Trouble I Have Seen Your Face by Anne Bergman

He was holding his portable oxygen machine under one arm. It was the first time I’d seen David with his breathing tubes in. 

 We’d known each other since middle school, but our friendship had deepened when we shared a Geometry class together during our junior year of high school. 

 If it hadn’t been for David, I would have failed that class. He helped me study and —after realizing that I was hopeless— had let me cheat off him during tests. 

 While David was a perfect student and model citizen, I think he relished sticking it to “the man” by allowing me to peer at his paper for help on the thorniest problems. As it was, I still only got a “C” in that class, so clearly, I wasn’t even good at cheating.

 We were also in the same English class, where we forged a bond with a handful of classmates, inspired by the 1971 movie “Harold and Maude.” 

 If you’ve never seen it, “Harold and Maude” is about an affluent young man obsessed with death. He attends funerals for entertainment and fakes his own demise in increasingly dramatic ways to upset his mother. Then he meets Maude, who is approaching 80. They strike up a friendship, and he eventually falls in love with her. The entire movie is punctuated and deepened by Cat Stevens music, songs which became the soundtrack to my own teens and 20s. 

 Our teacher, Miss Lawrence, taught it to us as if it was a literary text, encouraging us to tease out meanings, the use of symbolism and the counterpoint between the soundtrack and the imagery. She also shared with us gossipy back-stories and biographies of the actors. I think she had a crush on moon-faced Bud Cort, who played Harold.

 My friends and I grasped onto the movie like a lifeboat. At 16, just peeping over the wall into adulthood, we were the perfect audience for this movie. We were inspired by Maude, a loveable outlaw played by sprightly Ruth Gordon, who spouts witty aphorisms meant to inspire Harold to live his life fully. At one point she says, “Reach out!Take a chance! Get hurt maybe. But play as well as you can….otherwise, you’ll have nothing to talk about in the locker room!”

 We analyzed the movie, dissected it, watched it over and over to squeeze out the meaning and apply it to our own lives. 

 Clearly, I wanted something to talk about in the locker room, so eager was I to break free from my parents’ grip and out of my childhood bedroom. I yearned to live a life in contrast to what I saw as my parents’ humdrum existences, their life-draining compromises. They worked jobs with onerous bosses. They made time for relatives who really weren’t very nice or deserving of their kindness. Their routines irked me: reading the stock pages, poring over check stubs, planning balanced meals. 

 I would be different! 

 I thought so anyway. 

 But David didn’t hold such arrogant ambitions. His were more down-to-earth and specific. 

 We didn’t hang out much at school, certainly not before school, or at lunchtime, because David was too busy. He served as the treasurer of the California Scholarship Federation, which met in the morning before first period. During lunch time, he ran a meeting for students seeking careers in insurance, a club so practical and mundane, it wasn’t even included in our high school yearbook. 

 But that’s what David wanted to do when he grew up. He dreamed of a career in an insurance firm. 

 My dad was a sportswriter, so I was used to kids wanting to know what it was like to cover baseball for a living, and if I could I secure them tickets to a game. But when David discovered that my mother sold professional liability insurance for a living, he vibrated with excitement. He knew of her company and arranged an “informational interview” with my mom’s boss, Nigel. Naturally, it went well.

 Our friendship deepened via our nightly phone calls. Once we were done with theorems, we’d recap what had happened to us each day, the usual melodrama of unrequited teenage romances, the humiliations suffered.

 One night, he explained to me that he was self-conscious about his looks. His face was puffy, his height stunted, his skin flaky and red, and his voice squeaky because of the medication he took, he said. 

 Medication? I knew he went to the doctor a lot, but I didn’t know why.

 “I have lupus. It’s called that because it’s like a wolf eating me from the inside out,” he said. 

 I twirled the phone cord as I groped for the right way to respond.

 “Wow. Does it hurt?” I finally asked.

 “Yes,” he said.

 We discussed life expectancy and I must have believed he was going to live a long time, perhaps to 35 or 37. You know, old.

 I tucked away the knowledge of David’s illness and we rarely discussed it and focused on our futures, which for both of us meant going to college.

 He came with me and our friend Kate to tour UC Santa Cruz with Keith, The Older Guy I was dating, who was a sophomore there. In the end, David and Kate ended up becoming Banana Slugs, while I went to UC Santa Barbara and became a Lady Gaucho. (I was forbidden to go to UC Santa Cruz because my father thought “some hippie” would rape me. I have no idea where he got that idea, but it was stuck in his head.)

