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Frat Crap

skull-shaped-beer-pitcher

Thirty years ago this month I made one of the worst decisions of my entire life: I joined a fraternity. In August of 1984, I was a shy, naïve 20-year-old; the kind of person college social groups eat up and spit out. When I started classes at what was then North Texas State University (now, the University of North Texas), I hoped to complete my education within two years and begin a career in computers – anything to do with computers – like my parents had planned for me. I also hoped to break out of my shell of insecurity, make plenty of friends and find my future wife – after losing my virginity first. I ended up suspended from school for the fall 1985 semester, addicted to alcohol, maniacally depressed – and still a virgin.

Then, as now, I blame that fucking fraternity. I know the status of “Victim” has been a coveted one in America since the 1980s. But, hear me out on this mess.

I’ll say flat out that social Greek-letter organizations serve absolutely no purpose. They have only one function: party, which means getting drunk and having sex. Yes, they toss in the occasional charity function bullshit just to look good. For example, in November 1984, the frat I joined teamed up with the county to drive people to voting stations. In another self-righteous instance, we participated in a campus blood drive; where the director (a pre-med professor) walked around in a stupid vampire outfit. (Get it? Blood drive? Vampire?) Anne Rice probably would have killed him on the spot. Other than those two saccharine-laced, cringe-worthy exceptions, we just got drunk (they called it “enjoying alcohol – immensely”); tried to seduce as many unwary females as possible; engaged in quasi-macho antics; and partied at an aging two-story house on the edge of campus.

On my first day in the dorm, I saw a flyer advertising a party for the frat, which I’ll call Alpha Omega Dipshit (AOD). After I settled in – living away from home for the first time in my life, along with a flamboyantly gay roommate – I looked again at that ad for AOD and thought it must be great way to make new friends. I was desperate to meet new people. This wasn’t high school, which I hated. Life at a community college the preceding two academic years had been nice. But, I didn’t spend a lot of time with people. My social life during the my first two years out of high school revolved around whatever plans my parents had and my German shepherd. My dating life revolved around my hands and a bottle of baby oil. Things would be better now, I assured myself. North Texas was different. I wasn’t dealing with kids anymore. I was dealing men and women. I thought.

On a whim, I followed a guy I’d met and quickly befriended in the dorm to the AOD party, where beer flowed like the testosterone through my body. There were lots of beautiful people, and I tried making friends with every one of them. I really wanted people to like me. Being shy hurt and I had to break free of it.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a federal law requiring states to raise their minimum legal alcohol consumption age to 21; otherwise, they’d lose highway funding. The law was a response to the growing anti-drunk driving movement. Before the 1980s, drunk driving was viewed with an almost humorously dismissive attitude. Despite fatal accidents involving alcohol, intoxicated driving still wasn’t considered nearly as egregious as interracial marriage or homosexuality. That all changed after the young daughter of Candy Lightner, a California woman, was struck and killed by a habitual drunk driver. She made it a national issue. Hence, the 1984 federal law.

But, then-Texas Governor Mark White essentially told Reagan to go to hell when he mandated the legal alcohol consumption rate wouldn’t be raised to 21 in the Lone Star State until 1985. Texas had enough money to fund its own highways without some former B-movie actor telling us what to do. (That anti-Washington sentiment has always sort of been part of the Texas identity. White, I might add, was a Democrat.) It really didn’t matter to me, though. I didn’t drink that much alcohol anyway at the time.

Three years earlier, 18-year-old seniors at my high school were upset because Texas planned to raise the minimum alcohol-drinking age to 19.

“They can give you a right,” one girl told me at the start of an English class, “but they can’t take it away.”

How profound. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get the fuck out of that high school.

But, when I stepped into the back yard of the AOD house, I followed the crowd to the beer kegs and started partaking of Coors Light. Even now, the mere smell of Coors Light incurs bitter images of college boys behaving stupidly. I had one plastic cup of beer. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another.

