“Look at all these young people,” my friend Henry said the last time we walked around Greenwich Village together.
I pretended to feel offended. “Hey, you may be old, but not me. Not yet.”
“Just wait ’til you’re my age,” he quipped.
Henry, nine years older than I, was in his late fifties. Now that he’d said it, I noticed that most of the people filling the sidewalks around us in their fashionably unfashionable outfits were in their twenties. Still, though this may have been denial, I really did think of us both as relatively young. After all, we’d spent our evening together doing virtually all the things we loved to do when we first met over twenty-five years earlier.
I’d like to say that ours was that rare friendship which lasted through those decades, that we’d comforted each other through our divorces, pushed our sons — now in their teens — side by side in baby carriages, and advised and cheered one another on as we entered our current relationships. But that’s not how our story goes.
Henry was the first real friend I made after I graduated college and moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn. We met when I wandered into Second Hand Prose, the used bookstore on Flatbush Avenue he owned at the time. I liked Henry immediately. He had a sleepy deadpan way of speaking and a smart, subtle sense of humor that surprised me into sudden bursts of laughter. Henry also had a way of looking deep into my eyes when I talked which, in those days, made me flush.
I worked as a part-time receptionist at a nearby office and made a habit of stopping at a Chinese restaurant after my shift for an order of cold noodles and sesame sauce, Henry’s favorite. We’d sit together at his high counter passing the white container between us while he rang up customers and I picked through the latest box of donations for books to talk him into letting me keep. I’d hold up a slim volume of poetry and try to look like a pleading puppy.
“You know I’ll never make a living this way,” he sighed.
I was also good at talking Henry into closing shop early so we could take the subway into Greenwich Village where we’d browse through books on the tables and blankets of street vendors, try on hats and sunglasses in thrift stores, listen to music in Washington Square Park, and finally pick a restaurant from the collection of take-out menus Henry collected in his backpack
When I entered the graduate writing program at NYU, Henry teasingly called me an overachiever. In college, he’d tried on majors the way he now tried on worn sweaters in the second-hand shops we loved. He’d finally left without a degree, but I felt at home back in school. Still, when I was assigned a sonnet in one of my workshops and found I couldn’t understand iambics, it was Henry I turned to.
“I just don’t hear it,” I complained as we ate our noodles in his store one afternoon. “Do you have a book that can explain this to me?”
“Listen,” he said. “Janine hates Max and Martha too.”
“What are you talking about?” My roommate Martha had recently started dating Henry’s friend Max whose ex-wife was named Janine.
“Janine has its stress on the second syllable. Martha has it on the first.” Henry repeated the line, striking the counter with his chopsticks to emphasize the beats.
I was starting to get it. “Ona has its stress on the first syllable.”
“Right. You can have Janine hate you if you prefer.”
For three years, Henry was my closest friend. Throughout that time, he was involved with a beautiful German artist, Cordula Volkening. When their difficult relationship began to come apart, I was newly engaged to Richard and too in love with the idea of love to be much help to Henry. Hurt that I wasn’t more present and supportive when he needed me most, he stopped speaking to me.
Cordula died of brain cancer in 2009. In the last year of her life, she painted gorgeous heartrending works which she sold in gallery shows as a way to raise money for her children. In making up her guest lists, she tracked down people she hadn’t seen in decades, including Henry and me.
As soon as we were together in the same room, it was as though Henry and I said to each other, “Now where were we . . . ” Returning to our old rituals, we began meeting in The Village where we’d head to a nearby thrift shop, stop in the park to listen to the street musicians, then pick a restaurant from the menus Henry still collected in his pack. As in the old days, Henry could always make me laugh. He was also a great advocate of my writing. When he missed a reading Dan and I gave together at The Cornelia Street Cafe, he sat with me in the park and listened to a tape recording of the entire event.
“This was Cordula’s great gift to us,” I told Henry recently over dinner. “She gave us back our friendship.”
“You’re right,” he said. “She did.”
With Henry it was easy to forget about age and time. When he’d say something like Look at all these young people, I’d literally feel startled. True, as we wandered those old winding familiar streets we filled one another in on the years we missed and gave each other advice, often on parenting. But our evenings together felt to me like reprieves from my adult life. I was twenty-two again, giddy over a great thrift store find and the company of my wise, goofball friend.
Two months ago, on the morning of March 26th, I opened my email and saw a message with the subject heading Our friend Henry. Henry had died the day before, suddenly, from a ruptured aorta. I’m still in shock. Though I stood at his open grave and watched as his casket was lowered into the ground, I still can’t believe that if I punch in his number, he won’t pick up and say Oner! sounding as though he’s somehow both surprised and expecting my call.
A few days after Henry’s funeral, I took the train to The Village. I went to a thrift store, walked through the park, and chose a restaurant I’d only been to with him. As I sat across the table from what should have been Henry’s chair, I thought of plans we’d made and hadn’t yet gotten to. At the top of the list was an evening like this with both our sons, those budding young men who in a flash will reach the age I was on that fateful day in Brooklyn when I first strolled into Second Hand Prose.
I’m tempted to say that Henry was right. We weren’t young when we last walked together down Eighth Street. We were middle-aged adults with real responsibilities. Unbeknownst to us, Henry was already at the end of his life. But here was Henry’s great gift to me. Having him back in my life these last few years reminded me to take breaks and play the way I did when we first met. Thankfully, this time around, I knew how to be a better friend.