I was riding along the Charles in the early evening when my phone buzzed. I saddled off my bike. Brett’s voice, subdued and halting, conveyed the timbre of tragedy in his hollow hello. Despite all the proliferating forms of communication, we still deliver bad news by telephone.
Tanya Williams died; 42 years old according to the calendar; forever 26 in my mind. She was the friend of a friend, Brett’s housemate in graduate school before he came to live at my place, but that description implies a distance that did not exist. If you met Tanya, if she engaged you and looked in your eyes, she was directly connected to you.
Tanya used to hang at our place with her boyfriend Dave and a lovable assortment of geeks. Brett and I had the best digs and the coolest deck; on hot summer afternoons a posse of MIT doctoral candidates browned their bodies while discussing arcane science, ripping through NY Times Crossword puzzles, and drinking beer. Other women flowed through from time to time but Tanya was the only one with an unlimited deck pass. A house of guys has to protect their reputation; only the most spectacular girls deserve unfettered access and nobody compared with Tanya.
Tanya was a babe with a brain, and her attributes aligned in that order. Since she had a PhD from MIT, a post-doc from Berkeley and worked with Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, her brain credentials are of the highest standard. But as a babe, she was without peer. Tanya was the Lauren Bacall of molecular biology, the Michelle Pfeiffer of DNA Transposition, her willowy body, her regal cheekbones, her easy smile and the toss of her auburn hair proclaimed her easy elegance. She moved like a cat. She always threw me a little off my guard, yet I never doubted that she had me pegged.
Tanya married Dave, as perfect in his own right as she in hers. They moved to California, had a son, life was rich, and then cancer began to eat away at it until, after battling for over five years, the mutated cells bested the babe.
Brett moved away too. We are still in touch from time to time as extended families are, our shared past is richer than what we hold in common at present. He was thoughtful to call when Tanya died; he knew I would want to know. I was not friends with Tanya well enough to book a flight and stand at her funeral; that’s not my style anyway. But she meant enough to me that I walked my bike along the river awed by the recollection of her brilliant heart, mind and body. After some time my eyes cleared, my breath drew regular again and I continued on my way, but my spirit was dampened. Although Tanya’s light was extinguished three thousand miles away, her absence made the December night even darker than usual.
I think about Tanya a lot these days. I could rail against the injustice of people dying before their time, of fate tripping up perfection, but I wasn’t there for the bad parts and they don’t cloud my memory. For me, Tanya will always be a babe in a bikini on our deck with a terrific tan and a sharp word for any guy who misunderstands that brains can come in very alluring packages. It is a testament to Tanya’s enduring presence that on a cold December night fifteen years later, even a guy like me can relish such a babe.