And, that’s where it began.

I wanted so much to Belong. My lifelong shyness had stunted my personal growth. Aside from my dog, I felt no one liked me. But, in pursuing that friendship goal – paying money along the way – I became a punching bag for most of those guys. More importantly, my entire academic regimen collapsed, and the university placed me on academic probation for the spring 1985 semester. That prevented me from becoming a full, active member of AOD. I still had to pay monthly dues, of course. But, I remained in the netherworld of pledgeship. That’s something like a glorified time out. Can you feel the hopelessness?

Things got worst that year. We had to put our dog to sleep in April, and then, the university suspended me for the rest of 1985. My parents were outraged, and I became suicidal. I felt I’d lost everything. My dog was dead; I didn’t have any new friends; and my future looked bleak. And, I was still a virgin.

My life reached a new low that October when I got arrested for drunk driving. I showed up to my waiter job at a country club already intoxicated one weekday evening. Carl*, my openly-gay supervisor, wouldn’t let me work, even though the gaggle of mostly-Jewish members wouldn’t have given me a second look anyway. Instead, Carl made me sit in the back office where I ate a meal he had one of the cooks prepare for me and admitted he had the hots for me. Great, I thought. After all my efforts at chic one-liners and coy humor, the only person interested in me was a middle-aged man with a beer gut. After I sobered up a little, he told me to go home. But, I didn’t. I felt I had nothing to live for at the time. So, I got into my little Ford Escort and went bar-hopping. Coming off Dallas’ Greenville Avenue, I stumbled into a police trap and then into a police car. I had never felt as much humiliation as the moment I called my parents from Lew Sterrett Jail in downtown Dallas. They bailed me out early the next morning. Fortunately, my blood-alcohol level tested below what was then the legal limit of .10.

I returned to North Texas for the spring 1986 semester and then again for the ensuing academic year. I left for good a year later; vowing to return and complete my education. I never went back. But, I finally did earn a college degree – 20 years later.

I made only two really good friends during my tenure at North Texas. One, Dean*, I had met through AOD. He was a tall, skinny guy with tousled brown hair and a penchant for short girls. We became close – like brothers. Not frat brothers. Real brothers. As an only child, that meant everything in the world to me. He became the kind of friend I’d always wanted. He was upset that I didn’t become a full member of the frat, yet he didn’t let that bother him.

But, AOD did get in the way of our friendship. In September 1986, after I’d settled in once more at North Texas, I ran into Dean in a parking lot, while headed to class. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year. We traded phone numbers, and later, he invited me to drop by an AOD rush party. Against my better judgment, I took him up on his offer. I went with a guy named James* who’d just graduated from high school and who I’d met at my new job a few months earlier. There, I ran into many of the people I’d known before. It felt so strange – being in that house – with those familiar faces – and the smell of Coors Light. But, nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

At some point, I got into a heated discussion with a guy named Kyle*. He’d been part of the same pledge class as me and Dean and now, two years later, was AOD’s president. Kyle was already kind of a strange character; someone who did a great Keith Richards impersonation, but was probably the same type to walk into his workplace with a shotgun. I didn’t realize he could be such an asshole, though. I don’t know what prompted the argument, but a short while later, Dean asked me to leave. Actually, he had been told to ask me to leave. He was the frat’s “Sergeant-at-Arms” – a glorified Boy Scout-type role – and apparently, since we’d been such good friends, he’d been given the task to let me know I was no longer welcome. Fine. I didn’t need them. So, I calmly departed with James in tow; acting is if nothing was wrong.

Deep down inside, however, I felt completely dejected. I had wanted so badly to be a part of that group. The next night I scampered about the campus, ripping down flyers advertising AOD. I guess I showed them! Regardless, Dean and I stayed in touch throughout the remainder of the academic year. We just didn’t talk about the frat.

