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.

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