Sunday, December 30, 2007

Auld Lang Syne

As I do annually, I went home for Christmas. Home, for those who aren't familiar with the identity behind this moniker, is in the northern tip of Kentucky. I've been in New York for close to seven years, and it's always been a bit awkward to go back to my old stomping grounds for what's never been more than a week or so at a time. The first time I returned home after moving to New York, I was an eighteen year-old freshman on his first Thanksgiving break. I nearly broke my neck turning my nose up at the whole place, not to mention at my friends (who took it well and let me work through it). I desperately needed to feel like I was better than everyone else, especially since my leaving Kentucky felt like some kind of triumphant escape. If I want to give myself credit (and my behavior doesn't deserve excuses, let alone justification) I had to face my first love, who had effectively left my heart in my hands - and I'm not sure any eighteen year old knows how to deal with rejection.

Over the years, the defense mechanisms melted away to the point where I could enjoy being home and appreciate it for what it was worth - namely family and old friends. I realized I wasn't carving some kind of new life for myself in New York, but instead I was simply evolving; and evolution naturally implies that heading somewhere new means that you once had to start somewhere, too. Kentucky was as much a part of me as Washington Square - it seems that only when I'm home do the lines distinguishing past and present blur to indistinction.

My friends in Kentucky are the same ones I had when I left six and a half years ago. My acquaintances have remained my acquaintances and some people that were only strangers have pleasantly surprised me once we got the courage to finally speak to one another. There is and has always been a social network in which I'm always welcome, but I have two best friends back there that, not matter how long we seem to go without getting in touch with one another, have always been able to meet up over coffee, beers, and at least for a few years back there, a crap-load of cigarettes. Back when we were all in college, there were a few Christmases where it felt like the gap between us erupted when it became apparent that our natural growth just happened to be in opposite directions. There were larger gaps in the conversations, and I don't think anyone knew what to do with their hands (how many times can you really check to see if there's any more coffee left in that pot?), but the distance, which was looking like a curse, turned out to be a blessing. Mike, Chris, and I (I think I can use their names, I can edit this later) always profoundly understood each other, even if we had no clue, factually, what was going on in each other's lives. The distance between us allowed us to do some of the more annoying/pretentious growing up on our own, or (I should say) at the expense of others. Everyone else had to put up with our bad moments, while we got to revel in the finished products.

There was a turning point one summer (2004, maybe?) when Chris threw a huge party, and Mike was playing guitar on Chris' deck. With a set of pedals, he recreated Howie Day's Ghosts, and there was something beautiful about the performance - it was one of those times when everyone at the party stops what they're doing and they just watch. Everyone was impressed, and I couldn't help but remember when, in high school, Mike and I acted opposite each other in the school plays and sang A Capella in our school choir. He's grown up, I thought. And I was proud.

There was a time in senior year of high school where Mike was, with no competition, my best friend. I don't like to hand that label out, because I deeply cherish many people, for many different reasons, but something happened with my group of friends that year that left Mike as, pretty much, the only person who I knew understood me. I told him everything, and he did the same with me. We dated girls that were friends, and we helped each other through the rough patches in our first, respective, loves. We were performers in a school of jocks, and when I got into NYU, we both knew something big had happened. It was a weird year for him too, as he was transitioning between social groups (he would ultimately land and be fine the next year), but for that one year, it was almost as though it was he and I against the world. I don't think I would have rather had anyone else in that emotionally awkward foxhole.

He's inspired me - he's the most talented person I've ever met, hands-down, and seeing him that summer night on Chris' deck reminded me that, after all, nothing has changed.

Last Christmas, I saw his band performing in a bar in Kentucky. He's so talented. I was so proud of him. He was savvy, and on, and it was a great performance. Mike and I didn't spend a lot of time together last Christmas; we never do, really. We went to a bar, I saw him perform, we went to our diner, and I left. It's pretty much how it always happens. We talked a lot more than we usually do this past year - and by that, I mean, you know, twice or so. We've never had to spend a lot of time on the phone. Practice has proven that we can pick up, with no exaggeration (and pardon the shameless use of the cliche) right where we leave off.

Mike called me in December, and when I finally got back to him a week later (I don't know why it took so long....I never know), he told me that he enlisted in the Marines. I can't write why it was a good decision for him without making myself look woefully ignorant (not to mention pompous), but he is confident that it is what he needs to do. I never knew what I would ever say when put in that kind of situation; I honestly hoped it never came up with any of my friends. But I found a staggering amount of trust, and somehow I have faith that he'll be better for....all of it.

He performed again last week, and I saw him play. I spent the better half of the night just trying to keep out some of the darker thoughts, but it was impossible to ignore the fact that the place was PACKED. People came up to him and shook his hand and said goodbye, and while not everyone at this bar was there to see him, most of them were, and just like that night all those summers ago, I watched him, and I watched others watching him, and I was proud.

Mike and I went to our all-night diner late the next night. It was uneventful at best, and while we made tentative plans to hang out last night, my last night in Kentucky until months after he's already left for basic training, those plans fell through (as they usually do). I flew back to New York today, and I don't know when I'm going to see Mike again. At the risk of sounding naive (and I have to be, otherwise I don't know how to take all this), I know that no matter how different things may seem when we finally do meet again, after enough time, after we've caught up on the facts and felt each other out enough to know how to be around one another again, we're going to pick up....

...maybe I've been wrong. Maybe it's not picking up "right where you leave off." Maybe it's that great friendships survive by becoming something new when enough things change. Yeah. We'll do that then. We always have. I have to be believe that we will again. I absolutely have to.