The other friend, Robert*, had actually attended the same grade school as me. We knew each other only sparingly back then. But, on my first day in the dorm in August 1984, Robert stepped into my open doorway and introduced himself; he was in the room just across the hall. He startled me at first, but I was glad people were so friendly. Or, at least he was. After another moment, though, I thought I remembered him. It’s one thing to reconnect with people from high school. But, grade school?!

Ironically, he joined AOD – at my urging – and did well with it. He wasn’t there the night Dean asked me to leave. But, Robert has remained one of my best friends ever since. He’s tolerated my moodiness over the years. For example, I had an alcohol blackout one night in the early 1990s and unwittingly called him to tell him “this was it.” I was determined to kill myself. (I seriously don’t remember the incident, but I trust he’s telling me the truth.) Being the good real estate salesman he is, Robert stayed calm and managed to talk me into exhaustion.

When he revealed that to me a few years ago, I apologized to him for making such a scene and taking up so much of his time. It’s not his fault I couldn’t get my stuff together and heal myself from depression and alcoholism. Which I eventually did. Several years later.

Over the past two decades, I’ve been dumbfounded – angered, actually – to learn of incidents involving social Greek-letter outfits on college campuses. They almost always feature severe alcohol abuse, hazing and, quite often, sexual assault. How is it, I ask, that colleges allow these groups to exist? I guess the frat culture is embedded that strongly in the realm of America’s higher education. What a waste.

In the summer of 2003, my employer hired three young female temporaries to assist with an ongoing project. One had just graduated from high school and planned to attend a major Texas university that fall. Shortly before she resigned her position, I warned her to stay away from social fraternities – and sororities. “They’re just no good,” I told her.

I last saw Dean on South Padre Island during spring break 1987. I’ve retained my friendship with Robert, but I still often think of Dean. Not long after he had ordered me to leave the AOD house in 1986, Robert told me Dean had gone on a drinking binge. He felt he’d turned on a friend, Robert said, and couldn’t handle it. I never knew that. I can only hope Dean didn’t descend into a decades-long battle with alcohol like I did. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

It wouldn’t be fair, if I said that Dean and Robert were the only decent guys in that fraternity. In fact, most of them were great guys. It was the handful of assholes who ruined it for everybody else. Isn’t that the way it often works?

Yet, I wonder – where is Dean now? Is he okay? Did he succeed in life? I felt, if anyone deserved it, he did. I’m not so arrogant to wonder if he thinks of me, though. But, we had the kind of friendship that should have lasted a lifetime. If that damn fraternity just hadn’t thrown so much crap all over us.

*Name changed.

Image.

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Last Wish

autumn-leaves

September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick.  I lay in bed that night, listless and fatigued, when the phone rang at 10:12 P.M.  Curiously, I hadn’t turned on the answering machine, as I always did before going to bed.  But, I knew who lingered on the other end – even before I answered.  It was Linda*, the mother of one of my best friends, Daniel.

“He’s gone,” she whispered, her voice raspy and quivering.  She’d walked into his bedroom earlier that evening and found him with his eyes half-open.

We talked for quite a while, although I don’t remember all that was said.  But, I do recall telling her, “It’s over.  It’s finally over.”  Then, I went to sleep.  But, I wasn’t sad.  In fact, I was – not happy – but relieved.  Daniel had stopped suffering – and maybe so would his mother.

That night, though, I wondered why I was so sick.  Just allergies, I kept thinking; that’s all it was.  I’d realized years earlier how my allergies usually coincided with the Atlantic / Caribbean hurricane season, becoming most severe in August and September.  In reality, it’s the change from summer to autumn, when mountain cedar and ragweed blossom with impunity.  But, I have this obsession – almost a fetish – with tropical storm systems, so I make that odd comparison.  Yet, that year was different.  The infection seemed to have settled in my stomach, instead of my sinuses.

I’d felt fine the preceding weekend.  I’d visited Daniel and Linda that Monday, Labor Day.  I gave Daniel a much-needed bath and shave, trimmed his nails and put him back to bed.  I also vacuumed and mopped the kitchen floor.  I chatted with Linda for a while.  Her hands trembled, as she sat on a couch; as much from growing arthritis as dealing with Daniel.

