California Split: What Became of Chris


AFTER A SILENCE of more than twenty years, I got a phone call from an old friend of mine, living in San Francisco. Now dying in San Francisco. Upon announcing that fact in the voice mail, he said, “And that’s the news from out West.”

         Chris and I had met during my senior year in Ann Arbor and when we graduated, we both came East to New York, I a year ahead of him. And when he arrived, I helped him secure a job at Simon and Schuster, where I was already working as an editorial assistant, and soon thereafter, as an editor, with my own windowed office. Because I was so young, I didn’t appreciate my good professional fortune—thinking simply that adult life would always be marked by a steady progression of promotions and the easy ability to hire friends where you worked.

         Every morning, Chris and I would eat our breakfast together in my office, with its view of 50th Street, the clanging flagpoles surrounding the ice rink of Rockefeller Center a constant chiming reminder that we had made it to—and in—New York. I would pour us bowls of dry cereal, and reach across my desk to fill his with milk, then mine. And at the end of the day, we would make the long walk home together, to my apartment that I shared with four other people my age on West 101st Street. Chris lived even further uptown, on 175th Street, at a time when few Yuppies, then a new term, would do so.

         Chris was 6’ 8”, and even though I too was tall, he loomed over me. It took us about an hour to make the walk every evening, and when we reached my apartment we would go into my room, the apartment’s master suite, with its own full bath, the best and most expensive ($265 per month) room in the place. I would often make pasta with butter and cheese and a salad and bring the plates from the kitchen into my room where he and I would sit at a table, one of us taking the rocking chair, candles lit, a radio between us tuned to the classical music station, and eat our meal together.

         On many other nights, though, we would stop at Hunan Szechuan on 97th Street and order cold sesame noodles, then a new and novel dish, usually taking the orders home. We would look out my tenth-floor window to Broadway and because I had two exposures, I could follow the course of the street, awash in a pink sodium-vapor spray that illuminated shards of glass along the way, as it curved toward Columbia, making it appear as if the asphalt was paved with jewels.

         Even though Chris had his own apartment (which I never saw because I was too afraid to go into his neighborhood), many nights of the week he would stay with me. We would get into my bed, a double mattress on the floor, and sleep together. We were never intimate, but because we slept together effortlessly, you could say that we were intimate every one of those nights. Now, whenever I get the chance to spend the night with someone, I worry about not sleeping well and usually don’t. Then, it was easy, with no concerns that it wouldn’t go well. Lying on our sides, the canvas of his smooth back rose expansively before me like the triangle of a bivouac.

         Come morning, after a restful sleep, even though Chris had to lie on a diagonal that limited my space but which indicated a merging of his life with mine, we would dress, running our fingers beneath each other’s collars to make sure no part of the tie was peeking out at the back, and take the train together to work.

         After a year in New York, though, Chris decided to move to San Francisco, where he had always wanted to live. He quit his job and he stayed with me the night before he was to leave. After we awoke, showered, and dressed, and with my work satchel slung over my shoulder, his hand gripping a suitcase handle, we embraced and suddenly began to pull each other closer, harder, but stopped before we went too far. I have had more sexual partners and experiences than I can likely recall, yet that almost-sexual encounter is perhaps the most consummated one in my memory. I can remember how aroused each of us was, maybe simply because we were 23 and 22, but also the sheer surprise of it, a passion that had been building all of that time and which had suddenly made itself known when it was too late to act on it.

         We splurged that day by hailing a taxi, which would take me first to my office at Rockefeller Center and Chris on to JFK. We were both Midwesterners—I from a suburb of Chicago, he from Ann Arbor—and I think now how, from the perspective of the center of the country, he had chosen to go West and I East. And what a difference that would make.

         When the cab reached 50th Street that last morning, I tried to pay my share of the ride, but Chris wouldn’t let me and we had a little fight about it in the backseat, bills scattering on the floor, the driver’s face appearing in the rearview mirror trying to see what was happening. We fought because we were both sad that the daily and nightly friendship we had established was now over. And like that morning’s moment of intimacy between us, I remember, too, everything about that cab ride—the blue suit I was wearing, the make of the car (not a Checker, as they were fast disappearing from the streets in 1982), the sharp edges of the crumpled bills in my hand as tried to press them into each other’s palm, even the neon-flashing Chock Full ‘O Nuts sign at the intersection at Seventh Avenue. That confining backseat space, not able to accommodate either pair of our long legs, takes on the import of a furnished room in my imagination, the last one we occupied together.

         We remained friends for several years thereafter, and I traveled to visit him twice in San Francisco. But when he was transferred to Portland, Oregon, I didn’t visit him there, and for some mysterious reason he never forgave me. He stopped speaking to me and we lost contact, though I heard that he had returned to San Francisco a couple of years later. Chris’s short temper was such that when we would go to a gay bar together, I dreaded anyone approaching him and asking a question that had become way too familiar to him and for which he had never developed a tolerance—asking how tall he was or whether he had played basketball in college. Chris would erupt in rage every time a stranger asked some version of these questions, and I would feel compelled to give the stranger a smile of apology.

