31 Dec Searching for Jonathan

I’ve been looking for Jonathan for 15 years. The last I heard, he’d run off to China to find the woman he thought was the love of his life — an American doing research there. His then-estranged wife wrote me that Jonathan was bipolar and had long been troubled. He and I met in college as aspiring writers and shared similar losses: his mother, and then my father, died while we were students. Apparently, there was a lot I didn’t know about Jonathan. Years later, I was sending him holiday cards every year and his wife was answering them in his absence. He had dropped out of sight five years previous. “I thought you knew,” she wrote. I was so freaked out by this revelation that I didn’t write her back. My second marriage was crumbling at the time.

Jonathan had been the star of our undergraduate creative writing program at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)l. He was the youngest writer ever to win the Stegner writing Fellowship to Stanford – right out of the undergrad chute. He was just 21 when I waved him and his girlfriend off in his packed-to-the-ceiling Toyota that summer after our graduation. A brilliant writer, he seemed destined for greatness. I, on the other hand, was as aimless as dandelion down.

That’s why, six months later, I was in California too. And a few months after that, I was sharing a house with Jonathan and his girlfriend while I looked for work in San Francisco. I don’t know that I followed Jonathan exactly (my grandmother lived in California), but his proximity anchored me in some ways. Patiently, he read my stories that first year and tried to help me improve. But he himself abandoned writing fiction after his two years at Stanford. It seemed the big fellowship had burned him out — maybe too much was expected of him. He ended up writing copy for a left-wing media company, where soon he became their Creative Director.

After he and his girlfriend split up, he shared an apartment with me in San Francisco. By the time we were thirty, he was married, had a house, a dog, and two kids, and we saw each other infrequently. I was married too but much less settled and much less mature. He, for instance, was seeing a psychiatrist weekly to deal with the early loss of his mother, which was bundled with other problems. I wasn’t dealing with anything, including my already ill-fated marriage to a woman who expressed disbelief when I told her I wanted to be a writer. I was a professional musician by that time, playing the clubs six nights a week like a factory job.

After I quit music and went off to grad school, Jonathan remained important to me because he marked my passage in ways that were hard to articulate. It occurs to me now that some friends are like constellations in the sky – we don’t just get used to their presence, we need their presence to make the sky seem complete and make us feel fully here.

Every so often I’ll make a web-wide search for those lost beacons in my life, Jonathan foremost among them. A couple years ago I discovered one of Jonathan’s sons on Facebook. I tried to friend the kid but he didn’t respond, even though I had explained the connection. I can hardly blame him. Then, just this week, after doing another of my internet searches — just out of curiosity — I found Jonathan himself. He has returned to California and started a business. And he looks good, much better than I imagined he would. By my reckoning, he’s been “freelancing” for 15 years – which means that he has probably been on a longer, harder journey than to China and back.

I remind myself that we must be careful with friends we have found after a long absence. Reunions can be demeaning if all we’re left with is a tally sheet of a comparison/contrast, of wins and losses. It’s not always easy to convey to a long-gone friend what he or she meant or how he still fits into our night sky. The sum of our pasts has to amount to more than nostalgia. So, I have little reason to write Jonathan now, but I’m certain that I will write to him eventually, if for no other reason than to say, “Welcome back.”