“I don’t know how much longer I can go on,” she mumbled, staring at the floor.

“You’ll make it,” I said, trying to reassure her.  What else could I say?

I’d met Daniel at birthday party for a mutual friend four years earlier.  We were two completely different people, but had a few things in common: dogs, cars and rock n’ roll.  Like me, he also had been born and raised in the Dallas area.  He was the third of four children to parents who were mixed Irish and Cherokee Indian extraction.  He didn’t have a happy home life.  When his father wasn’t working, sometimes six days a week, he was drinking booze; occasionally, he’d burst into drunken rages, a stereotypical drunk-ass Irishman or Indian and lash out at anyone nearby.  Linda often bore the brunt of his attacks, until the night her oldest son lunged into his father.  For Linda, that was the proverbial last straw; the catalyst that prompted her to pack up the kids and leave.  By the time I met Daniel, his father had died.

As I’d planned, I took the day after Labor Day off from work.  I visited my gym to lift weights, worked on a short story and partook in a Tae Kwon Do class that evening.  The Tae Kwon Do session exhausted me, even though it wasn’t particularly intense.  I thought nothing of it until the next night, when I returned to the gym and left after less than an hour.  Fatigue settled over me like a ton of hot, wet blankets.

I awoke the next morning feeling awful; body aches and chills and a stomach that was churning like – well – like a hurricane.  My supervisor sent me home just after noon.  I sat near the building, waiting for the bus.  The late summer sun warmed me up, and I stopped shivering.  I felt well enough to stop by a fast food place on the way back to my apartment – and regurgitated the food that night.  I stayed home the next day, but returned to work on Friday.  I spent most of Saturday in bed; no energy, no strength.  Damn allergies, I kept telling myself.

On Sunday, I visited my parents for lunch as usual.  My father grilled steaks – their thick, juicy aromas wafting throughout the house, intermingling with the scent of the butter-saturated mashed potatoes my mother made.  But, I couldn’t eat.  I was still nauseous.  My dad suggested I visit their family doctor, if I didn’t feel better by the next day.  He even offered to pay, since my finances were strained at the time.

I had just purchased my truck six months earlier and was still paying off credit card bills for repairing my previous vehicle.  I had health insurance at work – with a $1,000 deductible.  I told them I’d be fine.  It was just those goddamned allergies.

I had been anticipating that call from Linda for months.  I knew somehow it would come at night.  She called me because I was one of the last friends Daniel had remaining; one who didn’t turn his back on him.  That’s just not my nature.  I didn’t have many friends back then and I still don’t.  But, the people I do consider friends mean a lot to me.

It’s amazing, though, the number of friends people lose when they fall on hard times – even when they become terminally ill.  Some time in the 1970s, my mother’s hair dresser became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized.  When my parents visited him, he mentioned they were among the few who’d made the effort.  All the people who were quick to accept his party invitations where mounds of food and alcohol would be served were curiously absent as he lay in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV.

I think Daniel had known he was HIV for at least two years, but he didn’t start getting sick until the spring of 1992.  By then, he was unemployed and uninsured; he could no longer afford his suburban Dallas apartment.  In May, I and another friend moved him back into his mother’s home in another Dallas suburb.  Daniel’s health deteriorated throughout that summer, but unexpectedly – almost miraculously – began rejuvenating by fall.  He gained weight and color returned to his face.  He actually looked pretty good when I spent Christmas Day with his family, including his two older siblings; younger sister, Andrea; sister-in-law; and a niece and nephew.  I took a photo of them as they gathered around a couch; one that Linda placed on her refrigerator, beside another picture of her beloved mother.

We all thought – if only for a moment – he would make it.  In less than six months, however, Daniel’s health began crumbling again.  And, one by one, his gallery of friends slipped into anonymity.

