When Someone Dies Too Young
I was working in my outdoor office last Thursday in the 90-degree heat when my cell phone rang.
I didn’t recognize the phone number, but I wanted to escape my writing duties for the moment and answered. A young woman’s voice asked if I were Shannon Colleary. I answered “yes,” thinking this was some kind of solicitor call when she said she was Ion Hartunian’s daughter. My first thought was that I hadn’t seen Ion’s daughters in twenty-some odd years when they were about eight and ten. I thought how lovely and grown-up she sounded. I greeted her warmly and asked how she was doing – thinking she probably had no idea we’d met before. “Not so good,” she said, “This is a bad day.”
Now I knew. Something was wrong with Ion. Maybe he’d broken a bone, or had a bad flu or maybe a car accident. “We found him this morning,” she said, “Ion died.”
Died? No. I talked to him three days ago. He was only 53. He’d been a lifeguard for twenty some odd years. He’d practiced martial arts in recent years. Athletic, indestructibly alive 53-year old men don’t die in the blink of an eye. But in fact he did. From an apparent heart attack. I’ve been traveling backward in my mind, back before the shock of that call when I could carelessly let days, months, years go by without thinking of or speaking to my friend.
I met Ion in 1988 in Jeff Corey’s acting class in Point Dume, Malibu. I was 23 and he was 29. He was ridiculously handsome.
Initially I wasn’t attracted to him, he was simply too pretty. Well, and also because he never wore shoes to class. Life guarding was his “day” job, but he preferred the clothing requirements of surf and sand wherever he went. And his feet – well, they were not handsome. He would laugh if he read that sentence.
Ion, those feet were black on the bottom. I mean filthy!
I couldn’t focus on any of the scene work on stage because I couldn’t stop staring at Ion’s feet. I have an anal retentive, recessive German gene and I wanted to wash those feet. And not because I was trying to be like Jesus.
Then I became Ion’s scene partner. I forget which scene it was, but it was extremely energetic with lots of jumping around and shouting and a little bit of wrassling, which is when I realized Ion didn’t wear deodorant. I never had the heart to tell him that he was a bit … ripe. Ion, I love you, you should have worn deodorant. I regret never telling you. Or gifting you with some Mennen speed stick. But you also smelled like the salted sea. Your bare feet yearned for the feel of the earth and although you weren’t short, you always seemed somehow to want to be close to the ground, close to nature.
One day, as I was pulling out from the shoulder of the road to drive home after acting class Ion’s Jeep stopped right in front of me. What’s he doing? I thought, Is there something wrong with his car? Is he out of gas? Oh for crying out loud I want to get out of here, couldn’t he have pulled to the shoulder of the road??
Finally Ion stepped out of his Jeep. Then he paced there for a moment. What’s he doing? Doesn’t he see that he’s blocking my way? Then he seemed to come to some sort of decision and marched over to my car. What is this? He looked at me through the driver’s side window and indicated I should roll it down. Now what? I rolled down the window an inch and he shouted, “Will you go out for coffee with me sometime?”
I wasn’t expecting that. I hadn’t even considered it. The few times we’d interacted outside of class we had a sarcastic, locker room ribbing kind of relationship. Also he was quite simply too good-looking. Ion how was I supposed to take you seriously with that chiseled jaw of yours? You were supposed to be dating Stephanie Seymour!
I looked into his blue eyes and he actually seemed annoyed with me. Annoyed that I had made him want to take me out for coffee. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll go for coffee.” He heaved a huge sigh of relief. “I’ll call you,” he said gruffly and before I could say anything else he marched back to his Jeep, got in it and put the pedal to the metal. Spumes of dirt kicked up from his tires all over my windshield. Now I was annoyed. I didn’t want to be responsible for this man’s heart because under his funny, sarcastic exterior he was an absolute mush. He was a love bug. Sorry Ion, you were.
Ion was a young father. I don’t know how young, but at a time when most of us – well okay, me – weren’t responsible enough to look after a fichus bush he was a dedicated dad. I especially remember a story he told me about his girls. When they were very little and he and their mother were already divorced he had the opportunity to model in Europe for a few months. To me that seemed so cool, exactly what I wished for myself. To be beautiful enough to grace magazines and the runway.
Ion told me that when he returned from his glamourous European adventure, his two little girls were waiting at the airport for him with their mom. They threw their arms around his neck and told him never to leave again. And he decided right then and there he never would. If he lost work because of it, so be it. Those girls were his world. When he began to segue into photography they became his muses. Above all, they were his life.
Our romance was brief. But our friendship endured. Ion was hopeless at being the aloof macho guy. He’d try to turn his back on me and get on with his life, but I cracked him up too much. He loved to laugh. And Ion, you laughed like a girl. You couldn’t really call it a laugh, let’s be frank here, it was a giggle. You were a giggler which is one of my favorite things about you.
Sometime during those “acting” years I managed to get Ion cast in a horrible play I was stage managing at some 99-seat theater in Eagle Rock. It was set in the late ’60s so the characters were all hippies on hallucinogenics. I had to stand-in for an actress who couldn’t appear one night and I remember lying on my back onstage with Ion, I believe my character Sparrow was topless – which means, yes, I was topless – and Ion was wearing an out-of-central-casting tie dye t-shirt and we lay there with our heads together pretending to be high on hallucinogenics while we just giggled and giggled like fools until it felt like we actually were tripping.
Ion, we were pretty terrible actors. There were moments of greatness, but mostly … ack.
Eventually we both left Jeff’s acting class in Malibu, and not too long after that we both left acting in its entirety. We wished each other well and let each other go for many, many years.
Then I ran into him one day at John O’ Groats, a diner right across the street from my house. I’ve lived in Los Angeles 30 years now and it’s funny how suddenly a slice of your previous life will present itself before you. We both said we looked exactly the same — only twenty pounds heavier, slipping easily back into our sarcastic humor. Over coffee we unravelled the last twenty some odd years of our respective lives. The various highs and lows and everything in between. I told him I finally understood how much he loved his girls and was willing to sacrifice for them because I had two daughters of my own. I said we should have breakfast again sometime to which he replied, “Sure, but you should bring your husband, because if you were my wife I wouldn’t be happy about you having breakfast with an old boyfriend.” That, in a nutshell, is the measure of a good man.
Ion would’ve met Henry and my daughters through his camera lens yesterday. He was going to come and photograph my family. But he is gone. Death is unforgiving. Cruelly permanent. I miss my friend and I grieve for his daughters and the grandchildren who won’t have the time they should have had to make more memories. How I wish I had one last chance to say, “I love you. You knew me in a time and space that no one else did, that part of me that only you have is now beyond the veil. I hope to see you on the other side.”
Some of Ion’s work: (If you’d like to see more of his archive you can go HERE)