Friends Are Forged in a Different Furnace Than Lovers
Spencer reclined in his chair, groaning inwardly and crossing his arms over his chest, imagining this final topic of discussion a clever form of emotional torture devised expressly for him to endure.
The "tomorrow" to which she referred was Thanksgiving, which even in his happier years had always marked the beginning of a season he liked to describe with a wry smile by quoting The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, as "that tarnished tinsel time between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Days, when the season tastes as stale as a glass of day-old champagne with a cigarette butt floating in it."
He listened, half paying attention and half trying to come up with something, as other group members stated what they were grateful for.
What was he thankful for? His last remaining Armani suit, which he somehow miraculously still owned, with the ink stain he refused to have removed because it reminded him that ink came before pixel? His talent with words which had not deserted him even when it seemed the rest of the world had? He reached deeper. His morning coffee, cigarettes and the mantra of "Eat your fear"?
It was his turn. He'd been saved for last.
"I'm afraid I'm just going to have to parrot what everyone else has already said," he said. "I celebrate 90 days of continued sobriety at my Sunday A.A. meeting this weekend, so I am immensely thankful for my sobriety. And, I could not have achieved that milestone without the new lessons, habits, and recovery vocabulary that you all have taught me in these groups, so I am incredibly thankful for all of you in this treatment program. And ..."
He hesitated, afraid it might be too much, decided he didn't care, and added: "I am tremendously thankful that the seizure I suffered during the end of my relapse in August, right in front of the First Precinct on Varick Street, did not kill me.”
EIGHT DAYS LATER
"I just got off a plane at JFK," I punched into my iPhone as I walked out of the airport into the cold, New York dawn.
"WTF?" Charles responded. Of course he was awake. "Are you serious? How? Why? Why no advance notice?"
"Because there was no advance."
"That is so like you. You are fucking unreal. How long are you in Manhattan -- in other words, will you still be there when I get back? I'm secretly off the radar."
"Of course you are," I responded. "So am I."
Charles and I seem like twins. Which probably explains why we bickered like siblings when we tried to be lovers.
I boarded a plane to New York to love a man. When I deplaned in JFK, it was clear I had to leave a man. But as the cab cut through Queens and into Manhattan, my attention was immediately focused on finding a man. Not a lover, but one of my dearest friends.
THE SPACE BETWEEN
At the end of last summer, one of my dearest friends relapsed. I was home in Los Angeles when the issue came to a head. As the cityscape came closer, I remembered the lack of clarity of those days, the terrified conversations back and forth with a mutual contact in New York and my final decision to make my space.
It's hard to make that space when someone you love is in danger. It doesn't matter what the danger is, the immediate response is to rush to them, pick them up, take them away and find a way to make everything fine. That's friendship. No questions. By land, air or sea, one word and friends are there with a .45 and shovel.
But when it comes to self-destruction and abuse, you can't take that route. You can't make it fine. You can't not ask questions. You can't take a friend away from themselves. You have to let them hit rock bottom.
Would Spencer understand that? "Then stop wasting their time and turn yourself in." Those were my last words, so composed, they sounded cold. Would he forgive me those words and the deafening silence that followed after?
He didn't know I kept tabs on him. He didn't know I thought about him and worried about him. He didn't know I missed him and loved him.
He has every right to be angry with me, I realized, lighting a cigarette. I had to com to terms with that. But I couldn't let that stop me.
"No smoking," the cabbie shouted suddenly, taking a break from his cell phone. “You can't smoke in the cab.”
Welcome to New York.
It was the start of an unforgiving winter. Just a week before, at Thanksgiving -- just as Spencer was sitting down for that meeting -- I was walking into a Vitamin Shoppe with Mia, one of my dearest friends.
"Where is the folic acid? Is it a fat?" she asked.
"B vitamin," I replied. "What is this for?"
"It will supposedly prevent birth defects."
"Americans breed so strangely," I commented. "It almost feels unnatural."
She wasn’t listening, having become engrossed in the warnings on a box of pre-natal vitamins. My phone emitted a sound indicating a text.
Mia looked up.
"You're not going to stop are you?" She was talking about something we hadn't mentioned since I'd confessed my indiscretion.
I looked at her without saying anything. Brown to green. Wife to whore. Maker of life to destroyer of homes.
"Don’t answer that," Mia said. "Don't say a word about it. I don’t want to know."
"There is nothing to tell." I grabbed a small bottle of folic acid and handed it to her. "Here."
It hurt to be unable to tell my truths to one of my closest friends. Friends are supposed to have your back regardless of what you do, aren't they? They're supposed to be there for you and try to see your side, aren't they?
