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September 15, 2010

Would you care to have tea with me?

A few weeks ago, I re-met an old man who is a friend of my family's. He lives alone and is almost blind. Whenever he leaves his little pink house, he locks his front gate with a massive padlock, his thin fingers far stronger than they seem. Then he drops the key into his pant pocket and shuffles off.

To the grocery store a block away and across the boulevard. Or, for special purchases, Trader Joe's.

Years ago, he taught foreign languages at a university in Illinois. He was married to a beautiful woman who has since passed away, and together they traveled the world. At his house, there's a stack of photographs of him in a dashing military uniform -- WWII, I think -- and then of party after party, him in a slender, boxy jacket and his wife's hair upswept and fluffly like a merengue.

He has no children, but a personal library that could compete with the best university's reading room. Cervantes, Montaigne -- all the classics in gorgeous leather bound volumes he's collected for almost a century.

"You see, at my age," he explained with the calm of someone who has no reason to rush anymore, "one doesn't have many friends. They're all gone, you see, and those that have remained are, rather, acquaintances. They are lovely people, you can certainly enjoy a chat with them, but there's no real connection of the heart. These books, you see, are my friends. I read them and it's like talking to someone dear and familiar."

He stopped driving three years ago, because of his failing vision. He is worried about what will happen when he dies. Logistics, not metaphysics. He reads his books on a special magnification machine, and while he's heard of the internet he has no interest in getting to know it. Sometimes, his hearing aid hums.

I asked for his phone number and permission to call him.

"Oh, yes, that would be lovely."

That is how, one Wednesday afternoon several weeks ago, I ended up having tea with Mr. Davis. I called on him, as they say, and picked him up at six o'clock on the dot. For once, I wasn't late. It would not have been becoming. We went to a cafe not far from his house, where we sat down in the soft sunlight and I asked him about his travels, his work, his wife, how the world has changed since he was my age.

Today is his 90th birthday.

I am far away -- Rome, currently, on a break between assignments -- but Mr. A said he'll stop by his house with chocolates and a card from both of us. I told Mr. A that if he forges my signature on the card, I won't contest it. I'd be grateful, in fact. Because ever since our paths crossed late this summer, Mr. Davis has been in my thoughts and heart.

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