A Friendship Comes of Age
Is it possible to be insecure about a relationship that left you 18 years ago?
Every year on the anniversary of my friend Paul Sloan’s death on 9/11, I write something about him, or me, or me in the context of him. Sometimes I publish it. Sometimes I tuck it away. Sometimes it’s eight thousand words about the world and everything that’s fucked up about it since he went away. And sometimes it’s a Post-it note that says, “I miss you.”
I’ve come to understand that the annual check-in is not so much for him and his memory and keeping that whole thing going. It’s for me and my memory of him …and keeping me going.
I guess I always feel the need, in writing such things, to express some type of hope. Hope for the future. Hope to see him again in some form that my imagination can’t quite wrangle. Hope that in his name, in his memory, I can bridge or repair some of the relationships that surrounded us while he was alive and have since diminished.
I have written before, and I still mean it, that I hope he would be proud of me if he were here now. Proud of me as a man, a parent, a partner, a brother, a friend, a worker. The truth is, I don’t know if he would be. The truth is, I don’t even know how close we would be at this point.
That’s the hardest truth to encounter.
He left this Earth while we were at peak friendship. High school and college were behind us and the whole rest of what promised to be a great big life was in front of us. But a lot changed that day. Everything changed. I didn’t realize it at first, but I started to become a different person. I adopted this undercurrent of resentment and it guided everything I did.
More than that. More than the self-deprecation or the slow realizations, I never could quite grasp that he was just …gone.
I hear so many people, the self-help’y, bullshitt’y kind, talk about your “why”. And I get it. I get why the “why” thing works. Why not? But it doesn’t work, not for me. For the longest time, my friendships were my why and the epicenter was Paul. Full stop. And it sucks when you knew your why, like physically knew it — and then one day it vanishes in a plunging tower.
I can’t analyze myself. So when I saw a professional, the thing she said — and not in a positive way — was I was acting forever my twenty-six-year-old self, and reacted to the world from that point of view.
I refused responsibility and I refused to take responsibility. Bills to pay? Be somewhere when I say I’m going to? Be a good husband? Sibling? Son? Uncle? Employee? All that took a back seat to this kind of self-imposed narrative of always acting out, always grieving.
…Always walking around with this not-so-secret secret. It once served me well — or maybe people had a higher tolerance for it way back when. Maybe that’s what I told myself. But through many relationships, including a failed marriage, there it was, a lot of self-imposed nothing. A lot of time wasted.
This time of year is a also an annual reminder of how shored to this narrative — how stunted, how haunted I am. So I have, over time, tried to move away from it. I’ve physically moved away. I’ve physically tried to outrun it. I’ve physically made myself smaller, more insular.
I’ve attempted to disappear. And yet, here I am. Ta-da!
I guess I still want to atone in small ways. I’m still trying to create something new from the rubble of that person suspended in time. That person who recently woke up middle-aged and with a child who needs his help every day.
Even so, I still define myself, and mark milestones, in the context of Paul’s death. I don’t know if I’m wired to do otherwise.
My nephew, born two weeks before 9/11, visited me a couple days ago with one of his best friends from high school. They are on the cusp of leaving for college. Looking at them interact, more like brothers, but brothers of their own choosing, brought back a lot of warm memories.
They asked me how I communicated with my high school friends once we got to college, pre-email, pre-smart phone, and pre-social media. “By letter,” I said. And I recalled for them the day I arrived at my dorm, my mailbox had four letters in it all from Paul — who’d already been back at Brown for a month.
They smiled and blushed and my nephew turned to his friend and said, “Maybe we should write each other,” and they busted out laughing.
I made them watch Taxi Driver with me. I tried not to interrupt or recite the lines. But the whole time I remembered when me, and Paul, and Chris Kayser, rented it from the Wherehouse. We took it over to Manny Boroski’s on a Friday night along with four Little Caesars.
We snickered at the ridiculousness of Travis Bickle’s life and were uncomfortable at the ending, as were my nephew and his friend. But watching it so many years later with them gave me fresh eyes. I’m hearing the Wizard, the sage cabbie, try to talk a young Travis out of his desperation:
Wizard: Do anything. You got no choice, anyway. I mean, we’re all fucked. More or less, ya know.
Travis: I don’t know. That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard.
…I wrote another friend this week telling them that if I didn’t do something soon, something, you know, big — that the world would continue to shrink around me and I would fade.
I said everyone I know, now in a sort of self-imposed exile of attempting to raise children, and keep their jobs — with the knowledge that a planet is in revolt, and our systems are failing — may also feel a need to do something. But what?
Here we all are, knowing the task at hand, and unable to do anything about it.
The Wizard may have been right all along.
And the thought occurs to me that Paul, in some ways, may have been the lucky one to have dodged all this. But isn’t that cynicism laid bare? And isn’t it even more cynical to put someone’s friendship in a glass case and hold on to it so tight? So tight that it squeezes out others.
Isn’t that the ultimate in selfishness?
Wednesday morning, I will drop my son off at Kindergarten and observe him interacting with his new cohort of little friends. Some he’ll only know for a couple years. One or two may be with him his whole life. I marvel at these relationships forming.
I think of Paul and a handful of others, some gone, some here, every day. I think of how friendships, like any relationship, require attention, require nurturing, require re-planting.
After drop-off, I’ll go for a run and shout Paul’s name off some high peak. I’ll be thankful I’m still around to do it. Then I’ll cry a little because I am here and maybe I’m not the one who should be.
I’ll think about him. In the car. At the store. When I’m with other friends. When I’m alone. At night. When my alarm goes off. When I’m at a stoplight. When someone says something a certain way. Or when someone looks at me funny. I reread his letters. I force myself to write down ways I can to better. And I promise myself I’ll follow through.
Whether or not I do this year is another story.
He would though. Because that’s the kind of guy he was. The kind of friend he always will be.