If you were walking by the Hilton downtown one night a few years ago, you may have looked up at The Vig and saw two friends trying to catch up.
One had moved away months before and one was going through a divorce and in need of support. The one going through the divorce felt like the friendship was on the verge of dissolving, and when he told his lifelong friend that, the one who moved away got on a plane and came home to try and save the friendship.
“People thought it was weird that I did that, and I think– I do workshops and seminars for guys on male relationships, male friendships. People think it’s normal to fight for romantic relationships. They think it’s okay if two women go above and beyond to try and work out problems they have in their friendships, but people find it strange when two men talk about working on their friendship with communication and– and it can come to therapy, that’s not uncommon if both of the guys are willing to try that. But it’s hard, because it’s not something we normalize, and you see a lot of male friendships, even best friendships, they end, not because the guys don’t want to work on it, they want to save it, but they think it’s something they can’t do. Because male friendships are supposed to be easy. They’re not supposed to be hard work. That’s what we’re told. Now, it goes to show you, here I am, this is what I do for a living, and my friendship — it needs work. I’m hearing from my friend that it needs work. So what do I do? I put my money where my mouth is. I get on a plane.”
They met at The Vig and began to hash things out. It wasn’t just a question of one of them moving away. They had grown distant long before that. Part of it was that the friend who stayed felt like his friend’s success in so many areas of his life was creating a distance, because he felt like such a failure.
“It’s not that I wasn’t happy for him, but it felt like being in two different places. Before it really was that. Before we were apart. I’m miserable all the time, and I don’t want to burden him with that. He’s having a moment and I’m not trying to bring him down with how bad I’m doing. My marriage is ending. My job is– I hate my job. I hate getting up every day. I’m having a hard time and he’s– He’s had his own hard times, and now he’s catching a break, and I’m going to ruin that for him? I didn’t want to do that.”
There’s a game on, but they’re not watching the game. They order food and barely touch it. At one of the nearby tables, there are a group of guys laughing and talking loudly, and both of them feel a sense of envy. How nice to be one of the guys at that table who seem to have the kind of friendship they used to have. One that didn’t require serious conversation and analysis. But they didn’t know those guys, and it’s possible beneath the shouting there were other things going on as well. They sat at the table near the window overlooking downtown. The one who moved away looked down at the parking lot and remembered the night in July when they stood outside with their keys in hand, talking until three in the morning about everything and nothing, laughing so hard at one point that they were both on the ground.
“When he said, ‘I don’t want you to have to deal with what I’m going through,’ I got mad. Because for a long time, I was going through it, and he was there for me, and for him to think I wouldn’t do the same for him. But then I thought about how it looked to him. I was having a bad time of things, and he stuck by me, then he starts to go through it, and I get on a plane and move. He knows that’s not because of him, but people have a hard time not taking things personally even when they know, intellectually, that it’s got nothing to do with them. A friend leaving you is a friend leaving you. You can slice it up any way you want, but it’s not crazy to feel abandoned. That’s a reasonable thing to feel and I had to give him that. I had to say, ‘I’m sorry I left.’ And as soon as I said that, I felt the conversation start to go in a better direction. We both got emotional. I won’t lie about that. This is my friend and he needs me and I’m not here. And if this was my spouse or my partner, I’d be expected to be there. This is a man I’ve known my whole life, and even people who knew what he was going through, when I said, ‘I got a job and I’m leaving’ didn’t say to me, ‘You shouldn’t, because your best friend needs you.’ Because we don’t think we owe our friends that. We think we only owe family that and people we’re married to, but we don’t think our friends should get that from us. I shouldn’t have left. But I was gone. Now what? What do we do now?”
They talked until the bar closed, and then they found themselves back in the parking lot. Something about standing in a place they’d stood in back when things were better helped create an atmosphere that allowed for them to believe things could get better. At one point, it felt like it was going to snow, but then it held off. The one who had moved away took out his phone and made a plan for them. One that included emails, phone calls and visits. The one who stayed promised to come visit in a month when things got better at work.
“I didn’t know about the whole thing, to be honest with you. I know this is what he does for a living, and I never said it, but I thought it was all too much. I’m not from a family that talks a lot and hugs and does all that. He would ask me to go on his weekend retreats and I’d come up with reasons I couldn’t, but he was here. He made the effort. I had to make the effort, too. But it’s weird to see your friend, this six-three guy who people always think is in the NBA, on his phone with his Google calendar open telling you, ‘You’re going to call me on Mondays and Wednesdays to check in and I’m going to call you on Tuesdays and Thursdays.’ I was like, What are we doing here, man? I felt like it shouldn’t be that hard, but that doesn’t mean I’m right. He’s the friend I’ve had the longest; my longest relationship. I guess you have to fight if you want to keep people in your life.”
In the intervening years, a few more shifts happened. For the one who stayed, the divorce went through, then another love came long, another engagement, and then a marriage. For the one who moved away, a marriage, and two kids. The question was– Did they manage to stick it out with each other?
“He’s the godfather of both my kids. Last week, he called to tell me he’s got one of his own on the way, so I better be asked to be the godfather, because I’ve been waiting. I tease him all the time, ‘When you going to make me a godfather?’ I went back home after that trip, and it was tough for a while to keep up with each other, but then it got easier, and now, we stay in touch and it doesn’t feel like work. I tell the guys in the workshops we do, ‘If you work at it, and it’s right, then it won’t always feel like work.’ This is the person who knows me better than anyone. Better than even my wife, and she knows that. Because she knows who I am, and he knows who I am and who I used to be. That’s why he knows me the best. I’m glad I didn’t give that up. You need people like that in your life. To ground you.”
He also kept up his visits until the pandemic began. By then, they were used to checking in with each other, so not being able to see each other in person, even infrequently, didn’t hit as hard.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him again when it’s safe. We’re going to go out in Providence and have fun this time. Just a good time where we can laugh and enjoy each other’s company, because the last few times, we were still working through all this. I think now we can relax a little bit and reward ourselves for all that work.”
If you walk by The Vig sometime in the future, you might look up and see two friends having a drink together. Watching a game. Laughing over something that only two friends who’ve known each other forever could find funny. They’ll be looking out over the city where they first met, grew up together, grew apart and eventually, reunited. One left. One stayed. And as of now, there’s a happy ending. Almost sounds like a love story, doesn’t it?
“Hey, it was nice talking to you, Kev, but I gotta go. He’s calling me. We got our daily phone call to do. Like clockwork. We never miss it.”
I have to confess that the writer in me would love to write that scene. The two of them sitting by the window, reunited. And this time, there’d be snow.