Editor’s Note: (Oct 2014) We’re proud to note that Nancy Ludmerer was cited as a Notable Essayist by The Best American Essays 2014 for this essay.
I’d always remembered Michael’s birthday, even when years and miles separated us, and when there it was in The New York Times death notices after his name, I knew it was him, my first love, beginning when I was fifteen. The death notice said he’d waged a determined battle against kidney disease. We had not seen or spoken to one another for three decades. When, thirty years before, he married someone else, he’d said that, in deference to her, even our friendship had to end. I was heading for the West Coast — law school and what I thought would be a new beginning — and had no right to protest. It was I who, in the face of his “I will wait for you” the year before, had declared I wanted only to be friends and pushed him (both of us) to date others. I was 24 and he, 26; we’d known each other for nearly a decade. I knew Michael was a catch — not because of surface attributes (although he was tall and handsome, with tousled brown hair and sky-blue eyes) — but because he was a mensch.
Only in print could I be funny and brave with the opposite sex…
I respected Michael’s decision that we not see each other anymore. Nonetheless, when I returned to New York a few years later to practice law, I imagined we’d run into each other now and then in “the City” (as, growing up in Queens, we called Manhattan), since we loved the same things.
We never did. Now the death notice said there would be a memorial service that day, at a Westchester synagogue. Although Metro-North could have gotten me there, I didn’t see how I could attend. I had no right. Instead I sent a check in Michael’s memory to the Renal Transplant Program mentioned in the notice.
It might have ended there, but didn’t. Months later, after I read (again in a death notice) that Michael’s father had died, I wrote notes to his mother and his sister. One day, my secretary told me his mother was on the line. When I heard Polly’s voice, with its Midwestern twang, it was as if the relationship I’d had with her when Michael and I were teenagers had never even been interrupted.
Michael and I met in a Forest Hills High School English class in the Spring of 1968, studying anti-war poetry. He was as tongue-tied then as I; when we brushed past each other on the stairs, we barely spoke. Only in print could I be funny and brave with the opposite sex — as could he. A rumor spread: after two students were caught kissing in the hall by the vice-principal, the girl was sent back to class but the boy received “detention”. I wrote a satiric column for the school paper denouncing the inequity, soliciting applications for a 24-hour protest “kiss-in”. Food and drink, I wrote, would be provided intravenously to the participants.
Michael handed in the sole application, touting the strength of his lips from years of playing French horn, requesting an audition. That summer, we attended repeatedly rained-out performances of Shakespeare-in-the-Park, which gave us countless opportunities to kiss. In September, a teachers’ strike gave us still more. When the strike ended (around Thanksgiving), I wept.
Imagine being 16, in love, with no school. Not since the middle ages had this happened! We explored every pocket park, every mid-Central Park knoll. Grant’s Tomb. “You looked so beautiful in those leaves,” Michael said after a windy afternoon bruising our mouths in one of those places. When I fretted about my dishevelment, he quoted Robert Herrick: “A sweet disorder in the dress/Kindles in clothes a wantonness… A careless shoestring in whose tie, I see a wild civility/Do more bewitch me than when art is too precise in every part.”
We bewitched each other. We were officially going out but longed to go in. Michael’s family’s apartment was near school. His mother, Polly, insisted we keep the door of Michael’s room ajar, a rule we violated often.
That’s not to say his mother wasn’t welcoming. On afternoons at their apartment, after an hour or so in Michael’s room, we’d emerge, disheveled and hungry, and I’d sit and chat with Polly while Michael made sandwiches and their cat, Penny, twitched her tail and acted superior. Polly told me about Michael as a child — how he was only named Michael because the Irish nurse in the hospital, at the moment of delivery, exclaimed: “It’s a Mikey!” How she and Michael’s father worried when at two Michael barely spoke; and how (in a variation of a Jewish joke) Michael explained to the pediatrician that this was because there was no need. Nothing was wrong. He had everything he wanted.
There was a Midwestern warmth and matter-of-factness about Polly that I loved. To my knowledge, she never tried to separate us or suggested we were spending too much time together. Until we began dating, Michael had been something of a loner. Polly was glad to see him so happy. And I adored her. My mother, somewhat miffed, commented that I wished Polly were my mother, and Michael’s family, my family. When I was fifteen, that was true.
Nine months after Michael’s death — and 30 years since I’d seen him, or her — Polly invites me to lunch. She still lives in the same apartment where I used to go with Michael after school.
As I traverse the lobby, I become the 15-year-old girl Michael once loved, whom he wooed — often—through letters. “Fifteen is a wonderful age to be at,” he wrote, shortly after submitting his application for the kiss-in. “I don’t think I started to breathe until I was fifteen.” It’s so easy to ridicule that remark, coming from a 17-year old, yet in a way he was right. He’d spent the two years before we met molding the man he would become. At 15, I was unformed. Now he transmitted what he knew to me. The saddest moment in drama? The sound of the axe in “The Cherry Orchard”. The pinnacle of musical achievement? Don Giovanni. The most beautiful female voice? Gundula Janowitz. Greatest orchestra? Concertgebow. Michael introduced me to radio commentator Jean Shepard (whom Polly also loved); to Haagen Dazs; and to a racy French cheese called Morbier, which had a vein of red wine running through it. With Michael I first tried Vindaloo, sushi, and (during our college years) pot.
