Old Friends

Last Sunday, my wife and I went to Jim Lyons’s wedding up in Jersey City. My parents watched the kids. We dropped them off at three and hauled ourselves up I-95 to attend. It wasn’t his wedding really. Jim and his bride went to city hall Friday. What it was was a party to celebrate his marriage, a cocktail hour followed by dinner and dancing, the invitation read. My wife and I were excited by the prospect of getting away from our children and being with other adults for a few hours. I was also looking forward to seeing Lex.

The last time I saw him was six years ago. I’d published a story in a now-defunct literary magazine that was having its release party at the BookCourt in Brooklyn, and I’d sent an email out to all my friends who lived in New York, inviting them to hear me read. I’d made plans to stay overnight at Jim’s studio in Jersey City, and I’d met Jon, my roommate from Rome, for lunch, but the pleasant surprise was Lex turning up. Despite the tension of our early-2os, I’m was happy to see him. I’d hoped he would come but hadn’t expected him to. We’d passed around apologies two years before at Rick’s wake, but we’d only spoken once or twice over the phone since then. “Your work was the best of anyone there,” he told me afterward. We’d gone to a restaurant to have drinks, Jim and Lex and me. “It was actually about something.” I had felt as much as I listened to the other readers, but his saying this was confirmation. I still, to an extent, hadn’t escaped the wish to validate myself through his eyes, and I understood this and didn’t mind. It wasn’t at the pathological level it had been at when we were boys. This was a mere compliment, and I took it that way, but the compliment was meaningful. It had to do with art. It was confirmation I hadn’t strayed from the path. I still produced good work. We slipped into conversation like the old days, like we hadn’t spent much time apart. When he left, we muttered some works about keeping in touch, and I tried to call him a few times over the years, but he never answered. It was hard to get a gauge on how he felt. I was open to the idea of reviving our friendship, but I’d also lived so long without it, I was fine with whatever he decided. When I heard he’d be at the wedding, there was some trepidation. Mostly I was worried that if he’d started reading this, he’d take offense at something and there’d be tension. But when he arrived with his wife, I saw him through the plate glass window of the restaurant and raised my drink in recognition of him. He nodded back, and I said to my wife, “There he is,” pleased that he’d greet me with a smile instead of a cold shoulder.

The reception was held at Battello, which looked out over the Hudson and into Manhattan. My wife and I were standing on the edge of the pier, admiring the skyline, picking out the buildings we knew, The Freedom Tower, Chrysler Building, Empire State. To our right was a building that looked like a Jenga block, composed of alternating tiles and ready to topple. It was ugly as sin and I wondered why anyone would build something so ugly, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Ugly and fascinating was art. It made me feel something, though I’m not sure if discomfort is something a building should make you feel. Even though we’ve visited the city a number of times, the buildings still enthralled us, and we let them work their magic. We got there at five, and during the cocktail hour, the sun was glinting off both the buildings and water.

I saw Adam Boxman, who I’d known in high school. His father had married Jim’s mother, an autumnal romance after Jim’s mother and father had divorced, and we chatted for a bit.

“We were reading your blog the other night, the story of your life, what is it?”

“It’s kind of live memoir that I’m writing on my site.”

“That’s right. I was with Cathy Hertz…well, Farley, you knew her as Farley, and I married her sister Jackie, and we were with Julia. Used to be Julia Parry.”

“Yeah, cool.”

“And we were all reading it because Cathy thought that Julia might have been one of your characters…which one…hmm, which one…I can’t remember.”

“Jennifer Mills?”

“Jennifer Mills! That’s right.”

“Yes, I’ll confirm. Julia Parry is Jennifer Mills.”

We got a good laugh out of it. I’m touched whenever anyone tells me they’ve read my work. I liked the idea of a group of people gathered around a computer, reading sections aloud, trying to figure out who’s who.

I passed Max. Or rather Max passed me. I couldn’t remember his last name, but I remembered him fondly. We’d hung out some in high school when Jim brought him around, but I interacted with him more later. In college, we’d exchanged poems via email, back when I fancied myself a poet, and we had long conversations about Wallace Stevens and Charles Simic. Max had come with his wife and two-year-old daughter, and we chatted about child rearing, the experience.

“As I see it, it’s the great paradox,” I said. “On the one hand I’ve never been happier. I love my children with everything I have. On the other, I’m angry all the time. They drive me absolutely crazy. I can’t explain it.”

