He has populated this blog as much as anyone with fewer than four feet, but I’ve written little of depth about him here. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps I’ve merely practiced the same circumspection toward him here that I really ought to have practiced regarding the other people in my life. And on Sunday, June 1, he’ll be the last person I see before I formally move out of the Bay Area.
He’ll also be the first person I see afterwards. My friend Matthew is the kind of person who’d volunteer to help you load the U-Haul, then drive with you to Barstow to help you unload at the other end. “Hey, you know me,” he said on the phone. “I’m always up for a U-Haul trip.” We did this in 1987, cross-country. My ex, Elissa, and I had moved to DC for a couple years so that she could go to law school, and when we moved back she flew to Berkeley with the cats, leaving me to pack and clean and dismantle the household in Arlington. Matthew used the other half of her round-trip ticket, showed up at Dulles, and we meandered west for five days in a severely underpowered U-Haul pickup.
This weekend will be a much shorter trip, and the kinds of stories that accreted themselves to our mutual experience on that trip will not likely be involved in this one. There is no world’s largest cement prairie dog along I-5, nor will we wake in a Kansas campground to watch bass the size of U-Boats hurling themselves at the sky. We will load everything as fast as we can, then roll on down the hill past the California buckeyes I’ve watched grow for six years — they’re flowering this week, brilliantly — and we will be in Barstow somewhere around dark, I hope. And then unloading and back the next day to drop him off.
I fetched up against the Bay Area’s shores 26 years ago almost by accident, insubstantial as spindrift sand. I met Matthew within a month of arriving, introduced to me by Elissa, who I’d just started seeing, as her high school sweetheart. He’d just seen Blade Runner, and held forth on the merits of the movie at some length, late at night. I was a bit befuddled at the guy. His enthusiastic geekery neatly outstripped my own. Before long he and I were annoying the crap out of Elissa with our animated and apparently impenetrable conversations, rarely using a word like “spider” when “chelicerate” would do. Matthew was studying fisheries at UC Berkeley. (The fish were far more suited to schooling than he was, and he graduated with a sigh of relief and commenced to learning in earnest.) It was Matthew who re-awakened my interest in the wild world, merely by asking me on stray hikes what I thought a particular conifer, or flowering herb, or vein of mineral might be. It took a few years before I was any likelier than he to ever have the correct answer.
Our friendship has affected me profoundly, and I chasten when I try to recall any times I’ve attempted to repay his immense kindnesses. I have offered him the profound gift of my company. He has flown across the country to help me move. I gave him a t-shirt once with a wombat on it. He came over in February 2007 to help me bury my dog. I have hired him once or twice, but he’s done the same about as often. And we’ve had dry spells. There have been a couple stretches since 1982 where we didn’t speak to each other for months at a time, perhaps years, too distracted by our lives to stay in touch.
We may be facing more times like that after this weekend. It’s one thing to keep up with a friendship when you eat lunch three times a week, like we did at Earth Island. It’s another to keep up with several hundred miles between you.
On Sunday I will roll in that truck down the hill and away from my life here, away from the hole in the diatomite where my dog’s remains dissolve gently, away from the garden I nurtured and then abandoned, away from this community of readers I have cherished these last five years, away from Becky, away from the Bay and Berkeley and the place I have lived my entire adult life but when you look at it objectively, when you take the true measure of effect and value and persistence in this all-too-short a life, my moving away from the Bay Area is moving away from Matthew. He has bracketed my life here.
California buckeyes drop their leaves in summer, then grow them again in the winter. Counterintuitive-seeming to some, the habit is a defense against drought. Set flowers when there is water in the soil and let the seeds that grow therefrom ripen slowly hard and brown in the summer heat, and those seeds will be ready to sprout with the first touch of moist October. I walked past them for years without seeing them, the soul of California’s inner coast ranges, the expression of the California seasons made treeflesh. Buckeyes and redwoods and Joshua trees, Darlingtonia bogs and Mono Lake’s tufa towers, receding Sierra glaciers and fell-fields ablaze in mule-ears and sky pilot and salt flats 282 feet below sea level and 120 degrees above zero, sliding down snow-covered slopes in winter at 8000 feet and digging for red tide phosphorescence by the ocean, my life in California has been conducted with Matthew near at hand, and I wonder how it will be to go on without him right there.
But I don’t have to worry about that until Tuesday.