Just another friend from home

    Photo by beelerspace on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

    Friday, March 18th / Chicago

    It’s perfect weather for a ride. I pedal down Clark for as long as it’s practical, heading for a particular Giordano’s downtown. On the way, I pass a street sign that tells me that I’m now crossing Menomonee Street; a memory jostles loose. I take a photo and send it to a friend who grew up on that street. I hadn’t spoken to her in years.

    I’m on my way to Giordano’s because Matt happens to be in Chicago with his mother, visiting some museums for the weekend. He’d called me a couple days ago when I was still holed up and cramming for an exam. I mean, I’ll be home Friday night, I’d said, halfheartedly hoping to avoid commitment, but this friendship has seemingly gotten more urgent over time. Any opportunity to meet must be taken.

    They arrive; we hug and joke and smile. At the table, when he’s in the bathroom, Matt’s mother fishes for validation. Her ex-husband and his girlfriend have come up in conversation; she tells me everyone says the ex “downgraded.” It’s an invitation for affirmation, which I give begrudgingly. There is not much more I can do.

    That night, I drive home to Indianapolis with another old friend, a girl I’ve known since high school. I queue up a song — The boys are leaving town, the boys are leaving town / will we find our way back home?

    Saturday, March 19th / Indianapolis

    It is colder and cloudier here than in Chicago. Chicago is a city with spectacular rain and storms and wind; by contrast, Indianapolis is often just overcast and bleak. This is true today. I will have to make the best of it; as my spring break begins, most of my friends are going back to school, and I’m lucky to have even the brief window of a weekend, lucky that we’re able to meet at all. I call up my delusional friend Ben; we agree to meet at an old hometown haunt — a hookah bar. What else is there for kids under 21 to do in Indiana?

    We talk about culture as we always have; as always, the only meaningful things I glean from our conversation are the personal details that fall through the cracks of his theorizing. Ben is still delusional. This is no surprise; he was once registered with his university as majoring in “rock star.” His game’s comedy now. Through the smoke, I tell him he’s on the right track. There is not much more I can do.

    Like I said, this is a gathering place; we accumulate a herd of old friends as we sit. After a while, we cross the street to get dinner. The wait is long, so we talk about the people we’ve known; the one who just got home after 8 months of rehab, the one who moved to California to “fight fires” (grow weed), the one who dropped out of IU to get married to a man who left her months later.

    One of us arrives late; he has to be driven here by his mother. He’s in crutches and a cast; the accident was apparently recent and embarrassing enough that he won’t talk about it. He keeps getting pestered about it by another recent arrival, who’s here with a girlfriend from college. She’s good for him, we’ve always thought. When she’s momentarily offscreen, he tells us that they’ve been on the rocks enough to be able to say they’re over for now.

    On the way back to the cars, Ben curses. He hands me his phone; I read a text from a recent fling of his (You’d better see a doctor…) as he announces a sudden, urgent need to get drunk tonight. You wrap it up? I ask; he shakes his head silently.

    Thursday, March 24th

    I’d been meaning to have lunch with Matt and his girlfriend for a long time; I finally get my chance.

    Matt and I are best friends; we keep each other updated. Last year, he told me he’d been seeing someone. After a while, we’d put the pieces together and realized that she was a classmate of mine from kindergarten through eighth grade.

    I haven’t seen her since middle school. I am excited as I pull over to pick them up. I make sure that the music playing in my car reflects sufficiently well on me. As I drive to the restaurant, she sits in the back quietly as Matt and I laugh about old stories; in the past fifteen years, we’ve accumulated enough to keep us reminiscing for days. When we find a table, I resolve to tone this down; I am sensing that his girlfriend is becoming alienated by these conversations exclusive to a club of two.

    I have a lot to ask her; it’s been a long time, and I am curious about her and the people she’s kept up with. But the conversation does not go that direction. She’s far spacier now than I remember; I get the impression that she smokes a lot of weed. I get to see the other side of exclusive reminiscence; much time is spent talking about “that night when.” I drink five glasses of water and play with the bean sprouts left over from my plate of pad thai. There is not much more I can do.

    After dropping them off, I text another friend, who takes night classes at a community college. She had been attending a small liberal arts college in western Indiana until a financial aid snafu left her unable to pay tuition. After spending a couple years feeling down and out, she seems to be regaining a rhythm. I’ve been meaning to get in touch with her all week; I feel like I need to check up on her when I can (there is not much more I can do). But it’s too late; she responds that she’ll be busy until the day I leave.

    Friday, March 25th

    Connor, whom I’ve also known since middle school, is one of the last people in town I have yet to meet up with. In the evening, I pick him up from his house; we drive to the hookah bar. He is living at home after dropping out of college.

    When this happened, it was not a big surprise. I have known him since the first grade, and have been defending his inertia and his upbringing against my parents’ snide throwaway comments for as long as I can remember. He spends his time these days trying to promote and maintain a website that distinguishes itself in no way from more established resources.

    I ask Connor about life, friends, the site; when talking about his recent activities, his voice assumes the high and stilted tone of veiled self-defense. Try to encourage him, my mother told me beforehand. That much went without saying. It is clear that he is sensitive about his situation and may withdraw easily. I stick to asking questions.

    But suddenly, one question yields answers. I learn about his mother’s instability, which had been brewing offstage and out of sight for years. I learn that she is leaving the continent, that his father feels helpless and implicated. I learn that Connor is home because he is a loving son. I listen. There is not much more I can do.

    Someone told me once: “your twenties will test you all.” Life is starting to happen to these people I love, starting to test them, to tease out their weaknesses. It is hard to watch. Harder since there is not much I can do to help or even console them; I have become just another “friend from home.” I wonder how I seem to them, what fresh downfall I bring to the table. (Is this how the divide begins, the distance that makes classmates disconnect, then try to impress each other at reunions?)

    On the way home I find myself screaming with my speakers: We’ll stick together forever, stay sick together, be crazy forever. Wishful thinking.


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