Although I’ve been through a divorce and my own father’s death, compared to Michael, I’ve lived a sheltered existence. After years of dialysis, after a renal transplant that was successful and then wasn’t, Michael refused further treatment because he chose not burden his family any longer. He wanted his wife and sons to get on with their lives. Or at least that is my limited understanding, as an outsider whose troubles, in comparison, are very, very small.
I understand, too, that when Polly invites me to lunch and takes me into what had been Michael’s bedroom for the first time in thirty years it’s not because this is the place where we first made out and shared each other’s secrets, but because when we were together, there was no illness, no premonition of future pain. We stand there quietly — Polly and I and Michael’s sister, who has joined us for lunch. On the walls there are photographs: Michael and his sons, Michael and his wife on a cruise.
When we return to the living room, Polly’s cat — one of Penny’s successors, named Meg — permits me to pet her. During lunch we speak about our present lives. After an extremely long courtship (twelve years), I am about to be married for the second time, and I’ve brought pictures of my son (who’s slightly younger than Michael’s twin boys), who will “give me away”, and also of my husband-to-be, Malcolm. But much of the time we talk about Michael.
I share the few mementoes I still have: A wintry photograph of us in high school, bundled up and a tad awkward (photographer unknown). A gold heart inscribed “Love Michael” (the missing comma a source of amusement we never bothered to correct). His first gift: a small leather jewelry box from Spain, which (I now see) could hold all the other items — including the only letter from him I’ve kept, written when we were in our early twenties and living apart. After apologizing for a misunderstanding during a late-night phone call (the telephone being, he wrote, “the most insidious invention there ever was”), Michael offered a cure for my downheartedness by recounting how when he was depressed he “went to some activity every night for two weeks — concerts, master classes, lectures on Surrealism, Joyce and Synge, formulaic density in the German oral tradition. . . anything I could do, I did. It makes you value your free time, if nothing else.”
In the same letter he wrote about how his sister had visited him in Ithaca and they’d gone to Moosewood, one of our favorite restaurants.
“Moosewood is part of our history,” I explained, over tunafish salad and guacamole with his mother and sister. “Michael used to tease me about a certain waiter there, with a blonde ponytail, who was particularly sweet to us.” One year, for my birthday, Michael gave me the original Moosewood cookbook. But somewhere along the way, I’d brought the cookbook to work to photocopy a recipe for a friend, and it disappeared. And the dozens of letters from our high school years had long since been discarded.
Seeing Michael’s mother and sister, and standing in his bedroom, brought back memories of our teen-age intimacies — and even of the clothing I’d worn. The muskrat-lined green wool coat I found at a garage sale, to keep me warm on my visits to Ithaca, in which he dubbed me “Second Hand Rose.” A certain pale aqua dress with buttons down the front that I wore to special events in high school. At night, when Michael’s bedroom was off limits, we would resort to a bench on a traffic island on Queens Boulevard. The aqua dress was perfect then, because buttons (or at least those buttons) were much easier to undo than a back zipper. We kept our coats on for warmth, and for camouflage.
As always, I announce my full name when I call Polly. It’s not simply that she’s 92 and hard-of-hearing. The deeper reason is my knowing how little claim I have on her — on her life, her good will, and, most important, on Michael’s memory. Polly thanks me for calling and I can tell she is genuinely pleased.
In most of our calls, when I ask how she’s doing, she’ll tell me about trying to get outside for a walk everyday, about visits from Michael’s sister, about one grandson’s marriage or another’s college search. Often she’ll say, “I still miss Michael.” She’ll tell me how the emptiness doesn’t go away.
Michael’s sister told me that throughout his illness Michael used to call his mother every day. Today I’ve called her to wish her a good New Year and Polly reminisces brightly. “You and Michael certainly spent a lot of New Years together.”
I tell her about one New Year’s Eve, when we celebrated at Luigino on West 48th Street. We’d ordered what for us was an expensive appetizer — an antipasto — expecting that I (who was kosher) would be able to eat the cheese and vegetables, but when it arrived, the prosciutto and Italian salami were draped over everything. Michael speared one lone piece of lettuce in a corner of the massive platter, put it on my plate and said, obviously annoyed: “There’s your portion.” I cried at the tone in his voice and because I feared our evening was ruined. After Michael softened and comforted me, the waiter came over, unbidden. “Life is about good and bad,” he philosophized in a heavy Italian accent as he refilled our water glasses. “You’ll see.” It was December 1968. I was 16 and Michael was 17.
Soon after my lunch with Polly, Malcolm and I are married. Days before the wedding, I receive a gift from Polly and from Michael’s sister. It’s a Moosewood Cookbook, to replace the one Michael gave me, the one I have lost. In their thoughtful act, I perceive that they know — as do I — that the people we have truly loved are never really lost to us
In high school we took for granted that we had all the time in the world. But, at the same time, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” was one of our favorite poems: “Had we but world enough and time/this coyness lady were no crime” we chanted to one another, and “The grave’s a fine and quiet place/But none I think do there embrace.” There was nothing coy about our relationship, nothing held back when we embraced. His physique, I told Michael, was like the Kritios Boy’s, from my art history textbook, a comparison he found riotous. When I shared my fanciful theory that each person resembled some animal — in his case, a cat — he executed a perfect feline shimmy and, eyes half-closed, a smile of pure contentment.