I took my father up on his offer.  After a cursory exam, the doctor stepped back into the room and asked, “Have you ever had hepatitis?”

“Hepatitis?  No.”

“Well, I think that’s what you have.”

Hepatitis!  If he had told me I was pregnant, I would have believed him sooner.  Hepatitis!  Wasn’t that an old world disease – like small pox or typhoid?  No one got that shit anymore.  But, that’s what I had – Hepatitis A, the contagious kind, and a particularly vicious strain of it, too.  The doctor hospitalized me – almost against my will.  I stayed there through the following Wednesday – the day they buried Daniel.

“Where’d you go?!” Linda cried that Wednesday night on the phone, a sense of betrayal coating her voice.

I told her what happened.

Her anguish shifted to empathy.  “Why didn’t you call me?!  I would’ve come visit you!”

“But, Daniel had just died, Linda.  And, I was in the hospital.”

“But, you’re my other son!”

I had helped Daniel pick out his burial suit in the spring of 1992.  He hadn’t bought a new suit in years.  He must have scoured through a hundred of them before he latched onto that one.  He zipped it up and stored it in the back of his closet, complete with a matching tie and a new white dress shirt.  He was proud of the ensemble; he wanted to be buried in style.

“You are going to be a pallbearer,” he asked me, “aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I said.  What a silly question.

Watching a loved one die and not being able to do anything about it is the most frustrating emotion anyone can ever experience.  I’d seen cancer consume my Aunt Mariana, my mother’s older sister, a few years earlier.  It just wouldn’t let her go, until one rainy Tuesday morning in June of 1989.  She’d already known tragedy.  Her first husband died in a freak car crash in 1968; practically leaving her to raise their six kids alone.  In January of 1983, one of her daughters took her own life.  Mariana had entered into a brief marriage with a man who – later on, as she fell ill – didn’t seem to understand she was in no mood for sex while undergoing chemotherapy.  What, I beseeched God, did she ever do to deserve all that?

I asked God the same of Daniel and Linda.  What did they ever do to bring this upon themselves?  God remained silent.  He / She always does.  But, it made me angry nonetheless, and I finally just blurted out, “Fuck you, God!,” into my darkened bedroom.

Daniel was especially close to Andrea who’d completed nursing school about two years before he passed away.  She had moved into an apartment complex across the street from him and became involved with a truck driver named Jimmy.  Jimmy was part Cherokee, too, and unfortunately, fed into the stereotype of the same drunk-ass Indian as Daniel’s father.  One night Jimmy returned to the apartment he shared with Andrea and attacked her.  She managed to call Daniel before Jimmy snatched the phone from her.  Daniel had been asleep, but donned a pair of exercise shorts, charged across the street and barreled into his sister’s apartment – where he beat Jimmy into a bloody, shriveling mess.  The police took both of them to jail, but released Daniel almost immediately.

Recollecting what his father did to his mother, Daniel was unrepentant about Jimmy.  “Now, he’s going to have to tell the guys in prison that an AIDS-infected fag beat his ass!”

In November of 1992, I happened upon the obituary for a guy I’d known in grade school.  He was 29 and had died after a “brief illness” – code words, a friend told me, for AIDS.  I revealed the true nature of Daniel’s death to only a select few people.  Even in the early 1990s, the affliction bore a terrifying stigma.   I told most everyone else – my parents, my colleagues – he’d succumbed to cancer.  I just didn’t want my folks to worry anymore about me than necessary.  My workplace, on the other hand, was populated with evangelical homophobes – the kind who preach forgiveness and compassion, but practice hate and bigotry.

Daniel always introduced me as a “true friend” to people he knew.  I was embarrassed, since I felt I was doing nothing extraordinary.  But, to Daniel, I was someone who gave my compassion and generosity, asking for nothing in return except trust and respect.  I promised him I would stay with him through the end.  And, I did – until the night he died.

