Monday, June 24, 2013

As Always, Always

I was 19 years old. It was early summer and I was in my usual spot for such a time, seated on the couch at my buddy Peek’s house.

The first portion of such summer evenings would vary, but by the time 10 o’clock or so rolled around four or five of us would be at Peek’s, equipped with fast food and soda or beer as we watched episodes of Family Guy, played pool, and shot the shit into the wee hours of the morning.

On this particular night, the group make up was a little different. We had a regular crowd, with a few different faces rotating in and out. But this night was a little less casual and a little more crowded. More friends. Neighbors.

Girlfriends.

More specifically, my friend Will’s girlfriend-of-the-time was there, and after a few drinks, and a brief tangent about Disney cartoons, I came up with a startlingly witty (read: obvious, crass, and stupid) riff on Lady and Tramp. I don’t remember my exact verbiage, but the so-blunt-it-couldn’t-really-be-called-an-innuendo innuendo I made was that that particularly lady friend of Will's was a Tramp.

Will came after me. Like so many times when I had run my mouth throughout high school and early college, I readied myself for a charlie horse or brief good-natured chase. As such I got up and jokingly fled. And Will let it go.

I thought that was the end of it. It wasn’t until days later that I caught word of how close Will had come to decking me. That my friend had not taken the moment as a joke, but rather an affront. That he had been ready pummel me, and it had taken all of his restraint not to do it.

We had it out. A little bit over AOL Instant Messenger. A little bit in person. A little bit relaying messages through third parties. It wasn’t just about one comment. It was about my propensity for ball busting. About my lack of respect.

When I caught wind of all of this, I was hurt. Defensive. If it was such a big deal, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of the issue until it had just about boiled over, and I questioned whether he was a friend at all.

There are facts of life that are hard to see in the moment. Hardest of all to understand when you’re 19 and on the cusp of taking the reigns of the college newspaper, halfway through a degree in English literature, and your creative pursuits are starting to get some traction.

There are facts of life you can see much more clearly ten years removed. A few gray hairs. Wise enough to know that you’re not a wise man now and that you were a dumbass in college.

The most important friends you’ll have in life aren’t necessarily the closest ones, but the ones who will challenge and inspire you. It’s great to remember drunken escapades, chasing girls, and tales of basketball glory. But the friends who not only support you when you’re right, but put you in your place when you’re wrong--they’re the ones who stand to make you a better man. And if you can count such a friend as one of the closest people in your life, you have every reason to feel lucky.

Things weren’t the same between me and Will for a matter of weeks, maybe months--going to separate colleges didn’t exactly foster a close bond. But over the course of the years to follow, we traveled together. We talked more. I dropped a little of my sarcasm in favor of some sincerity; and to his credit, Will gave me another chance.

When it came time for Will’s wedding, I took a day off during my busiest time of the year for the honor of standing by his side, a groomsman as he took his vows.

When it came time to redesign The A Cappella Blog, Will worked for untold hours to perfect every detail about the design and functionality of the site.

When it comes to favors done, honors shared, and long travels, I’ve, frankly, had few people in my life more important to me than Will.

And so, it was little surprise, years later, when we sat together on the patio at a Rochester bar at the end of summer. The mutual friend we had come out with was wrapped up in a series of conversations with friends Will and I didn’t know particularly well. So we took the opportunity to catch up for longer than we had in quite some time.

And he spoke of his travels to his wife’s native country, Malaysia; about the process of learning Chinese; about his family.

And I talked about a girl.

All those years removed from college, talking to my married friend, I could have sounded absurd, prattling on about a new crush on a woman who seemed just right. But he didn’t brush off the conversation. Didn’t laugh or wait for the topic to pass.

He listened. Asked questions. Likened it to his own recollections of what had and hadn’t worked when he was still single.

And that’s what real friends do.

Will and I have shared a tradition for the better part of a decade now that when we first see one another or when we’re parting ways, we’ll shake hands and say, “As always.” I’m not sure of when, why, or how it got started--perhaps a reference to a forgotten scene in one of the movies we watched in Peek’s basement; perhaps a more random, silly gesture--the formality a satire of the sort of things older men say to one another after longer periods of time apart.

