Monday, July 07, 2008
The Cheese Stands Alone
I learned a couple of things this weekend. First, don't make blog promises you can't keep. I promised to catch up on all my doings the past couple of weeks and instead of sitting down to the computer this past weekend, I ended up hanging out with my parents and old high school friends whom I haven't seen in years. Ergo, vis-a-vis, I got nothin' for ya. The second thing I learned is that I shouldn't promise to write about a specific subject at a specific time. When I do that, this starts to feel less like a blog and more like a job assignment and that suits no one, especially me. Besides, whenever I force-write something, it invariably sucks. I've tried it before and it doesn't work. I have to feel inspired and inspiration has its own calendar. So... we'll see.
Getting back to my high school friends, nothing marks the passage of time more starkly than when you encounter people you haven't seen in years. I have some great friends from high school, friends who knew me at the most awkward and dorky time of my life, when my identity was still in its larval stage and I didn't know who I was, where I was going, or how I was going to get there. (As if I do now.) Every single one of my friends could tell you an embarrassing story about me that would make me cringe. And I could tell one about them. That's the beauty of our relationship. We have a shared history from the years we've known each other, a history that can't be duplicated and that's deepened over time. It doesn't matter that I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen these people since college ended 18 years ago. Whenever we get together, it's like nothing has changed, other than our bodies. We have grayer hair, less hair, and in some cases, no hair at all. We have the crow's feet coming in. We move a little slower, suffer injuries for no apparent reason, belying our prior athleticism. Nearly all of us played two or more sports in high school: track, baseball, soccer, football, cross country. Now we're all weekend warriors who pull back muscles shutting off the alarm clock in the morning. (Okay, that's just me.) None of us have gotten fat or let ourselves go, which is a little disappointing because we all want to feel superior to SOMEBODY.
I hate the word "reunion," because it sounds so damn old. Reunion is what my dad has when he goes back to UMass every 10 years. I like "reunite" better, so let's use that. This weekend, I had two separate reunitings with old friends, both of which were bittersweet. On Saturday night, I met up with CB, an ex of mine from high school/college -- the woman who took my virginity in fact -- her husband and MT, another friend of ours. CB now has two beautiful kids, a nice house with plenty of land, and a pretty settled life. I'm embarrassed to say that even though she lives a stone's throw from my parents' house, this was the first time I'd visited her since she moved there 10 years ago. It was also the first time I'd seen her kids since they were born (they're 7 and 4). Bad, bad.
Now, it's one shock to have your brother or sister spawn a facsimile, a little person who looks and acts kind of like you. It's another to see the child of someone you once dated -- you once slept with, let's call a spade a spade here -- running around and playing in her yard. It's very strange. I'm looking at these tiny faces, little people with identities all their own, eyes, mouths, hair taken from one of their parents, and I'm thinking, Gee, in an alternate reality, these kids could have been mine. Well, not these EXACT kids, of course, but similar ones, slightly different versions who look and act more like me. I saw them running around laughing and playing, and I thought how different my life could have been had I made different choices, wanted different things. I didn't consider this with any sense of regret, mind you. I wouldn't change anything. It was more of a "what if" imagining, with all these adolescent memories flying by, all the time we spent together, all the things we talked about and experienced before our our relationship ended. Now, 22 years later, here we are, living totally different lives. Me, the single life, the city life, and her, having what she always wanted, a stable family with kids.
But it wasn't just her.... It seems that everyone I was close to in high school is living the traditional suburban life. On my way home to New York yesterday, I met up with five of my male friends, one of whom I hadn't seen in almost 20 years. (Damn, that's a long time; I'm getting OLD.) Every one of them is married. Only one of them has chosen not to have kids. I'm the only one who's done neither. The Cheese Stands Alone.
On the one hand, it feels a little weird to see everyone going the marriage and family route, like it was preordained. Mandated by law. That I'm the only one who hasn't done so stirs up this outcast emotion, a primitive, tribal feeling that I'm not one of the clan anymore. I fell off the Happy Truck. I'm the exception, the outlier. Not get married? Whoever heard of such a thing? To not procreate? How will the clan survive? We cannot allow this mutant to continue being a part of us. He must be cast out! Out, out, damn mutant!
