there was a night in august or maybe july when i drove out to the keller farm in flint hill and visited with chris and anton and will & becky. i got there late. close to seven, i think. i was late to things sometimes then and it put me on edge the whole drive there. elliot was moving on to pittsburgh in two days. i wanted to catch him for a few minutes before the night took off, but by the time i arrived the bratwursts were already crisped and everyone that could stomach it was on their second helping. they were all gathered in the back of the property under a small grove of trees that had been cleared to create a canopy, under which the kellers had raised a gazebo made from two-by-fours and four-by-fours stuck together into a rectangle. sausages, potato chips, burgers, and coleslaw all sat out on a picnic table alongside a two-pound tub of deli-style potato salad warming in the light of the setting sun.
will kept checking the grill periodically to make sure the leftovers were cooking right on the low heat. becky stayed off her feet. they were married about two years then and becky was pregnant. will was teaching bible and history classes at the christian school we all graduated from and sold mattresses in the summer.
chris and anton had laid out the paper cups and plates, napkins, and plasticware. they bought ice for the cooler and secured the cheap plastic tablecloth to the picnic table with duct tape. they were both still living on the farm. anton was the middle child, caring and goofy and aggravatingly charming. he found part time work at tipi’s tacos through the employment agency. he worked and helped on the farm and watched old westerns on thursday nights with chris when he came home from the southern part of the state where he studied music history. elliot would stay over to watch never-ending reruns of stagecoach and red river and to play video games on the odd night when he wasn’t with me.
i helped chris fix a plate for casey and tara as they pulled in, almost an hour after i did. casey was late to everything, now especially—we were lucky he didn’t show up in uniform. he and tara had both graduated in the same class with elliot, who made sure the rest of us knew that this was the only thing they had in common. “if we met now,” he’d announce after we’d had dinner with the two of them, “i don’t know that we’d be friends.” i’d look at him. “what?” he’d say, “it’s true.”
david had materialized with maria half an hour or so before casey and tara—emerging suddenly it seemed from the underbrush beside the picnic tables. david was then, and still is to my mind, a kind of wild, herbal thing. his parents lived just up the road from elliot’s, a half mile up the side of big cobbler mountain—a thickly wooded mound of earth that rose above the surrounding acres of sloping pasture just enough to give the impression to those of us that lived near it that it was landmark.
and at the far end of the gazebo, waiting patiently for people she knew to arrive, sat amanda clark who, despite the feelings of ambivalence she harbored for elliot, had gotten there early and was sitting awkwardly at a picnic table twirling a salad fork between her fingers and blowing straw-straight blonde fringe off her eyebrows. she was more tara’s friend and had really only spent time with elliot and the rest of us during the week we rented the beach house in kill devil hills. elliot has always been the kind of person to call attention to those kinds of details, like that someone amongst us isn’t really one of us. i believe he once referred to an empty chair as “amanda” for an entire meal because, as he said, it contributed about the same amount to conversation as she did.
he is an asshole. the kind you want to be around because when he opens his mouth there’s a fifty-fifty chance it’ll make someone want to punch him. this makes him interesting. he’s an adamant pacifist, a softy, a six-foot-two, two-hundred-ninety-pound bitch. he has a gift for zeroing in on people’s insecurities, for boiling their personalities down into a half a sentence about their intelligence or ankles. he catches unassuming friends of a decade by surprise when they suddenly find the words he’s saying register as requiring a physical response. he says the kind of things out loud that you only think internally, and they’re usually spoken through so many layers of sarcasm and allusion that it’s difficult to extrapolate what exactly it is he’s saying about you, let alone what other things he must have been thinking over the course of your entire relationship.
he’s my best friend since high school. i know this because he stayed up to text with me late into the night after my first girlfriend broke up with me because god told her to when i was fifteen. apart from the two years we were both in college at different times, we spent all our free time together after this.
he had left for college in abilene after graduation and came home early in the spring. i wore his brother’s letterman’s jacket the year he went away. then i left for lynchburg, three months after he dropped out. i lived in the dorm that housed the football team and joined intramurals, tried my first cigar on my friend’s brother’s apartment porch and watched how i met your mother from the vantage point of my spot on the top bunk in the corner of our little room and overslept and skipped classes and filed my dropout paperwork in june.
he helped me get a job with him serving at the italian restaurant when i got back. i was nineteen. we hated it. we loved feeling bougie offering the in-house ricotta cheesecake to people to go with their coffee.
when my girlfriend of two years dumped me in a pair of emotional text messages, he picked me up from my house and we drove around the county listening to eminem and ceelo green. he watched me get worked up, he got drunk with me in his parent’s living room after they’d fallen asleep, he shared the stale weed he had left over from freshman year of college with me. we put it into the multicolored ash tray he’d made out of baker’s clay at summer camp when he was eight and lit it on fire on his back porch thinking the fumes would waft their way into our lungs. i was twenty-one.
