Phyllis and I were supposed to meet in front of Vselka's on 9th Street and Second Avenue. I was sure that we'd recognize each other and we did. Her first words were something like, "We haven't seen each other in fifty years." That isn't true, but it's basically true. We were good friends in high school, though I remember nothing of her story, of her family, of being in her house. What I remember, and what I needed, were the Hai's who lived next door, who she introduced me to and who became our Mama and Papa. They were Ruth and Andre Tao Kim Hai. He worked at the United Nations and fished for minnows in the bay right when the high tide lapped at the wall of their house. He used a large white net on a pole that I now recognize as similar to those used in Vietnam. Then he put them in the small pool he'd built so the cats could catch tiny fish.
I adored the Hai's. I needed a surrogate family and they provided one, always accepting and with food in the house. Phyllis and I spent quite a bit of time there, as I remember. She'd be in the kitchen with Ruth and I'd be outside with Andre. She was there much more often, of course, and remembers their house with more clarity.
I recognize traits that the high school Phyllis had, the rhythm of her speech, the way she slowly spoons soup. But she didn't have the same laugh. She said that she got it from her husband who laughs a lot. He can be sitting in a chair, thinking, and he'll just start laughing. I'm glad that she has a laughing husband, a man whose gone back to study play writing with a teacher who he remembers liking and who likes his work so much.
The fifty years part isn't quite true. I remember her in the loft where I lived with Krissy's father. Krissy might have been just starting to walk. I remember the sound the scuffing of the plastic soles of her pajama feet made. Phyllis, her son, Benji, and I once sat at a table, some table, can't remember much of that, toward the back of that gloomy loft on the Bowery. I'd given Benji, who must have been around two, a tablet to draw in and I was surprised that he drew on one page and immediately turned to the next to draw more. That shows how much I knew about little children. I truly expected him to take more than a few seconds with each page. I was so stupid and so worried and so poor.
That also means that Phyllis must have met Krissy's father. Unless he'd gone out while she was visiting, he would have been up in front, by the windows, in the bit of light.
But what's more amazing than this tad of a memory is that Phyllis remembers being in the studio apartment that my father had rented when he thought that he'd be free of me, on his own, in New York. It was the top floor of a corner building on Charles and Bleeker Streets. I had no idea that anyone I knew, now know again, had been there and could testify to the low partitions that somewhat divided the space, who saw that I had no privacy, who remembers the configuration of the space where my bed was. That's quite amazing and I'm grateful.
And she went with me to Ruth Ingalls, to the lovely dance studio she rented one night a week on 57th Street. I don't remember Phyllis's presence, but she remembers being there and liked that form of unrestricted, wide gestural movement. Ruth Ingalls taught interpretive dance in Port Washington. When I was a child, before my mother died, she sent me there to whirl around with butterfly scarf wings made from tie-dyed parachute silk, to walk like a bear and hop like a frog. For a while, after I graduated from high school, I worked with her, demonstrating, carrying the illusion that I would become a dancer. How I imagined that was possible is hard to fathom. I would have been entering a art form no rules, no directions, no support. And an even harder one that I actually did enter some years later.
I don't know how to explain that Phyllis seems almost like a template of who I might have been had I not allowed myself to get kicked around so much, had my childhood not been so ungrounded. While I don't remember Benji's father, I know that they had a close and lasting friendship even after their divorce. And that she's had a long and good second marriage with a man she met, I think, in graduate school. She's pursued various directions that included learning Chinese calligraphy, living in China for some time, teaching in a Montessori school, writing poetry and running a small press. She always wanted to write full-time, she told me during our visit, was waiting for the time when she could do what she's doing now. She's really engaged in the New York poetry community, appreciating the support and the challenges and she's learning Tai Chi with a group of Chinese and Vietnamese folks who practice together. She was allowed to join it after promising that she's be there every Monday and Friday mornings. Her life seems mellow, contemplative, rich and unstructured and it provides her with a lot to laugh about.
We walked downtown and went to Yonah Shimmels for my old times sake. They do still have glasses of yogurt to drink, and the heavy blueberry knishes that Krissy's father and I used to eat because they were inexpensive and good. It was so nice to be there. To find it so much the same. To watch Phyllis eat her barley soup.