On the other hand, I felt proud of the fact that I'm living a different kind of life, that I didn't just jump into a likely-to-fail marriage with the 2 or 3 women I kicked the matrimonial tires on before departing. I've never blindly accepted marriage as the next logical step in a relationship. It's a badge of honor that I'm thinking things through and fighting the loneliness in order to make an intelligent decision about who I'm going to share my life (and split my assets) with. It hasn't been that easy to stay single and childless while everyone else in society pops kids out like gumballs and screams at me that my choices are not acceptable. I'm flawed for not giving in to the pressure of coupling up and adding to the population. I'm lazy. Irresponsible. Selfish. Immature. Undeveloped. Yesterday, dear friend J., who I love because he always speaks his mind and lets you know what he's thinking, was surprised to hear I have no girlfriend. "Wow man, you have relationship issues." Well no. I have bad/mediocre relationship issues. Bite the bullet and get married? No. Until the right person puts a gun in my hand, I'll keep the bullet in my pocket.
I view their choices with the same skepticism they view mine. No disrespect to my friends or anyone else who may read this, including Sister T., who is getting married next Saturday, God bless her, but to me, there's something mindless and delusional about how many people approach marriage and having children. I've written about this before, so I won't belabor it. For every person who tells me I'm too picky and I've got commitment probs, I can name someone who married by default, out of some preconceived notion that they needed to do so, that they needed to bear children to uphold some kind of need within themselves. Someone who viewed marriage and kids as the only alternative in life, the only potential option for them, like college. It was a foregone conclusion that they needed to get married. Marriage is good for you. It's like a vitamin. A shot of espresso. A high colonic. The sooner you do it, the better for everyone. Get on the bandwagon! C'mon!
Maybe I'm a contrarian at heart. Maybe I'm just a stubborn prick. But I don't get it. I don't feel this great, magical pull that all of my friends seem to have felt, this desire for the suburban life and the spawning of more human beings to populate the earth. As they were asking me about my life in New York and why I want the life I want, how could I explain to them in a polite way that to me, the knee-jerk obsession with having kids seems to be an attempt by people to replicate themselves and create a purpose in life. Not sure why you're here or what to do with yourself? Tired of working all day for the man with no idea why you're doing it day after day? Have a kid! They'll warm your heart because they'll look like just like you (or your partner), and they'll exhaust you to the point where you won't have the time or energy to entertain existential angst. You'll become a parental drone, raising a duplicate of yourself to be the best new version of you he or she can be. Nothing more to worry about, here's your purpose in life!
How to explain to my friends that the thought of doing this, of following the herd like a mindless sheep, without giving any thought or respect to what it is that I feel and like and enjoy now, makes me dry heave? How to tell them that I'm perfectly happy with my life the way it is, with the freedom to wake up on a Saturday, walk around naked, read a book in peace and quiet, take my bike out for a spin in my neighborhood when the mood suits me (after getting dressed of course), shuffle off to a show in the city, eat and drink as much as I like at restaurants and bars that close at 4 a.m., not 1 a.m. and cab it home? How to tell them that instead of living in a 6,000 square foot house with a swimming pool and retractable roof like buddy D. just purchased, I prefer my 1 BR condo in Williamsburg and the minimal upkeep it requires? How to explain to my country-living friends that where I live is as important to me as anything in this world, that when I drove past the New York skyline on the BQE last Friday, I got goosebumps and tears in my eyes? And that's not the first time that's happened. How do I tell them that whenever I fly back to New York from anywhere and I see the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the nondescript skyscrapers and buildings and concrete, I smile because I know I'm home? Would they understand if I told them that if anyone took New York away from me, I'd be miserable? That I can't imagine living anywhere else? That I'm more in love with this city, the excitement of this place, and the life I have now, than with any notion of pursuing the traditional family with a three bedroom house and acre of land? How could I explain that the suburban life -- porches, lawns, driveways, pesticides, ranches, colonials, tudors, painting the garage, getting the kids ready for school, PTA, Little League, living among people who are mostly the same: white and upper middle class, bars and restaurants you need to drive to before they close at midnight, people wearing L.L. Bean on a night out on the town -- sounds boring as fuck to me? That a life in suburbia, the life I was born into and grew up with, was great as a kid but feels like death to me now? That I'd rather live among blacks, browns, yellows, and whites and experience real life, see something new every single day on the subway ride into work, instead of slurping the whitewashed, sheltered, routine, done-it-1000-times, pre-packaged formula that everyone else is drinking?
