Jul/Aug 2009  •   Fiction

Friends for Life

by Barry Jay Kaplan

There's a prickly, electric antagonism when you're introduced. Everything is fair game for your contempt, particularly the things you both like though neither of you admits to liking anything, including each other. You think you've never met anyone so funny but it is understood immediately that you will never laugh at anything the other one says, that you'll keep it to yourself, that instead of laughter there will be a series of well-phrased and impeccably timed insults escalating until one or the other of you waves to someone across the room or throws a drink or falls asleep, which never does happen but the threat is there.

You like each other's looks though; that is, you can envision looking at this person for however long whatever it is takes, not that you think of it that way, not in terms of anything lasting which would certainly be something to put quotation marks around and take only half or perhaps not at all seriously. It is subtle and unspoken but you both agree.

You exchange telephone numbers. The ensuing daily conversations are slipcovers for the fact that you both have jobs you hate, that aren't fulfilling, that drive you mad. It helps to complain and be understood perfectly by someone with the same degree of revulsion and disgust and dissatisfaction. During one of these conversational riffs, you improvise a devastating, a Wildean critique of a perceived lapse in the other's literary taste. There is silence, then a languorous "I hate you," and before you can draw a mock-outraged breath, the phone goes dead. (It is understood one of you will always hang up on the other, though you never know which one or what will prompt it and the timing is crucial.) As the dead buzz on the end of the line crawls over you, you think to yourself the other person is your best friend. You experience this as an epiphany, then weep with the giddy, unexpected excitement it creates.

It can't go on this way, of course, though neither of you thinks that at the time. At the time it just is; it just is and it never occurs to either of you to think it will ever be any other way, though you each harbor a secret sense of exhaustion when you picture sustaining it into the future. The fear of coming up short is always there, but it is also what keeps each of you on your toes.

Then one of you, or both of you actually, gets a job you sort of like, sort of see a future in and, well, anyway, see a present in, do not have a bad time during the day, work with people who also get the joke, that is, see whatever it is in that certain skewed way you'd both half thought, but never acknowledged, that only you two could see, so there is now not quite the same amount of time or impetus to talk on the phone about the job you hate because you don't, you see, now, either of you, hate your job and really then, what is there to say? How can either of you know what the other means in a visceral sense when you refer to the girl with the bangs and the overbite or the boss who prowls the office, meowing, or how industrial carpeting makes you sneeze or the wit in the screen names you and your office mate have assigned each other and oh yes about the company mission, so boring, so socially correct but so hilariously clueless and yet, somehow, well meaning, you know? Actually: no. Neither of you quite gets it about the other's work and there are all these others who do, so it's... there's no other word for this disconnect but tragic.

There are still the occasional dinners, yes, but at a certain point one of you is earning a lot more than the other, a feat made manifest by the appearance of certain accessories made in Italy which neither of you would ever comment on out loud except to sneer at, and so to compliment, and so you don't do either. The one of you choosing the restaurant invariably picks up the check. The superior food, although it often isn't, is a poor excuse for one of you having to say thank you and the other having to say you're welcome or for both of you saying nothing at all but looking at each other with mock-serious or perhaps real contempt as if the very notion of financial inequality is pathetic and boring from both of your points of view but, as you both come to see rather quickly, while largesse lubricates social intercourse nothing sticks in the throat like gratitude. This change in status is seen no more nakedly than after the meal outside the restaurant when one of you hails a cab and offers the other a lift, knowing or perhaps forgetting the other is going in a different direction. It is not something either of you can talk about.

The next dinner doesn't come for months and months, not until at least one of you has forgotten that awful clammy feeling of, well, feeling, feeling instead of dueling. You meet at a poet's bar downtown where the one of you who usually doesn't pay makes a decisive move with a credit card but this only throws a spotlight on your inequality. It's clear, too, the jobs you both now sort of love are of no inherent interest or source of amusement or critical commentary to either of you, so the conversation limps along, deconstructing pre-post-modern disengagement in the young adult novel, until one of you, punctuating a pronouncement with a dramatic flourish intended to illustrate sweeping the subject away spills (inadvertently?) a glass of Montrachet. The other one of you neither laughs nor helps the situation but instead gathers scarf and gloves, says Golly I have a date, and scurries off. Like a rat, you think. It is audacious, this exit; it is rude, it is like old times. Or is it the new way the two of you will be to each other now? Has it become OK for one of you to leave the other alone in a poet's bar with a puddle of red wine on the table and no napkin and no goodbye? Is the impatience, the disappointment, the exasperation, the rudeness, feigned or real? One of you is left blotting Montrachet, wondering.

On the telephone the next day, the questioning by one of you of the other as to exactly what was meant by that stunt, surprisingly turns out to be the opening salvo in what quickly escalates into an actual argument, (raised voices/staccato accusations) and one or both of you thinks but only one has the poor judgment to say: You don't know me at all!

A long silence follows, followed by a gentle click and the connection is broken.

A year later, one of you hears quite by accident the other has moved to London. The one of you who has not is mildly perplexed—not to have said goodbye, not to have let on—and considers that an explanation is in order. At least it's London, though. At least it is not Miami or Los Angeles. To have left in this way for a second rate city would really be too much. You get the point, though you concede the possibility the one who left might not have given the leaving a second thought. It was London, after all.

A year or so after that, you both happen to be in London. On a whim one of you calls the other and baldly announces I'm here. Well, well, well. You meet for a drink at a smart bar in the West End. You each pretend to give the other the once-over, exaggerating for comic effect your dead-pan assessment but actually you really are giving each other the once-over and both of you know it, just as you know, too, disguising something as itself is the shortest route to the truth. As it happens, you both look terrific. One of you has slimmed down, the other sports a neat moustache. You are both dressed with an aggressive lack of signification. This mutual sartorial neutrality is a clue from both of you to a new stage of personal evolution.

At the bar, you talk as if you are old friends, aware at some level something has been skipped over, that the pit of nothing dividing you since the incident of the raised voices has been bridged but in fact has it or have you both decided simply to begin again as if it has, as if everything has been explained and in fact, three or four glasses of wine later, it seems as if indeed it has or at least as if it has no reason to be rehashed, as if this piece of the past is merely a topic of conversation in which you have both decided not to indulge. As a matter of fact, now that you're safely in the present, perched on leather stools, leaning on a zinc bar and clutching hand-blown wine glasses, you realize with relief you adore each other, that the broken connection was part of it, that you have not reconciled, that you were never not best friends.

Later, outside the bar, on this flashily lit street of London, as people rush by you on their ways to the theater, you say your goodbyes, both with the understanding it might well be years before you see each other again, but your friendship does not depend in any way on contact, that it is sullied and made ordinary by familiarity.

You embrace as you part. You each think the other smells delicious.