For anyone who’s ever lost a relative or friend, there’s always something that triggers thoughts of that person; something relatively small and insignificant – a color, a sound…something that literally makes us stop and think about the better times we had together.  In 1992, a group called Snap! came out with a song entitled “Rhythm Is a Dancer.”  Both Daniel and I really liked that tune.  We’d visited a nightclub together in late 1992 where the deejay played it.  I don’t know what it is about that song, but it bridges a connection to Daniel and how good life was for me in the early 1990s.  So, I listen to it now, and all the feelings of  friendship and those carefree days flood my subconscious.  It’s just one of those things that transport me to ‘Way Back When.’

Daniel had two dogs when he returned to his mother’s home – a male named Alan and a female named Veronica, both Lhasa Apsos.  The male was fiercely protective of him.  The female was spoiled; Daniel had the habit of carrying her wherever they went, instead of letting her walk.  As Daniel’s health waned in the summer of 1993, he and his mother made the painful decision to turn them over to the local animal shelter.  Two years after Daniel died I seriously thought of purchasing a dog and just happened to peruse the ads of the local newspaper for animals, when I saw a blurb about an “adorable white Lhasa Apso named Alan.”  I almost fell off my easy chair.  Is it…no, it couldn’t be!  Surely, it’s not… I didn’t know what to think.  I realized, though, that I couldn’t afford a dog at the time.  I could only hope some good families adopted Alan and Veronica.

We measure the important events of our lives in the increments of time we know: one week, one year, five years, ten years.  Seven weeks after Daniel died I turned 30.  My colleagues at the bank bought me an ivy plant – which I still have – and treated me to lunch.  They also bought me a mechanical red crab emblazoned with the words ‘30 AND STILL CRABBY.’  You wind it up and it marches along the surface in the standard sideways crab walk.  I still have that crab, too, buried among my slew of possessions.  In seven weeks I’ll turn 50.  Life keeps moving, no matter who lives or dies.

I’ve always wondered why I never dreamed of Daniel.  I didn’t expect his ghostly apparition to appear before me one dark and stormy night – albeit something like that wouldn’t have frightened me.  But, I kept thinking he should at least visit me in a dream to tell me he’s alright.  Or, I hoped he would – just for my own peace.  Is he mad at me?  Did he think that I’d abandoned him at the last moment?  But then, I realized I’d never dreamed of my Aunt Mariana either.  And, we were family.  When I was a child, she’d sit me down at her dining room table and feed me.  Was she mad at me, too?

No – of course not.  I finally understood that I’ve never dreamed of them because they didn’t need me anymore; me or anyone else.  They’ve gone on to another and hopefully better life.  My job was done, as far as they’re concerned.

I did for Daniel what few people – friends or relatives – would do: I took care of him at the worst possible moments of his life.  I bathed him, I fed him, I took him shopping for that suit, I gave him all the undivided love and attention I could muster.  I even cared for his mother because her own body – racked with arthritis and emphysema – allowed her to do only so much.  Some people do good just to send a get-well card.

September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick.  I couldn’t do anything about it then and I can’t do anything about it now.  I did what I could for my friend – the first friend I’ve ever had who died.  My last wish for him and everyone else who has gone before me is to know that they’re safe and happy.

I’ve finally convinced myself they are.

*All names have been changed.

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One Good Friend

How many friends do you need to make your life complete?  For me, it’s only a handful.  I’ve always had trouble making friends and therefore, I’ve never been a people person.  People usually get on my nerves – especially when they’re driving.  Earlier today, I had lunch with a good friend, Preston*, who I’ve mentioned before.  We try to meet for lunch on a Saturday whenever our schedules permit.  He’s definitely been busier than me lately.  Married with 3 kids, he and his wife have their hands full.  I’ve always envied Preston; he has a beautiful wife and 3 equally beautiful children, all living a pleasant suburban existence.  I would have liked to have that for myself, but it never happened.  I’ve told him that in past conversations, and he’s always expressed appreciation for my candor.

