When I left home for college, I was two months past seventeen, an only child who had been incredibly socially isolated, who knew nothing about how to interact with his peers, who was introverted, solitary, and very private. I'd never had a close friend who wasn't an adult, and had never had to share my space with anyone. Nothing could have prepared me for the horror of life in the dorm; I had been put in the so-called "freshman quad" which consisted of two bedrooms and a sort of middle room to hang out and study . . . it wasn't that bad in retrospect, but at the time, having to be with three other guys (two of whom were also named David, though they went by "Dave") in close proximity was nothing short of Hell on earth. I couldn't do anything by myself -- I had to sleep, shower, eat, study, and just plain live with other people, which was not a skill I had acquired (and actually, I still haven't).
I would have lost my mind, I'm sure, had it not been for Josh, whom I met at the awkward "House Orientation" and whom I immediately recognized, as though I had known him in another life. Josh looked as though he felt about as out of place as I did, and also seemed to recognize me. We quickly became friends of a kind that few people ever have in their lifetime -- it was the sort of friendship that often required no words, no explanation. I had never experienced true acceptance from anyone my age in my entire life, and to be given such love, so unguardedly, was nothing short of a miracle. Josh was brilliant, a double major in piano performance and French (we were living in a French-speaking dorm), and he was just as neurotic as I was, if not more so. We had such fun together -- we took a French literature class in our first semester that was taught by an old man who had lost all enthusiasm for life long ago, except that he had a passion for Racine, and would read passages aloud with ridiculously dramatic intonation. This struck Josh and me as so funny that it was all we could do to sit through the class without bursting into laughter; there was a particular line he declaimed in class that became what would turn out to be a bittersweet catchphrase between us:
Tout m'afflige et me nuit, et conspire à me nuire.
(Everything afflicts and hurts me, and seeks to harm me).
Josh and I could reduce one another to near-hysterics by imitating the professor's reading of this line; it was just silly, and I hadn't had enough silliness in my life. We were very silly together, passing each other notes in class under the table like middle-schoolers; and very serious together, discussing literature and music and life in general. It was Josh who convinced me that despite my fairly sketchy musical education, I should become a musicology major, because I had such a good ear and understanding of what I heard, and loved it so much. The time I spent with Josh in his practice room at the Conservatory, commenting on his playing much as I do now on the MSS of my editing clients, remains in my memory as some of the most deeply satisfying hours I will ever know.
Josh went to France during the second semester of our freshman year, and while he was gone, something happened that would afflict and hurt me far more than even Racine could have imagined; it is too complicated to describe in the context of this particular story, but suffice to say that there was a student living in the dorm who was, I now think, a sociopath, and he chose me as his object to torment, in such strange and subtle ways that I had no idea how to deal with him, particularly since everyone around me seemed to think I was imagining things, even when he stopped being subtle. When we all returned for our sophomore year, this student was still living in the same dorm, and picked right up where he had left off. The difference was that Josh was now back, and Josh got in his way, which led to his assaulting Josh with a knife late one night. Tout m'afflige et me nuit, indeed.
This in turn led us to complain to Residential Life, whereupon I finally explained what had been going on for nearly a year, and we were told that in order to get this student moved out of our dorm (which was all we'd asked for) we would have to petition to have him expelled, which was decided by a board of our peers; nobody in the entire history of the school had ever been expelled for behavior issues -- only for academic failure. We succeeded in having him expelled, at the cost of our emotional health and sanity; we had no support from any adult or authority figure; everyone wanted to keep this student, despite his transgressions, because he was one of only two harpsichord majors at the school. This was the point at which I decided to drop out of college, disgusted with the entire system, plagued by nightmares, and disillusioned with the same routine I had experienced academically in high school, wherein success depended only on telling the professor what he wanted to hear, rather than on actually discovering one's own mind.
Josh and I kept in touch, and he came to visit me in Portland the summer after I left college. We were both, though each of us hid it pretty well in our own way, on the verge of personal crisis, and although our friendship had never faltered throughout our ordeal -- it had in fact become even stronger, and deeper, as relationships do when they go through fire -- our ability to extend ourselves outward was failing us, and we lost track of one another. I talked to Josh for the last time when I was nineteen, and then not again for nearly fourteen years.
