It’s rarely a lonely drive. I converse with myself internally so I more or less control the commute. There’s no forced listening. There’s no polite but forced pretense of respect given to ideas about politics or religion or stupid movies that are all just noise in the air. Noise that could be songs from the radio instead. And, yes, it’s impolite to say, but Pink Floyd will almost always be better than someone’s opinion about the latest comic book movie. Plus, I don’t have much interest in sharing this shit with anyone so why are so many compelled to share theirs?
In my car, alone, I control the conversation, whether it’s about eating monkeys or atheism or love, I control it, like controlling the radio. When I’m not thinking, I turn on the radio, usually to classic rock. When I’m not thinking, songs come on randomly that sound and feel really good. I have the control to keep them on or turn them off when The Who or Warren Zevon come on, respectively. I’m not forced to listen to anything else, like pop country or Mariah Carey or some outraged right-winger ranting, which would put me in a relatively shitty frame of mind as I prepare for my day. I control the ride. I don’t have to compromise. I drive trying to sort myself or the world out. I drive trying to make sense of it. And when I can’t, I might listen to a hit by KISS. But I won’t listen to pop country or hip-hop. That’s not what I want because that’s not what I need.
Sometimes somebody will suggest that I try something new. Maybe I haven’t given the other shit enough of a chance. And that’s a sound suggestion. But the other idea is that nobody knows my feelings better than me. In other words, nobody else knows what I feel when the bass from Electric Avenue rumbles through me at maximum volume. It’s a far different feeling than anything I’ve gotten from Toby Keith.
But it’s not just classic rock I listen to. Depending on the day and time and season, sometimes I switch to a station that carries sports. And if I forget to turn it back, I might get in the car the next day to hear political talk on the same station. I used to enjoy that but not any more but sometimes I’ll listen as a reminder of what once interested me and of what still exists in the world, just not my world anymore. I might listen for 30 minutes. At the right time, it’s still mildly entertaining – like conspiracies that it’s the Communist infiltrators with the Catholic priesthood who are real pedophiles – but 30 minutes is almost always enough.
Two days ago I kept the radio off. I tried playing it to distract me from what had happened but it didn’t work so I turned it off.
I was getting ready to leave for work. My gym bag was packed. I’d been thinking since the previous night how to coordinate the day. Thankfully, I wouldn’t need gas but I did need to stop at the grocery. And I was feeling shitty for having skipped the workouts recently and I was feeling kinda shitty that my house was a wreck. Maybe it was the winter blues but some days were struggles to do anything. But I’d decided that day it wouldn’t be. I’d get to that fucking gym with plenty of time to really work out. I’d even skip a shower at home to give me more time in the gym where I’d shower afterward. I had all my shit packed and my day planned. I was even frustrated with myself for running a little late. I’d fucked around on the internet more than I should have. 20 minutes knocked off the workout already. Fuck.
I was grabbing my gym bag, thinking, Grocery…..salad….don’t forget toilet paper!!! Gym by noon….maybe 12:15. Shower. Leave by 2:15.
Then the doorbell rang.
What the fuck? I thought. Not now.
I went to the door hoping it was some bible-thumper or salesman or a neighbor I could politely brush-off for another time or altogether. I’m not such an asshole that if the neighbor needs a major favor, that I wouldn’t help. Or something small I could take care of quickly. But, if it was something else, I’d offer help if it could wait. And I’d really and gladly help later.
But it was none of those. I opened the door with my bag over my shoulder. It was Gary standing there with a plastic sack.
Gary is a friend from my high-school and college days. Gary was my best friend and in some ways still is.
Gary’s divorced and the trauma from it have sent him down the road of mild paranoia and major cynicism, not just about women but about the world. I’ve tried steering Gary away from his paranoia and cynicism, but they give him an understanding of things that, in turn, give him more comfort than the reality of things. I’ve learned that you don’t challenge Gary’s reality. Nobody likes having their understanding of things challenged, even me.