But, today he said something that surprised me: he envied me because of my close relationship with my parents, especially my father.  I met Preston at a tae kwon do studio around 1995.  We struck up a casual friendship, but found we had a lot in common; mainly exercise, jogging and rock n’ roll.  He’s an avid runner, though; having competed in a few marathons.  I just like to run around the block at my own pace.  That year, 1995, had been a bad one for me.  Everything in my personal and work life seemed to be going wrong.  Occasionally, in between flying fists and legs at the tae kwon do studio, I’d tell Preston what was happening.  He became one of the few friends who could relate to my dilemmas.  But, he honestly couldn’t comprehend whatever situations I encountered with my parents.  He wished he could though.

Preston’s parents had divorced when he was young.  I never exhorted him for details, but I suspect he was never close to his father.  His dad had moved to coastal Texas not long after the divorce and died several years ago.  He had perused his father’s belongings with a strange sense of detachment; occasionally surprised to find a curious bit of information about the man, or learn of a relative he never knew existed.  I don’t know the exact nature of his relationship with his mother – knowing how sensitive those subjects can be – but I gathered they weren’t too close either.  About the spring of 2003, he sent me an email with ‘Feeling kind of blue’ in the subject line.  I called him and asked what happened.  His mother had planned to visit and see her grandson for the first time.  Preston and his wife already had a daughter, and their son had just turned one.  Why Preston’s mother waited more than a year to come visit for the first time bothered me; but again, I just didn’t want to ask.  He was upset, though, because his mother had cancelled at the last minute; something else more pertinent had arisen.  From what I recall, it was nothing Earth-shattering; like a sudden illness.  It was more of a ‘I need to buy a wedding gift for a friend’ type of thing.

‘That’s more important than the grandkids?’ I asked myself.  “Don’t feel too bad,” I assured Preston.  “You get to spend time with your own family.”

His voice brightened.  “Yeah!”

On that level, I can’t relate to Preston.  I can’t imagine either of my parents passing up an opportunity to see their grandkids.  Of course, the closest they have to a grandchild is my dog.

Even though I’ve been unemployed for the better part of a year and will start a new job next week, I bought lunch for both us today.

“You’re unemployed!” he retorted.

“And, you have three kids!” I said.

Besides, I was feeling good.  I’m approaching this new job with caution, I told him, especially since it’s a contract position.  In that regard, he can certainly relate; contract work is pretty much all he’s done since about 2001, when the tech bubble burst.  Except for a brief stint at a home improvement store, he’s labored at a number of different software programming jobs; forced to jump from one place to another to keep a steady paycheck.

Like most men, we discussed work and family.  But, we also talked about religion.  Preston and his wife are devout Baptists; their two oldest kids have been to church summer camp since school ended.  Having been raised Roman Catholic, the Baptist religion had always been a distant entity; to Catholics, Baptists are the heathens of Christianity.  Another close friend calls them “heretics.”  Neither of those terms apply to Preston and his wife.  But, I emphasized that I am very spiritual.  I believe in a Great Creator and an afterlife.  I just don’t care to worship in the confines of a religious environment.  Yet, when we said a prayer over our meal, Preston expressed some concern that casual observers might “look at us funny.”

“Well, let them come over and say something,” I replied.

As we left, I reminded Preston that he’s one of the few friends I have.  A loner and an introvert, I no longer crave the attention and approval of others.  Their rules don’t apply to me.  I generally prefer the company of my dog to most people.  But, Preston’s friendship is too important to dismiss.  His thoughts and opinions rest comfortably with me.  I guess his quiet, unimposing demeanor have managed to work their way into my mind without being intrusive.  And, that’s just fine.  We men often have trouble forming friendships with other men in this society that says a man isn’t whole unless he has a woman in his life.  But, I can’t bring myself to follow those confines anymore.  One good friend, a simple Saturday lunch, and that’s all I need to make my life complete.

*Name has been changed.

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