, and ultimately a source of pain.

We had reached an impasse and sat silently in the living room, he with his paper, me with my book, both of us waiting for inspiration to freshen our debate.

Then the phone rang.

I did not answer it.

I never do.

The little answering machine—all putty-colored plastic and red LEDs—played its spiel to the caller, after which I expected to hear the click and double-tone hum of yet another telemarketer’s denouement. This time, though, from the tinny speaker came a voice from my youth, a woman I hadn’t seen or spoken to in nearly twenty years.

Alice, an old friend from high school, was a fellow survivor of the symphonic and marching bands. A couple years ahead of me, our friendship had never really bridged the upper-classman divide, but we had always been cordial, so I let her ramble on a bit.

She was in Seattle—surprise!—and had heard that I relocated here. She just called to chat and catch up. She nattered on a bit, filling the void as she waited to see if I was merely screening calls or was truly not going to answer. About fifteen seconds in, Sir John cleared his throat. From over his evening edition of the Herald-Tribune he stabbed me with an arched-eyebrow glare, cocked his head toward the phone, and then returned to his perusal of the international news section.

I took his point and picked up the phone just as Alice was preparing to “ring off” (as JG would say, though I hated it when he ended sentences with prepositions; call me old school.)

Alice, I said, and How long has it been? Our first words in two decades were banal clichés that might have come straight from an episode of Room 222 or Marcus Welby, M.D., but we quickly moved past them and on to the “catching up” phase.

As Alice recounted the major events of her post-school-life, I was surprised to find myself smiling, laughing even. Her familiar voice, gravelly and hard-edged, pried open a long-closed, rust-hinged door and together we began inspecting the cobwebbed boxes stored in my memory. Old names flashed across neurons left brittle from disuse, evoking images of black-and-white yearbook smiles. Ancient histories rebuilt themselves, one remembered personality, one nostalgic event at a time. Teachers, friends, rehearsals, concerts, parades; we were awash in recollection and the dreamy-eyed innocence of our once eternal youth.

And then she said the name I’d tried for years to forget, the name that leapt across the chasm of years, stormed the bastions of my brain, and began taking hostages.

“So, have you heard from Elin?”

It is not a common name, Elin, with its long E and short I, and that is fitting. Elin was not a common gal.

Thin, boyish, excruciatingly smart, with long-fingered hands and lanky hair the color of wheat at harvest-time, Elin Abington stood alone in the landscape of my youth, the keystone in an arch of mysteries and betrayals. For the most part, everyone whose life passed close to mine was knowable, sussable, comprehensible. The motivations behind their actions were sometimes obscure, even misguided at times, but eventually I was able to discern the logic that drove their behavior.

Elin, however, was a great unknown, a single riddle orbited by a batch of lesser mysteries.

The fact that we had been close, seemingly inseparable parts of a tight-knit quartet of friends, only deepened the pain.

“You still there?”

“Hm? Yeah. Still here.”

“So, have you heard from her?”

“No. She dropped from sight the February before graduation. Intentionally, it seems.” That was the truth. “I haven’t spoken to her since.” That wasn’t.

Sir John rustled his paper.

“Well,” Alice said, “I saw her brother at my twentieth-year reunion. Nils said she was a lawyer and that she was here living in Seattle. You really haven’t heard from her?”

Even Alice thought it was odd that Elin and I hadn’t kept in contact.

(…continued in Part 2…)

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A Sixty-Fourth NoteTurn it up.

Make it louder. Not through earbuds. Not through headphones. Release it. Give it room to breathe. Let it surround me. I need to feel it in my chest. I want it to rattle my bones.

Turn it up.

Make the air ring with it. Blast it through horns of brass. Pound it out on skins of leather. Put bow to strings and make them cry and shout and sing. Make it loud, loud enough to reach me, loud enough to touch my body, to echo in my heart. The rhythm, the pulse, they are mine, my rhythm, my pulse. The rhythm of the music is the beating of my heart.

Turn it up.

Can you feel it? The music that thrums in your breast is the pounding of my blood. Feel it. When you feel that beat, you feel my heart within you. The strength of the music is the strength of my passion. Let it wash over you, scour you raw with its energy. Right now, at this very moment, that music is me. It is my anger, my love, my sadness; it is my whimsy, rage, serenity, bliss, reverie; my frustration and joy; my hunger and my peace. That music, that emotion, is me.

How am I feeling?

Turn it up.

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Kurt R.A. GiambastianiIn the years to come, much will be lost to him. Many details will simply not make it past the blinkers of his mind’s eye, and many more will be lost to the unraveling threads of time, but even at five years old, much will survive for him to carry forward.

He comes home from school, running up the hill, shoes scuffing the rough surface of the concrete sidewalk. The sun is bright despite the thin clouds. Past the last corner, he smacks the juniper in his neighbor’s yard, feels the sting of its prickly fronds and smells its sharp scent. He passes under the fading leaves of the Fillingame’s plane tree, kicking a path through the fallen litter. He looks up. His father’s car is in the drive. Dad is home? Already?

Dark, green ivy climbs the yellow stucco of the bungalow’s wall near the front door. He reaches up to turn the knob and enters. It is dark within. Shrouded. Silent. Immediately he knows. Something is wrong. (more…)

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First, 60 followers…wow! Thanks to each and every one. It still boggles me that you find my ramblings and musings of sufficient interest, but hey, Welcome! I’m glad you’re here.

Now, to the subject at hand. There’s a book I want you to read. It is without a doubt the funniest, wryest, most engaging book about running you’ll even encounter. Don’t let the topic put you off.

Yes, it’s a “marathoner’s memoir,” but that truly over-simplifies this insightful book. I don’t run anymore (bad knees) and I have never run a marathon nor did I ever attempt to run a marathon. I did not read this book because I wanted to be “inspired” to run a marathon. I read this book because (as the Acknowledgments will tell you) I know the author, but I want you to read it because it is simply a really good, funny, often laugh-out-loud read.

Todd Baker started out as an overweight asthmatic, and ended up running a marathon and carrying the Olympic torch during its path through Washington State. Along the way, he learned a lot—about running, about people, about himself—and with sharp wit, a gimlet eye, and self-deprecating humor, he has put this journey down for us to enjoy.

If you like Bill Bryson’s work, you’ll love this. It’s available in hardcopy and in Kindle format, and I recommend it highly.

k

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