One of my best friends ever was Rayfield A. Waller, a prolific writer, agile intellectual and urban quick wit from Detroit. We met when we entered the Cornell English PhD program in 1988 and stuck together in the trenches of it for four years. He was my partner in crime, my war buddy, the one who understood my pain and alienation because he was feeling the same thing. I was a middle class Mexican American woman from the San Francisco Bay Area and he was a working class Black man from Detroit, but the psychic violence of Ivy League racism felt the same to both of us. We were as startled by our close friendship as we were committed to it. I won’t even consider what my experience at Cornell would have been like without him.
But when I moved to Chicago and he settled back into Detroit, we fell out of touch. I visited him once, soon after we’d left Cornell and we had a great visit, but Ray moved frequently and couldn’t always be found at the same place from month to month. I tried to stay in touch, but we spoke for the last time in 1994.
Of my Cornell memories, one of the most vivid is sitting with Ray under a tree one bright day on campus. I remember holding on to him tightly as I wept, great big out-loud sobs of fear and emotion. I don’t remember the trigger, but the constant stress of being a student of color in an intimidating Ivy League program often had me depressed. I clutched him as I let it out, and it felt so good to cry that way: not alone, but being held in a strong, warm embrace. I was comforted by his understanding, his love, and his strong, solid hug. He was my best friend.
I was bewildered when he faded to no presence at all in my life. He vanished as soon as I stopped hunting him down. I felt very hurt by it. I never understood how he and I could have been so tight, needing each other so much, and then be nothing at all. It made me wonder if the friendship hadn’t been real, but I knew it had been. It had helped keep me alive. It just didn’t make sense, so I added my experience with Ray to my compiling life experiences that indicated that friendship is impossible to hold on to, and nothing lasts. When I find myself becoming friends with someone, I enjoy and celebrate it, but I know better than to get used to it.
Recently, I received a stunning email. It was from Ray Waller. After our ten-year silence, it was like a resurrection from the dead, a Lazarus sighting. Ray Waller? Writing to me? Now? Yet through the shock, I knew this was an omigod miracle and the best thing I could ask for. His brief note made me happy and excited and not even hoping for a renewed bond, but just happy to be hearing from him at all. Yes, Ray Waller was writing to me and not only re-establishing contact, but letting me know that even though he left my life, I didn’t leave his. While I thought of him as a disappeared former friend, he wrote that he had maintained me as an influence in his life and his writing.
How I can have such an impact on someone who feels absent to me? What does this mean? I think it means there might be a whole other alchemy of friendship for me to discover. Ray’s re-appearance in my life suggests that maybe friendship can endure, maybe it’s there even when it seems gone. Maybe the existence of a friendship isn’t determined by my perception of it. Maybe instead of going dead, a friendship can go dormant, emitting a life force as constant as the refrigerator hum. And maybe it can spring back to life as soon as one of the friends says, tag I found you.
Ray’s reappearance in my life seems to mean that Ray and I are still friends, but I just didn’t know it. Maybe I have lots of friendships I count as dead and buried, but which abide unseen because those friends still think of me and feel me in their lives. If that’s true, I could have dozens and dozens of friends I thought I’d lost. These friendships might surround me like ghosts or luck or ideas, ready to take physical form if I accept their existence and summon them. Maybe I’m not as alone as I feel.
It’s an incredible idea. If countless others are feeling my impact on their lives, can’t I tap into that link and feel them in mine? Maybe I don’t have to feel lonely. Maybe all those crossed out names in my address book don’t condemn me as unlikeable, but are simply links I haven’t used in a while. Maybe I’m not alone. Maybe.
At any rate, Ray is still as incredible a writer as ever and I look forward to what he produces on his new blog. Check it out. That's my friend, Ray Waller.