There is one loss that still hurts.
I made the journey back to New York City for a short stay. That’s where we’d known each other. I thought of Walter January day and night. What went wrong? I had a stranger’s apartment all to myself, the kind of place Walt or I might have rented in the old days. As I lay on the couch, I looked over at the dining-room table, and I thought, Walt and I should be sitting there over food talking about our lives. What happened?
We met in front of the gates of Columbia, introduced by a mutual friend. I was twenty and dumb and extremely immature. Walt was four years older and a graduate student in philosophy, also my major. After that first day, we ran into each other from time to time, went for coffee, went to museums, went to hear Allen Ginsburg read Howl, went to the symphony; once we drove to West Point and Hyde Park. Walt was mild-mannered, sharp, heavily academic, homely in appearance, a Marxist and an atheist. He’d been raised in Ohio. I’m uncomfortable saying this but I need to: over the first couple of years and maybe all the years, he would’ve liked to be more than friends, but I never thought about him in that way.
He did not live in the fast lane, my Walt.
I was in denial about the nature of his feelings. I valued him as a friend. He was my first grownup friend. Both of us spoke German: I because my parents were German; he because he’d mastered it in school. He could read Kant, Hegel, and Marx in the original. Even though he wasn’t a show-off, he did confess to me how status-conscious he was, how he thirsted for fame and recognition. Of all the people I remember from the early ’80s, he was the gentlest, but… even so… at times I sensed another side of him:
- As when my beloved dog died, and I cried and said to Walt, “You met him, didn’t you like him and wasn’t he the most adorable puppy you ever saw?” Walt answered this way: “Oh Alex, I don’t get attached to animals.”
- As when I applied for Christmas work at Macy’s but failed the arithmetic test, and, distraught, I said to him, “How would you have felt?” He answered coolly, quietly, “I wouldn’t have failed.”
He appeared humble and unpretentious, but he was also young and therefore growing into the personage he’d later be. He was, like me, an adult in the making. He hadn’t reached his full Walterness.
In those days I was awkward. I was slim and blond. I imagined I’d always be twenty-two. New York City was a fine place to be that young. In those days there were still bathhouses where you could find ten or twenty studs a night. I semiconsciously understood how immature I was and knew one reason for this: it could keep me young; and if I was young, then I’d be desirable. Walt, on the other hand, never went to a bathhouse in his life. He wanted a relationship, and then he found one, with a young architect from India who shared Walt’s ideas of a male couple making a life together.
Our friendship went on as before. I couldn’t imagine any day in the future we wouldn’t be in each other’s lives. I loved him as an older brother, and yet I always believed our friendship was at heart one-sided. I was the more interested party. I always wanted to hang on when we talked on the phone. Even when I decided to leave New York for good and move to Spain, I imagined things would stay the same, despite the presence of an ocean between us.
After college I was just a proofreader in an accounting firm, and that couldn’t go on. It was too meaningless—“alienating” as Walt put it in his Marxist lingo. I visited Spain in the fall of 1984. I decided to move there and teach English as a second language and find romance and passion, maybe.
It was Walt who saw me off at the airport. He said, “It looks like you don’t believe you’re leaving that much behind.”
“It’s true,” I replied.
Maybe it was hurtful of me to say that, but I didn’t believe in my life in New York. I was young enough to fantasize about a new life in a far-off country. Everything would be better in Spain, wouldn’t it? And perhaps I sensed that I wasn’t getting that much from Walt. There was such a formality to him. He was so staid and proper that one always had to set up an appointment with him days or weeks in advance. And he wasn’t curious about my writing—unless I insisted that he read something and give me his opinion, which he’d consent to do if I bugged him enough.
As soon as I settled in Spain, I started the work of idealizing our friendship. He always wrote back with his aerogrammes and always responded wisely and insightfully. From time to time I phoned him.
