Used To Be

He was my closest friend in high school. Now, I barely recognize him.

Once upon a time, we were inseparable.

Eighth grade, and we’re onstage in Oklahoma! He makes up dirty lyrics to “The Farmer and the Cowman,” and I can’t help but laugh. He isn’t intimidated at all by the juniors and seniors who play the lead roles. We walk down to the 7-Eleven before play practice, and he throws snowballs at the stop signs and screams. We talk about Zen Buddhism, and he introduces me to bands like Green Day and Metallica, authors like Tom Robbins. At the convenience store, he complains about the managers who think all students are shoplifters and will only let three of us in the store at a time. That’s discrimination, he says — but I know he shoplifts when I’m not around. I would rather die than draw attention to myself, but he is so smart, so fearless, so unafraid to stand out.

Tenth grade, and we sit on the band bus together, singing The Doors and the Violent Femmes. Sometimes during band camp lunch breaks we go swimming at my house; sometimes he goes off to smoke up with the other drummers. During algebra, he draws intricate doodles and scribbles poems, but he still does better than me on tests. When his girlfriend breaks up with him, he comes over to my house late at night and literally cries on my shoulder. I’m so sad for him that I cry too when he leaves, and I hate that stupid girl for hurting him. His parents start to have big fights. His mom takes pills, and once she chases his dad around the house with a handgun. He starts cutting himself with razor blades, but he tells me not to worry or anything.

On the football field, junior year, his blond hair gleams above his tux as he conducts “In the Mood.” We hear girls from other schools giggling and whispering. “Who’s the drum major from Biglerville? He’s cute!” He gives me rides home in his orange Mustang, the steering wheel covered in purple duct tape and an assortment of cleverly-made homemade bongs in the trunk. Everyone asks if we’re dating, and we laugh and roll our eyes in protest. My stepmother predicts we’ll end up together, and I don’t know how to explain my reluctance. By that summer, he’s the only boy I’ve ever exchanged “I love you’s” with, but I know I could never date him. He’s too much.

Senior year, he brings me a single red rose for Valentine’s Day and tells me I can do better than the boy I’m hopelessly infatuated with. At the same time, he’s dating an alcoholic in her early 20s with teeth like a rake, and he writes songs about how they’ll be together no matter what anyone says. I sit in on his band rehearsals, impressed by their talent and dedication, even after the other girls get bored and drift away to gossip and play pool. He pours vodka into emerald-colored Mountain Dew bottles and drinks it during study hall. I call him out about the white scars criss-crossing his arms and wrists, but he shuts down, says it’s his way of dealing.

He longs to get away and go to college, but when he gets there he almost gets expelled for drugs. He drops out after freshman year and enrolls in a music tech program in Florida. Before he leaves, he visits me at my college, rides his skateboard around while I’m in rehearsal, then braids my hair for the play I’m in. He’s excited that I’ll finally do a shot with him, but he drinks so much Crown Royal that we have to leave the Halloween party early. He pukes in the bushes on the way back to my dorm.

We grow apart while he’s in Florida. I get my first apartment with three other girls the summer after my junior year, and he calls me from various places around the country while he’s doing sound on tour with Ozzfest. He gets slapped by strippers and does coke with the bands. I’m working three days a week at a needlepoint shop and falling in love with the man who will become my husband. It becomes hard to relate.

I’m working on my senior theses when he decides to quit touring. He’s making great money, but he’s spending it all in a haze of booze, strip clubs, and drugs. He goes back home and takes a series of odd jobs. When I come home for Thanksgiving, we go out and end up in dive bars at 1 a.m. He’s smashed and so loud and obnoxious that I’m kind of embarrassed. Still, we end up in his apartment in the wee hours of the morning talking drunkenly about books and dreams and about how much we miss each other. His bravado deserts him; he gets emotional and teary. He promises me he doesn’t think about suicide anymore. I hug him, thankful he’s still here. We vow to stay in touch better.

We don’t. I move to DC and start working an office job and applying to grad school. We still get together every few months when I visit my parents, but he comes over already loaded, brings a six-pack and tells endless stories about his days on the road, stories that all involve getting totally fucked up. I know he’s still in there — that funny, bright, brilliant person — but he’s so buried that I don’t know how to reach him anymore. He barely asks how I am. My other friends get annoyed because no one can get a word in edgewise. I just hug him tightly when he leaves, chide him for riding his motorcycle without a helmet, and tell him to take care of himself.

The summer before I get married, he starts his own business and buys a house with some help from his folks. He sounds so grown-up, so responsible, talking about mortgages — and then he gets a DUI. He’s scared he’ll lose everything he’s worked so hard for, but he sounds even more terrified of the upcoming months of enforced sobriety. He can’t imagine sleeping without a bottle of scotch to soothe him.

I don’t hear from him for a few months after my wedding, not ’til Christmas Eve. I’m excited when he calls, but then he gives me the rundown, his voice whiskey-rough: his dog died, his girlfriend cheated on him, his parents are finally getting that divorce. It’s like a bad country song. He’s still on probation, but he should get his license back soon. He’ll be glad not to have to hide his beer anymore. I feel the familiar surge of concern mixed with disappointment. I want to help so much, but there is no sage advice, no amount of love or careful watching-over that can do it. He is an alcoholic. It will take more than me to change that. I just pray that it won’t take a true tragedy.

Once upon a time, we used to be inseparable. That kind of breaks my heart.

Article © 2007 by Jessica Emanuel