One late Ohio Spring evening I was riding in the car with my friend Eric after picking he and his wife Vata up from the airport. We’d not seen each other in 23 years. I remember his last words to me over the phone back then were “I love you” as we were young men preparing to part ways. I picked him up at Port Columbus and was met with one of those enormous bear hugs. One where the other person sort of falls into you for either support or gratitude of presence. A great big wide armed full chest kind of thing. It was as if no lifetime had passed between our last conversation and now. But his mom had died and he was here from Florida to bury her and mourn with his brothers and step dad.
We knew of one another in grade school. Our mothers were friends. His mom asked him to keep an eye out for me as I was a year his junior. Maybe because I was from a broken home that had recently reformed and taken a new orbit. I suppose he was like some invisible brother.
Eric was cavalier with women and a prolific lover. Something like our town’s version of an amorous super hero. I was the classic introvert… turned in on himself still awaiting the ramifications that identity would later manifest. Afraid of myself and the world around me.
We crossed paths again as he was dating a friend of mine named Joy who worked on the same school paper I did. She was the editor in chief, I was some sort of editor hanging out with the cool nerds. Joy invited Eric, myself and another couple of our friends to spend part of the Summer at her parents cottage on a lake somewhere in Michigan. I was the fifth wheel as everyone in the group had paired off and were dating. This was just after High School graduation. Everyone was setting their individual compasses on what we thought were the horizons of our futures.
I still remember the the laughter. Wooded walks on the soft pine needles. Stars in the non urban night sky. Sound of the waves from the lake mixed with the memory of all the hope and promise of our lives ahead as if it were a pair of new shoes wrapped in tissue as they sat unused in the box.
During that trip we became best friends.
Fall term came. Eric and I had enrolled in the local branch of the State college to save some money by living at home while completing key foundation courses. We’d hang out at night watching films, smoking and listening to The Smiths, Sex Pistols, The Cure to name a few. I remember walking the streets of our dying home town after midnight. One time walking on thin ice of the pond at our college branch. Once is enough. The deep noise from the grinding and cracking sound of the ice under you just before it sends you into the water sealing off your exit route is more than chilling.
It’s unclear to me now whether we realized that we were telling each other our stories all those nights. Allowing ourselves to dream. Sharing a space together to grow within. One of those rare childhood gifts. A friendship that came into being back in Michigan and never ended since.
Eric’s mother was dead. The tangible loss I felt from he and his family made me think of our own friendship in relation to our mother’s. Beautiful symmetry. When I dropped him off at his family home before the funeral he gave me another hug. This time he leaned into me and I could actually feel the gratitude, joy and sadness he was holding inside.
Driving away, I realized that we make friends not all at once, but over time. Thinking back to our time on the lake… it turned out that the compasses we’ve been using happened to be these friendships.