The last time I saw Maya

My friend from college was in the news again today. Maya and I met freshman year at some sort of Jewish community center, even though I wasn’t religious and she was Chinese American. She liked Dumbo, she said, unapologetically childlike. Did I like Dumbo?

We grew closer Sophomore year when I fell in love with her friend. Maya did me a big favor when she let me know in no uncertain terms it wasn’t going to work out after I’d failed to absorb a semester’s worth of escalating hints that I was scaring this timid girl senseless with my unwavering adoration.

At graduation, Maya was sitting next to me when my grandmother was hit in the eye by a flying cap. By then she’d designed the Viet Nam Memorial and was already starting to become a bit of a monster.

By 1989, it was full blown. I’d just moved to New York after writing with a partner in Los Angeles for eight years, although we’d actually been working together since college. I was trying to write something by myself for the first time and wasn’t sure if I could do it. Other than that, I had no prospects. I was on my way to buy a word processor because I couldn’t afford a computer. I had just turned thirty years old.

Maya was riding high, living in a beautiful loft in Chinatown. She had eagerly begun the process of cannibalizing her earlier work with a series of similar public art projects and I can only assume had bought stock in black granite, water and text.

We met for a quick lunch at a place I think may have been called Moishe’s. Maya began to muse, vaguely aware of my presence, complaining that she hadn’t yet received a MacArthur Grant. “When do I get my genius grant,” she wondered with an innocence that hadn’t faded but was now accompanied by an ego run wild. “I want my $150,000.”

“That’s obnoxious,” I said reflexively, “you’re twenty-nine years old, there are people who work all their lives, talented people who deserve that grant just as much as you do and they may never be recognized.” People like me who hadn’t written anything yet but might. I decided to spring for the word processor with five pages of memory instead of one, in case I ever got on a roll.

I hadn’t noticed that tears were shooting out of Maya’s eyes. “You don’t know who you hurt with your words,” she said, an exact phrase that’s been uttered to me several times since, so, in fact, I know exactly who I hurt with my words.

I didn’t apologize. I figured it might be the last time someone tried to talk some sense into her, and it might as well be me. She left the restaurant in a flood of tears. I went to buy my word processor. I arrived home to a message. She started cool and in command:

“John, it’s Maya, don’t bother to call back, you’re the most self-centered person I’ve ever met in my life, and all you ever care about is yourssseeeLLLLLLPPFFFFPPPPFF…”

Now she was sobbing uncontrollably. That genius grant must have been really important to her. Maybe she thought I was one of the judges? She cried a lot that day considering my life was the one that was in the crapper.

I replayed the message to make sure I’d heard correctly. Yes, there it was: don’t bother to call back. We haven’t spoken since. What’s the etiquette on this?

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