Walter January was the first person who told me I should try therapy. No, I’ll rephrase that: he told me I needed to be in therapy. Until I knew Walt, I’d always laughed at people who saw “shrinks.” But after I went through love and loss and melancholia and even thoughts of suicide in Spain, he wrote this to me:
I hope you do seriously look for a therapist in Barcelona and that when you start feeling better (as you’re certain to do), you don’t just drive the whole idea out of your mind. I have felt almost everything you describe, but is there something in you that makes you always pick men like José Luis? The answer is probably “yes,” but is that what you really want? You asked me if it’s possible to love and be excited by the same person, a question I cannot answer. Is it possible for you? Why or why not? I don’t think you can answer these questions yet. Taking ice-skating lessons is a great idea. It’s something fun and affirmative. Yet I doubt that it is a substitute for a prolonged, serious self-reflection (i.e. therapy).
“Sincerely”? What close friend writes “sincerely”? And the academic style: “Why or why not?”
Walt and I had always thought of our friendship as one of mentor/mentee, though we never said so explicitly. I relied heavily on those who knew more than I. And he? What did he get out of our relationship? Was there a physical component I was—and still am—struggling to deny? Or better yet: the physical component we’d occasionally acknowledged was there, was that what kept him in a friendship with me—me, whose writing he wasn’t interested in, who had little grasp of philosophy (even though it was my major), who was very young and silly. “You’re so dumb” he’d said to me more than once.
As to the content of his letter, of course it was decisive. I started therapy and have been in therapy ever since.
In all my time with the analyst, Walter’s name didn’t come up, not once. Why would it? We had a long-distance friendship, a solid one. In therapy one tends not to dwell on the good relationships.
One day he wrote on one of his aerogrammes that he’d been hired “—by Harvard!” I’ll never forget that well-positioned em-dash and that lofty name. He’d been accepted by The Castle, and I was glad for him.
At first things appeared to go on as before, but we lived on different sides of an ocean. I didn’t at first want to admit to myself that I saw changes in him.
His demeanor was different. He seemed very sure of himself. During one of my visits back to the States, I had dinner one night with him and his lover (they maintained a long-distance Boston/Manhattan relationship) and I noticed that, when we parted for the night, he didn’t say “bye”’ or “talk to you later” or “see you soon” but “good-night.” Maybe that doesn’t appear so strange on paper, but it was also his tone of voice. Businesslike. Aloof.
And from that time on it is possible that if I hadn’t kept writing to him three or four times a year, we wouldn’t have stayed in touch. No break-up. No quarrel. Just a natural ebbing over time. He was now a Harvard professor. Imagine all the doors that were opening for him! He was on a first-name basis with icons in his field.
When he spent half a year in Germany, I wrote him with dumb enthusiasm about going to visit him and received this response: “I’m afraid the dates you suggest for visiting Germany won’t work.” The letter said more but that’s the line I remember. Its unadorned coldness.
The next year I found out that while I’d been seeing family in the U.S., he’d gone on a trip with his lover—to Spain!
And then it happened that I visited him in Cambridge one summer. He’d offered to put me up in his apartment for a few nights.
He buzzed me into his building and I took the elevator up to his floor. His door was open and I walked in and shut it behind me. There was no Walt. I peered over into an adjacent room and saw him with his back to me, talking on the phone. He hadn’t just picked it up to say “Sorry I’ve got a guest.” No, he remained on the phone another ten or fifteen minutes before he emerged to greet me with a light hug.
We had a few days in Boston. Sometimes he appeared his old self, but what I most remember are the first few minutes of the visit: me sitting in his living room picking up one coffee table magazine after another, waiting for him to get off the phone. I tend to forget that he told me how unhappy he was, how unfulfilled in his relationship with the architect (who seemed the more interested party), how worried about his future at Harvard, how dissatisfied with Boston (too much “Middle America” in Boston).
I have this theory about Walt. He came from a working-class family in rural Ohio, but spent his life pursuing German culture and philosophy. He even spoke English—to my ear—with a German accent, almost the way I do. I think he hated his roots and did everything possible to run away from them—and even Cambridge, Massachusetts was not far enough, full of too much “Middle America.” If Harvard could’ve been uprooted and put in the middle of Manhattan, he would’ve been happy.
