I never took a sounding of our friendship's true depth until I could no longer ignore what it was lacking.
He sat slumped over on a couch in a Back Bay apartment overlooking the grimy Gainsborough Street alley, his eyes pushed upwards in his sockets, and he was gone, off on a journey from which he’d never return.
We crammed into a borrowed car for the drive down from New Hampshire for a long weekend of drinking. Someone had given him a pill. And then everything changed. By the time I drove us back to Manchester in the hung-over grayness of the next day, he was physically with us but his silence was unlike him, and we were all too stunned to break that silence, too unformed in our youthfulness to question it, or to offer insight or an intervention.
We sobered up, my drinking buddies and I, and we never spoke of that night again with him or each other. He was never the same. The hallucinogen he ingested was a perilous concoction that coursed through his system like some renegade freight train, rendering him unable to communicate as a whole person. He learned, like some parrot, to respond in rudimentary sentences, to perform tasks at school, to report to his job. But a chunk of him had been vanquished.
Our friendship, initially based on a mutual disdain for the high school vacuity we refused to accept, grew, nurtured and ripened by rebellion, and a shared attraction to intoxicants. It was a friendship founded on a one-way road of caring, and it would finally end, many years later, when I realized that the caring I extended to him was not – could not be -- returned.
There are no roadmaps for establishing meaningful or lasting connections, no manual to read for a quick and solid assembly or to determine if the parts within us fit together amiably or functionally with the parts of another. We go about trying to chart a course with another, seeking support and affection, sharing experiences, and we’re in the thick of it. We never step back to assess why we’ve chosen this person for friendship, or if it’s the right choice, or, even, for that matter, a lasting one.
So I stood beside him through his first marriage that ended within months after it began when tempers flared and her struggles with mental illness exacerbated his instabilities.
He followed me to a suburban college I had enrolled in, but he dropped out after a car accident totaled his vehicle and left him further scarred. With the insurance claim he finally enrolled, stayed for a while and then took a leave, finishing years later. I was working in the Midwest by then and he summoned me home to attend his second marriage ceremony. There were hopes this union would last, but it ended, too, and his soon to be ex-wife later told me he was unable to return her affections, and she experienced his disconnectedness and she struggled, alone, to hold onto a marriage that eroded before her.
I never stepped to consider that how he treated his wives (and there would be two more that followed in close succession), was how we treated our friendship. After all, a friend is not a spouse. But friendship between two people should be based on shared values that somehow can be measured if that friendship is valued and is expected to blossom.
There came a time when my needs and personal pain were so great that I turned to him for help, and he turned away. He lacked the empathy and the skills to respond. If I had paid attention, I would have seen this coming, year before.
The warning signs were there. But I never surveyed it, or was afraid to for fear of losing what I thought was valuable between us. I never took a sounding of our friendship’s true depth until I could no longer ignore what it was lacking.