things I felt like writing

the book

May 1, 2024

I love coincidence. It makes me almost believe in God. As a wannabe novelist, though, I have to be careful not to use it as a plot device, at least not very often. If I rely on coincidence to bail my heroes out of tight spots--the Royal Army helicopter gunship just happens to be in the area when the evil warlord's troops close in--it could mean that I don't have much imagination. Luckily, the stuff I want to write won't have tons of action-packed drama and breathtaking twists and turns and edge-of-the-seat suspense. I won't have to keep racking my brains to save my characters.
      Coincidence influences my life from time to time. The most recent case involves a figure from my past, my twenty-five-years-ago past. In 1975, my family moved from Tyler, Texas, to Rijswijk, the Netherlands. I was in the eighth grade. It was in the middle of the school year, so when I started attending the American School of the Hague, I wasn't just the new kid in my class, I was the new kid coming in at a weird time. My newness wasn't as jarring to the other kids as it could have been because they were all in the same boat. Their parents worked almost exclusively for oil companies, the armed forces, or the diplomatic corps; they were used to moving around a lot and being put into new schools anywhere on the globe, at any time of the year.
      The downside to this lifestyle was that you had to make a good first impression. Really, really good. The kids accepted or rejected you instantly. There wasn't time to let someone grow on you, not when your family could be transferred the next morning. In addition, I suspect that kids who are raised under the constant threat of being uprooted don't allow themselves to become too attached. Someday, I'd like to do a study on the adult children of expatriates and see if this is true. I'd also like to see if there's a higher incidence of alcoholism, drug abuse, and criminality. Some of those kids looked fifty, with astonishing whiskey-and-cigarette voices. The twenty-foot-high hallways echoed with croaking and braying about who had stolen what and who had beaten up who and who had gotten who pregnant.
      In our Rijswijk neighborhood, the only sane expatriates were the Solvangs, a Norwegian family who lived around the corner from us. Lise was in my grade. She was quiet and hung out with a different crowd at school, but her brother Geir and sister Anisa sort of became additional siblings in my house, and eventually Lise and I got to be friends. Although a cheerleader and quite popular, she apparently didn't care about the yawning social gulf between us. I found out that she was very funny and smart; more importantly, she was just a genuinely nice person. At the gray, grim, gritty American School of the Hague, aptly acronymed ASH, it was a rare quality.
      In 1977, the inevitable happened, and the Solvangs moved. Lise and I wrote a few times, but we were only fifteen. We lost contact.
      Fast forward twenty years. In May of 1997, I was interviewing Scott Thunes at his house in northern California. The article we'd done for Bass Player had been well received, so I'd asked him if I could talk to him again, this time for a novel I wanted to write about the Los Angeles indie rock scene. He agreed. At some point, after several hours of tape-recorded discussion, we took a break. I wandered around his living room, stretching my legs. There was a copy of the May 1997 issue of Vogue on a table, with a bikini-bottomed honey on the cover in an expectant, hip-cocked gunfighter stance, her arms akimbo, her hands curled, and her mouth slightly open, like, "Come on, tiger!" I don't read Vogue--it smells, and I can never find the table of contents. But I picked it up and opened it at random to page twenty-four. In the exact center of the page, the name "Lise Solvang" was written in bold, fourteen-point type under a photo of a young woman in a two-piece bathing suit sitting on the edge of a kitchen sink, eating from a bowl of cereal. The rest of the caption was about how Solvang had turned her childhood hobby of knitting into a career.
      The photo obviously wasn't of the Lise I'd known; this person was only about twenty-five. Still, it was odd to see somebody with the same name. I'd thought of Lise a lot over the years, wondering what had become of her. Something good, I hoped.
      So I turned to page 122 in the article, and there was a photo of Lise Solvang, the Lise Solvang, sitting with three other women and a man. No question, it was my old ASH buddy--the biographical details matched, and she looked pretty much the same. The article was about designers to watch in L. A.; it said that Lise had "...received a call from Saks Fifth Avenue for her hand-crocheted swimsuits, tops, and skirts..." She lived in West Hollywood, near enough by southern California standards to be my neighbor again. I finished my interview with Scott, drove home, and immediately sent a letter to Vogue's managing editor, asking her to forward it to the writer, who could then forward it to Lise. I enclosed two SASEs, one for the editor and one for the writer. Just in case, I also wrote to Saks Fifth Avenue and did some phone investigation.
