A couple of days ago, I was prompted to look up a friend with whom I hadn’t spoken in several years (the precipitating event behind that is actually rather ghoulish, given the outcome, and I don’t feel like sharing it) but discovered—to my great shock, sadness, and regret—an obituary where her vibrant life ought to have been.
This came just a couple of months after a similar experience when I tried to contact a teacher who had been very influential to me.
This has brought home to me just how terrible I am at keeping in touch with people. I’m not particularly outgoing even at the very best of times. Most of the time I’m pathologically introverted; I just don’t reach out to folks, even when I want to. Even longtime friends, and folks I think about often. I’ve always been like this. I’m beginning to regret it.
I suspect, that if she were to read this, Margit would be surprised to know I thought about her at all. The truth is I ought to have given her more thought than I did, and I should have been a better friend to her. I was, at best, an indifferent friend. Or, maybe more accurately, a lazy acquaintance. Perhaps I’m too wrapped up in myself; perhaps I have a cold, hard heart. Probably both.
It’s too late for me to make up for all that. Though I wish I could. But I feel I owe it to Margit, a gentle soul who showed me a few undeserved kindnesses over the years, to record my memories. These vignettes have been playing through my head on a nonstop loop since I learned of her passing.
So let me tell you about Margit.
I met Margit during my junior year in college. I did a lot of tutoring in the dorm, both officially (in a special room with special hours) and unofficially (whenever somebody felt the need to knock on my door). Mostly I tried to help folks with their math and physics homework; I’m not sure how well I succeeded in that. But I did have a few folks who dropped by on a regular basis (mostly friends and friends of friends).
So she knocked on my door, this small and frail and birdlike freshman. She asked if I could help her with some physics, and I said I didn’t know but I could try, so I offered her the ugly green baize chair under my loft, the one facing the whiteboard. I propped the door wide open with one of my shoes then sat on the window ledge so there was nothing between her and the door. (It was college. There were always guys who would leap at any chance to be alone with a girl.) She looked tired, and I figured we wouldn’t make much headway if she was too worried or uncomfortable to think straight. Maybe she noticed I had done that. I don’t know.
Turned out she was a fine student, yet she was on the verge of tears. In the end she didn’t really need tutoring; she needed somebody to listen. She was new to the U of MN, which can be a huge, impersonal beast, after having transferred from a much smaller and more intimate school called Gustavus Adolphus. A serious health issue had prompted her to transfer to the U, which brought her back inside the Twin Cities and much closer to her family. (I never learned what that health problem was, only that it had been severe, and involved an ambulance. It wasn’t my place to ask.) So there she was, stuck at a school she hadn’t wanted to attend, perhaps a little sad, but mostly overwhelmed the way all freshmen get overwhelmed. But it hadn’t been very long since I’d felt that very same way, so I told her what upperclassmen had told me at the time: that it gets better, and that eventually the place would start to feel familiar and natural and a little less threatening.
After that I used to see her around the dorm once in a while. She looked so lonely in the cafeteria that if I happened to see her I’d invite her to join me and my friends. I introduced her to the few folks I knew. I remember Jay saying, “It’s nice to meet you, Margaret,” and Margit not correcting him, probably because people got her name wrong all the time. We shared that, I suppose. She carried a little grey plastic canister, exactly like the type that Kodak 35mm film cartridges came in (this was back before digital cameras were ubiquitous), and when she ate she would sprinkle something from that canister on her food. It looked like ground peanuts. I never asked. It was college.
Once, she stopped by to ask me if I knew where she should go on campus to access a computer lab. (Back in those days, which were just after the dinosaurs and right before the Battle of Waterloo, many folks didn’t have computers in their dorm rooms, and nobody’s room was wired for network access. Yes, there really was a time, lost in the mists of prehistory, when a dorm room didn’t automatically come with a T1 connection.) At the time, there happened to be one hidden away in the physics building (long gone now, I suspect) and, not surprisingly, I was just about to head over there because I practically lived in the physics building, seeing as how it was my major and all. I offered to walk over there with her, and show her the secret lab. It was late winter or early spring. She wore a hat with long tassels.
“You’re always so kind to me,” she said, almost to herself. I didn’t understand what that meant. Besides which, she was wrong, because:
Some time later, she asked me on a date. I dithered, impolitely, but eventually declined. There was always, in all my interactions with her over the years that followed, the perception (misperception?) of a gentle but indelible sadness lurking somewhere in the depths. I, living then as I do now behind a thicket of thorns, concertina wire, and a few slavering East German guard dogs, kept that mysterious melancholy at a distance. And thus we were friends, and never more. Looking back, I think I made the right decision, but I will always regret the way I did it. I lacked the maturity to be forthright. And that was rude and unfeeling of me.
The academic year came to a close. I remember eating dinner in the cafeteria with Margit and a few others. She told us about how she’d spent the day checking out summer rentals in Dinkytown. Every place she had seen was cruddy and discouraging. (Some things never change. Such are the charms of student life in an urban college neighborhood.) I can’t remember now if she found a place to stay over the summer.