 David was valedictorian at our graduation and got to deliver the speech. And, then after a whirlwind summer, he headed to the redwoods, and I was off to the land of frat boys and surfers. I struggled to make friends. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I missed the Bay Area and my quirky friends who were into Monty Python and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” not the Beach Boys and Sex Wax. I was a Sad Sack, living in an apartment in the student ghetto just off campus. 

 I was miserable. 

 Meanwhile, David immediately bonded with the kids in his dorm. I could hear the whoops of hilarity in the background when I’d call him in his dorm room. 

 “I’ll let you go,” I’d say to liberate him, and then I’d return to watching “The Love Boat” or “Dynasty” on our black-and-white TV.

 But freshman year was all David got. Over the summer before our sophomore years, he told me was transferring to our local junior college, so he could be closer to his doctors. His lupus was devouring him.

 With everyone home for the summer, we were inspired to screen “Harold and Maude” at my house. When his mom gingerly deposited him on our doorstep, David looked pale. He gave me  a one-armed hug, as the other held his breathing machine. It whirred throughout the film. 

 I wonder what it was like for David to watch that movie about a young man who seeks out death, who pretends to hang himself, drown in his swimming pool, and butcher-chop his hand, among other gory suicide attempts. What was it like for David, who was looking at his own mortality squarely in the eyes?

 I’ll never know because I never asked.

 When it came time to say good-bye that day, David and I made plans for me to come over to his house and hang out later that week.

 I’d rarely been inside his house. I remember we sat at his kitchen table, his parents hovering nearby. The house was quiet.

 He told me the lupus had won, that he knew he was going to die, and die soon. He had paid his bills and neatly assembled his affairs so that his parents wouldn’t have to worry about anything that would linger.

 But what he really wanted to tell me was that I needed to live in the moment. “I wasted a lot of time,” David said. He’d spent so many hours preparing for a career that we both realized now would never happen. If he had it to do over, he would have focused on friendship, David told me.

 “This is what matters,” David said, gesturing back and forth between us. 

 I don’t recall who phoned to tell me that David had died, but I remember sitting with myself alone in my room with the news. My mom came in to check on me and I told her what happened. She closed my door, and must have told my father, as he was immediately standing in front of me.

“You were a good friend to that kid,” he said, fumbling for the right thing to say, the right thing that would take the pain away. His tone inferred that since I was such good friends with a nerdy, pudgy kid with a squeaky voice, then I shouldn’t feel such deep sorrow. I should feel like Mother Teresa. Like I was doing David a favor.

  “I really just want to be alone,” I said, glaring at him.

 This enraged my father and he slammed the door and fled to his downstairs office. Then came a knock on my door. My mother stood in the doorway. “You need to go down and talk to him,” she said, arms crossed. “He’s very upset.”

 “What?!?!?!?!? I’m the one whose friend just died!”

 Nevertheless, I descended our staircase, puffing with indignant fury. 

 I found him in his office, staring out the window.

 “I’m sorry,” I said. 

 ***

 Miss Lawrence organized our trip to the cemetery on the day of David’s memorial. 

 We huddled together in our dark clothes, snuffling. Across his grave, we faced David’s college classmates, a mirror image of our shattered group of 18-year-olds. They were holding each other up, wrenching with grief just as we were. 

 In his remarks, the rabbi said that nothing mattered more to David than Israel. All of us collectively shuddered.

 “That’s not true!” I remember thinking.

 ***

Three decades later, I found myself – all by myself– at the memorial for my father’s best friend, Bill. My father had passed away a few years prior. Bill’s widow Rae approached and said, “There’s someone you need to talk to.”

 It was David’s mother.

 Rae led me to her and left us alone. 

I didn’t tell David’s mother that I often wondered where his life would have led him. That I wondered what sort of life partner he would have chosen. That I wondered what his kids would have been like.

 Most of all I missed sharing funny stories with him, and making him laugh. How much I missed him. Missed the people we both were when we were young.

 “I think about David all the time,” I managed to choke out. 

 His mother and I hugged. And then I sat down by myself in the back of the room and sobbed.

 Anne Bergman lives in the San Fernando Valley with her family. 

2 thoughts on “Trouble I Have Seen Your Face by Anne Bergman”

  1. Powerful stuff, Anne. Left me with tears in my eyes. Really.

    And about your not fitting in at UCSB…you and I should have met long before adulthood. Because we’re definitely kindred spirits.

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