At some point, Jim came and ushered us inside to introduce us to some of his friends, the ones we didn’t already know which was most of them. I passed Jim’s mom who didn’t recognize me which was both funny and not. I was with Jim all the time for years in late-high school and college, but she hadn’t seen me in a long time. She looked good, happy. I spotted Lex, and we shook hands and talked. Mostly we asked about each other’s families. It was catching up conversation, stilted, formal. The drinks hadn’t taken effect yet. We watched as Jim circulated, receiving his congratulations, shaking hands. He looked good, Jim did. He’d always had a slim physique, high metabolism. When he first started coming around to hang out with us, Tony P. had called him Ethi. But he’d grown into it. He wore a slim-fitting blue suit with a bow tie. His beard was full but nicely coiffed, and he radiated a buoyancy of happiness, as if he could float on air, moonwalk across the bay in the fashionable brown shoes he’d worn on this occasion.

There were miniature plants set out on a table with our names and table assignments listed on them. Jim and his wife hadn’t seated me and Lex at the same table. I wondered if this was to avoid any possible tension—after all, Lex and Jim had only recently reconnected—or because Lex’s wife knew people at the table where they were seated better and he’d done it out of deference to her. It was likely a smart move, but I was slightly disappointed. But the tables were next to each other, and when Lex stopped to talk to Max during the salad course, I tapped him on the shoulder, and we went out to the pier and stood. I’d had two cocktails—a mixture of bourbon, pomegranate, lemon; the special “his” cocktail—and a glass or two of wine by then, so I admitted up front that I was writing about us. I told him the motive, the inspiration, the way I wanted to capture a contentious relationship that caused both people to push themselves, to compete and become better.

“You write what you’ve got to write,” he said, the same thing Jim had said when I started.

I should have figured he’d say as much. As an artist he wouldn’t try to limit someone else’s creativity, but I was grateful for his response. At this risk of appearing like I dwelled, I covered some of what I’d been talking about. I told him I’d reconnected with Elisa during the writing, with Reed too.

“How’s Elisa doing?” he asked. A smile on his face.

“She’s good I think. Except her dad just died, so that’s bad. I haven’t talked to her since then. Just sent my condolences on Facebook. I mean I think she’s built a good life for herself. She’s living in California.”

“I always liked her.”

“So did I, she was my favorite of all your girlfriends.”

It isn’t unusual for me to look forward to seeing my friends, the anticipation, the hopes of having a good conversation, some connection. If Jim calls and says he’s coming to town to see his mom and wants to stop by or Andrew texts and says he’s in the neighborhood or Rachel emails me to say she’s back in town and wants to do happy hour, I look forward to seeing them. It was simply amplified with Lex by time and distance. It’s amplified too by the loneliness of raising children, living in the suburbs. The reason my wife and I moved back was to be closer to my family. But we haven’t made friends since moving there. We don’t put in a lot of effort. We’re friendly with our neighbors, but it’s more of a passing hello relationship. My wife and I, of course, are together all the time, and we talk and are close, but most of our current conversation revolves around our kids. Did they eat, what did they eat, did they nap, how long, did the baby poop today, how many times, what was its consistency, who’s giving them baths and who’s reading them stories? We both work full-time jobs, and by the end of the day one of us is close to collapse and the other isn’t far behind. There aren’t the same exchanges we had in our youth, frivolous and fun conversations. So when a situation like this arises, a wedding, a dinner with friends, an event we can make where my parents agree to watch our kids, it’s met with great anticipation.

“I’ve probably focused a bit too much on girls,” I admitted. “But that’s what you do when you’re young, focus on girls. I never had trouble with school or family…well, my dad in some respects, I had problems with him.”

“Yeah, you had your daddy issues…”

“It was tough, though, the girl thing. It was important to me but I couldn’t…I don’t know. I think I spent a lot of time hiding behind your charisma.” By now I was feeling the effects of alcohol. I doubt I would have said anything of this sort sober. “You were always so good with them and I wasn’t…”

“Well, I had my older sisters to guide me.”

I nodded.

“And it wasn’t me,” he said. “You had your problems with girls because you were such a moody motherfucker.”

I could have taken this as a jab, but it was too much the truth and I knew it. This was part of what I was looking for in seeing Lex again. His side. It broke me out of my tunnel vision. I’ve been sitting here, writing this, uncontested. My version is the version that goes on the page. But Lex has his own story. A version in which he’s the central figure, and for ten years, I played a supporting role, a supporting role in which I was a moody motherfucker.

“I still am,” I said, and smiled.