When we were young I was at Gary’s house all the time. He was truly kind to me and for that I’m eternally grateful. Grateful enough that when he comes around and starts spouting his conspiracy stuff, I don’t chase him off like I would anybody else. See, Gary’s conspiracies are to me what pop country on my radio would be when what I really want is silence. Silence to calm or relax or sooth or think. Or silence to focus on the task at hand. And sometimes the silence isn’t just a want, it’s a need. It’s what I need to recharge or dispel or at least try to understand ghosts. A bunch of nonsense does the opposite. The pacification of someone else’s bullshit drains me.
Our teenage years were nourished by horror films and video games and heavy metal and each other, in a tiny town where we would have had nobody else. His grandmother, who he lived with, treated me as one of her own.
Later, we’d laughed and moped and sympathized and empathized over our mishaps with women and I’d listened and tried to console him when it came to his divorce. Of course, I’m not very good at listening to what I don’t like, but I tried. I did my best to empathize. I tried being a friend since we were once almost as close as brothers.
Gary knows I like beer. He knows when I’m on IPA’s or chocolate or vanilla porters and stouts. He even knows I don’t like the ones with hints of coffee. He works down by the big liquor depot that carries most everything. When he stops by my place he’s usually got a bottle of something he thinks I’ll like. Most often, he’s right. And even when he’s wrong, it’s always worth the try.
I opened the door and there was Gary with his plastic sack from the Party Source.
“Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”
He held out the bag.
“I got this for you. A vanilla porter.”
I took the bag and looked inside. It was a brew I’d never tried.
“Thanks, man. You off today?” I asked.
“Yeah. A mini-staycation.”
“Well, thanks again, but I’m on my way out. I’m running late and I’ve got tons of shit to do.”
“You didn’t get my email?”
“I sent it yesterday.”
“I don’t check email everyday.” I’ve told Gary I use a messenger app and text more than email. I’ve told him he can call and leave a message. But I’ve brushed Gary off enough times when he’s called – when I didn’t wanna fall down the well of his hours of ranting about conspiracies – that he thinks I’m a selfish jerk that doesn’t want him wasting my time and that I’m a selfish jerk for dodging him. And, to be fair, part of that’s true. I’d much rather chill with the Reds and a cold beer than entertain Gary’s conspiracies about Israel and global currencies and labor that’s imported and jobs that are exported.
I said, “The house is a wreck, man.” And that was true. It was in embarrassing shape. I’d been mustering the will to move forward. Today I’d decided on the gym. If that went well, maybe next week, the house.
“I at least gotta piss,” Gary said.
“The bathroom’s a wreck too.” I truly didn’t want him or anyone inside.
“What am I suppose do, piss on myself?”
“Goddamn, it,” I said under my breath but purposely loud enough for Gary to hear. It was a stupid gesture with enough pretense in its semi-restraint to make a person nauseous. But I didn’t need that intrusion or the fucking humiliation of that moment. To be honest, I didn’t need it ever, but especially not then. I was already on edge from the morning caffeine and running late on a day when I swore to myself I’d get as much done as possible. Enough laziness and malaise. Yeah, the house was my fault. But I’d worked out a plan and there Gary was, unannounced, fucking it all up.
I let Gary in and he went to the restroom. It took him 3 times as long to piss as it would have taken me. That’s how it seemed, at least. In the meantime, I put the bottle in the fridge.
He came out and stood in the living room. I knew there were beard shaving still in the sink and shit stains in the toilet. I had clothes and coffee cups and beer cans cluttered everywhere. There were dishes piled in the sink. He stood there stupidly, waiting for something. I stood there, furious and humiliated.
“So let’s go out,” I said rudely. He was and maybe is my best friend but I wasn’t going to offer him a seat. In my way of thinking, he should have called. He should have given me notice that I could have acknowledged and agree to. Then, I’d have been gracious. But he did none of that, though he did bring me a nice bottle of porter.
I escorted him outside.
“You still drinking stouts?”, he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, closing the door.