He told me about some of his students from just a few years earlier who’d already become hot-shot authors. “Does that bother you?” I asked him.
“It would,” he replied, with his old candor, “if I were not a Harvard professor.”
A committee approved Walt for Harvard tenure, “but it’s not a rubberstamp,” he said ominously as we sat in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side, almost like the old days, a year later. “Not by any means. It’s up to the president now.”
Even though we lived thousands of miles apart, we no longer broke bread together whenever I visited New York. He would only allot me short sessions—a quick coffee, or a quick drink in the presence of other people. He did not laugh anymore. There wasn’t much spontaneity or fun in him—not that there ever had been, even in our heyday.
I didn’t feel at ease around him, this new and important Walter.
I was about to leave Barcelona after ten years and move to Los Angeles. Walt was horrified when he heard “Southern California.” He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in Stupid Country (as a character in The Buried Child calls it).
After our quick coffee, we walked toward Broadway and 116th Street, and I asked him where the subway was.
“You don’t even remember where the subway is!” Walt exclaimed. “You really are a stranger here.”
A stranger here…
After that day, I never heard from him again.
When I moved to “Stupid Country,” I sent him a postcard with my new address. I wrote a short letter at Christmas—still to his Harvard apartment. Then in the spring I sent him a birthday card and wrote “I hope we don’t get lost to each other forever.” I didn’t really expect a response, and none came. It would’ve been undignified to write any more letters. I promised myself I wouldn’t, and I’ve been as good as my word for the last twenty-two years.
My biological father, a philosophy professor, told me one day, “Guess what. Your friend didn’t get tenure!”
“But how do you know?”
“He’s working down at UC San Diego.”
San Diego? My backyard? I found out he’d been there for years…Then I used the Internet to discover he’d left “Stupid Country” and gone to work at Cornell. And some time after that I read he was back at Columbia in his beloved New York.
The other day I walked my dog and stood outside his home and looked up. He lives on the top floor of a fancy building on the corner of 109th and Broadway. He can walk to work. No commuter train or subway for Walter, at least not to get to work. I saw the janitor polish the railings in the elegant foyer. Walt’s done pretty well for a Marxist.
And then I walked on. I walked through the gates of Columbia and a girl came up to me smitten with my dog and practically begged me to let her pet him. I sat by the Alma Mater statue and enjoyed a very good view of a young man’s extremely athletic back. I walked by Tom’s Restaurant. I went to Riverside Drive and sat on a bench, the same bench where the old Walt and I had once talked about meaning in life.
I understand what the alternative to just vanishing would have looked like. He could have written to say—and couched it in nice language—that we’d outgrown each other. That I would’ve accepted and even respected.
There are many explanations for what happened, and I’ve thought of all of them. Not getting tenure at Harvard probably sent him into a crisis, and reaching out to me was not a priority. He needed to look good in front of me. He needed to stay on a pedestal. Now he wasn’t a Harvard professor anymore, but just regular professor who would have trouble with the successes of all his brilliant ex-students.
It’s also possible that his gradual withdrawal from me all through the early ‘90s had built up so much resentment in me that I’d occasionally let it show in snide remarks.
It’s possible that since I was older now (thirty-four), I wasn’t interesting enough to look at, assuming that physical attraction may have played a bigger part on his side of things than I realize.
It’s possible that there were mysterious (intangible) reasons he didn’t feel comfortable around me anymore but couldn’t bring himself to say so. He’d outgrown me. I’d also outgrown him but couldn’t let him go. He was Walt. He was family.
It’s possible, above all, that as he rose in his field (even as a non-Harvardian) I was not a suitable friend. His friends (though perhaps not lovers, where one’s criteria tend to be different) needed to be other academics and people of influence, people who lived and breathed in a world of Fichte, Hegel, Marx, and Rousseau, and also people who admired Dr. January’s work.
