Vanished Friends, Love Lost and My Old Address Book

Travel Stories: Jeffrey Tayler found a relic from his first trip overseas. It brought back a flood of memories -- and regrets.

01.20.11 | 11:45 AM ET

Photo: Jeffrey Tayler

Every now and then I sort through my belongings and cull the superfluous. This habit started with my first trip overseas (to Greece, in 1982) and the challenge I faced then in fitting all I needed into my rucksack. Though I’ve been living in one country (Russia) for the past 17 years, and in the same Moscow apartment since 2000, I keep on culling, figuring that my most significant “possessions” are immaterial ones: memories, if often logged into journals, battered notebooks with blue or green cardboard covers and dog-eared pages. As far as other things go—be they books, clothes, whatever—I’ve always thought it best to own as little as possible. It’s more important to be, not to have. Or so I tell myself.

So, the other day, during a routine culling, I pulled out of the closet one of the suitcases I’d brought with me when I first moved to Moscow, and popped it open. I use it to store things, so I began rummaging to see what I could toss. Out from one of the case’s side pockets tumbled an address book, forest-green, the size of a playing card, with ADDRESSES TELEPHONES embossed in gold on the cover. I had forgotten about this booklet. Seeing it evoked an inexplicable pang of grief, and then a poignant nostalgia verging on the bereft, and then curiosity. I had bought it the year before going to Greece, while still at university in upstate New York. It was one of the few items I’d packed” in my rucksack that would link me with friends and family of my “old life” in the U.S. during my senior year abroad. I remembered carrying it aboard the long, lonely charter flight from JFK to Athens in July of 1982, to what I hoped would be a new life; it had accompanied me that autumn on my first forays, made from Italy, into countries of the socialist bloc; and it had dwelled in my pocket the next year on a seven-month ramble from Czechoslovakia through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, all then “people’s republics” that seemed like political Rocks of Gibraltar, repressive, iron-walled and eternal, not shaky shams that would be gone within a decade; and, in the case of Yugoslavia, burn with the fires of war.

I sat down and opened the book. On the inside cover I had pasted two stamps marked ELLINIKI DIMOKRATIA - HELLAS (Hellenic Republic - Greece), one worth one drachma and the other, 20. They actually issued one-drachma stamps? In 1982 one U.S. dollar bought 70 drachmas. But maybe it made sense. I remembered living well enough that summer in Greece on 20 dollars a day, which rented a single room for a night in a decent hotel, bought enough horiatiki salads and souvlakia to thrive on, paid for a few drinks at some open-air discotheque, and probably covered a ferry ticket to the islands. Now you’re lucky to get by in Greece on 100 dollars a day. Then I opened the address section and came upon the entry for Amy J., an American studying with me in Florence. Right away the name conjured up a beautiful face, delicate hands, warm eyes, auburn hair, and a sensitive intelligence that immediately, I felt, marked her as a future poet or writer. I had such a crush on her. My journal tells me that at an Italian friend’s party we got drunk on red wine (a new beverage for me then) and declared ourselves “soul friends.” The taxi ride back to our respective host families was to be crowded, and she asked to sit in my lap in the back seat. Like a total idiot, I moved over, and politely and inexplicably, made room for her beside me. I’ve regretted that ever since, wondering if I’d rebuffed her, hurt her feelings, and ruined a chance for love.

Next I found Sonja G. of “Titograd, Yugoslavia.” Titogradians ditched their communist-era name in 1992, and their republic, Montenegro, voted to split from Serbia in 2006. Seeing her name took me back to a balmy, sun-washed autumn afternoon in Sarajevo, in 1982. I’d been sitting on a park bench trying to read a map. Sonja, petite, dark, smiling, and almost hyperkinetic, came over and asked me in English if she could help.  (Westerners were so rare in Eastern Bloc countries then that this wasn’t to be the last time I’d be so pleasantly accosted there in public places by a beautiful girl.) When she heard I was an American, she said “Oh!” and called over her troupe of friends, all lugging backpacks, among whom was Ksenija B. (also in my address book), who had high broad cheeks and a blonde, punk-rocker cut. Sonja and Ksenija sat down with me and pored over my map, asking me, in English, what life was like in the States, what did I think of Yugoslavia, and then, would I come with them for a week of hiking in the mountains? This was an innocent invitation: they had two hulking male companions (boyfriends, I assumed) with them, who joined them in interrogating me about the West and inviting me on the hike. When I said I couldn’t go—I had a travel schedule to keep, so as not to miss classes back in Florence—they gave me their addresses and we parted. But now I think, how could I have turned down such a spontaneous and friendly invitation to hike with Yugoslavs in the Balkans? I imagine inhaling bracing air, listening to the strange zh’s and ch’s of Serbian, drinking slivovica by the campfire at night—all experiences entirely unknown to me then. Couldn’t I have missed a few classes for this?

Further journal entries recount the sequel. When I returned to Sarajevo the next year, I called Sonja, but her voice was nervous. A male began berating her (her boyfriend?) in a bellowing voice in Serbian, and she hurriedly asked me to meet her by the university gates the next day. I went as requested but she never showed up. She had, however, given me her family’s address in Titograd, and told me to look them up. Later that trip I spent a week with her five brothers and sisters there. One evening we sat around in their living room. In my journal I wrote: “We talked about sex. They said Yugoslav girls never go to bed [with a guy] before they marry. If they do, they’re ‘kurva.’” As a result, social customs differed from those I’d grown up with or learned in Western Europe. When I was saying goodbye to the brothers, they kissed me on the cheeks three times. I moved to kiss one of the sisters on the cheek, but she sternly held out her hand for a shake: The notion of “kurva” ran deep in the Balkans, something I had to learn then but which seems entirely obvious to me these days. Possibly Sonja feared being branded a kurva, and so had not come to meet me at her university’s gates.

