When I started to write this, I set out to write the story of a childhood friendship, the most significant friendship of my early life, and I believed when I started that that friendship had a beginning, middle, and end. Yes, I skipped around, told it out of order. But I figured there was an arc, a climax, a denouement. To some extent there was. But this truth–and truth is what I’ve been trying to get all this time–isn’t complete. At times, I’ve felt in writing this that I’ve been orbiting truth on some elliptical orbit, coming close and venturing further away before I return. I can’t tell you what the exact truth is. I’ve tried to be honest, but there are other versions of this story that even I can write. At this point in time, to acknowledge the relativity of truth in memoir is trite, to point to the faults of memoir is cliche. What interests me here, what has interested me this whole time is the purpose this memoir serves me now. I’m retelling this story to myself. Why now? And why in this way? What do I get from it? What do I need in doing this? What new kind of meaning am I creating by returning to the past and examining my friendship with Lex?

To some extent, I need to look at the fact that our dream, our common dream of becoming musicians…didn’t so much fail or die as transform to painting and writing. I suppose that’s for the best, for me anyway. There aren’t a lot of men approaching middle age with two children who can still make good rock music. It’s a younger person’s game. But writing prose is something you can do your whole life, something it’s possible to continue to get better at as you age. Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote when he was almost sixty. Dostoevsky was heading for his mid-forties when he published Notes from the Underground. It’s nice to think of these things when you haven’t made it by twenty. When you haven’t made it by thirty. Whatever making it means.

“How many literary journals have you published in?” my wife sometimes asks me.

“Around thirty,” I begrudgingly admit.

“You’ve been nominated for prizes,” she says.

Three times, I think. I’ve never won.

She does this whenever I start talking about being no one or having accomplished nothing, by which I mean, very little. Whenever I point out that no one knows who I am. It’s not any moping on my part that elicits this, but my attempt to face the reality of my situation. I’ve finished a memoir here, but who cares? I’m not a celebrity. I haven’t led an exceptional life. I haven’t overcome cancer or abuse. So why would anyone ever want to officially publish this thing?

“You might be surprised,” she says. “You’ll never know if you don’t shop it around.”

She’s right. I refuse to give up. I write story after story, novel after novel. I hit periods when I’m fallow, when it seems to have dried up, but I keep searching. And eventually I get back to it. Nothing is going to stop me, I try to keep telling myself. But I have to look at where I failed before. At the dreams that didn’t pan out, the one I shared with my closest friend. I wanted to look at the way we fell out, the way our relationship ended, and of course, in doing so, I recognized something I’ve always known, deep inside. Relationships don’t end until the death of both people involved in them. For everyone, this is always the case. Even if I don’t have an active relationship with them in life, I have one in memory. The stories I’ve told here, I don’t go around thinking about them all the time. I don’t dwell in the past. But each and every one of the people I’ve talked about here has helped define me, just as I’ve helped to define them. If not in large ways, then in small. Maybe they simply helped to show me what I didn’t want or what I did. Maybe they simply gave me a story to tell for a little while that helped pass the time, that assisted me in eluding utter boredom. Or maybe, like Lex, they changed me profoundly and for the better. It’s almost impossible to know who I would have become if I hadn’t met him. I started here with the early years. I was a sensitive kid. And that sensitive kid was being killed by the kids around me. By people like Elton Danvers or Wade Lessman. I was being driven back into myself. The face I was presenting the world was increasingly a front. I was hiding the best things in me, the expression of joy and sadness, love and fear, which I could elicit in music. Perhaps, even without Lex, this would have shone through eventually. But Lex recognized it and encouraged me to play, to write, to express myself.

Do I wish I was still close with him, still friends? Over the years, it’s happened less and less. When we first drifted apart, after that night in their loft, I missed him often. I would have problems with women I was dating and want to call him and just shoot the shit and maybe get an outsider’s perspective. But of course, I didn’t consult him when things were going badly with Maggie. Because I didn’t think I needed him anymore. I didn’t record those demos of my new songs with him because I’d found other people to play with. The truth was I didn’t need him anymore, not in the way I’d needed him when we were teenagers. But I still wanted him around. And I’m not sure he recognized that difference. If he did, maybe he didn’t like it. Maybe he needed me to need him. With the way he runs from people, it’s possible he wanted to get rid of me before I got rid of him. That to be needed is the only way he knows how to be. That want makes it too easy for people to reject him.