I thought about him often, but didn't know how to find him. I couldn't find any trace of his family; I couldn't track him down through the Oberlin alumni office. I couldn't even find him via the Internet. I would dream, every few months, that I was back at Oberlin, looking for him, searching all over the campus, unable to find him. Sometimes I dreamt that I waited outside the door of his dorm room for him, but he never came back. Other times I dreamt that I was a few steps behind him, but could never catch up with him, and couldn't get his attention. I would awaken from these dreams heartbroken, wondering what had become of him, afraid that he must be dead.
June 11th 2005 was a truly horrible day for me. It was my thirty-third birthday, which I spent at home, deathly ill with what would shortly be diagnosed as whooping-cough, but which I knew to be the worst thing that had ever happened to me, even without an official name. A friend who thought I just had a bad cold was contagion-brave enough to bring me something for dinner, which I tried to eat to be polite and then wished I hadn't after I started to cough so violently that first I made myself sick, and then ended up lying on the bathroom floor, unable to get up, unable to catch my breath at all, and asking of Death where was its sting? When I was finally able to stagger to my feet, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror over the sink while I was rinsing my mouth. I looked horrible, and yet strangely familiar. I had seen a similar version of my face somewhere before . . . unshaven, ghostly pale, bloodshot, with black smudges under my eyes. I remembered with sudden vividness that I had looked this bad the night after Josh and I presented our case to the Oberlin Peer Review Board. The memory was so unexpected and clear that I had an odd moment of disorientation, and was surprised to see that I was at home, in my own bathroom, rather than standing on the cold tile floor in the bathroom at the dorm at one of a long row of industrial sinks.
I did something I had not allowed myself to do in several years, and dug out a box of Josh's letters to me, written from France during his freshman year, and from Oberlin after I left. Usually reading these letters upset me terribly, because I had no hope of finding him again. But this time, I knew that he was all right, that he was somewhere in the world. I went online and Google searched him, and found a tiny item that had been posted a couple of weeks before, listing him as the translator for the program notes for an album recorded by the Schoenberg Quartet. Half-delirious with excitement and a temperature of 102, I found an e-mail address for the Schoenberg Quartet, and sent what must have been one of the more unusual pieces of correspondence they had ever received, telling them that I thought they were in contact with my dearest friend from college, of whom I had lost track of fourteen years previously and been trying to find ever since, and that although I knew this to be an extremely strange request, it would be an act of great kindness and mercy if they would forward the message to him, if they knew how to reach him. Oh -- and I admired their Bartok.
Maybe this last bit did the trick; I still don't know. I also didn't know that the e-mail address I had picked went to quite a few administrative personnel for the quartet in a general mailbox. Two weeks later when Josh got home from the South of France, where he had been on holiday, his InBox was full of messages from the Schoenberg Quartet, telling him how to reach me. He had unsuccessfully been trying to find me for the past fourteen years as well, and had occasionally thought he saw me on the street where he was currently living, in Amsterdam, but was never able to catch up to me. There is a nine-hour time difference between Portland and Amsterdam . . . perhaps he saw me when I was dreaming of being similarly unable to find him.
When he called me from Amsterdam, there were so many things we could have said -- so much of our lives that had passed between our last meeting and that moment. What we ended up saying to each other was: "Oh, my God -- you sound EXACTLY the same!" And it was as though we had seen one another fourteen minutes ago, not fourteen years. There was no break between us at all, no passage of time, no change of heart, no diminution of the love we had always had for each other. We had known one another so truthfully and so deeply that time and circumstance were irrelevant to our friendship. And so we picked up the exact same conversation we had been having the last time we spoke . . . about whether the winners of the Booker Prize were overrated, the current state of the classical music world, and our mutual pet peeves about sloppy grammar.
Sometimes I think that Josh is the only person other than my mother who has ever truly understood me and loved me anyway. There are no words to describe what a blessing it was to find him again.