We are older now. And we’re still saying it.

And now, that handshake and that expression carry more than silliness. They carry tradition. An inside joke between the two of us, and one founded in mutual respect.

When we most recently saw one another, we shook hands. As always, we said, “As always.”

And I hope we always will.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Kinds of Hugs

In day-to-day life, I’m not a big hugger. I like my personal space. More so, I err on the safe side of respecting the personal space of others.

That said, hugs do have their time and place. They’re appropriate for goodbyes.

It seems I’ve said goodbye a lot over the last decade, but perhaps that’s not so unusual for my demographic. There were goodbyes when I left home. Goodbyes at the end of each year of college as a different round of friends graduated before it was, at last, my own turn. Transience characterized my first full-time job, at Syracuse, where most folks didn’t stick around longer than a couple years (to be fair, I only stayed for two and half). Things are marginally more stable here in Baltimore. Just the same, by an off-the-top of my head count, I’ve said goodbye to no fewer than 20 co-workers from my department in five and a half years. Some were close friends, some nothing more than colleagues. Some moved hundreds of miles away. Some stayed local.

In many of these cases, I spoke with the parting co-worker about keeping in touch--a trite sentiment, to be sure. The stuff of yearbook notes and cursory scrawling in farewell cards. I’ve maintained a number of Facebook friends, and had cups of coffee with a handful of these people after our circumstantial, prescribed time together has come to an end.

But when I’ve hugged them goodbye, I’ve known what it really means:

“Have a nice life.”

“I’ll never see you again in quite the same way.”

I don’t mean all of this to sound callous. Putting aside my oft-snarky exterior, I’m pretty sentimental about the connections I make, and ready to more or less meet folks halfway if they want to keep in touch. The thing is, I’ve also found that friendships born out of common circumstances--particularly work--tend to have limited shelf lives. Take away office gossip, war stories, and shared geography. More often than not, you’re left with idle chatter about the family, pets, one or two especially prominent hobbies, and--well, that’s about it. Enough for a couple beers, maybe a lunch, but hardly enough for a sustained, meaningful relationship.

A couple years ago I hugged goodbye a woman I considered a pretty close friend. Sharon and I had worked closely with one another and bonded one winter over shared stories of bad breakups when I was at an emotional low and she had pretty recently emerged from the other side of the tunnel.

I caught her alone in her office, past five on her last day. We shot the breeze for a few minutes. Reminisced for a few more. Then it was time for the hug. I wrapped my arms around her.

She patted my back twice.

The moment stung. There’s every possibility I read too far into that instant. She may just be an awkward hugger, or might have grown weary at the tail end of a day full of embraces.

But I couldn’t escape the thought that maybe I’d misjudged our connection. That what, in my mind, was a close friendship was actually far more casual and professional for her.

I jotted a note to myself about that afternoon. It seemed like a conflicted enough moment that it might be of value in my fiction someday, or at least be a valuable personal lesson. A reminder to look at all manner of friendships objectively. Never to ask or assume too much.

Never to hug too soon, too hard, or too long.

But then, two years later, another colleague left. Carrie had been to my apartment for all manner of gatherings--Christmas parties, writing workshops, viewings of American Idol, Star Wars, and Wrestlemania. I recall sitting on her couch, sipping sangria one Fourth of July, joined by her husband and some mutual friends. Carrie and I have always gotten along well, and I considered her a friend. Just the same, when the time came to say farewell, I hesitated, remembering Sharon.

But Carrie put her arms over my shoulders and held me close. I held her back. After a second or two, it was over. And yet, in that brief period, I remembered what I had not so much forgotten, but questioned that a hug could, or even should be--

a gesture of love.

A hug like that isn’t sexual. But it is real. Simple. Sincere.

In life, we tend to hear a lot about first impressions. About firm handshakes and eye contact. About remembering to smile.

Maybe we don’t think enough about last impressions. About drinking deeply and remembering. About not being ashamed to shed a tear. About saying “keep in touch” and meaning it.

About holding our hugs a little bit longer.