Reliving “the old days” with old friends can keep your soul young, and remind you that your body is older.
“Soon” may be the most relative word I know, especially when it applies to old friendships.
Every time I speak to an old friend—someone I’ve kept intermittent contact with since either childhood or college or the hazy maze of my twenties—we always promise to get together soon, to talk again soon.
But soon, I’ve found, may range anywhere from a month to five years or more.
Planning this particular trip with a group of old friends took nearly two decades, although we were always going to do it soon. For years, the seven us—college friends and fraternity brothers—vowed to get together and relive our debauched days of youth. But planning was never a forte for any of us, and coordinating seven schedules now cluttered with jobs and families was far more arduous than we ever could have anticipated it being when we were frat boys.
Finally, we set a date last August for the seven of us to meet at Phish’s house in Waterbury, Vermont. Those of us who are married informed our wives we’d be out of town on this particular date then we all started watching our calendars, anticipating the date.
You see, we were going to rip it up like we did in the 90s, a wild night of boozing and drugging in pursuit of some sweet and senseless oblivion. The ability to withstand myriad substances had always been held in high regard among us, and—while admittedly misguided—it still does, in some ways. It proves we haven’t lost our edge. It proves that we’re still young.
However, in all our grandiose planning, we never accounted for the irrefutable fact that we are all getting older.
I drove to Sacco’s house in Canterbury, New Hampshire, a 45-minute drive from my home in Manchester. A metal sculptor, Sacco lives on a barren road down in an old corner store that was renovated into a funky one-family loft.
When I arrived, Sacco was waiting outside with his Labradors. Although it had been less than a year since I saw Sacco—we met for a beer earlier that year and promised to meet again soon—he still looks largely like he did in college. While his long black hair has turned a peppery-gray and, like many of us, he put on a few pounds after he quit the cigarettes, Sacco is essentially the same.
I didn’t see Corky at first, who was behind the shed in Sacco’s backyard, taking a leak. With his baseball cap pulled low and the brim broken to curl around his eyes—which is how I also wore my Red Sox cap—Corky also looked like he hadn’t aged, as if he stepped through a curtain in 1995 and it was 2013.
Sacco had volunteered to drive to Vermont, and before we got into the car, he took out an ancient one-hitter, a thin brass metal pipe—an artifact from the days before kids solely smoked blunts. “Anyone want to burn one?” Sacco asked, raising an eyebrow.
Corky kicked the dirt in Sacco’s driveway. “I start a new job on Monday, and I’m getting piss-tested,” he said.
Sacco and I shook our heads like we’d been informed about the death of a distant uncle who we’d never met. “That sucks,” I said.
“That really sucks,” Sacco added.
Nestled in the Green Mountains, Waterbury is a prototypical sleepy New England town, slow-moving with a splattering of traffic lights and a single pub downtown.
We were the first to arrive at Phish’s house, a ranch on the top of a steep hill with a backyard that was spacious and wooded and a likely habitat for a Sasquatch. A Deadhead in college, Phish had cut his long hair and looked oddly domesticated in a polo shirt, like a man I could envision mowing the lawn on a Sunday morning.
We took the cooler from the trunk. It was stuffed with beers ranging from hoppy microbrews to Bud Light cans, and we sat down at Phish’s kitchen table, cracking open the first of many drinks. We learned that Phish’s wife had sensibly made plans to go elsewhere for the evening.
After doling out shots of some decent bourbon that Sacco brought, Phish disappeared into another room and came back holding an 18-inch glass bong that we all recognized, an artifact from our shared past.
“Anyone want to smoke?” Phish asked.
“I’m starting a new job on Monday,” Corky said. “Piss test.”
“That’s a bummer, man,” Phish said, failing back into hippie-speak. “Total bummer, man.”
Big Ray was the next to show up in his pick-up truck. A former college basketball player, he stood 6 feet 8 inches tall and was built like a water tower. I lived with Big Ray for a year after college, on a lake a half an hour south of where we went to school in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
We lived that year with his sister Tiffany and our friend Briana, who Big Ray later married. Both Tiffany and Briana had passed away at heartbreakingly young ages, devastating Big Ray. Shamefully, I didn’t attend either Tiffany or Briana’s funerals, pleading off due to work and long rides—sad excuses for selfishness. It is something that nags me to this day.
Now a widower, Big Ray raises his young son in Vermont, yet I hadn’t seen Big Ray since we lived together. When I called him after Tiffany’s death to offer my condolences, we promised to get together soon. You know how that goes.
