Navigating Friendship’s Slippery Slope

The main reason I left my job and my family last week-not

permanently, only for about five days-and headed out West to go skiing wasn’t

the thrill of fresh powder (there was precious little of that), but to spend

time with my friend Bruce.

The further along I get

in life, the more precious friendship becomes, but the fewer friends I seem to

have-the bonds fraying over distance, the complications of scheduling or simple

inertia. I’m not asking for sympathy, and I don’t mean to suggest I’m at a loss

for relationships. There’s my wife and kids. Then there’s all the couples we

know, primarily through our children and their schools. But there’s something

about those friendships that feels shallow.

They’re all fine people-most of them, at any rate. But when

you get to know someone as part of a couple rather than as an individual, the

stakes don’t seem as high. Neither are the rewards. Friendship at its best

requires the semblance of undying devotion. With a couple, their ultimate

allegiance is to each other, especially when they’ve got kids. They’re only as

good as their baby sitter, and she invariably has to be home by 11.

No, the friendships I’m talking about seem to be forged

early in life, though I suppose there’s no reason why they can’t come along at

any stage. And they’re probably best among members of the same sex. I don’t

mean to suggest that one can’t enjoy enduring friendships with members of the

opposite sex. Most of mine are. But there’s a certain purity to relationships

within one’s own gender, unencumbered by the complications of sex.

I know because I

recently lost my best friend. He didn’t die; he just stopped returning my phone

calls. I’ll call him David to protect his identity. We met during our first

week of college many years ago and hit it off immediately. We were very

different. I was something of a showboat from the city. He was an all-American

boy from the suburbs. He was a photographer who felt more comfortable behind

the camera taking pictures; I preferred to be in front of it, posing. He was,

and I suspect still is, an utterly honest, genuine and unpretentious person-qualities

I aspire to.

Our friendship endured until a few years ago. He moved to

Vermont with his wife and kids, but still stayed at our apartment whenever he

passed through New York. Eventually, though, he stopped calling. He didn’t

invite us to his home, and whenever I tried to invite myself (one of the marks

of best-friendship, in my opinion, is the luxury of dispensing with etiquette),

there was always some reason why it wasn’t a good weekend, no matter how many

weeks I called in advance.

There was no falling out, no betrayal, no blow-up that

signaled the end. The friendship simply ceased to exist, like a book that goes

out of print. I saw David again last summer at our college reunion. I’d written

an introduction to the reunion yearbook, and it began with a reminiscence about

him. I did so not only because it seemed the right place to start the piece but

also, perhaps, because I was gently trying to send David a message that

friendship was too precious to let slip away.

“Among my happiest memories of Middlebury, or of life for

that matter, was crowding into David’s room Friday nights sophomore year,” the

piece began, and it went on to recall the cheerful depravity that transpired in

my friend’s smoke-filled room.

When I ran into David on the reunion’s first night, he said

I’d probably killed his chances for a political career, but he did so with a

good-natured laugh. He asked about my family and I asked about his. He never

acknowledged that there was anything unusual about the way our friendship had

ceased, and he didn’t seem interested in discussing it when I tried to raise

the issue. Finally, on the last night of the reunion, at a cocktail party in

the shadow of the Green Mountains, I basically cornered him and demanded to

know why he’d fallen out of touch.

He explained matter-of-factly that he was simply too busy

doing other things. Between his job and his family and his volunteer work, he

hardly had time to fulfill his daily obligations. Coming from anybody else, the

explanation would have seemed like a slap in the face. But I knew David. He’d

always been at the mercy of other people’s expectations. He’s the only person I

ever saw check his watch, repeatedly, during an acid trip.

I left the reunion disappointed but feeling that there had

been a resolution of sorts. If David didn’t think the friendship was worth

saving, I told myself, then fuck him.

Bruce, my skiing buddy, didn’t take David’s place. A

friendship like David’s is irreplaceable-when it dies, part of you goes with

it. My friend Karen, who’s more cynical about relationships than I, claims they

have a lifespan like everything else, and mine with David simply died of

natural causes; he moved away, he’s busy, live with it.

I don’t buy that. And Bruce is the best proof. We also met

in college. He moved to Ireland a couple of years back, but we keep in regular

touch through e-mail. His lobbying efforts to get me to join him in Alta, where

we went skiing, included sending me almost daily “ski porn” over the

Internet-photographs of ski bums schussing through shoulder-high, sun-dappled

powder.

Bruce was the cause of a couple of near-death experiences I

had over this vacation, but that’s part of his crash-helmetless charm. He has

his priorities straight. And the highest among them isn’t fame or recognition,

but friendship and making sure that life remains a quality experience, even if

that requires hiking a quarter mile after you’ve gotten off the lift to find a

stash of fresh powder.

In the first incident,

Bruce insisted that he knew the way down a particular double-diamond slope,

though he seemed surprised when he encountered a sign slung across the trail

that said “Cliff area.”

He valiantly skied down the chute and vanished. “If you can

find another way, take it,” he shouted back at me through the echoing hollows.

Knowing Bruce and his penchant for macho stoicism, I assumed I’d never see him

again. I found another way down, but not before being forced to crawl on my

hands and knees over a rock ledge.

Like a fool, I followed Bruce, whom I’d left for dead but

spotted a half hour later skiing under the lift, his beard caked in snow, on

the last run of the day. He insisted that I take another run with him,

promising the experience would be spa-like-and again like a fool I believed

him. This time, I lost one of my skis near the summit of a wind-blown mountain.

The snow was so deep that not only did the ski vanish, so did the six-foot-long

Day-Glo powder cord that was supposed to help me locate it. Bruce, guilt-ridden

over the previous run’s debacle, eventually managed to find it, preventing me

from having to be airlifted out.

While I quit after that run-the swelling of various body

parts is only now subsiding, a week later-Bruce insisted on taking one more run

before the lifts closed. I appreciate that about him, even if I’m planning to

stick to the intermediate slopes from now on. He doesn’t give up until the

lights go out.

Maybe there’s a lesson there. Perhaps I should bury my pride

and give David one more call. Navigating Friendship’s Slippery Slope