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Absent Friends

The first thing I see when I turn on my computer, and the last thing I see when I turn it off, is a picture of my dead friend Deirdre. (She is not dead in the picture, stupid.) Stolen off the Internet, it is an unusually good picture of a woman who was notoriously camera shy, and catches her at work with her radio headphones on, looking quite beautiful and wearing an expression at once dreamy and engaged, which terms seem to me to describe her polar essence exactly. It surprises me how grateful I am to have it; I used to change my computer desktop fairly often, but I have awarded this image the permanent chair. (The Permanent At Least Until I Get a Better Computer Someday Chair is its official, rarely used title.) Having lost her from the actual world, I won’t banish her from the virtual -- it would feel sort of like murder.

I went out to my parents‘ house the other day, where my mother offered me a big heavy pile of back issues of a big heavy magazine I wrote for about a decade back. They had exceeded the limit of their keepsake meaning; they were no longer as important to her as the free space their removal would create. (I didn’t take this personally. We can all use a little free space.) Among other blasts from the past, they were full of articles by my dead friend Bob, who was unmade at something like the age I am now by a congenital bum ticker, and whose late being flickered from the page. It was spooky and moving. Of course I am always reading the words of the dead (Shakespeare, he‘s dead; Fitzgerald, he’s dead; Frank O‘Hara is dead too), but the dead you know -- the local dead -- are different. I used to see Bob five days out of seven; he was one of the few people in my life I’d call a mentor, not so much in a professional sense but in a kind of cool older-brother way: He‘d seen Thelonious Monk play, and told strange stories hilariously of the old radical underground in Madison and the boho expat scene in San Miguel de Allende, from which he was himself farcically deported. By the time I knew him, he was relatively respectable -- well, practical might be a better word. I’m not sure he was ever respectable. And then one day, with a phone call, he was gone.

I have his picture taped to my wall. It‘s one of those slightly embarrassing sitting-with-a-bottle-between-the-legs shots most every man will have taken of him sometime in his life, but I didn’t actually notice that until recently; I like it because he looks happy and relaxed and at home in his body and on Earth. It was his birthday. Next to that picture, thumb-tacked to the window frame, is my last communication from Deirdre, a post card written, she notes, ”old fashioned pen and paper style! How odd,“ and signed, ”Hope to see you soon.“ (Not too soon, I hope, given the state of things.) Her writing is all swoops and swings. And below that, next to a snapshot of my parents dancing in the living room in 1964, is a picture of another absent Bob, my old school chum and sometime roommate, when he wasn‘t sleeping on a couch at the student center. This Bob might or might not be dead, but he is gone anyway, off the radar, traceless. I would prefer he not be dead, but it is not impossible, it is possibly probable. After college, he moved to the dangerous city of San Francisco, where I took this picture of him -- mug in hand, head inclined toward the lens, about to say something lightly caustic -- and from which he would send occasional dispatches: ”Saw Poltergeist, Raiders O.T.L. Ark and The Thang all in the same wknd. Now I’m upset because my life has no special effects.“ The sort of special effects he got into there are what make me think he might no longer be a citizen of this plane.

Though I am still young enough or lucky enough that death is more a novelty, if that‘s the word I want, than a routine (memo to self: knock wood), there are less dramatic if sometimes no less final ways to lose your friends. There are the ordinarily missing, the victims of time and space, of laziness, or misplaced pride, or plain busyness. (You can see some of the people some of the time, but you can’t see all of the people all of the time -- which is the appeal of eternity, if they do lunch there.) There is also on my wall, for instance, a picture of Francine, who is only a continually unwritten letter away. Or I could pick up the phone, you know. My computer is forever offering to locate my old friends, for a fee, though that seems a little . . . dirty, like hiring a P.I.; I do my own cyberspatial searches from time to time, but my instincts, and the odd unrequited e-mail, tell me that not everyone wants to be found. (Or, though it is hard to imagine, not found by me.) I received a cordial invitation to my high school reunion the other day, but for $85 I would want some guarantees: that the people I really want to see will be there, and that they will really want to see, or will even remember, me.

And I do want to be remembered, and to remember. My friends have always seemed to me not just a network, but a net: the thing that keeps me from falling into nothingness. I don‘t think of myself as particularly sentimental, except as regards small furry animals, and I’m definitely not religious in the religious sense, but certainly these pictures I have taped and tacked up around me constitute some sort of shrine. And there is the shrine in my mind, where the dead and missing congregate in stray thoughts and dreams, by day, by night.

There is another photo of Deirdre, coming out of a cafe in the Place Contrescarpe with Mark and Kevin (who are still alive -- and where‘s that wood?) after a long night out in the City of Light a dozen years ago. It’s a little bit of stopped time, stuck up on the side of the refrigerator. But time outside of pictures moves on; you keep ahead of it for a while, then it mows you down. There are no survivors. Deirdre, unlike, oh, me, at least knew where she was going, even if she never quite got there; she had a plan -- possibly it was more of a dream than a plan, but it was a dream with documentation, with maps and photos of a certain spot on the south coast of Ireland. I prefer to picture her there, with her tea and her birds, watching the cyclical sea: not dead but just hard to reach. Goodnight, Deirdre, IT IS SAFE TO TURN OFF MY COMPUTER NOW, I will see you in the morning.