      When people move up in the world, they often don't like to look back. Perfectly understandable. And there was the possibility--probability--that Vogue never bothered to pass along my letter despite the SASEs. Disappointing but expected. I beamed Lise some congratulatory vibes, wherever she was, and got on with my writing.
      Two years later, I was at a Saint Patrick's Day party in Santa Monica, where I was introduced to a Norwegian opera singer named Elisabeth. It's funny because she arrived late and said she hadn't planned on coming, and I wanted to leave early but stayed after the host vehemently demanded that I not go. I had to meet Elisabeth, he said. So I did. We had a nice conversation; I told her I used to live in Norway, in Stavanger, and had had a Norwegian friend in high school whom I'd once seen profiled in Vogue as one of L.A.'s promising designers.
      "A designer? What was her name?" Elisabeth asked.
      "Lise Solvang."
      "Oh, I know Lise. She's a friend of mine."
      Los Angeles and its environs are a village. Yes.
      Elisabeth insisted that Lise must not have gotten my letter because she wasn't the type of person to blow people off that way. She told me to give her my phone number, which she would pass along to Lise the next time she saw her. I didn't want to. I had no way of knowing why I hadn't heard from Lise, but I wasn't anxious to set myself up for a totally unequivocal rejection. In my mind, it was better to leave things in a nebulous "What if...?" Besides, it wasn't necessary to contact her. The article told me what she was up to these days, what she'd been doing since the last time I saw her. That was enough. Elisabeth, however, wouldn't back down, so I very grudgingly gave her my phone number.
      As I said, perfectly understandable. Who knew if Lise even remembered me? Or maybe everybody she'd ever known her whole life had tried to contact her after they saw the article, and she was fed up with it. Once again, I sent a big dollop of my best wishes out into the ether and got back to my writing.
      In late September of 1999, I came home one night to find a message on my machine: "Hello, Tom Wictor! It's Lise Solvang! I can't believe this! I ran into Elisabeth last night, and she gave me your number. She'd forgotten about it! It's been in her purse for six months! You have to call me! We have, what, twenty-two years to catch up on!"
      I called, we spoke, we hooked up. It was beyond bizarre to see somebody again after almost a quarter century; I'm not one for class reunions or staying in touch for old times' sake. Don't Look Back! is my motto. I'm glad I wasn't as dogmatic as I usually am, though, because she was still the same Lise, except much taller. I remembered her as being rather short, but she's almost as tall as I am. Strange. We had a lot to talk about. And Elisabeth was right--she'd never gotten my letter. Thanks, Vogue! Very professional. The only problem was Lise was moving back to Norway. Oh well. In March, I helped her pack up her belongings, and then she left. We e-mailed until momentous events took over both our lives, spinning us out of contact again. It was all right; I'd gotten to see and talk with one of the few people from my past whose fate I was curious about. I was satisfied.
      On April 2, 2002, I went to my favorite Chinese restaurant for some takeout. The fortune in my cookie said, "You will be reunited with an old friend. 11 21 25 35 40 7."
      On April 4, I got a call from Lise. She was back in California and had just started a business in Long Beach with her friend Cathriné Haerum-Chiaro. Liscat, as they've named their venture, sells designer knits, yarn, and accessories; offers knitting classes; provides wardrobe for TV shows and films; and wholesales to established clients. That's Cathriné on the left and Lise on the right, wearing some of their designs. Lise tells me that knitting is being called "the new yoga" because of its meditative qualities. Knitting and yarn businesses have thrived since 9/11, in fact. So if you're ever in Long Beach, drop in.

5662 East Second Street
Long Beach, CA 90803
Ph. (562) 433-1733
Fax (562) 433-1733

      Learn to knit, why don't you?
      As for me, maybe I should rethink my aversion to using coincidence in my fiction. A fortune cookie, though? Don't know about that.

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