Since 1988, no matter where I am in the world - from Tacoma to Olympia, London to NYC - I just have to think "I wonder what Karl T. Steel is up to right now...." And hey presto! There he is!
I have too many commitments to see friends this week, let alone on my anniversary, but how could I ignore the startling coincidence that KTS once again showed up improbably nearby?
And he is entitled to celebrate my romantic achievements - he represents continuity in the narrative. He is the only witness who was not a direct participant. He watched movies about the Romantic Poets in my first boyfriends parents basement, knew my first husband (KTS assessment: "scariest person I have ever met"), was friends with the majority of the interstitial players even if he did not know I was dating them, met Byron before I did. He is the only person I see regularly who truly understands, in a visceral way, the setting and characters in the stories. There were long stretches in which we were cordial enemies, but Karl was always somewhere just around the corner.
We poured the Malibu sand out of our shoes and headed to the city to pick him up at whichever academic conference he was attending.
Back at the hotel to tidy up I listened as Karl filled us in on all the latest news of life in Brooklyn, his partner, his job. Who would have predicted KTS would grow up to be a medievalist? Not me: I did not expect any of the bedraggled kids in our crew to manage more than a move to the next town over. We did not have an auspicious start, did not have resources, connections, money. I remain amazed that any of us are alive, let alone educated and employed.
Listening to KTS talk about research libraries and plenary talks I started to laugh wildly. He narrowed his eyes and asked "What?!"
"Nothing. I mean, look around you, we're having this conversation in Beverly Hills. I live in London, you live in New York. We have gray hair! It is just that. . ." How to summarise? "We've come a long way from Spanaway."
Over dinner we caught up on the adventures of friends, plans for the future, and at some point he asked "How is your health," in that forced, fake way with a sideways stare, the patented KTS signal that he "cares."
And I'm sure he does; we've been lurching in and out of each others lives so long it must mean something. The interesting bit though is the way the question is framed and presented - the fact that while we've mostly lost the accent, we still talk like we're from the place. We ask the question because we've learned this is the right question to ask, because we've learned the etiquette - though not, based on our seventeen year old raw selves, because the inquiry is anything either of us would bother about.
I laughed and waved my hand. "Fine."
And I am fine, though the tumours-in-waiting feel like they are lit up with neon. To me this is inconsequential, to normal or new friends frightening. But KTS is that rare creature, an old friend, someone who met me long before I was in remission. He knew me before the accident - he was supposed to be in the car - and he came to the hospital and sat with me after, listening as I talked fast around a dislocated jaw, bruised heart, shattered brain. He twitched, but he listened, and he laughed.
He doesn't remember that day (or does not want to admit the charge) but he is demonstrably one of the most loyal and compassionate people I have ever known. He does not indulge in surface hypocrisies, he just gets on with the work. He isn't scared of real trouble, or if he is, he doesn't turn away from a crisis. He shows up. He, like me, is wildly judgmental and scathing, but a faithful and true friend when it matters.
Who better to share our anniversary?
I never say maudlin things in person, reserving sentiment for this journal. I feel honoured to have known KTS more than half a lifetime, and hope that he sticks around for a couple more decades. I mean, really. He laughs at my jokes.