No. Sometimes friends have to let you hit rock bottom. Mia knew it would end badly.
"I love you. I believe in you. I will be there for you, but not when you choose not to grow." Those had been my words to Spencer, but in a sense they applied here, too.
I had to find him.
The cab pulled up to the Thompson LES and I stepped out onto Allen Street and took in the hotel. I realized I hadn't been to New York in nine years.
Just three blocks up and one over, Spencer was strolling Third toward Second Avenue. He'd spent his last two dollars on a small coffee and two Marlboro Reds at his corner bodega before returning to his building's courtyard and taking a seat at one of the chessboard tables. A morning ritual he enjoyed.
Just a week before he'd sat at this very place on Thanksgiving Day and decided that it didn't matter that he had fallen so far from the luxury-hotel-hopping heights of the previous four months. And the hurt of having no one in his life to tell him they were thankful for having him in their lives only stung a little bit. That morning, his little list of things for which he was thankful was enough for him. And not that small.
He was sober. And he was in New York, a city he loves.
He thought about that realization, briefly, still powerful as the moment he first made it, and took a first drag of his cigarette.
I looked across Allen Street at the cold, gray winter morning and ashed my own Marlboro Red, before pulling out my phone and snapping a picture.
Just inside, my laptop sat open with a hundred tabs open on my browser. Everything I'd learned in journalism school about finding answers and every ounce of perseverance and determination that had once made me decide to pursue that career had finally found a purpose.
If anyone asked me to do it again, I'm not entirely sure I would know how. Manhattan isn't so big. But when you're looking for someone, Manhattan is a giant.
I worked through the system, that's all I had – the knowledge that treatment was involved. I talked to more people than I can count. I begged to bend some rules and shatter some others. I swung from offices to private numbers.
It took a day. But the next morning, at around eleven, I got his counselor.
Another cab. I lit a cigarette.
"No smoking!" yelled the cabbie, holding his phone to his ear. "You can't smoke in the cab!"
"I have to smoke," I said, handing him a twenty. "I'm so nervous. Please let me smoke."
"Ah," he waved his hand dismissively.
I couldn't really smoke. My hands were shaking. I could have walked, but I didn't understand Manhattan, and Los Angeles dies hard. We're convinced we can't go a few blocks unless we're in a car.
I watched the people in the streets. It's easy to be alone in Los Angeles. We can live the entirety of our lives separated one from the other, all of us in our respective cars, stuck on the 405. It's easy to understand why you never see your friends -- it's the traffic. No one wants to face the traffic. That's a good reason. Well, it seems like a good reason.
There are no polite excuses in Manhattan. If someone can't see you, it's not traffic. It's that they won't see you. Manhattan makes loneliness unbearable by throwing you into a crowd of people. You're not you, you're part of a greater “us” -- and there is nothing worse than feeling lonely in a crowd.
The cab stopped in front of the building.
I stepped out and realized I hadn't seen Spencer for a year. Had the turmoil of the past few months made itself manifest on his lean frame? Would I recognize him?
I was looking down at my boots.
I saw another pair of shoes stop in front of me.
Slowly, I looked up.
Spencer was standing before me. He was well-dressed, in a suit, with a little ink stain, and black-frame glasses. He looked ... like such a writer. And he had a smile on his face that I'll never forget, partly because I hadn't expected a smile but mostly because it was an unequivocal look of relief.
Everything I had considered telling him, all the reasons and explanations I had planned on laying out before him disappeared. He knew. He knew friends have to let you live out your choices and make your progress. And if he didn't know that even when I had been absent, I had been thinking about him, he knew I was there now.
I've been married, but thick and thin, sickness and health, escrow and foreclosure, sober and relapsed, CEO and unemployed -- the stuff of the vows -- isn't a promise uttered hopefully at an altar when it comes to friends. Friends are forged in a different furnace than lovers and these vows is a way of being. Even if it sometimes means letting the people we love the most come to their own conclusions.
Last month, Spencer celebrated his first year sober. I not proud of the totality of it, but of each individual day. That's the thing about sobriety -- it's a daily battle that starts over every day. In the same way, I don't have to wait until Thanksgiving to say I'm thankful to have him in my life.
I'm thankful today. I'm thankful to him for his courage; my own journey is immensely informed by his trials and lessons. Through our ups and downs, we're on each other's sides.
The next day, I called Mia and thanked her for having the courage to tell me what she really thought about my relationship. I think she was surprised. I'm not. Now I know that's what friendship is all about.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.