They were my Yale classmates and roommates long, long ago.
I took the train to New Haven for a trio reunion/rendezvous on a fine fall day, with egrets on the blue water under the azure sky.
Joel picked me up at Union Station and drove me to the new Yale Center for British Art, where we were to join Jim and have a festive lunch.
I hadn’t counted on the slow pace of my pals, and worried about missing the 4:00 return journey. Seems my gait is a bit livelier than theirs.
“What was your father’s life like?” I made so bold as to ask Jim. I had met his mom, but never his dad.
“He was a mailman, but it wasn’t easy,” Jim said. “He took the trolley to the post office, and would go out of his way to bring an important letter to the folks on his route. They thought very well of him!”
I was glad I had asked the question, inviting his response, and came up with a good commentary: “All the Biblical prophets were mailmen delivering, or trying to avoid, urgent messages from God!” (I teach a course on the poetics of religion at the Rhode Island School of Design and had indeed noticed that theme.)
Joel and Jim were both wearing their caps from previous reunions, but I had on my Sint Eustatius cap – and tried to show off my recent research about the patriotic importance of that little island in the Caribbean, sometimes called Statia.
Joel said, “Naomi [his wife] and I used to scuba dive in Statia!” So I felt a little diminished ….
Joel drinks only water, but Jim and I had red and white wines. After coffee (herb tea for Joel), we strolled the Eli campus, the routes we had known as undergrads.
“We hardly know this town anymore, but it looks flourishing,” said Joel. And yet, his children and grandchildren were and are Yalies, and Joel lives not far from the campus, in Stamford, Connecticut.
I relived or reminded each of us of episodes in the album of our memories.
“This is where I last saw Murray right under that gate, when he bade me farewell ... and in the first alumni magazine, I read his obituary. I had never known how very ill he was, until too late.”
As we somewhat hesitatingly made our way around, we spoke about our bygone romances, interludes, escapades.
“What happened to Helen? Pat? Barbara? Remember those twins?” Joel said. Jim just smiled smugly.
Well, I made that homeward-bound train, but only because it departed half an hour late!
The last thing I heard Jim say was, “Never enjoyed a reunion more!”
I think, or hope, that he was sincere, not merely diplomatic, in saying that.
I tend to wax philosophical and poetical upon such occasions, to show off that I learned something fancy from those bright college years ... the shortest, gladdest years of life. I made an effort to restrain that pretentious tendency.
Joel picked up the tab for the lunch, although Jim and I had put our cards on the table. That’s Joel!
Jim has sold his house and was seeking a new place and way to live. He is a veteran of the Army Air Force, a widower and a wit.
Jim, a person of color, had been lodged in a “single” chamber, almost an attic loft, next door to a “Ford” scholar, a boy of 16, a Holocaust survivor, also alone and lonely and lost.
“Will you wrestle with me?” the boy had asked Jim, and they became chums. Later, Jan turned into quite a scholar and was even “tapped” to join a Secret Society and then welcomed in the law school, where he rose to stardom as a professor.
Jim tried to stay in contact with his freshman buddy, but now Jan is gone and all we three have left, really, is each other. With our separate pasts, presents and personal powers of recall, we pace around in circles, both together and yet also singularly.
Joel has retired from any number of businesses, from running art cinemas to establishing trailer parks, but had rung the bell in Yale’s Harkness Tower and entertained at football games, and now joins a jazz combo in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“If you perform a song, you realize the complex design. My top favorites are the melodies and lyrics of Jerome Kern. ‘You are the promised touch of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long ...,’ ” he said.
Yes, we remembered our shared past, but we also kept separate secrets, which we now shared. Jim was asked to play host to Eartha Kitt, the star of the movie “New Faces of 1952,” at a time when our land was still so segregated that performers could not share quarters with guests in many hotels. He refused to be used as a convenient token.
We are all torn between our loyalties and face dilemmas in the endless search for authentic identities.
Our long luncheon and hour-long hike around the once familiar campus landscape was an oddly touching and poignant prelude to the slowly darkening afternoons of the coming months.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.