I continued to run in to Margit from time to time, because I kept the tutoring gig through my senior year. Once, a few months before graduation, I was having coffee with a close friend, an innocent platonic catching up, in the coffeeshop under the old DinkyDome. It was late, we were the only people there, and Margit happened to walk by. She tossed a smile at me, but it was fragile and sad. I ought to have invited her to join us. I didn’t think of it until she’d already disappeared down on the street. I think that was the last time I saw Margit for a while.
So I graduated, moved away, and spent two years elsewhere. I came back to Minnesota, and the University, expecting that everybody I’d known at the U had moved on. And that was mostly true. But I’d been back on campus all of three days when I was crossing Northrop Mall on my way to the housing office—I had yet to find an apartment that wasn’t dreadful; a few days later, I’d find something that would surpass my wildest dreams, my home for the next five years—and heard somebody yell, “Hey, Ian!” I turned around and there was Margit, looking like she hadn’t just come to terms with the U, but conquered it. We spent a few minutes catching up. She was a senior in the architecture program; I was about to start graduate studies. She seemed happy about that.
It may have been the very same autumn (in my memory, both scenes take place on the same sidewalk, illuminated by the same sunlight) when I introduced her to a fellow graduate student, an Austrian fellow named Gottfried. (Who eventually moved on to Cambridge after slumming with us Minnesota types for a year or two.) Almost immediately they struck up a conversation in German. Which is how I learned that Margit’s parents had come straight from Germany. She may have been born there, but she grew up in the States and spoke English as her first language. Until then I hadn’t known that her family spoke a different language at home. Turned out she had a lot of family in Germany.
A year or so later, I was riding my bike through campus, on the way home from a long meeting with my thesis advisor and a collaborator from Oxford. I’d been fighting a slight fever all day and I’d just about lost my voice by then. I was stopped at a traffic light outside a Starbucks on the corner of Fourth and 15th (the same intersection where, just last month, a cyclist was killed), when, once again and completely out of the blue, Margit appeared. She burst out of the shop wearing a green apron. “Hey, Ian!” she waved me down. She was working as a barista to pay for school. I hadn’t known that; time had passed.
After that, for the next few months, I’d stop in once in a while to say hello. I worried she thought I was trying to wheedle free coffee out of her, so I always made a point of paying. She teased me about it. Sometimes the end of her shift coincided with my trip home. I’d walk with her part of the way, because she usually had to park several blocks from the store. Once, it started to rain cats and dogs, and without a word she threw my bike in the back of her car and gave me a ride home. We stood there in the tiny kitchen of my loft apartment for a while, discussing her architecture studies and Albert Speer. I remember how she lit up when I mentioned I’d been reading about him in an alternate history novel (Robert Harris’s excellent Fatherland, which had been a gift from a dear friend, whom I later tuckerized in one of my own alternate history novels). Not because she was a fan of Speer—she was too sane for that—but because she was very knowledgable about his theories, and was pleased to have somebody with whom to share what she’d learned.
At some point, she returned the favor of five or six years earlier and introduced me to some of her friends. A group of us went to see Kurt Vonnegut give a reading in St. Paul. At that point, Margit was living in Uptown, coincidentally in the same apartment building as another friend of mine. She complained about living on the first floor, and the noise it brought on Friday and Saturday nights. I wouldn’t have wanted to live there, and felt bad for her. There were moments when she still seemed to have that air of fragility about her. It was hard to picture her living there. I hope that on the balance she liked it a lot. I don’t know if she did.
That would have been around ’99 or ’00, I suppose. I didn’t see much of Margit after that. I might have run into her on campus once or twice, but then a few more years passed and I graduated (again) and moved away (again). At some point I must have told her that I had accepted a job in New Mexico; there was a window of several months between the postdoc offer and the completion of my thesis.
I’d been living down here for a few years when I got an email from Margit. I think this was in 2004 or 2005. She’d finished her architecture degree and was taking a job in Denver. She seemed ambivalent about it (aren’t we all when we’re on the verge of starting a new job in a strange city?) but I was really happy to hear that she’d finally escaped the U and was pursuing a career she was passionate about. I think she was happy to be living in a new part of the country, though she was very open about missing her family. She called me once in a while, or emailed me. It was always nice to hear from her, but I never reciprocated with my own calls or emails.
As I said earlier, I don’t reach out to people. The thorns are sharp.
The last time we spoke was in 2006, via email. We’d had a few brief exchanges in 2005 and 2006, usually just a hello and how’s it going. She returned to Germany in early 2006 after a death in the extended family. I offered my condolences. Not long after that, I reverted into one of my usual years-long bouts of introversion.
And then she passed away three and a half years later.
I didn’t know until two days ago.
I didn’t think about Margit as much as she deserved. She was a good person, a kind and gentle soul, and I hope she had people in her life who gave her more time than I did.