While in New York, I had the rather strange experience of seeing someone with whom my friendship has lapsed, or, more accurately, well passed its use-by date. I don’t think – and running into him in NYC confirmed this – that he bears me any ill will, I think I just utterly ceased to be relevant to his life the moment I left his sightline – a very long time ago now.
I’ve had a number of friends fade to black this way, and I find it all a bit bewildering and bruising, since bodily absence isn’t the death knell of a friendship for me. In this case it was especially hurtful, as he was one of my best friends during my second year at Pearson, so across a very formative period of my life. But let’s face it: we were great friends in person, but that was for less than a year 20 years ago, and we wrote for maybe another year or so after that. That’s it. I did visit him at his hometown while backpacking in 1999, but when he came to Australia to speak during a Melbourne art show a few years ago, he certainly didn’t bother looking me up.
Ironically, I am professionally and personally interested in contemporary art, publishing quite a lot of articles in The Australian on the subject in Special Reports, as well as obviously blogging about exhibitions and so forth here, so I’ve always been aware of my old friend’s ongoing ascendancy in the international art scene. Quietly, I couldn’t be prouder, however misplaced my pride in him must seem from across this kind of canyon.
I’d last seen him in NYC in 2001, an experience that confirmed his fundamental disinterest in knowing me any longer (indeed, when someone else suggested we meet, I expressed well-founded doubt that he’d have any interest in doing so), so I had no intention of seeking him out this time. But here was the catch: he is now Associate Director of a museum I very much wished to visit, both for the architecture of the building itself (it hadn’t opened when last I was in Manhattan) and for the contemporary art displayed within. I thought, no problem. As if I’ll see him while I’m there – that never happens! Edmund Capon, the recently retired Director of the AGNSW, was never once in the same room while I’ve cruised the gallery on countless visits; ditto Elizabeth Ann MacGregor of Sydney’s MCA. What were the chances my old friend and I would collide? Remote, was my calculation, particularly as curators and gallery directors travel extensively with their work. He probably isn’t even in the country, I reasoned. And more to the point, why should I actively avoid a museum I really wanted to visit because of the demise of a long-ago friendship? To do so seemed ridiculous.
So off we went one day, initially intending to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, then, deciding we’d left it too late, opting at the last minute to head to the museum in question instead. We went straight to the top and began making our way down floor by floor – it’s one of those great midsize museums where it is actually possible to see everything inside during the course of a single tour. Unfortunately the Touring Toddler wasn’t having any of it, so Llew and he made an early exit, leaving me to wander the gallery in peace.
All my nostalgic bias aside, it was a satisfying series, with a number of thought-provoking points of intercession between the multimodal work of such different artists (all female); it was possible to discern the light sketch of a narrative arc that careful curation had drawn between them. It also avoided that all too common crime of contemporary art, which is alienating the average viewer through some intangible, hard to articulate failure of technique and/or originality. I’m sure you know what I mean: it’s when the innate quality of a piece appears sometimes brazenly, oftentimes lazily in doubt. When people say, “I know art when I see it, and this is not art,” I believe they are referring to this branch of contemporary work that leaves even the most intrepid and committed gallery goer feeling cheated and even furious. Jaded. Happily, that disconnect did not trouble my own visit to this contemporary space, which successfully engaged the eye, the mind and, in surprising, sometimes unexpectedly moving ways, the heart. I was so glad we’d come.
In the lift, I sighed happily. I’d enjoyed my visit and was about to emerge unscathed. But as the profound perversity of fate would have it, I saw my ex-friend the exact moment I exited the elevator on the ground floor. He was working at one of the tables in the museum’s lobby cafe, bent intently over his papers in a casually concentrated pose still so like that of the college student I once knew. There was a rush of tenderness for the sweet boy he’d been, but seconds later I felt the frigid air of here and now. What to do?
Llew and the TT were somewhere outside – should I leave? Or, having seen him, should I say hello? Would it, in fact, be exceedingly peculiar not to say hi, having come across him like this? If you are looking for someone who always over-thinks these things to an excruciating degree, then look no further. I am your woman. I was so paralysed you would have thought a far greater challenge than this simple decision was upon me. I paced up and down the museum bookshop a couple of times, agonising like a teenager. And there is something purely regressive about my reactions in this type of situation – I really do unravel like a shoddily bound mummy. I called Llew and told him. He and M had never met; I’m not sure Llew had ever seen a photo, but of course he’d heard me speak of him and knew the situation. He finds it all exasperating, so his patience with me here was not only commendable but kind.