We stood in the driveway. He looked at me dumbly.
“I’m running late,” I said. “I gotta go the gym so I can at least take a shower. I gotta pick up something to eat for work.” I wanted to say, “This isn’t a very good time, Gary,” but I didn’t cause there was a time when we were really close.
“Thanks for the beer, though. Really.”
He gave me an affected look of disappointment
“What is it? You need to talk? We can go somewhere.” I said. I wanted to add, “Just not here.” But I didn’t.
“Like where?”, he asked.
I was anxious and on edge even before Gary showed up and this sudden and unexpected twist to my future narrative wasn’t helping. I wanted to say, “Are you dumb? There’s literally dozens of places here.” What I said instead was, “Well, there’s like dozens of places here.” Gary knows that. He knows my neighborhood well.
“I don’t know,” he said, faking ignorance. I knew what he wanted. He wanted me to accommodate him. That is what he desperately wants. That’s his receipt for the calls, the drop-ins and beer.
“We can go to that the new burger place,” I suggested. “But I’m not gonna eat. I gotta workout. But I’ll sit and talk or listen. Whatever.”
My anxiety built as I reformulated the logistics of my day to the possibility of accommodating Gary’s lunch.
“I don’t want you wasting time on me if you’re too busy.”
Jesus. I thought. Only precious time could have made that any more passive-aggressive.
“I’m not off until Sunday,” I said instead. “Maybe we can do something then.”
Gary shrugged as he walked to his car. I couldn’t’ bear to watch. I was angry at myself for sloughing Gary off and for the toilet and the dishes. I was angry at Gary for being Gary. I was angry at the world for its deadlines and demands. I didn’t know what to say but knew that wanting to spend time on Sunday was a lie. And I hate being a liar and Gary was making me a liar.
I threw my gym clothes in the car. I drove to the grocery and the gym and then into work. The entire time I was alone but my mind raced with how to think and feel about Gary. I kept the radio off.
He was like a brother once. I never wanted to soil that or not honor that. Was I honoring that enough by offering and, if he accepted, spending time with him on Sunday when I really needed to get the house cleaned for my own sake so I don’t feel like such a piece of shit and especially in case somebody else decided to drop in without notice? But if he wanted to do something on Sunday, I’d do it. I’d do it with all the smiles and acknowledgements and fake approval I could muster as he’d go on about how society venerates women over men or as he regurgitates the cable-news cud he’d been chewing for the last days or weeks. I’ve gotten tired of hearing that shit before and we’ve argued and I’ve never wanted to argue. I just want to chill. But it turned into a big squabble and we agreed just not to talk about it any more. But I know what Gary’s thinking and feeling. He percolates and he wants to give that simmering stench release. And I’m about the only one to give him the time of day. But I deny him while he still tries, like a child testing the limits of a parent, with comments like, “I won’t watch that because of the women, you know. Those karate bitches and all that bullshit. But let’s not go there.”
There was a time I argued that karate bitches were no more absurd than any of the shit Tom Cruise or Vin Deisel do in their dumbassed movies. There was a time when I thought weighing his opinion against another might be beneficial. But I learned that no matter how sound my counter-argument was, it just wasn’t worth the fight. I allow Gary to assume I’m a quasi male-feminist while I stick to my reality, on this issue, at least, of holding to common sense and reason. So we stalemate over one another’s realities when it comes to women in action cinema as well as other things.
So, yeah, nowadays it’s a constant game of patronizing between me and Gary when 20 years ago it never was that way. Back then it was free and easy cause we agreed on so many things. But now it’s sorta like being a parent, monitoring and controlling and corralling my friend’s ego, when, in my free time, I don’t wanna be a parent. I wanna be an adult with freedom to enjoy what I can in the brief moments of joy that present themselves. I don’t wanna patronize Gary about his shitty job and his conspiracies and cable news at a ball game, I want to enjoy the game: the people, the sun, the roar of the crowd, the drama of a tie game – bases loaded, 2 outs and a full count. I want to enjoy the game. But with Gary it’s never about the game. It’s about Gary or, at best, Gary’s interpretation of the game.