It troubles me how keenly I still feel the loss.
When I reflect on how much I’ve changed, I realize that similar changes had to have been going on inside Walt. And when I think about things this way, I can begin to stop feeling guilty-dirty for having done something wrong, or for not being good enough to share in a Columbia professor’s life.
Walter January has been gone a long time. It’s time to bury him. But a few more thoughts before I close the coffin?
I saw him on YouTube, interviewed a few years ago about his work. Often during the session, he shut his eyes while making particularly profound points. Once, his eyes stayed shut for a full minute while he lectured. His whole manner is affected; he’s putting on a show. The old Walt would have laughed at such pretentiousness.
The last time I ever saw him was twenty-two years ago, on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street, at the same spot where we’d first met all those years earlier.
I wonder about the intervening time: his sojourn in my “backyard”—San Diego—his stay, later, at Cornell, and eventually his resumed life at Columbia. All this time I’ve been in Los Angeles, and I think about the visits we could’ve had, the conversations, the insights I would’ve gotten from him. Maybe, if I’d matured faster, he would’ve seen me as an equal and not abandoned me. Maybe, if I hadn’t made a certain snide remark that last visit in New York… Maybe…
I sometimes have visions of waiting another twenty-five years and visiting him in a nursing home and grabbing his shoulders and demanding an explanation for the decades of silence.
I believe friendship has been compared to clothing: having a shirt for a certain amount of years, and then discarding it. Some friendships, I know, are not meant to go the whole way, from schooldays to death. It’s understood that romance often fails to make the long journey, but people seem to take it for granted that friendship is by definition more permanent.
I have gained insights from other people’s losses. I’ll say, “Are you still in touch with so-and-so?” and they’ll say, “No, no, they lost interest years ago.” It’s helpful to keep things in perspective, to realize that I’m not the only one. The common thread in all these cases is middle age. The young mind hasn’t fully developed; it’s open to many things; it’s spontaneous; it’s flexible; and it’s fine with being dumb some of the time. The older mind has thickened and ossified into a state of cozy pickiness and prickliness and odd prissy rules and boundaries; it’s not as accepting of peccadillos and slights; it’s set in its ways and just doesn’t have time. And maybe Walt is just as ashamed of his 24-year-old self as I’m ashamed of mine. Who wants to go back and relive the beautiful and stupid days? Not Walt, I’m sure. And not me.
If he were sitting across the table from me now, I’d say something simple and banal like, “I am sorry we lost touch.” I wouldn’t ask him why. I’d be diplomatic, even though most of the time I despise him. What I need to do is release the anger. Put on my boxing gloves and pound the punching bag at the gym, and then do some deep breathing and affirmations, the way I learned in therapy.
One of the best concepts I got out of therapy (and therapy is the thing Walter, more than anyone else, steered me toward): “It’s not what happened; it’s how you deal with what happened.” Over the last twenty-two years I have dealt with it poorly or not at all. Releasing anger, as I’ve described, is one way to come to terms with the loss. Writing this post is another. The slogans of all the 12-step work I’ve done are useful. But as another member of group therapy (an old-timer) said in one of our meetings, “You do all that stuff, you do the meditations and affirmations and the anger work and it’s still gonna hurt.”
I’m sorry that Walt didn’t get a chance to know the mature me. But looking at the tape of him in tweed ensconced in his philosophy chair, I’m not all that sorry I didn’t experience the new him. I like what he has to say about recognition and fame and its relation to evil—I am, like him, preoccupied with thoughts of accomplishment and posterity. I like his thoughts, but the actual Walt I see before me is, for the most part, not the person I knew.
I wonder if the attraction he admitted to in the early days wasn’t in some part reciprocated by me in a purely platonic form. I never viewed him as an object (I was into young jocks). But in some way he may have been the “love” of my life. I had the kind of friendship with him that you only get a chance to have in your young years, when you’re free to be dumb and smart and mean and compassionate and giddy with life and future hope in one long session over French toast and coffee at Tom’s Restaurant.