We were looking out over the Hudson, out on the city he’d wanted me to move to, the city that had played a partial role in the rift between us. It was dark, the sun had set, the city was lit. I’d wondered from time to time, over the years, what would have happened if I’d moved here. Would I still be writing? Would I have made connections that helped my writing? Or would the city have bowled me over? Would I be sitting alone in a room somewhere, ruing the day I’d come? It was useless to think this way, and I rarely did. Especially since I’d met my wife. I had what I wanted. A wife and children I adored. I was writing still. If I weren’t doing well, Lex and I wouldn’t be having the conversation. I looked at him. He seemed all right himself. But I wondered. There was, to some extent, a sadness in him still. I guess it had always been there, even when we were young. As the alcohol took hold, I talked a bit more about why I was writing. About how I never had a friendship like that again. How I’m not sure most people even get to have it once, that type of friendship, the competition that propels you to test yourself, to become something more. Then I mentioned the rift. The way we’d acted toward each other in our twenties. I said that it was a shame. There were times we’d been bad to each other, but mostly it had been good. I felt a little embarrassed as I spoke, like we were a married couple who’d divorced years before.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I needed to get away. I had to run. It’s how I am. Looking back, even that thing with Sonny, the way that ended. I had to leave.”

It was interesting to hear this, to hear him acknowledge in speech something I’d expressed in writing when I started off. That he’d needed to escape to survive. That he had to change himself and couldn’t do it in Glenside or even Philly, but had to move further. It was confirmation that I’d understood him all along, that what I’d conjectured was true. We’d never talked about it before now.

“We were both young,” I said. “Trying to assert ourselves. We both behaved like assholes.”

I have to admit, I was surprised he engaged me, knowing that he didn’t like to speak of the past, that he had run away, that part of the problem when he first moved to New York was that I hadn’t let him forget it. But we were older now. I watched him as we talked, looked at his eyes. I was searching for my friend in there, and I found him. He’d reconciled it. At least, that’s what I thought. Like me, it had been with him over the years. Not constantly, but enough that in odd moments, it came back, and he had to make sense of it.

When I started to write this, Lex and I weren’t on bad terms, but we weren’t on good either. There was just radio silence. I wonder how it might have changed some of the things I’ve put down if we’d had this conversation before I penned a word, if we’d stood and talked like this. Obviously, I’ve focused on our conflicts, our disagreements. This is what most storytelling focuses on. But we didn’t always disagree. More often than not, we agreed. More often than not, we had a great time together. There would have been no reason to remain friends if this weren’t true. I told him about the memoir. I explained that I didn’t always focus on the good, and he said, “Do what you have to.” But had I focused too intently on the bad? Had the lingering possibility of resentment crept in, the need to put myself consistently in the right and him in the wrong? Had I been unfair to him? Or had I told it like I believed it was and was only waxing sentimental now that he was here in front of me again? And does it dispel the tension if I place this exchange here, in the middle, rather than at the end of the story. And was this the ending? Jim was the last to marry. This is when you see old friends, people you haven’t connected with in many years. Weddings. The other time was Rick’s funeral. Were those the next round of engagements? I shuddered to think it.

My side of the conversation was intense but he matched the intensity, which he’d always done whether we were playing music or talking. The intensity, on my part, wasn’t simply from seeing an old friend after so long, but because I knew that seeing him played a part in the narrative I’m writing here, the narrative of our friendship. My motives were admittedly mixed. Still, I was doing my best to be myself, to avoid doing what so many people do after years of not seeing each other, sell themselves, amplify their successes, mute or mask their failures. I only hoped I wasn’t hurting him by bringing up the past, dredging up things he’d rather forget. He’d admitted he’d run, confirmed what I thought. That was good enough. So I didn’t want to linger on it any longer than I had to. I had no illusions. We were reconnecting for the evening. “I’m a weird person,” he kept saying. Which I took for code as, “We’ll talk now. But I probably won’t keep in touch.” I was fine with that. He admitted he’d been nervous about seeing me. I reassured him, “I’m still your friend.” Maybe I was reading too much into it. On the one hand, you don’t decide to write a book about friendship unless the friendship was deep, important. On the other, it’s possible he was being cordial and accommodating since it was Jim’s wedding. I can only say what I felt. I still felt great fondness for him. Aside from that, I still liked him. In spite of what took place in our twenties, he was still the same guy I’d grown up with. There were changes of course, but the core was there. It was a shame I thought, that we couldn’t be friends again. But I had so much going on. He had a lot too. There were still the different states. I wasn’t good on the phone anymore. I couldn’t find time to call people. And Lex didn’t engage with any of the social media sites.

My wife, who’d been hanging back while this conversation took place, stepped forward to tell us Jim and his wife were cutting the cake. We went inside. My wife and I ate and danced. I talked to Jim and Max a bit more. Jim invited us back to his place for the post-wedding party. We would have liked to stay longer, but my parents were watching our kids and we had to leave at nine to get home at a reasonable hour.