In his mind, Gary must have framed Wednesday’s blitzkrieg as a pleasant surprise, especially since it’s been months since we’ve seen each other. But it wasn’t pleasant. In the moment it was an utter nuisance, as any unexpected guest would be. And if I explained that, if I grouped him with everybody else, that would truly hurt him. For he is Gary. He needs to be special and I’m about all he’s got to be special to. I’ve tried nudging Gary toward hobbies or civic groups, which he’s taken as me nudging him away from me. And part of that’s true. But it’s also true that I truly believe it might help him to see that not all the women at a church, for example, are bitches. That some are kind and pleasant and honest and honorable. But I think he’s afraid of seeing that. Or being rejected by it.
I think back to our high school days when we were both sorta misfits growing up in a tiny town. We bonded over music and wrestling and comic books. Those things became our lives, together. Gary was being raised by his grandmother and, though not a saint, she was saintly to me. Maybe she just felt sorry cause my parent’s weren’t the greatest. She wasn’t educated and maybe that’s why she seemed devoid of much of the smugness that makes most parents think they know better than their kids. She gave Gary freedom to be and become what he wanted, which I thought was awesome. Gary’s family welcomed me as one of their own, to come and go in their house as I pleased, with no guilt or expectations. They fed me. They let me watch wrestling on Saturday nights with them. When we got drunk, I’d sleep on the couch. When I got old enough to drive, I’d drive me and Gary into the city for the big wrestling events, which I remember as some of the funnest times of my life. There was something fantastic about the matches. They were larger than life events with larger than life characters that played out in the larger than life world of television. But there we were, in an arena and part of it ourselves – actually experience it. There was something pure about my joy for that shit, sorta like Christmas when I was younger. I haven’t felt the same way about anything else as an adult and me and Gary shared it.
But other people experience joy and miracles together too. Like bringing life into the world. And over time, people and things change. Sometimes those miracles aren’t enough to keep them together and sometimes the reasons for the separation are valid.
We stayed tight throughout college, though we went to different schools. On holidays back home, I’d spend most of my time at Gary’s. After college we got separate apartments in the same neighborhood in the same city where we’d gone to wrestling and concerts when we were a bit younger. We’d get drunk together, watch wrestling together in our shitty apartments and go out and see bands together. But he’d met a girl who still had a year of college to go. She’d visit him for a weekend out in the real world once every few months, until she graduated. Then they moved in together. Gary and I still did things together, just not as much.
Then they got married. They moved to a different neighborhood. And then they got divorced. And that’s when things really changed.
And I changed too, as most people do. It took me a lot of time and effort and energy to figure out what to become. As Gary was adapting to being coupled, I was adapting to becoming a real adult. Then I became that, to decent personal satisfaction. Then I moved to the suburbs – again, to mixed satisfaction.
When I drove into work that day of Gary’s visit, I drove with the radio off. I was putting all that together in my head, under the influence of strong and mixed emotions. Me, Gary, this most recent incident and how that fit into our entire history. What was healthy for Gary and what was healthy for me. What Gary wants and needs from me and what I can realistically give.
Things change. People change. And sometimes they don’t but we do. We change in how we perceive. Maybe that’s what happened between Gary and his wife. Maybe she saw him as someone funny and smart and creative and ambitious but when the easy achievements and glory didn’t come, she came to see someone with hidden prejudices and simmering hostility. And maybe her behavior changed because she thought she could change Gary that way – like a parent whose tolerance for temper tantrums wanes more and more until the parent rages too. And maybe that’s all Gary saw was the change in her. He didn’t understand, or never cared to understand, how it related to him.
“If I’d have known what she really was….what she became, I’d never have married her,” he’d said. “Biggest mistake of my life.”