“Oh,” Llew said. ” Actually, I think I saw him. I’m pretty sure we were sitting at the next table. You should say hello.”
“I really don’t think so,” I said.
“Just say hello,” he repeated. “You’ll regret it if you don’t. You know you will.”
He was probably right. But I’m still ambivalent about the awkward exchange that followed.
Gnawing my lip, I waited for Llew and the TT to reenter the museum, needing as I did a bit of moral support. Even to say hello – why is that? Feeling clammy and nervous, I eventually went up, stood by his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I saw you sitting here and I thought I’d better stop and say hi.”
When he first looked up, it was immediately obvious he had absolutely no idea who I was. It took several long seconds for his brain to locate the appropriate file and reopen it long enough to identify me. I think I will always miss the company of his very fine mind, but he clearly hasn’t wasted a second missing whatever makes up mine!
Finally he said, “Oh my god,” followed by the usual blurting babble of genuine surprise.
I think I said again that I was sorry to interrupt, and that it was only that I’d seen him sitting there, and that I was really glad to see him doing so well. When he got to his feet, we exchanged the European-style greeting of a kiss on each cheek, though what followed was a kind of rapid fire exchange of….well, itineraries.
He asked what we were doing in NYC, I said just visiting, and that we were leaving shortly thereafter, next stop London, and he quickly said he was flying out too, leaving the next day, in fact, for Berlin (so, you know, PHEW – there wouldn’t be any awkward talk of meeting later to contend with, since he’d nipped that one right in the bud!). When I asked if he wanted to meet Llew and the TT, who were standing about 10 feet away, he just couldn’t help himself. He all but looked at his watch. And he couldn’t resist saying it, he just couldn’t stop himself from saying something along the lines of, “Just for a minute, but then I really have to blah blah blah…” – at which point, something in me just curled up and died.
Was I really asking so much of his admittedly in-demand time that he had to qualify his ability to spend an additional few seconds of it simply meeting my husband and my son? What – what on earth – did he think I wanted from him?? What the fuck did he think I was going to do, drop a sack over his head and kidnap him, removing him to an empty warehouse in New Jersey that I’d kitted out with images from college log books and a serial killer’s photo wall? I was at worst an over-invested friend – not a crazed fucking fan! But that’s the nub of how his responses make me feel – like some sort of weird hanger-on he just can’t shake.
It made me feel so uncomfortable I had to swallow the renewed urge to just run out of there. But over he came to where Llew and the TT were waiting, and we went through the introductions in a friendly enough way. And then, mercifully, it was over. He said something like, “See you next time… maybe…?” (ellipses sounding louder than gunfire), and I think I laughed softly, a sad little laugh more to myself than to him. I would guess my face – ever an open book – probably said precisely what I was thinking, which was simply, “Don’t, just don’t.” No need to pretend at anything when everything is so clear and settled.
One of my great, abiding frustrations with myself is that this disheartening meeting has taken up more time and energy than it deserves. Here I am dedicating precious writing time to its retelling, and in the days immediately following the museum visit, I found I had to speak to Llew and a couple of other friends about it too. I even cried while trying to articulate to Llew how shitty it made me feel – cried! The whole big waste of space makes me so cross with myself, but I suppose it’s also quite natural to need to process the negative stuff; we don’t tend to analyse the positives in life, do we? And I’ve an abundance of those. Still, functional relationships and happy times don’t, I would hazard, dominate the therapeutic scene. It’s things and people that trouble us that we worry at, forever scratching the itchy scabs of our existence while unblemished skin goes unremarked and unattended, quietly doing its job of keeping the greater whole intact.
And I guess this particular scab hasn’t healed because I tend to acquire friends rather than lose them, and it niggles to have been excised so totally without mutual consent. My pride is outraged – I didn’t give permission for this! But more, it rocks my confidence to its core. He doesn’t want to know me – someone who once knew me very well doesn’t want to know me. Ouch! And so over all these years it has continued to lurk somewhere in my mind, a dry, itchy scab that has persisted in intermittently making me ask, why? Why doesn’t he want to know me? There has been a new breakthrough, though, because I now accept I will never know the answer; I also know there may not be one – probably isn’t, in fact. I’m also adjusting the optic a little, and it doesn’t require much, so that I am simply glad to have known him when I did, rather than sad not to have known him since.
I loved that kid; I wish him well. As past tumours go, he can rest easy. I was only ever benign.