“How’d it go?” she asked, as we drove down I-95.

“I can’t say. I think it went well. I hope it did,” I said. It was possible he’d been standing there during our whole conversation, thinking, get me away from this guy. “It was good seeing him again. We were cordial. I couldn’t get a read on how he felt. But I guess that’s to be expected.”

I was thinking. I’d said something that surprised me back there, something that’s been forming the whole time I’ve been writing this, something that hadn’t coalesced until the words came out of my mouth. New York hadn’t created the rift, it had merely provided the final tear. What had caused us to drift apart was the fact we’d given up, the fact that we’d stopped playing music together. The dream we’d held for half a decade had died, and our friendship with it.

“We should have tried to become part of the bar scene,” Lex said. “Played more gigs.”

“That wasn’t the problem,” I said. “The problem was that we never found anyone we wanted to play with, and we didn’t work as a two-piece.”

But this wasn’t true either. We’d found other musicians, musicians who played their instruments well, musicians who could hold their own. But either they didn’t mesh with what we wanted to do or couldn’t commit in the ways we needed them to.

“So I became a writer,” I said. “And you became a painter.”

But this wasn’t what we’d intended, not way back then.


There were four of us. It was eleventh grade, and we sat in the back of the small auditorium where tryouts were being held for the talent show. I’d enlisted Aidan Kostas to play piano. We were friends at this time, and close. We had French together, homeroom. He’d been in my history class the year before. Lex had kept harping on my voice, saying it wasn’t good enough, so I’d also asked Benjamin Hong to sing. He was in choir and I figured he could, but I was wrong. Still we’d already asked him, so we found a way around it. We let him sing a verse, then I took over and did the chorus. We both sang the second verse and I took over and did the chorus. I’d jumped in without looking by casting them. I hadn’t given a though to whether we’d gel. Aidan had told me he played piano so I asked him to play with us. The original song I’d wanted to do was “I’ve Just Seen a Face” by The Beatles. I learned to play it by ear and taught it to him. We’d created a piano part. I’d taught the lyrics to Ben, recognizing in the process that he was tone deaf. And a week before the tryout, Lex convinced me the song was lame, and we decided that we’d play The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” instead. It was the type of thing that inspires nightmares in me still: coming to stage unprepared. We stunk and both Lex and I knew it. We were going to tank, but we’d signed up and had to go through with it. Lex and I sat there holding our acoustic guitars simply hoping we could hold it together and not embarrass ourselves too badly. We wouldn’t make it, and if we didn’t make it we wouldn’t have to play in front of anybody. And even though playing in front of people was our goal, not like this.

The primary problem was drummers. There were four in the school we knew of. Two of them were in other bands. And the other two we’d tried out and they didn’t really fit. In other words, they could play a few bars, but then lost the rhythm. Or they could keep the beat but fell apart on fills. Lex and I had tried out for the talent show the year before, February, Sophomore year. We were so sure we’d make it. We’d spent weeks rehearsing. We programmed the beat into our drum machine. All the changes were there. We’d signed up to audition as a one-off. One song: Nirvana’s “Breed.” My voice wasn’t a problem then because all I had to do was shout, and I could pull off shouting. We knew the song forward and backward. By the time we stepped on that little auditorium stage, we could have played it in our sleep. The little auditorium, of course, was defined by its not being the big auditorium, the one where school-wide assemblies were held. The talent show wasn’t during school hours. They didn’t force the entire student body to attend. Rather, it was a show, held at 7:30 in the evening in mid-February. There were a number of one-off acts, dramatic monologues, dance routines, always at least one set of girls with an acoustic guitar singing an Indigo Girls song. And then there were two bands to finish the night. We didn’t want to be one of the bands, just a one-off. But as we entered the stage, the vice principal, who was running auditions seemed surprised. She looked at our amps, the size of them.

“We didn’t think that you were a band,” she said. “Bands audition later.”

“We’re not a band,” we assured her. “We don’t have a set. We don’t have a drummer. We just want to play this one song.”

But she still looked skeptical.

We plugged in the amp and our drum machine and our guitars and looked around. They employed students as judges. The ones who’d decide our fate sat scattered in the dimly-lit seats.

“Where’s the mic?” I said.

Lex searched the stage. We glanced at the wings. It wasn’t there.

“Um, where’s the mic?”  he called out, his words resounding in the relatively empty space.

“We don’t set up microphones for the auditions,” we were informed.