No, of course I couldn't say all that. That would have been tactless and uncouth. And unfair. Who's got the better life? Who cares? It's not a competition. It's about being happy, and that's completely subjective. Besides, no one's 100% satisfied with their life every second of the day. I get a hankering for some grass and clean air every so often. That's when I leave the city for a few days. But the feeling passes. My love for New York hasn't left in 16 years. Suburbia is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.
For the record, most of my friends are happily married and like their lives, just like I like mine. It's not like they're looking to switch places with me. That was nice to see. The stuff I'm describing was in my head, thoughts I had while seeing literally everyone of my old friends live the same kind of life, a life that's different from mine. We spent most of our time talking about old times, the stupid shit we did when we were younger. The stuff that should have killed us but somehow didn't. When we started reliving past events, it was funny how other people remembered details that I'd either forgotten or never knew.
Example: on March 11, 1986, a day that shall live in infamy, I skipped class to go skiing up at Gunstock, NH with six of my friends. It was a balmy day, foggy and overcast. The warm weather had melted the snow just enough so that overnight, it had iced over. On the first run of the day, I headed down the mountain at a really fast clip. I remember laughing and feeling giddy that while all those other fools were studying, we were free and happy, enjoying ourselves outdoors. Halfway down the hill, I turned to the left and my right ski caught an edge in the ice, hurtling me towards the woods on the left side of the trail. Struggling to keep my balance, I tried to turn back to the right, but my skis wouldn't catch. As a last resort, I tried to fall down to stop myself, but I was going too fast. I went off the trail and flew face first into a tree stump.
Yesterday, R. told me that he was watching from the bottom of the hill and when I hit the stump, my head snapped backwards so violently, he thought I was done for. I blacked out for a second, and when I opened my eyes, I looked down and saw blood dripping from my mouth like a half-closed water fountain. The inside skin below my lower lip was pushed up, as if someone had shaved it clean. That's where my lower teeth went through. Only a thin layer of skin separated the inside from the outside of my mouth. The gash took 16 stitches to close. It's a miracle I didn't lose any teeth or kill myself like Sonny Bono. The ski patrol dude finally came. He said "That's a mighty deep laceration you got there son." Then he put me on a stretcher and took me down the mountain. It was a dizzy, bumpy ride.
What R. reminded me of, and what I'd long since forgotten, was that after all of this, I went to school the next day. I have no idea what I was thinking. I had this huge, swollen lip that jutted out a mile from my face. I looked like one of those Amazonian tribesmen in National Geographic, the ones with the enormous bottom lips. I wore these thick red stitches underneath, and I was forced to drink my lunch from a straw because I couldn't open my mouth fully or eat anything. You think I would've taken a day off to let myself heal and avoid the stares and humiliation, but no. I was a total masochist. I hated missing school. The irony was not lost on R., though, that I hadn't minded cutting class to go skiing the day before, but I insisted on being there after I'd nearly decapitated myself. He was right, it made no sense. Sister J. took a picture of me the day after the accident, just to capture the memory. I look like I went a round with Mike Tyson. I'm flipping her off, but my middle finger is only half-raised. My heart wasn't in it. Twenty-two years later, I'm glad she took the picture because it's the only image I have of myself in that sorry-ass condition.
We sat outside the Border Cafe in Burlington, MA yesterday for five hours, drinking beer and reminiscing over stories and memories that I won't bore you with, at least not yet. Finally, after we'd lingered over lunch and into the dinner shift, it was time for the party to end and for us to go our separate ways. It was hard to leave. R. urged me to spend the night at his place and watch the Sox play the Yankees. I could call in sick today, couldn't I? Oh, I was sorely tempted. But we're not kids anymore, are we? It's not as easy as it once was to cut class and go skiing.