I remember well the late night and early morning hours following my senior prom. I was with my classmates on a yacht/ferry/boat slowly circling New York City. I and my girlfriend of roughly a year had stepped out of the madness inside for some fresh air and quiet. Even then, I could only do “loud” for so long.
The night had been great for the two of us, but we were the exception as far as romantic relationships in my closest group of friends. The run-up to the prom had been a mess. After a year of amazing fun, the Four Musketeers — me, my girlfriend, her brother and his girlfriend — had undergone a radical realignment with the breakup of our two counterparts and his selection of a new love interest that … well … let’s just say they were two great people individually who were extremely combustible together.
Perhaps it was the realization that high school was careening to an end and that we would all soon go our separate ways to different colleges. Perhaps it was simply that young love is inherently unstable. Whatever it was, it seemed like every relationship that had been solid ground leading up to prom had either exploded before it began or was on the brink as the night began.
So it was that my date and I found ourselves on the deck of that boat, alone. No other two Musketeers. Just us.
That’s when it began.
For the next hour and a half, people I would consider close friends came out onto that deck one at a time to dump their romantic woes on my shoulders. It was fine at first. I’ve always had a knack for feeling a person’s problems and being able to offer some insight that people find helpful.
It was a little less fine around the fourth or fifth person and totally not fine by the sixth or seventh.
By the time we pulled into the dock, I’d spent most of my senior after-prom giving free counseling to my friends.
It’s now roughly 30 years later. I’m no longer in touch with my ex-girlfriend or her brother. The fourth Musketeer and I have sporadic contact thanks to Facebook, but that’s about it. And I haven’t physically seen any of the people who sought me out that night in about the same length of time.
I went to college in Iowa, a state that didn’t really exist in the minds of most of my classmates. I needed to get out of New York and chart my own course, so I went and made a great life for myself.
But some things aren’t changed by time and distance.
I’m wrestling with a lot of shit right now, chief among them how spectacularly devoid of real connections outside of my wife and boys my life is. I guess I can’t say I’m surprised by where I am today. It’s what I figured was going to happen when I made some changes in my life just before the Before Times ended with lockdown.
The event that caused me to change how I do things was a lunch with two former colleagues who I would have considered friends back from my time working at an electric cooperative in rural central Missouri. I drove from my new hometown near St. Louis all the way to our state capital of Jefferson City, about two hours, to break bread with these folks. Before I left, I told them I’d love for this time together to be upbeat and positive and not devolve into what our conversations while I still worked with them always seemed to devolve into, which was them bitching about the various problems they had inside and outside the office and me playing the familiar role of counselor.
I just wanted to have some goddamn lunch and enjoy the company of my friends.
Within 10 minutes of being handed menus, well, it’s not a surprise where we were, replaying the same old tape that we had all agreed we wouldn’t play.
So I left, and on the drive home I realized I was done. I didn’t want to be anyone’s counselor anymore. I had no problem helping people out, but I’d grown sick of the fact that so many relationships in my life — those two being but a fraction — revolved around me being the shoulder to cry on or the soul to bitch to, with little in return.
I stopped texting first. Not just to them. But to everyone in my life who seemed to see me as free counseling and not much more. And ya know how quiet it got? Very quiet. Until, of course, something would fall apart in their lives, and then I’d get the obligatory questions asking how I was doing before things turned right around into what they needed from me.
And the reality was, I was doing horribly. My father-in-law had died, I had Longhaul Covid that was slowly killing me. Hell, my dogs (yes, plural, both within two months) had died! And that got, at best, an “Oh, I’m sorry. And now let me tell you about my latest situation.”
So when the conversations would go that direction, I would shut down and stop texting. Not surprisingly, when these people realized they couldn’t get something from me, they stopped contacting me at all. Sure, they’d dangle some bait every once in awhile, but even that bait often stunk of the old way of doing things, of them complaining about a person or a situation with whom I’d tried to help them.
All this was relatively OK while I was buried by Longhaul Covid and being a host dad to My Favorite African and selling a house and buying a house and changing jobs. But now it’s a few months later, and I’m looking around and wondering what exactly the definition of a friendship is.
To me, a friend is someone who wants to be involved in your life. They care about what you’re doing and the things you’re going through. They seek you out. They make time to hang out with you. And you do the same thing for them.
Friendship isn’t based on need. I don’t want to need anything from my friends other then their presence in my life, and I don’t want them to need anything from me other than my presence in theirs.
And by that definition I have exactly zero friends right now.
Oh, there is someone whom I would have a considered a good friend until recently. He and I walked a really tough road together as he figured out his marriage had been dead for years and worked through the process of getting a divorce. Ever since the ink dried on that document, well, can you guess what’s happened to the frequency of our conversations? Of course, I was there when he started dating and had problems with the new girlfriend. Then we could talk. But just, ya know, talk like two dudes? Yeahno.
