What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.
Kay and I were friends. For two years, we sat side by side for an hour each day in drafting class, mechanical pencils and straightedges in hand, designing dream homes or drawing specs for bolts. We swapped erasers as often as we swapped stories about high school crushes and who we planned to ask to the prom when the time came. We airbrushed signs on whiteboards in honor of our favorite hair bands and talked trash about the fledgling basketball team, my job at McDonalds, or hers at a local pizza place. And then, in late May of 1987, during the senior picnic, having drawn all we could draw and said all we could say, having for a brief moment shared a blanket and some lunch on the high school lawn, we went our separate ways.
Jay and I used to be friends. In college, we hosted a Christian radio show together. Radio Free Jesus. Interspersed between vinyl cuts by Resurrection Band, Daniel Amos, Randy Stonehill, Petra, and the occasional Amy Grant – offered just to keep the natives from getting restless – we talked about God and relationships and Jesus Rock. He ran for some local political office as a staunch Republican and I helped him hand out buttons on street corners. He lost. Eventually he graduated, got married, and left me to solo the show. We crossed paths once or twice, back in the late 80s, before I myself moved on to another locale several states away.
Aristotle held true friendship in high esteem, for he saw within the concept a bond forged between two people whose sole interest lie in maintaining and exemplifying the goodness of the other. He wrote, “Friendship of this kind is permanent, reasonably enough; because in it are united all the attributes that friends ought to possess. For all friendship has as its object something good or pleasant — either absolutely or relatively to the person who feels the affection — and is based on some similarity between the parties.”
Were Kay and I really friends? Jay and I? I believe so. Are we still friends? We must be, for Facebook tells me so. She tracked me down. I tracked him down. I get to see pictures of their kids and know where they are headed on vacation or what they had for breakfast. I watch the numbers rise as I add more friends and feel the smile on my face widen with each accepted invitation. Each “How have YOU been?” message. This is what we do nowadays, search for friends and add them to our stream without giving much thought as to what kind of friends these people really are.
Unless you’re me, of course. I think about shit like this way too much. And wonder what it all means. To wit, I recently read an interesting passage in Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-prize-winning novel All the King’s Men . . .
The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face that does not exist anymore, speaks a name – Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave – which belongs to that now nonexistent face but which by some inane doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not happily met and boring stranger. But he humors the drooling doddering confusion of the universe and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire at night or in the middle of a crowded street said, “Gee, listen to this–’On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble; His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves–'” The Friend of Your Youth is your friend because he does not see you anymore.
And perhaps he never saw you. What he saw was simply part of the furniture of the wonderful opening world. Friendship was something he suddenly discovered and had to give away as a recognition of and payment for the breathlessly opening world which momently divulged itself like a moonflower. It didn’t matter a damn to whom he gave it, for the fact of giving was what mattered, and if you happened to be handy you were automatically endowed with all the appropriate attributes of a friend and forever after your reality is irrelevant. The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he hasn’t the slightest concern with calculating his interest or your virtue. He doesn’t give a damn, for the moment, about Getting Ahead or Needs Must Admiring the Best, the two official criteria in adult friendships, and when the boring stranger appears, he puts out his hand and smiles (not really seeing your face) and speaks your name (which doesn’t really belong to your face), saying, “Well, Jack, damned glad you came, come on in, boy!”
“Sure, I’ll be your friend. We can catch up for a moment or two and share pictures and tell each other what we’re having for breakfast.” But eventually, this Friend of Your Youth gets lost in the feed, becoming nothing but a blip that gets shoved down the page as new updates pour in. And often, like Jack Burden, we’ll reach for our hat and head out the door, either disconnecting them or hiding them, wondering why we stopped by in the first place.
I’ve heard stories of people finding long lost friends and actually prolonging the reunion, reconnecting in ways that mean something so much more now than they did way back when. Romances have blossomed, hands-on physical contact taking the place of pixels and status updates. I imagine these are rare stories, however, rising to the top because we want all this to mean something. But distance and the piling up of years make any genuine connection with most Friends of My Youth impossible. And so we settle for this.
Maybe this is my “Great Sleep” rearing its ugly head, for I tend to pull away in the face of superficial contact. I find no pleasure in merely scratching the surface. To me, it seems more like pulling the scab off of a wound that could have healed long ago if I’d just refrained from pestering it so. Maybe I want more than what Facebook is giving me.
Or maybe I’m just thinking too much . . .