As my life goes on, I think of these times less and less. Maybe that’s why I had to write this now, to get it down before it fades or disappears or changes completely. If I wrote it in ten years, it might have been a different story, as it would in twenty, in thirty. With two kids and marriage to maintain and nurture, I have less and less time for myself, for my past, for these random thoughts that strike from time to time. And I wanted to celebrate what I had as a kid. That first day in seventh grade French class, I met an amazing person who taught me to be an artist. I know that I’ve been critical of him here. At times, I may have been cruel, just as he’d been cruel and critical of me. But that’s part of love. For as much as I’ve written about Lana Dalton and how my feelings for her drove me to compose songs and find my voice, my first love was really Lex. In our culture, with its mores and taboos, this type of thing is hard to admit. But it’s the truth. After orbiting all this time, I’ve finally hit on it. I’ve been married for five years, and in many respects, my relationship with my wife mirrors that with my friend. Because what is my wife if not my closest friend? This is likely why I was excited for them to meet at Jim’s wedding. The person who played the most profound role in my childhood meeting the person who has played the most profound role in my adult life. I wanted her to see why he mattered to me, why I’d looked up to him for so many years. But of course, this was an unfair expectation. And of course, I was going to be let down. Because we weren’t those people, not anymore. Less optimism, more defeated maybe. But I refuse this defeat. Day-in day-0ut, I refuse it. I keep working, keep putting words on the page.

My wife’s first exposure to Lex was when he walked past our table at the wedding and Jim’s friend Max stopped him.

“Still painting?” he asked.

I watched Lex’s body language. He sort of turned aside, shifted a bit. Touched the buttons on his white shirt.

“You know, a little, here and there,” he said. “We just bought a place in the Catskills, so I’ve been working on that. Mostly doing some carpentry. But year, I still paint. But it’s not easy to break through anymore. It’s a business. It’s consolidated. Unless you go to the right schools and know the right people and make the right contacts, you’ve got such a narrow chance of making it. It’s more a business now. You know they’re listing paintings on the stock exchange now, that kind of thing.”

I’m not sure I cringed as I listened. I suppose the cringing was all inside. It wasn’t the first impression I wanted my wife to get of him. It sounded like complete bullshit. And yet, it was bullshit I understood. If you’re so talented why aren’t you famous yet, is what we hear every time someone asks a question like “Still painting?” even if they mean it or not. Mostly it’s just a way of making casual conversation. A person knows you paint or write, they ask about it. But this isn’t what we hear. We get defensive. Because if you haven’t made it yet, maybe you’re not talented enough. Maybe you’re not talented at all. Maybe you don’t have the drive. Maybe you’ll forever be unknown and your talent won’t come to fruition and you should just give up. And having to answer this question, especially if you haven’t been working, if you’ve been blocked or uninspired, can be a dagger in the heart. So we prevaricate, dissemble, shuffle it off, make a few excuses for ourselves. Because we don’t know why we haven’t succeeded yet. I’ve done the exact same thing. “Well, you know you really have to write a novel if you hope to make any money in publishing,” I’ll tell people. “And even then, there are only a few writers out there who can subsist without some form of supplemental income. You know, they teach. Or…I don’t know.” And even as I’m saying that, I squirm in the same way I squirmed hearing Lex explain why he wasn’t painting. It hit close to home. I wondered what Kristine thought of it but didn’t ask. Instead, I tried to steer her attention away. Start a different conversation.

“The wedding’s nice…”

But I didn’t hear her answer. I hadn’t stopped listening to Lex. I understood his point, and yet I wanted to interject, “You should still be painting, regardless of that.”

This was the peace I’d made with my own art, my writing, with the odds stacked against me. I could do it and keep sending it out and keep getting rejected. I could spend a lifetime in the slush pile. But that wasn’t going to stop me from doing it. We were artists, weren’t we? You couldn’t stop simply because you weren’t getting there fast enough. You had to believe.

“You control what you put down, and then you try to send it out, into the world, and they take it or they don’t.” I said this later. We were out by the water again, leaning against the rail, watching the boats pass. “That’s all you got. You can’t control how it’s gonna be received.” This is what I’d learned. The only thing that kept me working in the face of near-constant rejection. Even with the pieces I’d placed in respectable venues, I’d been climbing uphill in sand the whole way. Lex shrugged. I guess he disagreed. He’d seen his father, who was a talented man himself, struggle for years to get close to gallery shows and lose them. His father had made money and a reputation as an illustrator. Elton Danvers father, who was also in the business, was impressed when he discovered who Lex’s dad was. His dad had also held a professorship at Tyler School of Art. But this wasn’t what he’d wanted to be known for, and I think his father felt that he’d failed. Maybe Lex was simply trying to preempt a disappointment I had reconciled myself to living with. For some people, the idea they might have made it if they tried is more comforting than admitting they’d given their all and not succeeded. Perhaps this was where we parted ways, a difference in the story you might tell as you’re hunched over your beer, an old man with sad eyes. I could have made it if I tried vs. I tried and failed. Maybe there was dignity in giving up, the difference between staying down at the end of a fight and getting up and letting someone hand you your ass again and again. But I was willing to let the world hand me my ass, and I wanted to throw down the gauntlet. I thought he should too. But we hadn’t been close in years, and I let it drop. His wife and mine came out to see what we were up to. Then Jim came out and we took more pictures.

