Ballad Of An Old Friend


He’d come with us to the movie theater and then go to a different movie, just to make a point. I’m not sure what point. That he didn’t need us. That he was the third wheel, knew it, and swore he was happy to just roll away, sit by himself in a different screen, have a different experience, on the end of the aisle with an entire bucket of popcorn to himself. Last time I think we saw a surfing movie and he saw a movie about the Civil War. He walked away almost wordlessly down the purple-carpeted corridor, muttering something, and we almost wordlessly called after him: a vague questioning. I’m going to this one, he said, into the floor, gesturing to the chosen screen by simply walking through the door. 

For a minute we thought we were supposed to go in there too: this was a reflex carried over from childhood, thinking we were still supposed to look after him because he was younger. What if he disappeared in there, got kidnapped out the fire door by another loner moviegoer? But he was sixteen and probably strong enough to lift me with one arm. The way he acted, you could sometimes forget this. That he could drive. That he was almost old enough to buy cigarettes, old enough that we could send him into the deli now with a fake ID and the cashier wouldn’t blink. Old enough to have serious relationships, though he wasn’t having them. Old enough to not just have vague ideas, but to make plans for what he wanted to do with his life.

In this semblance of a hometown, we often slept in other people’s beds, beds that belonged parents and aunts and grandparents. After movies, when we were still too young to drive, she and I would often go back to my aunt and uncle’s enormous bed, with its blissfully thick down duvet and countless pillows. He would go back down to the lake with the other grownups. I liked to go to sleep listening to certain female folk singers whose albums my sister brought from New York or sent to me in big batches at Christmas. During that time, cassettes and CDs briefly overlapped. I had a mix of a live Ani Difranco album that I’d listen to on a yellow Walkman. I thought I got everything she was saying then, at age 13. She was only a dozen years older than me at the time. I felt I understood love, understood sex, but I’m not sure how I could have. Only from books, movies I was too young to watch, and occupying myself with thoughts of some male muse or another from the age of six. 

When she said: I never tried giving my life meaning / by demeaning you, I felt this line acutely, even though these lines came from a political song. I applied it to my relationship with an eleven-year-old: how we pushed him out of the room, out of the house, out of the hammock, out of whatever it was we were doing, because he was annoying and little. And how I felt badly about that because I didn’t actually think he was annoying. 

She was more serious, even in summer when there was nothing to be serious about. No music or even much talking for her. She went straight to sleep, a lark who was used to getting up and driving an hour or two to ice-skating lessons, often before school and always on weekends. No one worked at her brother quite as hard as they worked at her, with this overwhelming pressure to be an athletic star, to be at the top of her class, to be beautiful, too. The only guarantee this pressure brought was that she wouldn’t be a bad kid. Neither of them would be bad kids. They were too smart to rebel, too sensible. But faded streaks of rebellion would follow both of them through adulthood. She: smoking, drinking, and questionable taste in men. He: pot-smoking, a lack of interest in work that wasn’t interesting or stimulating, and a lack of respect for money, meaning he would happily and often seek assistance from his parents well into his twenties, something she almost never did. Too much pride. And also, it had never been part of her rulebook. The rules had slackened considerably for him. It wasn’t fair: three years shouldn’t have created such totally different people with such totally different philosophies of how to move from dependence to independence, of how to become their own people. 

When he became a teenager, the child’s pushiness, the pushiness that would shove its way through the closed bedroom door so he could sit on the floor with us, uninvited, eating a big box of donuts that we’d just driven into town for, turned into something else. A seeming desire to erase himself, to be out of sight and thus immune to judgment. Hence going to a different movie than us, making us think that he’d just come along to get a ride to the movie theater, not to spend time with us. Hence going into the sun porch many afternoons and slamming the door behind him and reading for five hours, visible through glass but protected by a distance of about fifteen feet and a wall. 

This was a game I played too, at home: wanting to be invisible, locked away, hoping to just make adolescence go away, or for someone who was not a parent or sibling to come rescue me. At this time of year, they rescued me. But I sometimes forgot that this was their home. That I was never going to see either of them in some independent and freeing context unless we could one day meet somewhere else in the world, neutral turf. We were still too young to be able to do that. There were the movie theaters, the parking lots, the corn fields, the farthest extremities of the trail that wound around the lake. But it still all belonged to the grownups. Any feeling of standing alone, seeing ourselves as free agents in the world, was temporary. Enhanced, of course, by cigarettes and alcohol. But temporary. 

Standing barefoot in the mud, passing around a joint, is how we last found each other, indulging ourselves, on borrowed time, or so I felt. Too old for all this, for wanting to dart away from parental scrutiny. But more than a decade later, the place still wasn’t ours. We still slept in other people’s beds, ate other people’s food. That day, there had been a birthday. The next day, there would be a death. That evening I had sat under an arbor at the restaurant where he’d held his first job and watched the person now in his position stand hunched over with his back to us, hosing off pots and pans in a giant sink, and thought of what he was now doing instead, and what I was doing, and what she was doing. Some day maybe we’d have reason to be more forgiving of ourselves than we were being right now. Some day I hoped we would be able to reward ourselves with these old familiar pleasures, instead of trying to forget the future and to fade, camouflaged, into the backdrop of the past, to foolishly try to replicate the old pleasures the way people try to clone beloved pets.

There were some things we would never do again: read Anna Karenina or Patrick O’Brian novels for the first time on the sun porch, forgetting entirely where we were, not wanting to be where we were, despite the unmatched beauty of the place. We would never have our first drinks again, nor our first cigarettes, nor our first joints. We would never make up words again, would never play video games together again. Supposedly there were better things awaiting us. For him, those better things would, I think, always be found very far away. He felt weakened here, disarmed by all the concessions his parents made for him. Concessions they didn’t want to make, concessions he didn’t really want them to make, but which they made anyway, because they loved him. 

And then she would come sometimes, but not often, because she liked hard work, and she would pass judgment on him for sticking around so much, as he would pass judgment on her, mostly for her loyalty to what he felt were undeserving men. But the point in both cases was that they loved each other. I loved them too, but during such times I would have to cast myself off to the far end of the dining table, on the sidelines, as it were, grinding herbs and salt into the bottom of a glass or pretending to read a magazine while they argued very quietly across the table from one another like chess opponents. The strange language of siblings: a combination of deeply familiar and even shared gestures and sounds and, occasionally, actual words.

Death, so much death, had lately brought us closer, since those left behind by the deceased instinctively cling to those who are still alive, and cling even more tightly when those people show kindness, show their willingness to be held onto. But this can be a dangerous shift. Are these blessedly alive people strong enough to keep their grieving friends afloat? They shouldn’t have to be. In grief people don’t necessarily see things too clearly. They hold on too tightly. They ask too much of the living. 

Distance steps in to provide a clearer picture. I leave this familiar and safe place and its inhabitants, and in solitude I am forced to look back on us and see that none of these memories could have been if anyone had held on too tightly for too long, had asked too much of the others. So I loosen my grip. But I think it feels no different, no better, than if I were to let go entirely.

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