I am in Cambridge this morning, wrapping up a weekend visit with my friend Don (he came down from Vermont) that bookended my attending another friend’s wedding in Boston on Saturday. Don’s sister, Ellen, lives in Cambridge, so I’ve yet again (to paraphrase a distant relative) ridden the Mayer family coattails well past their end. Ellen and her family came up to New Hampshire last Christmas, and it’s been good to see them here: lots of irreverent humor, good Ethiopian eats, and easygoing company. Don’s nephew, Nick, graduates from high school in a few weeks, and he will take the next year off before heading to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Hopefully Portland and San Francisco make for a nice 2008 or 2009 Don West-coast swing. Don flew out for our wedding in 2004 and for Katie’s services last June, but these are my first trip(s) back East to his stomping grounds, and they’ve been good ones.
Don and I were sitting in Darwin’s coffee shop yesterday, surrounded by students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, listening to Leo Kottke on the overhead speakers, drinking organic coffee and eating expensive sandwiches , and I thought, Yep, this is exactly what people who inherently distrust Cambridge imagine Cambridge must be. The wedding I attended the previous night was at the Boston Harbor Hotel, a swanky affair, lots of good food, drink, music, toasts, and fellowship. I came to town with my nifty black suit, and after checking out the place the previous night (I got a last-minute invite to the rehearsal dinner), upgraded my footwear at a boutique near the Cambridge T. It was the first time in memory that I did not wear either my Steve Madden bowling shoes (purchased in 2002, for Eric and Naomi’s wedding) or black-and-white Doc Marten’s (2004, our wedding) to a formal event, and I felt both more comfortable and more compromised in my fancy kicks: I looked like everyone else, so I fit in, and yet I couldn’t help thinking that, had I attended the reception with Katie, I wouldn’t have thought twice about my fashion.
The wedding was beautiful. I was glad to attend it. All the same, I was pretty miserable. Conversation was effortful and uninspiring, I only knew the groom, I had no inclination to dance, and no desire to drink after an especially rough evening for me the night before at the rehearsal dinner. I had gone to college with many of the people at the wedding, but had not talked to any of them in a good ten years, so after a few minutes of small talk I felt stuck. Ducking questions like, “Why do you live in Indianapolis?” left me exhausted, and yet how many times could I turn the conversation to mundane pleasantries about painting the rock? The night was kind of summed up neatly in my mind when, around 11pm, a fellow former Wildcat offered a rambling, alcohol-fueled remix of “my condolences”: nice sentiment, nice person, wrong place for me right now in my life.
In the recent, “Deception,” episode of Radiolab, Paul Ekman explains his quest not to tell lies in his personal life. After an uncomfortable dinner party, he tells the host that he’s at a point in his life where he just does not have the time to see his closest friends, much less expand the circle to make new ones. This idea cuts both ways for me: impolite/honest, rude/considerate (as opposed to, “you can’t cook and I don’t like you”), direct, straightforward, and clear. In the last ten months, the new friends that I’ve made are by and large those who empathize with much of what I write here. The family and friends I’ve felt closest to are those who want to connect over the loss of Katie on (more or less) my own terms. It’s pretty me-centric living—what I need to get by, but also setting my experience at the center of everything I do. For example, being at an old friend’s wedding and feeling intensely self-aware, rather than appreciating how my presence there contributes something to the friend’s celebrating the beginning of his marriage.
In the eight years we’ve known each other, I’ve seen Don forgo exactly once his 8:30pm bedtime/4:30am wake-up-and-run daily routine. It was on June 4, 2001, when, after much cajoling, he stayed up to watch the last performance of The B2 Musical Spectacular, Part III, in Cox’s Bazaar. Hanging out now, we miss a good chunk of morning/evening time, even when I adjust my schedule to wake-up at 7 or 8am, but our routines more or less follow from Desh days: big walks, long b.s. sessions, stogies, beer, professional sports. We used to meet up in Dhaka the first couple of months at site to watch NBA playoff action (simulcast live on bootleg Indian cable television at guest houses across the capital), and sure enough, eight years later, here we were, watching the Celtics and Hawks, then the Lakers and Jazz. It was a sign of things to come, I think, when on the short trip from Bangkok to Dhaka, arriving in country in February 2000, we debated the merits of Selena Roberts’ elaborate, metaphor-driven Knicks coverage, then as our plane landed with a passionate whoo-hoo! going up among our fellow Peace Corps trainees, we started an immediate over-under on which people in the group would quit and go home first (our guiding principle, which proved strangely prescient: those who clap the loudest will be the first to crack).
The new over-under for me, around people I don’t know, is do I say something about Katie and if so, when. In most situations, it is nice to know that friends and family do the advance work, that I don’t have to say much at all. I want people to know. I don’t want to tell them. I want Katie’s death to be at the center of my life, but my life as I define it. This anxiety feels of a kind: how to present myself and how much of what I am comes across in the presentation. I know I’ve said it before, but I miss how comfortable around and understood by Katie I felt in the day-to-day. Hanging out at Darwin’s yesterday, I felt a happiness that approached something like relief, to be easing into the old Don-and-John routines, to understand what comes next (and, yes, how to like it). Meghan Cashman told me recently that Katie referred to these exchanges as DSM Time (Damn Sensitive Males Time), and that Katie was always happy to yield this ground to my fellow DSMs. It is funny and wonderful to miss that about Katie. They were not every conversation but they were many of them, the sort of feeling that accompanied me wherever we went, whoever we met, regardless of the footwear.