“What should we do?” I said. “I need a mic.”

“I guess you’re going to have to shout,” Lex said. “I’ll help you.”

So we stood there and I started the riff and Lex started the drum machine. When the beat kicked in, he joined me on guitar, and we both shouted at the top of our lungs, “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, care, care if it’s old!” And it didn’t matter because no one could hear us. The riff without the lyrics becomes repetitive, I suppose, banal. But even if we’d have a mic, the vice principal went ahead and grouped us with the bands. When we came off stage, one of the Palin brothers, I can’t remember which, congratulated us. “You guys sounded really tight, man!” We thanked him. We were grateful for his praise. He’d helped us move our amps on stage and clear them. We were grateful, but we knew we’d failed. What we’d wanted to convey just hadn’t come through in our performance. And this was when we’d started to try out drummers.

The first of these was Phil. I can’t remember Phil’s last name anymore. But he was a nice guy. That’s what sticks out, his niceness, his kindness. He was honest with us, “I haven’t been playing for very long. I’m using my brother’s drum set.” But drummers are different from guitarists. You can make do with a mediocre guitarist if you have a second guitarist who’s skilled. Really, the mediocre guitarist only needs to know how to follow the rhythm and chord progressions. A drummer can’t fake it. There’s no one else to mask the mistakes, a drummer anchors the band with the beat, and if the beat’s off, the song won’t be good, the performance won’t be good. And Phil couldn’t anchor the songs. He could play one beat. But he couldn’t keep the rhythm. I couldn’t blame him though or be too harsh a critique because he was doing this as a favor to us. I think he just liked playing, banging. I don’t think he wanted to be in a band. I brought my Nirvana In Utero CD with me and left it with him to practice to. But to leave a brand new drummer with Dave Grohl is like handing a first year art school student a paint brush and book of Matisse reproductions and saying, “Have at it.” Phil didn’t improve the next few times we played with him. Lex took a seat at the drums in a few cases and played with me, and even as an unpracticed novice he kept a solid beat. So the sessions with Phil phased out. We didn’t say anything. We just drifted apart. We all understood it wasn’t working. He could tell that Lex and I were serious, that we wanted to do something more than conduct disjointed jam sessions in a shaded garage in Melrose Park.

And then, Junior year, with the talent show coming up, I wanted to play. I got the idea and organized the group. This year, I figured, if we played acoustic with no drums, they couldn’t wedge us in with the bands. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” or “Just Like Heaven,” it didn’t matter. I wanted to stand on a stage and show what I could do. I wanted Lana to see me. Although, there were complications here, due to the fact that she’d disappeared from school. That I didn’t know where she was or what had happened. Since I’d never told anyone how I felt, it seemed strange to ask. Still, I held out hope that maybe she’d show up here. She liked music, so maybe if she were having problems or some kind of issue that kept her out, she’d show up here, try to be a part of something related to school. I didn’t know. But I had to try. They called our names and Aidan and me and Lex and Ben wandered up. From the minute we started to play it was a mess. The jangly chord progression was fine. Aidan hit all the right notes on the keyboard, but without feeling. And when Ben opened his mouth, I cringed. I turned away from the judges and looked toward the back of the stage. I’d never felt so embarrassed. The year before, we’d done so well with “Breed.” And now I’m not sure anyone walking by would have recognized the song we were trying to play. Ben’s choir training, I suppose, had taught him to keep the song concentrated in his face, his mask, but this didn’t work for invoking Robert Smith. Certainly Smith could be described as whiny, but the face mask voice that Ben was invoking was nasal beyond whiny. Maybe it worked for show tunes, but his voice was too rigid. It sounded as if he should have been singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Not an ode to love. Still, we pushed on, didn’t stop. I think I might have played a little faster, led everyone along more quickly. I just wanted to get it over and done with.

When we finished, we packed up and walked back up the aisle. I thanked Ben and Aidan because they’d been good sports about it and I’d appreciated it. And Lex and I walked away. Did it happen right then, I wonder. Did Lex turn to me and say, “That’s it. I’m getting a drum set. I’m playing the drums.” He said it at some point. We were both fed up. Guitarists were a dime a dozen, but drummers weren’t and if we couldn’t find one, he decided he’d become one. I didn’t even flinch. I didn’t question this for a moment. At the end of junior high he’d asked me to teach him guitar and I’d seen him pick it up in a matter of weeks. In two month’s time, my faith in him was rewarded. He got his drums, and if anything, he became a better drummer than he ever was a guitarist.



on August 29, 2016, 7:43 pm

It look like you guys are real good friend and would never turn your backs on each other


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