Then I lit on Diana G., a fellow student of mine in Florence, listed with a home address in Forest Hills, NY, and, inexplicably to me now, “Holtzendorff, West Germany.” Here I paused, feeling a rush of warmth, and a vague foreboding. Diana was Colombian. How I loved her wavy black shoulder-length hair, her café-au-lait skin, her dreamy round eyes, her high arching nose and her broad flushed cheeks—features from Colombia’s indigenous peoples. Diana was ever searching, eager to read new books, and had a poise I found captivating, a poise suggesting that she was a good deal more sophisticated than I was. She and I passed long days wandering around rainy Florence, after classes, and became good friends. Yes, I secretly had a crush on her too.

Finally, I flipped the pages to the Os, and my heart skipped a beat. There she was: Penny O., another fellow student in Florence, and the source of my address book’s pain-evoking power. Penny and I had had a torrid romance (my only real romance there) our first few weeks in Italy, starting in Siena (or Perugia?) where our university’s orientation program took place. A vision came to mind: our sneaking out of a session to make out on the roof, in the balmy September sun, with granite medieval belfries eyeing our impassioned embraces and desperate gropings. I could see once more her full cheeks, her blondish hair and straight bangs; I could taste her full lips; I could hear her subdued girlish laugh and feel her breath on my ears. She was athletic and serious, and more mature than I, though a year younger. We soon ended up quarreling and reconciling and quarreling again. The last time I saw her, on a cold winter evening near Florence’s Piazza Savonarola, we argued by a bus stop, and she stormed off without saying goodbye, only raising her hand in a farewell gesture as she looked the other way. I was lovestruck, and she had left me for good. Why I do not remember.

I returned to the States in the summer of 1983. One evening after New Year’s Diana G. called. No journal entry notes our words, but I remember them still, they echo in my mind and always will. I was excited to hear from her, but her voice was low.

“Did you hear the news about Penny?” she asked.

“What news?”

“She was just killed in a car accident.”

No, it couldn’t be, I said. I honestly thought she had to be mistaken. No one I personally knew had died, at least no one close to me, certainly no one my age. I said I’d call her back. I grabbed my green address book and rifled through it, to Penny’s home number in Wappingers Falls, New York. I dialed it.

“Hello, can I speak to Penny, please?” I asked the woman who answered. “I just thought I’d talk to her, because I heard some news.”

A raw voice responded. “Well, if you heard any good news it wasn’t true,” she said.

I gripped the receiver tightly. I responded almost automatically. “Well, I just wanted to say I knew Penny in Italy.  She was a wonderful person ... and ... and ...”

“Thank you,” the woman replied, her voice cracking.

We hung up.

I stood there for a moment, dropped my address book, and fell to the floor, sobbing.

Twenty-six years have passed since I made that phone call. I’d kept in touch with a few of these friends, but not for long. Their time in my life came and went, but their memory, passing before my mind’s eye in quiet moments, still burns softly on, ever on the brink of dying out. With the painful exception of Penny, their hair would be gray, maybe some would have grown happily paunchy, others turned alcoholic or gone mad with despair. Would I like to see them again? I suppose, yes, for curiosity’s sake. But I won’t make the effort. We met, shared vignettes, and parted opportunely. Pursuing them now would violate implicit leges vitae: accept time’s gifts, and later, do not intrude. Live in the present. Savor friendships. And, at the right time, let go. For our days are few, and there are present bonds to strengthen, loves in the here and now to nurture. The void ahead is onrushing, and will spare not one of us.

I put the address book back in the side pocket, shut the suitcase, and replaced it in the closet. I closed the closet door, and walked outside to meet my wife, who would be returning from work, at the metro station. She doesn’t like it when I’m late.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

5 Comments for Vanished Friends, Love Lost and My Old Address Book

Roger 02.04.11 | 4:17 PM ET

I want to give much belated props to Jeffery for this excellent essay. So many people seem to fall into and out of our lives. I have numerous question marks about people I met, long before the days of Facebook, and I’ll have to leave most of them there, unfortunately. Life wasn’t any less interesting than today.

krazyl kinar 02.05.11 | 3:26 PM ET

all rght

Mikeachim 02.07.11 | 10:55 AM ET

Lovely piece. Thank you for this one…

Nothing aches, nothing haunts like chances not taken, relationships missed or lost. It’s always easy to say the past is a different country and you can never go back, but the heart never listens. We’re always back there, hurting.

Dave Sem 02.11.11 | 10:52 AM ET

I’ve been a fan of Tayler’s work for many years and this is one of his finest essays. I too have stumbled across old address books and thought of contacting people I’d happened across, years ago, while traveling. Jeffrey is probably right about leaving old acquaintances- fretting over missed opportunities and lost years is probably not productive in the hear and now. Thanks for this great piece.

Mary D'Ambrosio 02.13.11 | 12:26 PM ET

Jeffrey, we didn’t know each other, but I realize, after reading your piece, that we were classmates in Florence. A coda: that was a life-changing year for me, inspiring years of reporting from abroad, and one lifelong friendship. Perhaps the book doesn’t always close.

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