There’s a part of me that thinks it wasn’t all that bad. At least they never had children to drag through their muck. There was no child support for Gary to pay. Sure, non-commitment to an explicit commitment sucks. In a way it’s betrayal. But part of me thinks the biggest mistake wasn’t her, it’s Gary’s inability to see what he is. To see what she and others see. That’s his biggest mistake. But I won’t say it. I’ve hinted at it and, not unlike the propaganda that leads to his misogyny, he doesn’t take well to even mild criticism of his self-conception. So I leave it alone. I dance around it. I patronize him like a child too.
I’ve thought that Gary is sorta like a girl from the dorm or office who wants to date you but you’re okay with just hanging out every now and then, but not interested in dating. And she can’t understand why you don’t wanna date so she starts sizing you up as the bad guy. Maybe she says to herself she’s good enough looking and intelligent and kind and responsible, so if you reject that – if you reject her, then you must be selfish. But sometimes you want what you want and you like what you like, like Oreo’s to Nutter Butter or The Sopranos to The Wire. We simply reject what has less appeal than something else might. Am I insisting on perfection? No. Whatever I choose I choose with its imperfections. I simply choose it for having less imperfection for me.
I say to myself that Gary and I have changed into people that no longer fit together the same. Like my parents even. They had a common goal in having and raising me and my sister and having a house and all that bullshit. Now, nearly 50 years later, Mom has to beg my father to get off the couch to go to the art museum just once every few years. He complains about the walking but the discomfort in walking comes from spending all his days on the couch. She hates what he’s become. They were supposed to enjoy their freedom in retirement. Now they have money. They can travel and go to Broadway shows or see Alaska or the Caribbean on a cruise. They have complete freedom. This was their time to finally live, not sit around like oozing slugs waiting to die.
Mom and I go out every once in a while. I might go with her to the local flea market on a Wednesday morning or she might call and schedule a lunch for us.
Dad thinks she tries keeping me from him, that’s why Mom and I getting together is always away from him. For Dad I’m some minor battle in their late-stage matrimonial civil war. He suspects Mom wants us to get away so she can spend the afternoon shitting on him. But she doesn’t. She wants a breath of life, not the same old staleness of their prison. She enjoys a tiny taste of how things were supposed to be.
When I do see Dad, it’s usually in passing. He likes to say, “How about visiting me sometime.” But Mom knows his tricks. She said one time, “No. How about you coming out of hibernation to visit us.” That shut him up until the next he whined how I never spend any time with him. Then Mom reminded me, “What he wants is for you to waste your time wasting his time. Don’t fall for it now. Don’t fall for it when you’re our age.”
Maybe I’m not just doing favors for my mother. Maybe she’s doing favors for me too. Showing me first-hand, by example, what life can be. Maybe the lessons from parents never end. Yet, some are obviously better than others.
I drove to work that day when Gary visited thinking about all this stuff. I kept the radio off so I could try to make sense of it all. My thoughts were my only company. It wasn’t a lonely ride.
I spent the day and night trying to understand what to do with Gary and his drive-by visit. Let if affect a change in me or was all this reason to double-down on the distance between Gary and me? Should I apologize would make it seem like I was in the wrong. Was I? It was all coming off like some passive-aggressive bullshit on Gary’s part that I wanted no part of.
The martyr in me said it would be like the opening of dreary skies to expose the glory of the sun if Gary would call to say, “Hey man, sorry about dropping in on you like that. But you mentioned Sunday and I was thinking we could do something. I’ve got a few ideas. But, if not this Sunday, then sometime soon. Sound good?” This is the conversation I allowed myself to have been me and the Gary I want to be.
I would apologize for my curtness with him that day. And I’d really want to see him to make amends for him making amends. But that won’t happen. I’ll always be the old friend who can’t give 5 minutes to a buddy who stops by to give him some beers. I’ll always be that guy and, because it’s a role I don’t like, I’ll look for excuses not to meet up with Gary on Sunday.