Aside from a dusting of gray in his cropped black hair and thick goatee, Big Ray also seemed to have side-stepped aging, and I began to wonder if I was somehow willfully failing to see that we all were, as Yeats wrote: “fastened to a dying animal.” Maybe my senses, which I was deliberately altering, would not allow me to see the patterns of age, blinding me from what soon really meant.
Still, it was good to see Big Ray, and when I saw him, I hugged him, long and tight, like I should have hugged him at two funerals.
By the time Pee Wee and Brando pulled up, we were sitting on the couch and watching the Red Sox/Yankee game. I’d snapped on a buzz by this point and my inner-clock was telling me that it was going to be an early night unless I slowed down. The days of break-neck boozing and drugs until dawn where long gone for most of us—only we didn’t want to know it.
Like me, Brando—who is a few years younger—had gone gray early but maintained his boyish looks. Brando was also married with young kids, like Corky and me. We all fit the paradigm of the dwindling middle-class family: both parents working, shuffling our kids from one activity to the next one, living paycheck to paycheck while never getting ahead.
Then there was Pee Wee, the last bachelor among us.
In college, Pee Wee and I were best friends who could waste days in a haze of dirty brown weed, Natural Light and marathon matches of NHL hockey on the Sega Genesis. Of all the guys, Pee Wee had most drastically changed his appearance, growing out his hair, which he once kept cropped close to his scalp, and he had a long lumberjack beard. He looked different, yes, but not exactly old.
Of my six friends, I had kept the most consistent contact with Pee Wee, although I hadn’t seen him in a fistful of years. Again, we always made plans to see each other soon, but those plans always seemed to get lost in a scrum of logistics.
So the seven of us drank and some smoked and, in many ways, we tried resurrecting our younger selves through a simple matter of refusal. Like many guys who hover around 40 years-old, we simply refused to believe—despite an abundance of facts—that our youth had left us.
Like the word “soon,” I suppose, youth is also relative.
Somewhere after 10 p.m.—after we collectively devoured five large pizzas—Sacco stood up from the couch and sprinted toward the kitchen sink. He stuck in his head in and proceeded to empty his guts on a stack of dirty dishes.
“The king is dead,” said Pee Wee.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sacco puke,” said Big Ray, pouring himself a tall glass of maple-flavored whiskey.
Shaking his head, Phish said, “You better clean that shit up before my wife gets home.”
Sacco lifted his head, slowly like it was submerged in mud and he had to plunge it out. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and a strand of long hair curtained his eye. He turned to Phish and solemnly nodded before returning to his dry-heaves.
For certain, there was something perverse and obscene about six grown men, either at or nearing middle age, laughing at a friend getting sick in sink. But Big Ray was right: I’d never seen Sacco—a man whose consumption in college once flirted with myth—get sick and the shock of it left me uneasy to point where the only option seemed to be inebriated laughter.
Somewhere, in the two ensuing decades after the frat parties ended, Sacco had become a mortal.
In the early morning hours, as our friends started falling on the available couches, Pee Wee and I moved to Phish’s back porch, which overlooked the dark and dense brush that stretched out for miles into The Green Mountains. I was smoking a cigarette from a pack I lifted from my wife before I left.
“You know, Nate Dude, it’s really good to see you,” Pee Wee said as the crickets chirped around us.
“Same here, Pee Wee. It almost feels like we never left Plymouth. Except for Sacco. He’s old now.” I laughed dryly.
Pee Wee nodded. “Those were the best times of my life, Nate Dude. I wish I could go back.”
As Pee Wee spoke, for the first time since I arrived at Sacco’s place, I saw myself for who I am, not who I was. I saw myself as a man who is married with two children, a man with a full-time job in the field I studied as an undergraduate who hangs on to a dream of being a writer. I saw myself as a 38 year-old man growing older, drunk and dizzy and needing to sleep, but afraid of letting the night end and returning to reality.
“I love you, Pee Wee,” I said, lighting another cigarette.
“Are you going to write me a poem, Nate Dude?” Pee Wee said, clapping me on the shoulder. “I love you, too, bud.”
We were silent for a long time, looking out at the darkness and the shadowy woods in Phish’s backyard. At some point, we hugged then went to sleep. Pee Wee had secured the bed in Phish’s guest room, and I settled for the floor with a pillow cushion and a fleece blanket.
The next morning we woke, dehydrated and pasty-mouthed. Then we all left with little histrionics, only handshakes and weak hugs. There was no sitting around and sipping coffee, or a large hangover breakfast at some greasy spoon, like we used to do in college. Besides, our stomachs had grown brittle, and no one really cared for the idea of eating.
As we were about to take off, Sacco broke out his ancient one-hitter. “Does anyone want to burn one?” he asked.
“Fuck off,” Corky said.
And then we left, promising to do it again soon.