Monday, April 27, 2009

Dear Not-Quite-Harry, from Not-Quite-Sally

Have you ever seen the movie 'When Harry Met Sally'?

Well, Harry wasn't supposed to die, but he has.

A decade ago, at a noisy bar in Manhattan, I met George. I don't remember meeting him, and he always took me to task for this, every time he recalled that first encounter and I couldn't. What I do remember was meeting him again the next day. Invited into the city from their home in New Jersey, he and his brother Mike were attending a ceremony honoring their father's recent appointment as archon to the Greek Orthodox Church. After the weekend festivities had finished, George and Mike asked me and my roommate to join them for brunch. There, I saw a face that was all grin. Even his eyes looked like they were laughing.

"It's urgent," he said to me one night a few weeks later. "I need to see you one last time before you leave." Already in  relationship with someone in Singapore, I had packed my bags and my life to move overseas.

"Here," he said, depositing a hand-written letter into the pocket of my coat. "Don't read it now."

After he dropped me off, I went inside and read the letter. If this story were a movie script, maybe I'd have stayed. But it isn't, and I didn't. A ticket had been purchased, an apartment lease had been terminated; plans had been made.

Two years later, I called him. "George," I said, shaking from the anxiety of how he might respond, as well as how he might not respond, "I've made a huge mistake. You were right. We are meant to be together."

But it was too late. George had fallen in love with someone he'd met while working in Japan. "I want to have five baby girls with her," he'd said to me one afternoon, as if I were the friend who wanted to hear something like that.

Eventually, we both made that promise that every good platonic couple makes: the back-up plan. If neither of us had found anyone by the time I turned thirty-something, we'd marry. Over the years, we joked about that timing. Then, still years into the future, we both took turns bemoaning the fact that the date we'd set was far too close for comfort. With plenty of certainty that we had longevity on our side, neither of us considered anything more than pushing the date forward.

About five years later, in 2006, I spent a summer in Mongolia. On a whim, I asked George to join me for a week. We both were single, although 'that' wasn't on my mind; I'd just wanted him along for the ride that was my Mongolian experience. Weeks passed, and still I hadn't heard back from George. Much later, I would find out that Fate lent a hand in that moment, which gave George one last chance to say goodbye to his father. His responses to my emails were never delivered to my inbox, and he never received a return receipt alerting him that the mails had not been sent. Assuming he'd simply ignored me, I fumed.

The next time I heard from George, it was through my best friend, who was still living in Manhattan and had received an urgent telephone call from him. "Trish," she'd written, "George has been calling everywhere for you. His father has died suddenly." In an airport on my way home from Mongolia, I knew what this meant. For George, family was everything. Especially his father.

At the wake, I held onto George while he cried that terrible lonesome cry of despair that you never, ever, want to hear anyone unleash. I prayed as hard as I could that God would let me carry some of his and his family's burden. At a total loss for words, I simply reminded George that he and I never would have become friends in the first place if it hadn't been for his father and that ceremony years ago at the Greek Church in Manhattan.

"Once upon a time, there was this little frog," he began, and I finally drifted off. Months after my Mongolia trip, I'd broken up with a boyfriend and George had spent the night on my sofa to keep me company. In tears and restless, I'd asked George to tell me a bedtime story. Indulging in childlike details about the frog's life and personality, he'd made me laugh my way into sleep that had been all but impossible to come by.

That summer, a group of us traveled to Greece, to George's family's ancestral home on the island of Xios. After spending the morning alone on a tiny beach cut into the face of a rock cliff, we spent the afternoon exploring some of the island's inland ruins. It was the kind of setting that provides the backdrop to serious conversations about love. Climbing in the oven-like heat of what appeared to be an old, crumbling mansion, we talked about our past relationships, and then about our past together.

"Do you remember that letter that you wrote to me when we were in our twenties?" I asked him. "The one about 'When Harry Met Sally'?" I pressed. In the letter he'd put into my coat years earlier, he'd predicted that "our story is not finished here; you and I are Harry and Sally, just like in the movie."

"Yes, I sort of remember that," George said ambivalently, without looking at me. "But life is not the movies, you know." I stopped trying to make the point I'd been about to make.

Weeks later, at a restaurant back in Manhattan, I decided to confess. Every platonic friendship has that inflection point, and I was sure we'd arrived at ours. "George," I began, nervously clutching at my shirt and leaving my food untouched, "I don't know how to say this so I'll just come right out and say it." I gulped my entire glass of wine, poured another for both of us, and continued. "I think I love you." He paused for the length of time that lets you know you're not going to like what you're about to hear.

"I've thought about this, too," he said. "But..." After the 'but', I stopped listening. Sometimes it's hard to believe that you won't get what you've hoped for, when what you've hoped for seems just so, well, obvious.

Months later, about a year ago, and a decade after I'd met George, I went to a costume party in Hong Kong. On a whim, I dressed up as Snow White. There, I met a man dressed as Hugh Hefner. Aside from the fact he was dressed as an immediately recognizable celebrity, I felt like his face was immediately recognizable, to me. Overcome with that feeling I'd searched for in love, I got the sense I was meeting this dressed-up Hugh again for the first time. In other words, the arrogance from my youth didn't reappear to require a second meeting to remember his face. Falling in love, I moved on from George. And George moved on, too. We never talked about it much, but one day we did say goodbye, laughing over the situation in that good-natured way that lets you hope you can evolve into something located in the present tense, rather than something focused on the past or the future.

And then a few weeks ago, I received a late-night phone call that I'd never expected to receive. The words 'George' and 'dead' traveled through the receiver and hung in the air for a period of time so devoid of possibility that I could not, and still cannot, bring myself to believe them. The silence of that moment was, and still is, complete. On Saturday, March 14th, while surfing in El Salvador, George Chatzopoulos drowned and died. He was 36 years old.

George, it's me, your old friend Trish, and I'm here to tell you that you were right, life doesn't turn out the way the movies tell you it's supposed to turn out. But one thing I know, George, one thing I'm certain of: this was not how your story was supposed to end.


Tiny epilogue: 

In the long and quiet days after the accident, I sat alone, staring at a computer screen, aimlessly searching online newspapers for word of George's death. Something from the NY Times archive caught my eye. Entitled ‘Fishing Party’s Close Call’, an article from September 1899 described how a boat had nearly sunk off the coast of New Jersey after getting caught in high seas and a strong undertow. Because only the captain could swim, he heroically and single-handedly saved all of his crew from drowning. The captain’s name was George. Two of the three crew members’ names were George, and George. Smiling at the incredible irony of the story, I imagined my friend George, his face all-grin and those laughing eyes, saying one last goodbye, from wherever he was.