         Because Chris was so tall and so handsome, I figured any gay man who lived in San Francisco would know who he was, and whenever I met someone from there, I would ask. Sometimes, one of these visitors to New York would scrunch his face and say, “Oh, yeah, I think I know who you mean. Tall? Really tall? Light-brown hair? I see him sometimes in the Castro. Could that be him?” Even with the advent of Google and other social media, I was never able to find a phone number or address for him.

         In the couple of phone conversations we had now recently had—during which Chris talked almost nonstop, manically even, for an hour at a time—I discerned that he had lived in and traveled to many parts of the world. He spoke in a rambling chatter of years spent in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and mainland China. A life as an executive, with cars and drivers, a staff of servants at each posting, then a less-than-glamorous return to San Francisco after those jobs ended to be a real estate broker and, finally, unemployment. Followed by a resume of illnesses.

         Early on, Chris had abandoned his life in New York, discarding me and a couple other friends he had made here, some of whom I had introduced him to. So, when he called after all these years, decades actually, with an implicit demand that we re-establish our connection, I found it difficult to summon the affection and love I’d once felt for him. “Mr. David, it’s Mr. Chris here,” he said on that first phone call, echoing a kind of language we once spoke as young friends, but which felt stilted to me now, a pidgin language I had forgotten. In later calls, he spoke of his friends flying in to see him now that he was dying, the message being to me, “When are you coming, too?”

         But when I offered to visit him, he turned me down emphatically, citing his changed appearance as one of the reasons. He spoke with the unapologetic decisiveness of a dying man. “Part of it is about vanity. You knew me when I was young and cute. I’d prefer we just continue to speak on the phone,” he said. “But talk to me slowly, I can’t keep up with everything you’re saying. And stop treating me like I’m some article-in-progress, asking me questions like a reporter. I’m not up for being interviewed.”

         Although he had spoken of having cancer and of his brother and sister having already died of this disease, he also enigmatically said in one of our last conversations that he had acquired “the bug.” That was as definitive as he got—and his use of such terminology was a directive to me not to ask for a more precise term. Amid my silence on the phone as I tried to decipher the meaning of his statement, he began to tell some outlandish tale of having been mugged in a San Francisco alley while on a visit to a property he was selling as a real estate agent. But the tale he told of how two black men knocked him out then raped him and how he then awoke and threw both of them through a basement window made me think that he was delusional. He was like a boy recounting a super-hero cartoon episode that couldn’t be real.

         Although I had no interest in or talent for a life in business such as Chris had led, I have found myself envious of his having lived abroad for years at a time and making enough money to buy townhouses and investment properties, learning to speak other languages, having foreign boyfriends. I have stayed here, in Manhattan, the entire time—going from one publishing job to another, some quite respectable, publishing my essays and poems and even two small-scale books, moving from one relationship to another. But having none of the adventures Chris had abroad, never living in homes with rooms and yards and ancillary buildings, views onto temple gardens or Haussmann boulevards. So that when he would say in our talks, “Tell me something about your life,” the idea of my trying to describe one office job from another just didn’t seem compelling. The names of the magazines and publishing houses were different, but all of the offices were the same—“the dolor of pad and paperweight,” to quote one of my favorite Theodore Roethke poems. It was just that the papers arrayed on each of those desks addressed different topics.

         Our last long-distance conversation found Chris in a hospital bed, to which he had to return after an aborted final trip to Asia. It consisted of his talking repeatedly about the cold sesame noodles that we would often order at that Chinese restaurant in my old Upper West Side neighborhood. And because I soon recognized that as a safe subject, one that made him happy, I kept the focus of our talk on it. We recounted the arguments we would have with waiters who insisted that we order additional entrées, the inferior versions served at other Chinese restaurants, some with shards of peanuts, others with a paste of peanuts too thick or too thin. We agreed on the need for the dish to be served cold on a cooled plate adorned with ringlets of raw scallions.

         I told myself that the proper way to honor Chris while he was still alive, and after, was for me to go to one of my local Chinese restaurants and order a plate of the noodles, though I’m not even sure they appear any longer on the menus. I have no taste for the dish any longer and haven’t for most of the decades of years during which Chris chose to establish and enforce a silence between us—ironic, given the Silence = Death motto of the era when we were friend. But it’s funny how long you can talk about plates of noodles you ate thirty years earlier and still remember their flavor, develop an appetite for them while doing so. And when Chris kept asking about how they tasted now and whether the recipes had changed, I told him how cold noodles have passed out of fashion as a food in New York—just some of the news from back East.