This lack of friendships is not due to lack of effort on my part. I’ve reached out to people who live in my general vicinity and share my same combination of chromosomes, and, at best, I get lip service about how we’re going to stay in touch. More frequently I hear how busy their lives are. Yeah, I think I know something about a busy life. My kids have sports too.
All of which left me wondering last night what exactly is wrong with me. I see my wife and her best friend. Man, they’re always there for each other, even though they live hundreds of miles apart. They drive the seven hours to see each other. They make the phone calls and send the texts. They’re involved with each other’s lives. It’s a mutual relationship, and of course they’re there for each other when times are tough, but they’re also there for each other when times are fine. My wife and her sisters? They are tight. My sister? She considers me dead, a sentiment I’m quite OK with after years being in the vortex of her storm.
It’s not just a gender thing. I see plenty of guys with friendships like what I’m talking about, where it’s just two dudes going to a bar or two dudes watching a game or two dudes grilling meat. My own father has two great friends he’s known for, like, 80 years, and they regularly make sure they’re in touch and go out of their ways to be together as often as possible.
And me? I’ve got nothing.
I was thinking that if I died today, no one outside my wife and boys would be able to say a damn thing about me with any sort of actual knowledge. They might have some recollections from the past. They might be able to pick up a few things from my writing. But no one — no one — knows a goddamn thing about me because no one has taken the time to figure it out.
That makes me sad.
Of course it does. I think that’s a pretty natural response to looking around and seeing absolutely no one who gives a real goddamn.
So what is a friend? My wife and I were talking about this last night because, as you might imagine, this weighs heavy on my heart, and being my sole friend is a tough burden for her at times. She is extremely sweet. She knew I was struggling and got me a card and left it on my keyboard in my home office. I nearly cried.
In it, she told me to remember that I am loved.
Sure I am. By her. By my boys. But if we’re going to talk about the definition of “friend,” we might as well talk about what it means to love someone. My wife tells me her mom loves me, her sisters love me, my brothers-in-law love me, and their kids — my niece and nephews — love me. On one level, I know that. But on another, well, let’s talk about love for a second.
I see love as friendship on steroids. Friends make time for each other. People who love each other are involved. They know what is going on in the other person’s life. They know something about their hopes, dreams, fears, desires and wishes. If a person is getting a gift for someone they love, they know just what to get them because they have some idea of what makes them tick.
I understand there are many different types of love, so maybe the people who love me love me in a different way. But if that’s the case, maybe we re-evaluate the way we use the word “love.”
The thing is, I know what a friend is. I’ve been one. I’ve had them. My high school girlfriend’s brother? He was my best friend before I started dating his sister, and, as weird as it sounds, we grew even closer after she and I started seeing each other. I left for college first out of my friend group, and when they came over to send me off, yes, my girlfriend and I had a tearful goodbye, but then it was just me and my buddy, and we sobbed like little babies.
He never needed anything from me. He just liked hanging out with me.
I’ve had friends since then, but looking back, so many of them were tinged by the same after-prom problem. What I thought were friendships might really have been nothing more than a social services relationship.
I’m grateful beyond belief for the friendship of my wife. She’s the original person who doesn’t need me. She just wants to be with me. She loves me and all my weirdness that she can’t quite comprehend and she doesn’t want me to change to fit her definition of what I should be. She just wants me to be me and to be happy. I want that too.
But we both agree that happiness can’t be found solely in my relationship with her.
I accept my role in this situation. I am not the easiest person to get to know, and, in the past, it’s been even worse. I have battled anxiety issues that would cause me to cancel plans late and to disappear at random times. But no one really cared to plow through that and be my friend anyway.
I also understand that people don’t feel like I do, that being an empath (and an extreme empath, at that) makes me have a level of perception and intuitiveness that others don’t have. It took me a while to figure that out. I know that what I’m seeking is connection, and at times I’ve found that in really stupid places. But right now? Man, right now I’m not looking for a soul friend. I’m looking for a buddy.
Hell yeah, I’ll talk about the big things, the meaning of life, the reason we’re all here, the finer points of any spirituality. But how about we pound back a few whiskeys and watch the game? How about we meet after work and smoke some cigars at the cigar bar?
I don’t know how all this ends. I really don’t. I’m beginning to think this is a problem without a real solution, that as much as I seek (or don’t seek and just wait), nobody’s walking through that door. I’m blessed to have had some really meaningful friendships in my life. The fact that all of them are now gone makes me sad but no less grateful for the fact, at one point, they existed.
I’m 47 years old. My life isn’t what I want it to be. And I’m not sure that’s ever going to change.
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