A friend of 20+ years called last night. You could say it’s been a complicated relationship, the same way you could say Mt. Rainier is a pretty big hill. We’ve hurt each other at times like only two people who know each other very well can do. We’ll talk every day for a year and then either drift or storm apart for the next one. He made me so mad last year that I all but slammed the door for good on my way out.
But I HAD to send him my book
. Not because he’s in it–though he is–and not because he’s thanked in the acknowledgments, though he’s there too. Just because there were a few people who needed to have it in their hands for it to feel fully real to me, and he was one of them, which frankly sort of annoyed me. I didn’t sign it or include a note, just shoved the galley in an envelope and sent it off and didn’t wait around to hear back.
“You wrote a fucking beautiful book,” he said by way of hello last night.
“Well, thanks,” I said, a little shy.
“It’s EXACTLY your voice,” he went on. “Like everything you are as a person is reflected in those pages. I mean I LITERALLY heard your voice in my head saying every single word.”
Now I was starting to perk up a little. (Compliments will do that.)
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wanted to shut you up a few times,” he said, laughing. “But it was you. For better or worse. You translated the
thing that makes you YOU into book form. I don’t know how the fuck you did it.”
“This is seriously the greatest blurb I’ll ever get in my life,” I told him, and I meant it.
We talked for another couple of hours, and I guess he heard something in my physical voice too, something I was holding back, because every so often he’d circle back and ask “Are you okay? Really, are you okay?” In recent years–since I got sober–I’m usually the one asking if he’s okay. At times it’s seemed like he’s forgotten that I still have problems, too.
The third time he asked I said, “I’m FUNDAMENTALLY okay, yes, but…” and gave him the full download on something that happened this month, a head-spinning turn of events involving someone I was close to that blindsided and hurt me. It’s also the kind of situation where anyone looking to judge me would have a glorious CORNUCOPIA of options to choose from. Based on our history, I sort of expected an astonished eye roll from my friend *at best,* so I went ahead and tacked on everything I assumed he was thinking: that I’m a dumbass, that I know I have no real right to feel grief, that I should just be happy things didn’t turn out even worse, and did I mention I’m a dumbass? and so on.
He cut my litany off. “Kid,” he said–he’s been calling me ‘kid’ since around the time he turned 40 while I was a mere 37–“shut up. OF COURSE you feel grief. That’s heartbreaking. I’m just sorry you have to go through it.”
“Well, the problem is I’m essentially a much stupider person than I thought I was and…”
“STOP,” he said. “You are not stupid. At WORST you’re maddening and confounding. God, you know I hate it when you get hurt.” I was about to say that, uh, maddening and confounding actually are pretty bad ‘worsts,’ but for once common sense prevailed and we moved on to other quotidian sorrows, his and mine.
Just before we hung up, he said “The thing you need to remember is I’m ALWAYS going to be in your army. I’m always going to have your back. Even if we have another blowup–“
“–Which we will, it doesn’t matter. We’re permanent. And whenever you forget that, just listen to the song.”
“I will,” I said. Of course I knew which song. In that way if no other, we have twin language.
I thought then of the speech Harper makes at the end of Angels in America
, about the net of souls surrounding the earth. I wanted to tell him how fast I realized after we first met that he’d be in my own personal net of souls, and how for a while after I quit drinking I thought maybe I’d been wrong, but finally I’d landed on that same word: permanent. A neutral word that leaves room for drift and flow, private jokes and alienation, deep disappointment and deep love.
I wanted to tell him all of this (though I suspected I’d told him before, drunk) plus just how much that net has come to MEAN to me in this dizzying last year or two–how carefully I’ve tended and even more carefully added to it, with a jeweler’s eye and maybe the eye of a coach, too, putting together a team for the long haul. I wanted to explain that’s why I’m grieving now, because part of my net fell away. But also to explain that my friend’s ongoing presence in my life–his warm, maddening, loving, confounding, worrying, permanent presence–tells me the net is there even when I can’t see it, or feel it.
But it was late–3 a.m. his time, which made it midnight here. Which made me gasp a bit and said “Oh! Oh, wow. As of this very minute I’ve been sober for exactly five years.”