“Who the hell is ‘Buddy-boy’?” my lover asked, snatching the remote back from me. The late Saturday afternoon sun streamed in from the high living room windows above us, and for a moment I was blinded.
I let her have the remote and jumped up — crossed the room — and squatted in front of the t.v. set. “It’s him –” I said, pointing to a lone figure on the screen. “It’s my buddy, Buddy — you know, the one from college.” A music channel was doing continuity between videos with shots of their beach house partiers gyrating in the sun.
“Shit, Buddy,” I muttered. “So that’s what happened to you…” He was standing on top of the house, alone on the roof of the far wing, dancing and gyrating and gaunt, his whole skinny self hollering look-at-me-look-at-me from the rooftop. Even from a distance and from the other side of a t.v. screen, I’d know that poor slob anywhere.
“I don’t think you ever mentioned him,” my lover said suspiciously.
“I must have. We were best buds in my freshman year.”
“Don’t think so.” She changed the channel.
“Hay is for horses. I want to watch the game.” She flipped to baseball, and I manually changed the channel back to the video station she’d ditched. She hollered, but the next video was on, and there was no sign of my old buddy. I turned back to baseball and flopped down on the couch, pensive and a little agitated. The rest of the weekend, I spent waiting for the music channel to show their beach house again — I caught sight of my old friend a couple more times, but never long enough to get a really good look. Just long enough to know it was Buddy.
“So, tell me about this guy,” my lover said as we readied for bed on Sunday night. Both of us had trouble sleeping the night before the work week started up again.
I turned to her. “I never slept with him.”
“I know, I know,” she said, stroking my cheek. “He was just yer bud.”
So, tell me about this great friendship you had. Fifteen years later, you still jump off the couch when you see him — must have been some bond you had…”
“I guess. Kind of.” I struggled for words. “I mean, I never expected to see him again like this — up on the roof of some beach house, dancing around shirtless in the sun. I always thought he’d end up in some career… Something. Not like he was on t.v.”
“Let’s get some sleep,” I said, rolling over and plumping my pillow.
I didn’t sleep much that night, and I was distracted all the next day. A decade and a half’s worth of what I considered ancient history came rushing back to me, pulling my attention away from my daily work. Even my lover’s irritation with my interest over a man fell into the background.
Jesus — it was Buddy-boy…
In my brief sojourn at college, I’d gotten to know a young man — a boy, really — whose father terrified him. His dad had fought in Viet Nam and had come back edgy and fierce. His dad drove a truck for a living and didn’t take shit from his kids. One day, the boy told me, he’d challenged his father’s judgment.
“So now you’re a man?” his dad had sneered, snatching him by the collar and giving him a shake. “When you’re a man come back and say that to me again.”
This boy had come to college with that one burning question in his mind —
What would make him a man?
I’d come to college, not with questions of what would make me a man — or a woman, for that matter — but what it meant to just be alive. I had a hard enough time handling that question without complicating the details.
We spent hours, sitting in the dorm lounge, mulling our questions over and over and over, aloud, turning them this way and that, worrying them as a small dog worries caught small animals, thinking perhaps that our focus, our attention to our respective grains of sand would render them pearls. While we pressed our issues in ceaseless conversational speculation in the dorm floor lounge, he wrote poetry and submitted it to literary journals, openly soliciting the praise of father figures, and receiving it every now and then. He was a good poet. I retired to my room with bottles of gin and lemon juice, penning experimental pieces about short-haired cats and gnomes with bad teeth.
He debated with professors to prove his points… and he often won. I proclaimed myself a student of life and developed an insatiable appetite for “experience”.
He was talented, overbearing, brilliant in spots and supercilious in others. I was completely taken with myself and intent on establishing his intellectual and ethical superiority over all things — if I wasn’t superior, then I must be inferior.
I made sure everyone knew I was the superior being, even if his writing was more accessible (and sensible) than mine. He made sure we knew he thought he had a holy mission as a human being with a penis. I made a point of making sure everyone knew I existed.
To relieve the pressure, we drank. How we drank… In the meanwhile worrying the impossible topic of what makes life, what makes a man, the impossible proposition of figuring it out in eight semesters, in sing-song verse and prolonged monologue, pressing everyone who wandered into the dorm floor’s lounge for some input, some feedback, some proof we were on the right — or the wrong — track.
We were on a quest to conquer our questions.
What would make him a man?
What would bring me to life?
One Saturday morning we crossed paths. “I got it,” he,” he said in a somber tone. “I think I know what it means to be a man.” We fell in step with one another, both of us on our way to check our mailboxes in the dorm lobby.
“What?” I asked, partly curious, mostly tired, the rest of me curious about how a boy could decide such a thing for himself.
“You’re a man when you fall in love with a woman,” he said with a mixture of relief and self-doubt.
I just looked at him. He didn’t seem convinced, either. But he repeated it. Again. And again. And for weeks, that’s all I heard him talk about — how he’d found the solution to becoming a man.
When you fall in love with a woman.
The rest of that year, he told us he was looking for love. But of the women he bedded, he had only complaints. I wasn’t so sure what he was complaining about. I didn’t fully know it at the time, but I would have gladly bedded and worshiped any of his ‘castoffs’, as he called them. After months of women demanding more from him than he was willing to give, he started disappearing for several days with newfound friends who had good drug connections… and came back with accounts of wild experiences, things he’d seen, feelings he’d found… thanks to good pot, strong drink and magic mushrooms. He started a band with those drug-addled friends and enlisted a nice guy to be their designated driver — a guy who came from a home where he’d been the father figure since age 13 — when his dad had left his family and never came back.
I drifted away, myself, disillusioned with the upwardly mobile kids of working-class parents around me, who were intent, so intent on satisfying their requirements, getting their degrees, and getting on with their lives. I had to know where I was headed, before I pointed myself in any one direction. Everyone else around me seemed content to direct themselves by others’ compasses. I was alone, I decided, as Buddy faded slowly away. I was on my own and I’d have to find my own answers. All by my lonesome.
Left behind, I slowly lost touch with Buddy-boy and his band, as they became increasingly absorbed in the world of their making, surrounded by groupies and pushers. I felt betrayed — not so much by him, as by my mind’s inability to wrap itself around The Meaning Of Life by the end of my third semester. Buddy-boy knew what his point in life was — or so it seemed — but I had no clue, what it meant to live in my skin, what it meant to count as a human being. He’d found his answer, it appeared, while mine still eluded me from the other side of the glass bottom of the bottle I clutched in hand. Last I heard around campus, the band’s nice-guy driver was chauffeuring them around to their gigs and making sure they got back in the van and back to their dorms in time to get at least a few hours’ sleep before their exams the next day. I dropped out of school around the time that everyone else was going their own separate ways to internships and overseas study. I never found out what happened to my pal.
At least, not for 15 years, or so.
To be continued…