To One Among Boyhood Friends
I stay in the small Pennsylvania town you can’t seem to leave, although you set out again and again. To Italy and Morocco, Canada and Miami. We think you’ll be gone for months, returning with quirky tales and exotic ticket stubs. But you’re back before your postcards reach us, never staying away long enough to be missed, appearing at my front door, tipsy and alone, wearing a faded Quicksilver Messenger Service t-shirt and grinning like a fool in the sudden wash of porch light, offering a laconic greeting: Hey there, Tim.
Hey, I say. Richard.
I’m hesitant, having suffered too often the drifter’s traits you cultivate: a taste for liquor someone else is buying, disdain for fashion, poker stakes you can’t afford. I know your appetite for argument, the way you scold me about my tight schedules and sensible cars even as you lift my good whiskey to your lips. My wife put up with you during our college years, and pretended to comprehend why you and I had been friends for so long, and why we had to include you and the others in so much of what we did. But she doesn’t really like you and she no longer feels a need to feign understanding. His idiosyncrasy balances out my stability. Our friendship is a fulcrum for our opposites, I say, sounding like the engineer I am. What a waste, Suzanne says when she hears of your latest antics.
As it turned out, you and I traveled together just that once, 1969, a summer after high school, driving to Belmar Beach, New Jersey in your old Ford Galaxie, chain-smoking Pall Malls and trying to dial in radio stations on the road, Hey Jude fading into a blur of static. We were on our way to visit our friend Bobby for a few days; he was staying with his brother, who sold insurance in Belmar. Single, and years older than us, Bobby’s brother lived in a modest apartment miles from the beach, and pretty much left us to ourselves. The weather was awful and the days were uneventful, full of rain and TV. We ate at odd hours, making sandwiches or going out to a cheap Italian restaurant nearby. Life in a beach town can be as ordinary as any other place. I came across the Songs of Leonard Cohen in a stack of albums in the apartment, and played it over and over until it was embarrassing.
The day before we left, the three of us drove to the beach. It was overcast and windy, and we didn’t stay long, walking up and down the boardwalk a couple of times, stopping for coffee and French fries and salt water taffy. My family never took vacation trips, and that was the first time I had ever seen an ocean.
There was just that one lame, short road trip: inter-state highways, Leonard Cohen singing Sisters of Mercy, my first view of white-tipped ocean waves.
And yet, who chooses what they are compelled to remember?
I open the door, and greet you with a clumsy half-hug. Each time you come back, I want to ask you why. Each time you leave, I memorize one more detail: the golf cap you wore to my wedding, your boots on the rungs of expensive chairs, your droning sarcasm. And when you go, I reach out as if to touch you, to grip your arm or clap you on the shoulder, the way athletes and politicians do. And each time you recoil.
But eventually you won’t return, and we will not see each other or talk for a very long time. Years will go by, and I’ll lose track of where you’re living and what you’re doing, until you come back for the funeral of a friend’s parent, where we’ll shake hands like businessmen, and words will be generic and awkward. You’ll tell me that you’ve moved south, mention your work, some type of computer technician. I’ll say I have three kids now. I’ve stayed here, outlasting the decline of Big Steel. The funeral home is on Olsen Avenue, not far from where you and Bobby and I played basketball and drank beer in the angled shadows beyond the school. Later, Suzanne will say, You don’t seem to have much in common with Richard anymore, and I will pretend not to hear her.
I don’t wish to forget. Maybe it’s that thing about balance, I think. Maybe it’s just the way we rebuild memory, putting things together despite some missing pieces. It doesn’t matter. I want to keep a reminder. Like the scar a young boy gets on his elbow, diving for a basketball on asphalt, and wears all his life, faint as a pollen print, but immutable.
Come in, I say. Suzanne will be surprised to see you.
About the Author:
James Gyure lives and writes and makes wine in western Pennsylvania, where he had a long career as a college administrator. His work is in Tahoma Literary Review, The Bellingham Review, Hot Metal Bridge, and forthcoming in Two Cities Review and Front Porch. A current project is a cycle of linked short stories and flash fiction.