On Saturday, I received the terrible news of the sudden death of David S., a close friend of mine from college. Since then I've been grieving, remembering, and trying to adjust to the strange new reality that such a death always brings.
Below is a post I wrote about him back in 2008, and I wanted to republish it here, in his memory: the story makes me hear his laugh and the music we used to make together, and remember the happiness of that crazy, hot summer of 1972, when we were so young and the complicated chess game of life still seemed to lie far ahead of us. Our paths eventually went in different directions, but we stayed in touch. I will always be grateful to David for his love and ongoing friendship, for the happy memories of the time we spent together, his encouragement of me as a person and as a musician. I never remember him saying an unkind word to me; he was a loyal, honest, and true friend, totally without pretense, who believed in each person's essential freedom.
I've searched for a photograph I know exists somewhere, of David silhouetted against a window of our house at the lake, studying a chessboard. It hasn't turned up yet. So this photograph of Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky will begin the post, and at the end, there's a blurry photo of David and me at the end of a Gershwin concert we gave in 1974, at Risley Residential College at Cornell, just before graduation. We had split up two years before, but the enduring friendship is pretty clear from the photograph. After college we saw each other from time to time; he played recorder and guitar when Jonathan and I got married on a Vermont hilltop. In recent years we kept in touch through FB and email, and I deeply regret how long it's been since we saw each other in person or talked on the phone.
This has been a difficult summer in that regard: in quick succession I've lost three close friends, all men of my age, who I've known since childhood or young adulthood. None of those deaths were expected. I feel shaken, vulnerable, and sad, but also grateful for the opportunities it's given me to look back and think deeply about earlier times in my life: who I was then, what those friendships were based on, and why these people mattered so much to me.
Bobby Fisher in Queens
1972. A small bedroom in a small duplex in a nondescript section of Queens. On the unmade bed, two twenty-year-olds: a girl with blue eyes, long blond hair and wire-rim glasses; a boy with a mane of unruly dark curls, an eastern European face, a thick beard. He drums his fingers on the mattress in a pattern she recognizes as the second fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier; she smiles to herself and turns over onto her stomach, propping her head up with her hands. She wears cut-off jeans and a tank top. The boy is in a white t-shirt and boxer shorts. The room is sweltering; a fan runs in one corner but seems to barely stir the humid air. But except for an absent-minded hand that brushes the curls off the boy's wet forehead, the two don't seem to notice; their attention is elsewhere.
At the foot of the bed is a folding table, and on the table a chess set, with the pieces arranged in the middle of a game: black on the left, white on the right. Beyond the chessboard is a black-and-white television. On the screen, a young announcer is seated behind a counter; there's a clock on the wall behind him, and when the camera moves to the side, a large chessboard with the pieces indicated by their normal symbols. The arrangement of the pieces on the chessboard in the room mirrors the game on the television screen. The young couple studies the board, and waits. The television announcer - a young American chess amateur named Shelby Lyman - studies the game on the wall of the studio; he's somewhere in New York or New Jersey. He ponders the possible moves, explaining them to his unseen audience, as he waits for the next phone call from Iceland. Then, in an excited voice, he announces the move, and changes the position of the piece that Spassky or Fisher has willed into action. Often, it is a move that neither he nor anyone else has anticipated, including the young couple in the room who have been debating what might happen next.
The flurry of excitement over each move is followed, most often, by these long periods of confusion, incredulity, admiration, anticipation. Sometimes, though, the moves follow in rapid succession, leading up to yet another long series of pauses, or, occasionally, to a rapid denouement, with one player's sudden brilliant insight causing the death spiral of his opponent: check, check, checkmate. When that happens, the couple can barely keep up; they move to the edge of the bed, their legs dangling onto the floor, bodies leaning forward toward the television, hands poised over the boards as major pieces fall like towers under a wrecking ball -- and then sit back, shaking their heads, dazed -- until they remember they're hungry, and head off to the refrigerator in search of a piece of cheesecake and a quart of milk that they'll devour on the kitchen table.
Her father had taught her to play chess when she was five, around the same time she learned to read music. She was an only child, and they had played together quite a lot in those early years. He rarely let her win. She liked the game well enough but didn't seem to develop the necessary competitive fire, or the desire to study chess books, opening sequences, end games. As she got older, the analytical side of her nature clearly preferred music, especially Bach, which she practiced on the old square piano in their upstairs hallway. Not many people played chess in their small upstate town; her father had a few friends he played with once in a while, and in the evenings they played bridge with her grandparents or friends of the family -- it was more social. But after she went away to college and began bringing home boyfriends, they more often than not answered "yes" to her father's immediate question: "Do you play chess?" and the weekend visits came to include long vigils over the chessboard as her father and her friend battled for supremacy.
David was the best of those players. The son of radical Jewish intellectuals from the city, he was a gifted player who had been raised on the game. His bond with the girl, though, was music: he was a fine, if sometimes undisciplined, pianist, and they had met in the common room of their university dorm one day when he was playing Gershwin on the baby grand, and she had come along and started singing the song, which she knew by heart. "All right!" he had said, his dark eyes looking up at her from the mop of hair. "How about another?" They found out they shared the same politics, the same sense of humor, the same love of classical music. She had a gift for imitations, which cracked him up. He could play anything on the piano; she sang Schumann and Schubert lieder, show tunes, turned pages for him as he practiced Bach. The boyfriend she'd been dating all year didn't stand a chance.
In the summer, they were both working, but she took the bus to the city for a few long weekends. He met her at Port Authority on Friday afternoon, took her to a deli near the accounting firm where he worked, where the waitresses knew him by name and handed him a piece of pound cake without asking for his order. They looked at her approvingly, smiling, glad this melancholy, intense, sweet hippie had someone to penetrate his loneliness, someone besides the invisible piano he constantly played on the table-top beside his coffee.
They took the train out to Queens and walked to his parents' house, in a suburb of similar houses, trees, sidewalks. The days passed in a blur of oppressive heat. Sometimes in the evenings they played trios - the boy and his father on recorders, the girl on flute. His mother made them dinner, fussed over them, laughed at their jokes, sat at the kitchen table and talked. Most of the time they spent in the bedroom: fooling around, trying to sleep, and watching the chess matches.
It was a break from the war, the war that lay, thick and suffocating, over everything in those years. A personal future seemed unattainable. So they opposed the system until they were exhausted and then clung to the beauty they could grasp: music, art, young implausible love, and dazzling mythic battles fought on a remote island, played out on squares of black-and-white.
"Fisher's taken Spassky's rook!" Shelby Lyman cries.
"Wow," says the dark-haired boy, reaching out to remove the piece from the board. He tumbles the rook from hand to hand, staring at the screen. "Did you see that coming?"
"Not at all!" she answers, studying the new arrangement. "What will he do now?"
"I have no idea," he says, and pulls her down beside him, grinning. "Imitate Shelby again for me, will you? Come on, pleeeease?"