The next day I drove to work with the radio off again. This time I was consumed with how to form the experience into something worth writing about. Maybe the writing – the creative process – is just an escape from real problems. Real problems and issues about me as much as they are about Gary. But I convince myself that in working it out through the “creative process” maybe I’ll come to learn something I don’t yet know. Honestly, it’s just my default reaction. Maybe it’s just my way of hiding from my deficiencies behind the words. Like an alcoholic who never addresses his real problems, I get drunk and lost in the words. But that’s where all that deliberation yesterday has led me. It’s about all I’ve come to know.
Yesterday I started working out how to twist the real experience into something fictional and creative. How the twist the real person and situation into Gary. How to tie all the bits and pieces of the real me into a created me that all fits with certain ideas I want to express. And what do I take from other people to make the fictitious Gary more flesh and bone? These are the pieces of the puzzle I started collecting and fitting together without the distraction of Pink Floyd or talk radio. I continued to think about all this shit through an utterly unfocused workout, which I cut short so I could get a few minutes to write before my 8 hour grind. So I belched out as much as I could of what was there. I hoped that I somehow wouldn’t lose any of the inspiration that comes when pieces of the puzzle start fitting together. Sometimes, when you loose a piece or two, then the whole thing falls apart and never comes back together again and it can seem like a real loss of something.
I got to work and went for my laptop to find my corner in the cafeteria to type. I don’t talk about this writing to much of anybody cause it would seem pretentious. I tell myself everybody just thinks I’m fucking around on Facebook. There’s no reason for them to give two shits about what I’m doing anyway. So I type intently, like I often do, mostly oblivious and uncaring about the world around me.
I’m one of those people who take my breaks alone but I’m not the only one. I’m nothing special that regard. Other folks like to sit at the same big table with each other every day. But, in my time to myself, it’s best for me to allow myself the freedom to do with it what I can, not have it dictated by others. If I have ideas for writing, I want, even need, to write. If music will give the boost or the calming effect I need, I might watch a YouTube clip on Slayer or Rammstein or listen to some Phillip Glass, respectively. If I want some intellectual stimulation, I might watch something about culture or politics. But, what rarely helps, is listening to a co-worker complain about their in-laws or commute or pets. That doesn’t seem to do anything.
It’s sorta like sitting in bars. It’s usually good but it’s best done alone. Folks are usually polite and cordial and it feels good to reciprocate. Yeah, maybe it’s just human interaction-lite, but it still feels good. Like a Bud Light on a smoldering day. It’s not a double IPA or double-chocolate porter, but’s something. In that instance it’s good and far better than nothing. But sometimes, whether they assume you’re lonely sitting there all by yourself or there’s some mystique to sitting there alone with a modicum of poise, there’s something that makes some people wanna share or at least feel you out. And maybe 1 out of 5 times it’s worthwhile. You might get some insight into the other person’s humanity, which is awesome. But the other times it’s usually some drunk just rambling about nonsense. And that I don’t need. The peace to think and observe without distraction is the far greater gift. So I can’t say I’m a complete misanthrope when it comes to sitting in bars, but it’s mostly the case. And I think it’s mostly the case for good reason too. For, as the drunken rambler scoots on down the bar if he’s not too drunk or too stupid too get that I’m not interested in his bullshit – then I’ll need to accept that to him I’m an asshole. An assholes who’s too selfish to take his desire to share some human warmth with kindness. I don’t like being an asshole, not at all. But sometimes that’s just what you are, I guess. And I know you can’t have it both ways. All things come with the good and the bad, which I accept. That’s why I go back but with the intention still of minimizing the bad.
So at bars and at work they’ve come to mostly leave me alone when I’m alone and for that I’m grateful. I guess there’s some understanding that I’m doing something and whatever it is, they respectfully leave me to it when they see me before work typing in the cafeteria. They save the cordiality and small talk for work and it’s all cool and appreciated. Being left to my devices without prying is cool. The chit- chat later is cool. I appreciate it all.
But in the moments sitting alone in the cafeteria or at a bar, I’m rarely lonely. Just like the commute, whether it’s just me or me and the radio, it’s hardly ever a lonely drive.