Monday, June 8, 2009

Serving up Friendship


Thinking about high school friends. Friends from my second high school, that is. A place I entered under cover of deep Michigan snow, in the middle of my sophomore year. Spring semester, summer vacation, then back for one more term before having to take a medical leave. These events are all detailed in other posts. But what I remember today is this: an unexpected gesture from a friend I didn't even know I had. A handcrafted gift I have kept and cherished since the age of sixteen. With all the moves I've made, it's perhaps a miracle that this gift has not been broken—it is fragile, fired clay—and yet it makes sense: I have taken more than the usual care with it. The object in question is a plate, glazed in dove gray with an abstract crosshatch of lavender, peat, and twilight sky. It was made expertly by a boy in my school, in the ceramics studio, and given to my mother to pass along to me once she'd made the trip up north, alone, to clean out my room toward the end of the school year when it became clear I wouldn't be back for a while. I was at my most miserable, a teenager in physical pain and emotional torment—feeling sorry for myself and thinking that the only people I wanted to comfort me were friends who were hundreds of miles away. I had found myself unexpectedly in a NYC hospital. When discharged, it was to go to my parents' house—a place in Connecticut, where they moved after I was already away in school, so I knew no one there. I was full of spite, much of it directed at my mother, unfairly; I was especially unhappy that she was back on my campus, where I couldn't be. So when she came back with an object fattened with bubble wrap, when she said it was a gift for me from a friend, I took it in my hands carefully, lovingly, and it was like someone had thrown me a lifeline. The plate is heavy, thick-rimmed. It is not a plate you want to eat from, though I do use it often as a serving dish. I might display it as the piece of fine art that it is, perhaps mounted on a wall—except that I've never liked the looks of plates on walls, and also I prefer to enjoy it as more than something to gaze at. As soon as I saw the plate, I knew who it was from. I had admired it already, though I'm not sure I said anything about it to this boy, the artist. In fact, we had never said much of anything to each other at all, ever. We knew each other, hung out with some of the same people, and saw each other around the art department. Had he also been in the metalsmithing class I took? I know that he made beautiful metal pieces as well; I remember some of them from the senior art show that took place later. Would I have called him a friend before this moment of giving? I'm not sure. I suppose I would have; there was no reason not to. I liked him, though not in any way that suggested I really knew or understood who he was. He was a bit of a mystery to me; still is. I remember him as quiet. He was an observer. And what was so startling was that, apparently, he had observed me rather well. His gesture of sympathy for my ordeal was intimate and perfect, despite (or because of) its being so unexpected. I am sure I thanked him for the plate, but I'm also sure that he has no idea how, all these years later, his gift still grounds me. It still reminds me that friends can be hidden in plain view, and that, like earth-bound angels, they can appear at exactly the right moment, then step away as quickly. We never did strike up an overt relationship of any sort, and once high school was over, life took us in different directions completely. We didn't know each other well enough to keep in touch. Still, I wonder what he's doing now and how he is; if he is still making beautiful art; and if he ever remembers a girl to whom he once served friendship, simply plated on a dish glazed in the colors of moonlit night.

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