“So can we really get down to it, for a second?”
“Yeah, I guess we might as well.”
* * *
So I have this childhood best-friend, let’s call him John.
John and I grew up in the same town on Long Island, about a mile and a half from each other. We went to the same middle school, and the same high school. We grew up as the oldest children, in two-parent households. Our dads both owned their own businesses. We took ‘Religious Ed.’ classes together, we were confirmed together, we graduated from high school together, we road-tripped to look at colleges together. We were in all the same classes, we got the same grades, we loved and hated the same teachers. We had a timeshare at each others’ basements.
I ate roughly 60% of my meals at his family’s pizzeria, so they literally fed me when I was hungry. (Only problem: They referred to this establishment as “the pizza store” so now I call every pizza place a ‘pizza store’—and as a result, people are positive I’m deranged.)
On Friday nights, we’d order an absurd amount of Chinese food, dump it into glorified troughs, and then sit and watch whatever basketball game was on that evening. Often the Knicks. That kind of mutually-experienced torture creates a bond stronger than blood.
I was John’s mouthpiece, and he was my conscience. I was his live, 24/7 stand-up act, and he was the best audience I could ask for. We never needed any extra entertainment, just pair us up—and we were set. No need to check in on us, no need to worry about us. We were inseparable. There was even a brief rumor that we were ... together in high school. And while it never quite reached the rumored depths—I’ve always joked that John was my first committed relationship.
* * *
“I just feel like he’s not the guy to lead this country. The number one issue has to be getting the economy restarted, and I think Romney has more experience, and a better plan to do it. I know Obama was handed a crisis, I recognize that. And I don’t blame him for it in any way ... But Romney is going to be better for business.
“Based on what? His platform? His tax plan? His mysterious five points? Dinner is on me if you can name me three of the five points. You can’t!”
* * *
We ended up in different colleges. In different states. In different regions. He got engaged. I engaged in ... other things. He got a job fresh out of school, I did a bid of unemployment. Years went by. He got un-engaged and moved to Phoenix, while I couch-surfed and worked in New York City. He bought a condo, I lived in 7 apartments over 3 years. I work in TV, he does data research and management for Wall Street firms. He’s getting married in April, I couldn’t afford a wedding between Ken and Barbie.
But really, the only difference that matters is this: In the ten years that stretched between who we were and who we are, I became a marijuana-rights lauding, homosexual-hugging, redistribution-pushing, hopey-changey, commie-ass liberal.
And John is a church-going, border-worrying, Facebook-trolling, Drudge-reading, land-owning, small government Republican.
My better half walks around with Drudge in his pocket.
* * *
“How are they going to pay for it, Nick? They’re going to extend health care to all of these extra people—how could premiums NOT go up?”
“Of course they will. There are social safety nets in place for people that can’t afford decent health care, forcing people into coverage—it’s going to be a disaster. You’re better read on the subject than I am, do you see how it can work?”
“You widen the pool of people with insurance, more people are paying in, there’s more money to cover the sick. That’s the system—and yes, our costs may go up ...”
“THEY don’t even know what’s in the bill, and they VOTED on it! Something like this needs more care, more ...”
“Wouldn’t you rather have leaders that reach for something great? Wouldn’t you rather live in a country that tries to give everyone fair access to the best care in the world?”
Of course he does, but he’s right—there’s no guarantee that this plan will work. There’s no guarantee that people are going to get taken care of, or that we won’t get gouged by opportunistic insurance companies. Hell, it could all fall apart five years from now—but I’d rather they dare greatly and fail greatly. John is cautious by nature, and always has been.
See, you don’t know John. You don’t know that—without hyperbole—he was the nicest kid in my hometown. It’s impossible to quantify how utterly, and annoyingly decent he is. My parents used him as my moral barometer, “Oh EVERYONE failed the test, huh? Did John fail it?” “Is John going to be at this party?” “Do you think John is running around peeking into girl’s windows?” Girls started wanting to marry him when we were fourteen. He had that sexy stability appeal, like a Volvo Wagon, Turbo. When we were kids, I wanted to grow up to be like John ... and he’s two days older than me.
