Sláinte! Remembering an unlikely friend and his favorite pint

     (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-499780p1.html?cr=00&pl=edit-00'>VanderWolf Images</a> / <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/?cr=00&pl=edit-00'>Shutterstock.com</a>)

    (VanderWolf Images / Shutterstock.com)

    Craig and I were an odd couple from the get go. A highly cultured man with a patrician air, he seemed to be a character out of “Downton Abbey” with his elegant manners, refined bearing and scholarly knowledge of classical music, theater and the arts. I, on the other hand, was a frizzy-haired, nomadic, free-spirit. A terminal case of arrested development.

    When we met, Craig was the head usher at the Academy of Music, and I was the first woman hired to sell candy at intermission. I didn’t have to do much to attract attention, other than smile and shake my Good & Plenty. We were in our early twenties, although I assumed Craig was much older due to his courtly manners.

    At the time, everyone I knew wore blue jeans and smoked weed. Craig didn’t own a pair and had never inhaled. He introduced me to the recordings of Maria Callas. I invited him to a pot party at a suburban house where the parents were away and blithely led him upstairs. I coaxed him into a bedroom and reached for a switch on the wall to turn off the lights. Nothing happened. Then all hell broke loose. Apparently, it wasn’t a light switch. It was the security system. The police were at the door!

    That was as close to intimacy as Craig and I ever got. And who could blame him? As the years and decades rolled by, Craig remained the constant factor in my otherwise unpredictable life. Lovers came and went. Careers appeared and vanished like mirages. The economy tanked, rallied and tanked again. But Craig was still there, inviting me to tea, to see a foreign film or attend an art exhibition. We even traveled to London together and stayed in separate rooms. Friends would ask, “Why don’t you marry him?” I explained that we don’t have sex. “So, who does?” they said.

    Craig lived in the same, tiny apartment all his life. I rarely stayed anywhere for long, hopping from coast to coast. He could name an opera from just the opening bars. I couldn’t name the bars I had closed down. And, yet, our friendship endured. We called each other Dear. We held hands. We finished one another’s sentences and exchanged valentines.

    I had always thought Craig and I would grow old together, that he would continue to call me “dear” when my blond curls turned gray and my youthful gait turned into the careful steps of a senior citizen. But 10 years ago, Craig asked me to accompany him to the ER at Jefferson. He thought it was just another bout of kidney stones. To our mutual shock, we were told he had late stage cancer. Craig never left the hospital.

    At the time, his family didn’t know what to make of me. I hadn’t been Craig’s wife or even his girlfriend. They didn’t invite me to the funeral, and when I asked for a memento, they flatly turned me down. That was 10 years ago. Imagine my surprise when I received a phone call the other day from Craig’s sister-in-law saying she had something for me. My mind reeled. What treasure from our past had she found among his possessions that it took 10 years to discover? A diary documenting our outings to the theater and concerts? A love letter?

    We met in a public place, and I accompanied her to her car. She opened the trunk, removed a large cardboard box and opened the lid. Wrapped in filmy layers of tissue paper was a pair of mens’, extra-large, flannel pajamas with the Guinness logo, Craig’s favorite brew. I had bought them when he was in the hospital, knowing he would never raise another mug of stout to his lips.

    “And this is from me,” said his sister-in-law, presenting me with an ancient bar of Yardley soap and a bunch of pansies in a small glass of water.

    I didn’t know what to make of these strange gifts. But then, I had never really known what to make of my 25-year friendship with Craig. He reminded me of the guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, in “It’s a Wonderful Life” — not quite belonging in this world, but, oh, what a difference he made by appearing in mine.

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