My friend Mike got engaged before Christmas. He is going to marry Heather, a girl I went to college with. Mike and I went to high school together. I am the center of my little universe. We should all be so lucky.
There are times I've thought I was older, in experience, than most of my other friends. Of course, that time was years ago, sometime through college and high school. I think it'd be fair to say I'm leaving my second adolescent behind right now. At 29. My first adolescence ended well before I wanted it to when my mother left. It came back around as I neared 26, around the time I left politics to pursue writing, what I'd always wanted to do.
So this was my second adolescence, something Time magazine told me about in last weeks issue (something about how my generation is in some sort of protracted young adulthood; we grow up slow these days it seems), but something I knew about before they'd ever written a word.
I remember as a kid just feeling more aware of myself than I thought others around me were of themselves. I remember watching interactions and choosing not to take part. I remember feeling there was something false there. I'm not saying I knew what "real" was, just how to spot a fugazi if it was in front of me.
Still, adolescence has nothing to do with my reaction when I found out Mike and Heather had planned on having one person each stand up at there wedding. No more groomsmen. No more bridesmaids. Mike has an older brother, Steve, who he's always been close with. I am close with Steve. It was never in doubt who the best man would be. I just knew I would always be standing over Steve's shoulder, watching Mike, a friend who is like a brother after all these years, get married.
There's something men stereotypically don't talk about. Our friendships. We don't handle our emotions in public, at least that's what the stupid commercials say. That's never been the way in my group of friends. We know how we feel about each other. We know what our friendships mean. We talk about them; we say the things that need to be said.
Which is exactly why I didn't want to have this conversation with Mike.
I found out about the 1 person standing at their wedding on New Years. I was sitting at a long glass table at a beach house in the Hamptons with many of our friends standing and milling about, drinking and talking, just around each other when Heather asked Leah to be her bridesmaid. "You're going to be the only one," she said. "Mike and I are only having one person each stand."
There is the magnanimous way to react, and then there is the other way. The other way would be the opposite of the first one, whatever that was. I remember sitting there and feeling my stomach tighten. Just one? They were each having just one? The idea hurt, not overall, just a quick jab to the sternum, something that slightly steals your breath for a few seconds before you recover.
My friends are my Chozen Family. That's what we call each other. It's a phrase Bob, Matt and I found in college (I think Bob was the one to coin it, but can't remember for sure) and found it pertained to an ever expanding, and ever changing, group of people. These are the people who have watched and stood by. I heard a great thing one time. A friend is someone who will always be there when you need them; who would come down to jail and post your bail. Your best friend would take his head from their hands, glance up at the metal bars, look at you and say, "I think we really fucked up this time." He'd be in there with you. That is my Chozen Family.
These are my boyz: Mike, Bob, Tony, Matt. There are others, but those are the central 4. The ones who are as much a part of me as I am of them. The ones who, although we continue to change as we grow older, although some of us grow more similar while some divide along some past branch I still know these people will be there when I'm 50. When I'm 60. When I'm 64.
From the time I knew each of them I had one stupid simple image in my brain. Their wedding days, and I'm standing there, in my place, just off to the side. I'm not sitting. I'm standing. Wearing a tux. Smiling and grinning and trying not to cry like we all did at Bob's wedding. (It was outside and we all seem to have terrible allergies. What?) It's just a stupid thought, but it was something that meant a lot to me.
It was something I just wanted to do for each of them, if that makes any sense. I wanted to be by their side. I wanted to have their back.
The hardest part about my little response was knowing it was small of me to think this way. This was Mike's wedding. This is Heather and Mike's wedding. These are my friends. I stopped a few years ago judging my friends for the things they do, for the lives they decide to lead. Would I do it differently? In most cases the answer to that is a resounding yes. Not in the big decisions, but perhaps in many of the smaller ones. But within our group I'm the one who's a bit of a broken wheel. No one knows where I'm going to roll off to, what I'm going to do next. As someone said at the last wedding we attended when the question was floated about who would get married next, "It's going to be Jarret. He'll come back into town from somewhere we didn't knowing he was going to with someone we've never met and introduce us to his new wife." Everyone laughed. I kind of sat there and thought, "Damn these people know me so well."
But my friends don't simply accept that part of me; they seem to love it in me. They don't encourage it, but when I fly off on one of my extemporized life tangents they simple sit me down and ask me what I'm doing; ask me if I'm happy. If I tell them yes then they are in, along for the ride. If I act a little confused they reel me back as much as possible.
You repay that by doing the same. You trust in their own definition of happiness. You do your best to leave yours out of the picture when it comes to their life.
When I was 18 I had my nervous breakdown. I'd been back at college for 6 weeks after Jennifer left. In that time I'd started drinking liters of alcohol, experimenting with anything I could get my hands on, stopped going to class. I lost 35 pounds. I was suicidal and despondent. Lost off the map and none of the bearing seemed recognizable.
After calling my dad and telling him I needed him to bring me home my next call was to Mike.
"When do you fly in?" he asked.
"Next Thursday I think. My dad and sister are going to be at a wedding, so I'll see them when they get back on Sunday. I'll just figure it out when I get home."
"I'll pick you up from the airport."
"What do you mean?"
"I'll get a ticket home. No need for you to sit there on your own. We'll hang out."
"Dude, you have clas..." and before I could get the word classes out he interrupted.
"Fuck that. Class? Right. I'll pick you up at the airport. We don't actually have to talk about what's going on in your head, but I'll be there if you do."
How do you repay that?
But selfishly boring in on what I felt I'd lost I knew wasn't how. Sometimes you just can't help it. Sometimes you wanted something for all the right reasons, and if it's not going to happen you feel like you missed out on something for all the right ones. And sometimes that's not entirely right.
Mike is getting married. I'm going to sit there near his family, my second family. I'll think of his mother, "Mom" M, and I'll miss her terribly. I'll look up at this boy that I've known since I was 15, this man I've known for almost 15 years, with a huge grin on my face. I won't think about what I wanted on that day. What kind of a person would I be if I did?
And if I do, if the thought happens to sneak under the barbed wire of my mental filter, military style, on it's belly, then maybe I'll feel that tiny sternum punch again. This protracted adolescence is a son-of-a-bitch. And then I'll shoo it out. I'll look up at him and his soon bride-to-be. I'll remember 15 years of friendship, my best friend, the kid who hovers between boy and brother. And I'll probably think back on when he took off from school and flew back home and picked me up at the airport. And I'll pay that back as I always have. Just by remembering it all.
I told Mike all this the other night on the phone. We just talked. And at the end of it, when we hung up, I felt less than adult for feeling that way. And glad I had the kind of friends I could tell these things to.