* * *
Time is a funny thing. It bends and stretches. It grows you up. It breaks you down. People say it goes on forever, they talk about it like a predator, like a gift, like a sunrise. We’re told it runs out, it goes on, it heals, forgives, and forgets.
I don’t have that kind of profound insight. I just respect it’s strength, and I know it moves you. Usually away from the person you were, and toward the person you’re becoming.
And a lot of time had passed since John and I were best friends.
We don’t talk as much as we should. Every month or two, we call, or exchange a text. When he visits his family, we try to squirrel away an hour to catch up. But if we’re being honest, I spend a lot more time feeling guilty about not reaching out to him than I spend trying to reach out to him. I suspect he feels the same way. We’re a long way from inseparable.
But two months ago I bought the ticket to go see him him in Arizona, anyway. After all, he’s getting married in six months, and I wanted to see his new life. I wanted to see the new people he’d surrounded himself with. Hell, I wanted to see Arizona.
Really, though? I miss my best friend.
I was nervous. I knew eventually, we’d have to get into politics. I knew he was voting for Romney. I knew he was a Republican. I just didn’t understand why he was a Republican.
And less than 24 hours after I touched down in the desert, he was telling me.
* * *
The southwest United States is unlike any other place on Earth. The mornings are cool. There’s a dark frozen pond above you, dotted with stars, that warms and cracks as the sun rises. It gives way to yellows and greens, filtering in until the cloudless blue returns. Then it burns hot. The sun has a weight that you have to experience to understand. It leans on your neck and shoulders and face, drying you out. Burning you up. Keeping you thirsty. Then around four or five o’clock, it backs off. The heat hovers above you, letting you know it’s still warm—but that fire is now the backdrop.
From the back of John’s house, I watched the sun set. Every night. And, every night it was different. Reds and oranges and white streaks explode from the sun as it’s dragged down below the horizon. Then a calm settles in, as the stars begin to appear. There’s an ease about it that lets you know the day is over, the skyline sighs along with you, relaxed. Block by block, the lights come on.
* * *
The conversation moves from the pool to his balcony as the sun is setting. The air is cooling, but we’re heating up. I have a beer in my hand, and I’m pushing deeper—I need to know if time is a river we can’t ford.
“So what about abortion, then?”
“I don’t think Roe v. Wade is really in play.”
“But what if it is, John? Justices are old, one foot in the grave, even. There are going to be replacements...”
“Listen, I’m pro-life...”
Everything stops. I can’t hear crickets. I can’t hear cars going by. I notice I’ve stopped breathing. We’re completely different people. Our friendship is a memory, being played out in live action. Suddenly I miss home, not New York City, but the home we grew up in. It feels millions of miles away.
“But I’m with Joe Biden on this one. I may be pro-life but I’m not going to impose my beliefs on anybody else, and I’m certainly not going to tell a woman what she should do with her body.”
“Thank f***ing God”
“What? You expected something different?”
“No, man. Of course not. I know you.”
And I do. He’s exactly the man he was, when we were boys.
* * *
I like talking politics, but I hate debating politics. Nobody is convinced, nobody is swayed. It’s just verbal shell after shell on the other person’s holy land. Some people feed off that interpersonal carnage. They want to have their fist held up as the victor when the dust settles. But I’ve found that—more often—when the dust settles, all that remains is dust. Your political beliefs bleed into your personal beliefs—political disagreements become personal disagreements. Feelings get hurt. Voices raise. Often, you end up viewing a person through the lens of their politics. I didn’t want that to happen with John and me.
* * *
“What about Gay Marriage?”
“I can’t believe anybody would try to deny marriage to two people that love each other. It makes me sick.”
We actually high-fived. I’m a little embarrassed to type that, but it’s true—so why not, right?It’s Friday evening, and a calm is settling in over the conversation between John and I. We get worked up about certain topics, I have problems with the Catholic Church, he’s worried about public education. I’m scared of the evangelical right that drives the Republican party, he’s nervous about states' rights being trampled. We both think that congress is broken. But we agree on what’s important. We’re still the same kids we were, even as men.