The gauntlet: you were supposed to make me better as I was you. You can’t stop painting. You can distance yourself from me. You can say I’m not a friend, but you can’t quit painting. Just as I can’t stop writing. We owe to each other. You can’t renege on this. I’m still driven in my mind by the idea we were supposed to become something. Not amount to nothing. To give up betrays the fucking mission, you shit. And yet, does it also mean that I win? Win what? What was I always so busy competing with him for? We went back in for the cake cutting and dancing. Jim danced with his wife. I danced with mine. Lex with his. Once in a while, we fell back together and passed a word. Lex seemed reticent to interact further. Had I touched a nerve? Had I failed to reach him? Had seeing me touched off the old vein of competition in him? Did he recognize how far we’d come from the people we’d been?

Before he moved to New York, Lex and I played one last game, a final game, one we knew would be the last time we hit the courts together. We sometimes played basketball at TW Park and Penbryn, but mostly we played at the courts off Renninger. It was our home field. We’d played baseball there too. Gone swimming at the pool. It was around the corner from my parents’ house, easily accessible. During our youth, in our younger years, during the first years of our friendship, we’d spent all our summer days there, shooting hoops, playing rough house and horse and 21. And when we were tired and thirsty we returned to my mother’s kitchen where I’d make large vats of Country Time Lemonade and Lipton Iced Tea from the powder, always adding excessive amounts, making it almost too sugary to drink. It was here, at these courts, that Sonny had had his meltdown. It was the scene of childhood rivalry, of games that Lex has won, of games I’d taken. And now we were back to finish it. One last contest. One last fight.

It had started this time with me and something I said.

“The only reason you ever beat me is I let you,” I told Lex.

Which, of course, wasn’t true. He’d beaten me fair and square many times. If I’m being honest, he probably beat more one-on-one than I beat him. The problem being that I didn’t give it my all unless pride was on the line, unless I had a reason to invest, and often I didn’t care. I know that’s strange to say with the way Lex and I competed. But it’s true. I’d go to the courts to shoot around and have fun. And it was only when I’d been insulted or someone questioned my abilities that I’d play hard and try to win. It took someone talking shit for me to kick it into high gear. But once someone egged me on, I’d play well. And I planned on playing well this time, our final game.

It was cold. The sky was gray, and the field spread before us, beyond the chain-link fence that circled the courts, in kicked-up clods of dark brown earth. The smell of grass was in the air. Was it late-spring? Early-fall? Had the winter come? We’d driven there in Lex’s car, and as we got out, he took a ball from his trunk, and we argued over who got first. I insisted that he take it, that I didn’t need the advantage, and he insisted the same. Finally, we flipped a coin to decide, and I took the first possession. Or maybe he did. Who can remember that? I’m simply trying to set a scene. And the scene was this: two solitary figures on a blacktop, two tall, lanky physiques past their boyhoods but not yet the men they’d become, struggling to win a game.

We checked the ball back and forth at the foul line. The speed at which we sent it spinning the only sign of an animosity that boiled beneath the surface, an animosity we’d developed over the course of a decade and planned to spend here, this day. I took the ball in two hands and held it back, away from him. I crouched low and kept the ball down so he couldn’t steal it, and slowly backed against him, posting up nearly fifteen feet from the rim and backing him down. I faked left and went right, or maybe right and then left or some combination thereof. I could shoot with both hands. He’d taught me that. You have to be versatile. You can’t win with a one-dimensional game. And so we’d spent days during those early summers shooting layups with our left hands, and I could do it now. But even this didn’t matter. We were engaged in trench warfare. We fouled each other the whole fifteen feet, as we fought for ground, shoving our ways past one another. He swiped for the ball and smacked my wrists and hands and I pushed against him with my shoulders and used my back to bump him away and spin and shoot. He knew my moves and I knew his, but even this didn’t matter. It wasn’t about skill. This was a test of our wills. Of the two of us, who was stronger? Who could endure?

The game seemed to take forever. There was no trick dribbling, no fancy moves, no impressive jumpers from the perimeter. The only move was backing the other down, making layups. The risk in one of us missing was the other would go on a run, but that didn’t happen either. The lead kept changing. You made a point, you kept possession, but we didn’t call fouls, and so neither one of us kept possession long. Shots were blocked, interfered with. We pulled at one another’s arms, tripped each other up.

In the end, we were both winded, leaning over to catch our breath, our hands propped on our knees. In the end, I won the game 11-9, which I only remember because we would have played by ones, win by two, and eleven was always the final goal. In the end, it meant nothing and everything, like so many events between us. It was both inconsequential and the most important thing in the world at the time. In the end, our pride was matched in the outcome, our sense of self-respect. In the end, we were both battered and bruised, nursing the brush burns we got from knocking each other down. In the end, for the last shots, we propped each other up, leaned into each other, used the last of our strength to stand and make plays. In the end, we were evenly matched, as we always had been. It could have gone either way, but I took that game, and I didn’t brag, but I was proud. In the end, there’s only one reason I see for the outcome.

In the end, I won. Because on that particular day I simply wanted it more.



J. M. Jones
May 26, 2016–December 6, 2016

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