we spent our days sleeping, our afternoons waiting tables, and our nights drunk at shitty bars and getting drive-thru fast food when the kitchens closed down (i can’t sit in a taco bell drive-thru without thinking about him). he had this brand new chevy cruz that his dad convinced him to buy in 2012. it was the eco 6-speed manual. it was midnight blue. there was a green decal in the shape of a leaf on the rear bumper. he called it shiva. i rode shotgun. i heard fun. for the first time in the passenger seat, ed sheeran’s plus album too. we were miserable. we were so fucking young.
he talked about how much he hated it there often, how badly he wanted to get out of virginia. he said it like he meant something larger than the town we grew up in.
his mind was stuck a little bit in the times he spent with a girl in texas. she wasn’t what he made her up to be but it was going to take him a while to figure that out—romantic people struggle with that shit sometimes.
i remember texting him to hang out one evening after dinner. he said i should come meet him at the episcopal church down the road. when i pulled into the gravel parking lot, he was sitting on the stone wall that ran through the church’s cemetery. he had a pipe lit and handed me the spare i left with him for safe keeping. we sat in the graveyard and smoked and watched the sunset and were silent.
i felt his pain like it was mine back then. he made me feel like there was something wonderful and fantastic and beautiful about the world and that it was sad but true that we were destined to only ever see it from this distance, to enjoy it as observers only, to be always reaching out to grab a hold of it only for it to jump backward and out of our reach.
we lived like that for nearly two years. i called it our quarter-life crisis. he called it the years no one gives a shit about you. he said that between the ages of nineteen and twenty-nine are the invisible years, when you stop existing for normal society because you’re too old to have potential anymore and too young to have anything to say that’s worth listening to. and this was a good thing, he said. we said a lot of stupid things, felt the potential drain out of us every time we ate a whole pizza, split the cost of a pack of cloves.
we lived by an implicit, unspoken philosophy then that was at war with ambition and money—not that we had much of either to begin with, but it was ennobling to think of our poverty and listlessness as a choice. we felt our value to others was somehow tied up in these things, that society (and by that we mostly meant the people we thought we were in love with) reserved their love for the productive and monied or, in special circumstances like in the movies, the poor but incredibly attractive. we felt we were none of these things apart from poor, and even our poverty was a sort of illusion. we imagined our middle-class parents were responsible for a legacy of love contingent on productivity, on ‘doing things’, more than anything else. we decided we’d rather live alone together than be insulted by the prospect of earned love. in the absence of love we thought we deserved, the love we thought everyone deserved, we improvised. we patched together a semblance of supports founded on the principles of an unspoken, unconditional affection.
then, almost as soon as it had begun, we were sitting at a picnic table on the kellers’ farm under a cool summer evening with warm potato salad discussing how to avoid toll roads in pennsylvania.
i visited pittsburgh twice after he moved. he came home once for casey and tara’s wedding. we picked up where we left off like we still could back then. we got stoned after the rehearsal dinner and i pretended to be asleep like a coward when casey came down to david’s room in the basement because he “smelled cannabis”.
he’s living in chicago now. he and his partner sydney moved there six years ago. they met working a restaurant gig in shady side—some other mid-scale italian place. i’ve visited him in chicago twice, and he came to see me in my second semester of grad school in indiana.
i had visions of the three of us around the time he came to see me in muncie, of some unrealized future where i’d followed him to pittsburgh and then chicago. i dreamed it once, even. he and sydney live in a house with a yard and a chain-link fence and i help them with their little garden in the back sometimes on the weekends and they let me bring home cucumbers and cauliflower for my labor. i get along well with sydney, and they’re telling me about the plants they ordered and accidentally killed on the shelf in the living room days later. elliot goes outside to play with his sister’s daughter. sydney and i follow after and, in my dream, i’m at the door when i feel my body suddenly lifted up. sydney is holding me overhead and laughing and running away with me there like i’m as light as a child and my head almost scrapes the overhanging lip of the roof and i feel like i haven’t felt since the last time my mother’s father held me on his shoulders and walked me around the neighborhood of brick tri-levels on franklin drive after thanksgiving dinner in philadelphia. my back is bent at the place where their hands are holding me up, flexible from the garden work maybe.
i’m twenty-nine now, my birthday is in december. elliot turned thirty last month. I got married in the summer two years ago. he couldn’t afford to take time from work.
he came to see us at the end of may this year, after he and sydney broke up. it was the first time we had seen one another in three years and only the second time he has met my wife. she reminded me, as I write this, how they argued over whether or not it was julie andrews that sang in the filmed version of my fair lady (it was marni nixon). i recalled to her a half dozen examples of similar arguments he’d had with basic strangers over the years i’ve known him. i used to laugh at him between drinks. even when he was wrong—like he was about julie andrews—he found a way to turn the question into a point of taste. he’d say, “well, sure, but wouldn’t it have been better if she had sung for hepburn?” and he’d say it like this was his point all along.