This talk, this dialogue—it was something we had to get out of the way, so we could have a chance to enjoy the weekend. It was the elephant (and donkey) in the room. It was all happening according to schedule: Arrive, grab dinner. Wake up, play a little golf. Hash out our differences. Enjoy the weekend, and then fly home Sunday (and maybe cry a little). See you at the wedding.
Sandy had other plans.
* * *
We took breaks from ideology. We talked about Women, for maybe the first time in our lives. Seriously. In all the years we were best friends, through all the slings and arrows of our tween and teenage years, we never talked about girls. No crushes. No girlfriends. No hookups. It wasn’t on our mutual radar. John was ... well, conservative. And I didn’t want to talk about it because he didn’t like talking about it. Plus, there were far more pressing issues back then.
No, I don’t remember what they were.
So we made up for lost time. He talked about his first engagement, and what happened, and how hard it was. I talked about my extreme efforts to avoid being anybody’s “boyfriend” and how ashamed I was over it. He talked about his wife-to-be, and how he knows she’s the one. I talked about my girlfriend, and how I know she’s the one. We talked about how glad we are that our lives have developed away from our hometown, which started to feel like a fishbowl. I told him about my stretches of unemployment, and how hard I was on myself, and how bad it got. And I confessed that sometimes, I still worry that somebody is going to come along, tell me I’m a horrible writer, and take it all away. We laughed about the insecurities, how early they start, and how hard they are to shake. We talked about our families, and each others’ families. We just talked.
* * *
It was just supposed to be a long weekend. A pilgrimage out of respect for the friendship we had, in the most formative years of our lives. I’m not sure I would have made it out of my teens without him. And I kept telling him over and over, I was trying to come visit, even though until recently I couldn’t afford it. So it didn’t seem fair to just show up at his wedding, like “Hey man, long time no see! Sweet wife!”
The storm kept me in Arizona for nine days. Our hometown was flooded. Airports were shut down. Even though I was invading his life for more than a week, John wouldn’t let me sleep on the couch. He put me up in his room, like it was a hotel. I tried to barter my way out of his room, he wouldn’t have it.
For most people, it was a nightmare—but for me, that storm was a time machine. It took me to a place I didn’t think I’d ever get to see again. A place I wasn’t sure still existed. I was terrified of the idea that we’d changed too much. You don’t get to just make new childhood best friends. I tear up thinking about how lucky I was to find a friend like that, how lucky I am to still have him, and how lucky I was to get an extra week. Because we both know it’ll never happen again.
* * *
“Man, after being in India—after really seeing what a struggle it is for people to live, what real poverty is like—the election doesn’t get me as worked up as it used to.”
“Yeah, I felt the same way when I came back from Africa.”
“I mean, really—either guy is going to be fine. Obama’s not leading us to ruin, and Romney isn’t going to drive us back to the Dark Ages. I don’t think people realize how good we have it.”
I watched the election at msnbc studios with Krystal Ball. I was standing fifteen feet from Rachel Maddow when she announced the President had won Ohio—America’s only state. I thought of John. I wondered if he switched over to his DVR, if he was upset, or if he shrugged it off. John’s never been one to hold a grudge, that’s always been my thing.
I wondered how many other liberals thought immediately of their conservative friends.
* * *
The lights are zipping by my window in the passenger seat, I can barely make out the mountains in the night sky, black set against blue-black. It looks exactly the same as when I arrived. It seems like minutes ago he was picking me up from the airport, and it feels like I’ve been here for years. It feels like we’ve been here for years.
We joke about what our twelve-year-old selves would think about us, now twenty-eight. Engaged, working, grown, old. We rattle off as many memories as we can, emptying our clips, trying to get everything out before the buzzer sounds. Biddy basketball tournaments, wiffle ball, Simpson episodes, the Pizza Store, that time our Spanish teacher said she dreamt about us, NBA Draft birthday parties, road trips, seriously, that Spanish teacher that dreamt about us. The stories come tumbling out with the laughs, one after the other. They fill the car to the brim.
We’re still best friends.
From my seat on the plane, I can see lights of Phoenix burning below me. Sitting in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the election, in the middle of a storm—I’m staring down at my nine days with John, my conservative Republican childhood best friend. An oasis.