I keep old photos in a leather suitcase covered in newsprint that turned yellow years ago. The stories are from the eighties, the pictures just as old. They say negatives can last for hundreds of years. But digital images can die with the light.
I moved aside the newspapers and lifted the photo album from the suitcase. I opened it and turned the pages, each photo well preserved behind its wrinkled plastic covers. They were pictures of old friends from our days in Tokyo--we were all so young, so much in our twenties with our hopes undiminished. Some posed for photos, some were caught unaware--but there was always the clear skin, the thick, well coloured hair. Was that really me? Was that really us? Were we, from so many Western lands, really teaching English in Japan?
I wonder at times what happened to them. We had promised to write each other. But over time the letters stopped being posted. Most of us having moved on with our lives, I assumed. I guess sometimes our hearts are hurt by the here and the now-- a loss, a broken romance, an email telling you of a friend who died. Then we look for old photos of Japan. Memories as a bridge to then. The photographic negatives ensuring their place for hundreds of years.
I held a photo of George and placed it on the table. He had long brown hair and a bushy mustache. There was a hung over look in his eyes. I remember his Brooklyn voice, the strange streetwise accent that went with his smarts and cynicism. We became the best of friends, doing what most young men do: closing bars, chasing girls, laughing at the world.
In his open New York character, he would confide in me of the troubles in his past. The Greek immigrant father who detested his New World ways. The girl he loved and who he wanted to marry had left him and gone to California with another man. The horror of war, as the Marine barracks in Lebanon came crashing on him, killing most of his friends. Sometimes the trauma would come to him in his sleep and he would call to tell me of his haunting dreams.
Then one day he said he had to go back to New York. He'd be going in a couple of days. There was an emergency, something to do with his family, but he wouldn't tell me why. He promised he'd come back to Tokyo soon, maybe by the end of the summer. For sure he would write. We were buddies for life, bound by our Tokyo experience. I believed all that he said was true.
Within a few weeks I wrote him, but there was no reply. I wrote a month after that, and waited for the mail. But no letter arrived. He never returned at the end of summer.
Over the years, the decades, I couldn't shake him from my mind. I walked sometimes the bridge of memories back to Japan to wonder what went wrong?
I made a Google search the other day. I found George. His name listed as deceased. His place of birth. His date of birth. His place of death. His date of death. There for me and the world to see. Not hidden in a photo. Not preserved in a negative. But digitized, computerized in the US Social Security Death Index. What does a Death Index really say about a person. It says when he died, but it does not say how death took him. I know now he died days after leaving Japan, before my letters arrived.
I have his photo, and those of the others, once again buried under yellow newsprint and kept away in the leather suitcase. After all these years, the photos' colours are strong and vibrant. I've done no more Google searches for anyone's name. But I promised myself to look at the pictures more often. I know that with old friends you should never forget their faces, or their voices, or the stories that go with their names.