Nine days ago, my friend Pat died.
A few months ago, I considered using The Talented Mr. Ripley for a lesson plan. I emailed my department’s listserv asking if anyone had a copy.
A number of co-workers emailed back pointing out the college’s library I passed twice a day twice a week contains literally millions of media, undoubtedly including Ripley. Pat emailed to say he’d left a copy in my mailbox. We had a short, insightful (for me, anyway) discussion of the film, and the original version of the film, and the story they’re based on.
The further this century advances, the more grateful I become for the artifacts of the prior. I still answer the phone with a questioning “Hello?” because I remember when a phone call was a surprise. Sometimes I’m afraid to voice a question in public because someone is guaranteed to whip out their cell and look up the answer. Sometimes a question isn’t a quest for information, but for mere humanity.
Going to the library for Ripley would likely yield the DVD and nothing more. Getting it from a friend, especially one who loved stories like Pat did, yielded a story to remember, and to share. Thus the story-tree grows; thus the world is born again. Pat didn’t only write stories with words. He wrote stories into the lives of those who were lucky to know the man and love the man.
Every end-of-semester at work involes this spreadsheet with all our names appearing alphabetically. When I first scrolled through it I found myself suddenly, fiercely irritated that someone had forgotten the “Hanrahan” after “Hannigan,” only then to remember he’s gone.
When I entered the church for his funeral, I searched the crowd for his face for a seconds before realizing what I was doing. Pat would have had a good line about that.
Whenever I sat in a meeting at work with Pat, I’d learned not to look anywhere near his direction if someone said something funny or shocking. Because Pat had this face he’d make…his arms would be crossed over his sweater, and he’d look like he was leaning back despite sitting straight, and his expression was perfectly innocent, almost even bored…but his eyes were so wide, so devilish. Nothing flinched; he wouldn’t even blink. But he’d say sooo much with the slightest facial shift. His eyes were bilingual.
Writing was the first love we shared, but
soccer football was our true love. Because there’s so little scoring in football, every goal’s an irony, a miracle in the manner that all life is. The heart of its ethos is a paradox: the inevitability of the improbable. Goals are improbable. Yet goals are inevitable.
Human life is a paradox – the long shot of anyone existing; millions of sex cells bested just for a chance at life, played out on an even unlikelier stage: in all the vast, deadly universe, our perfect planet nestled in a cosmic sliver of spacetime, jussst the perfect distance from our perfect sun. Yet life exists. If it didn’t, someone would have to invent it. Maybe Someone did.
It’s the same with goals. With everything that has to click for goals to happen, it can be easy to lose hope. There are vast stretches where no one scores, no one even gets a shot on target. These stretches can last hours; if you’re Aston Villa, they may go on for light years. But always, there is life.
I started following football about ten years ago, via the Sunday sports section (“Sunday sports sections” now being another one of those 20th century artifacts). The Premier League standings appeared every Sunday. The music of the teams’ names won me over: Tottenham. Wolverhampton. Nottingham Forest. Crystal Palace. Ipswich. Blackpool.
I’d heard of Manchester United. I knew they were good. They struck me as the Yankees of the Premier League (years later, Pat would tell me “They’re the Yankees of England. 50% of the fans love them, 50% hate them, and everyone follows them.”). With United as the Yankees, my eyes were drawn to another team whose name I’d fancied: “Manchester City.” If United were the Yankees, than City were the Mets. So from then, on I was a Man City supporter.
(Pat was flabbergast the first time I told him that story. By “was flabbergast” with Pat I mean “slightly raised his eyebrow.” The only other time he looked even a smidge surprised was when I’d decline to take milk with the tea he’d made me. We both loved the written word, which worked out mostly to my benefit because of how he’d educate me to English English. Pat was a born teacher, a rabbi of sorts, always learning, learning while teaching, always. I remember the pale blue light of the faculty lounge the day he thrilled me with the origin of “the penny dropped,” a phrase I’d heard during games and grown fond of.)
He visited Manchester a few years ago. Told me he’d bring me back some of the local newspapers (for the sports section, natch). When I was a kid, even into young adulthood, I valued nothing more than newspapers from other countries. Pat not only brought back newspapers, but a Manchester City scarf and hat. Best gift I’ve received since my nieces.
A few times a year, Pat and I’d meet to watch a game together. The first time was April 16th, 2011, four days from four years to the day of our last time together. City faced United in the FA Cup semifinals at Wembley. City won 1-0. Yaya Toure put City ahead in the second half. This was a year before the QPR miracle (again with the miracles; I wonder if Pat would consider that forced, or repetitious, or if he’d approve of it as a motif); Yaya’s goal was far and away the biggest moment in my time following them. I did not react, deciding I’d wait to see how my football sensei reacted first. Some people transform when they watch sports. Watching sports with your friends is like having sex with them. You can do it with some, not all, and you never know what they’re really like till you’ve seen them like that. Pat wasn’t even fazed. He was more attentive to something positive Yaya had done. He’d confirmed my very reason for following football, the reason why if we didn’t exist, we’d have to be invented: for the beauty. This was the first of many lessons I’d learn from him…along with how a 0-0 game can be 90 minutes of exhilaration…and, as he wrote in his last email to me, that he’d rate Messi ahead of former United star Ronaldo because “he’s less of a prima donna”…and that John Terry’s a soulless tool.
When Man City finally qualified for Champions League play, their games were always on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoons, and every semester, whatever day City played on ended up being the day and time I taught. I didn’t see them play in the CL for years. Those first few years, Pat’s texts were like my own private wire services. A handful of 140-characters-max text messages and he’d craft a comprehensive analysis of all the narratives to know. When I finally was able to record the games, I’d tell him not to text me because I wouldn’t get to the game till after work, after he’d seen it. And still, I’d get out of work and see those handful of texts from him. And I’d read them all anyway. Because his words were worth it.
I first met Pat in a short story class. When our stories were workshopped, we could pick someone in the class to read a section of our work aloud. I picked Pat because I loved to hear him read. His voice was brass and woodwinds, his dynamic soft but strong, allegro, piano con molto sforzando, the rests between his phrasings virtuosic.
The last time he emailed me, he complimented something I’d written. He’d read it. Naturally. He read everything.
The last time I saw him alive, it was the first real day of spring. He’d moved to the North Fork, which is a peaceful, picturesque Sunday morning drive except if that Sunday morning falls on the first real day of spring, because then the winery crowds swarm like locusts and this normally curative trip becomes a bumper-to-bumper war of attrition. Plus I’d gotten the start time wrong and left when the game was starting. I missed the whole first half. We watched United beat City 4-2.
He was two days from his first chemotherapy. We talked about soccer the whole game. Once it ended, we talked about work, and what he was reading, and the future. He told something he knew would make me laugh, and I did, the deepest laugh I’ve had in a while. He offered me lunch, and I declined. It was manners on my part; it was stupid. I hadn’t wanted to be a bother. I thought we had more time. He passed on a couple weeks later. Now I wonder what stories I missed out on by not lunching with him one last time.
My last sight of him was as I was pulling away from in front of his house. He came out shortly after I did, trash bag in hand. I passed by him, wondering whether to wave. We’d just spent a couple hours together. We’d just said goodbye. Was one last acknowledgement overkill? He waved, not looking back. That is my last image of him. That is the perfect image of him.