it was a confusing visit. being with him again was awkward. it made me feel guilty. it made me feel sad, like something i was doing was wrong. after spending most of the last ten years communicating with him strictly through a group chat with david, he was suddenly in my apartment, sitting on my ikea furniture and standing next to my wife and putting food and cookware away in the wrong places in the cupboards in my kitchen. he was in my living room apologizing to me for missing my wedding, explaining to me how i was probably better off for asking my friend from college to be best man. and all i could think was how he was making the couch in my living room smell because he wouldn’t take a shower, how i was embarrassed he stunk of cigarettes and that my wife might smell them—i hid the empty beer bottle he kept the butts in out of sight, against the wall on the back patio. and i’m embarrassed that i was embarrassed.
when i dropped him off at the bus station in indianapolis, the lucas oil stadium loomed over us in the background. it was a sunday afternoon. all the greyhound buses lined up at the same angle outside in the parking lot. we walked a little way from where i parked and looked to see if there was a bar open anywhere. we tried a few doors and wandered on the sidewalk back to the lot, then to the station. we talked about dumb stuff like mid-west liquor laws, city scooter rentals, the fluky weather and the end of the world.
we stood a little apart on the sidewalk. we stood facing each other, looking around trying figure out how to start to say goodbye.
“i’m proud of you,” he said. he didn’t say for what.
i told him i loved him, that it was good to see him. i reached up and around his wide shoulders and hugged him. he’s the only person bigger than me i’ll hug. it’s always felt strange. i stepped away and felt i should give him a kiss on the cheek but stopped myself.
“text me when you get back,” i said.
“and tell the driver to be careful.”
i cried on the drive home.
i know i should have seen all this coming, that the space between us would widen relative to our time apart, to grow enough to make us nearly unrecognizable to one another, to ourselves. and maybe i should have handled that differently, shared the details of how i was feeling with my friend who is my mirror image. but we’re boys after all, or we were before we became men—whatever the fuck that means. and the layers and layers of information that cover over the emotional center that should have been activated in that moment at the bus station, in the moment in the kellers’ backyard, in any moment leading up to that moment really, were painted on too thickly.
that night so long ago, gathered underneath the trees, we watched fireworks explode in light against the darkening sky and reflected over a small pond a little ways away from the gazebo. a flag stood alone just on the other side of the pond to mark the chipping green mr. keller kept so meticulously manicured. elliot, anton and i stood away from the others just a few yards. anton patted elliot’s back and told him they bought the fireworks for him. they were up there living their brief lives to celebrate who he was, who we were because he was a part of us.
i couldn’t say a thing like that. i couldn’t tell him i would miss him or even if i would see him again before he left. he’d been pulling away little by little around that time. probably on purpose but it could have been subconscious, incidental. he wouldn’t have wanted me to make a scene.
so i spent the night performing more for everyone else than trying to understand what it would mean to be apart again. we’d done it before anyway, i told myself, when we each went off to college and came back in the spring. but then it felt like something different to me, almost peripheral. now, despite the reality of his leaving for good, i must have imagined he’d be back again soon. i must have convinced myself that it wasn’t important.
the last of the rockets went off and the sound ripped through my chest, pop-BOOM! a deafening sound. a sound like that, you can feel the impact of its waves before you hear it, when they reverberate off your body and echo in the hollow of your ribs. it’s a sound that soaks up all the other sounds around it, like fabric insulation in a recording booth, like a black hole after a supernova. the night was stilled.
then, he was saying goodnight to everyone. he was hugging chris and gathering his things. it was dark now. the pale light from the kellers’ garage lamps spilled out into the driveway, over the cold tops of our parked cars. elliot shut the trunk of his volvo with a thud. he’d totaled shiva on interstate 66 in the rain four months ago. we said goodnight (“see you soon” “love you, man” “yeah, you too”). i watched him climb into the driver’s seat. he shut the door and turned the engine over.
the next morning, i stood out on his parents’ driveway in the woods hungover and breathing through my nose so his mother wouldn’t smell my breath and call my mom. she’d just finished telling me that he would be getting to his brother’s in three hours’ time. she told me she was sorry i’d missed him.
sunlight danced on the ground through a leafy canopy of branches that stretched the length of the driveway. i got in my car. i drove down to the end of the powell’s gravel lane, guided the car onto ramey road and turned on the radio. i listened to ed sheeran sing give me love through the speakers like i would about a hundred-thousand more times over the next eight years and meandered my way to the other side of the mountain to where i lived, just a few miles down the road.