Car crashes, quarry jumps, and the friends we love despite everything
I put my feet on your dashboard, sand and beach tar between my toes; we are old friends.
You pull out a Marlboro and fumble in your pocket for your lighter, holding the steering wheel with your knees. “Don’t,” I say, reaching out for the wheel, nodding toward my child in the backseat. You nod and drop the cigarette out of your lips to your lap and grin at me. “Fine, but only for you.”
“Not for me,” I say.
“For him, because he is yours,” you say.
“Yes, but also for you.”
I’ve been trying to save you for 20 years since we were teenagers, since you’d drive recklessly on country roads, turning your truck into ditches, throwing beer cans into the bed, rolling it in a tobacco field. We all thought you were dead. I remember running through the fireflies, your overturned headlights lighting up the thick green tobacco rows, the red dust settling in their beams. I ran fast and silently, but by the time I was there, you were standing under stars lighting up a cigarette, staring at the wreckage, shaking your head. “Well, fuck,” you said.
“Well, fuck,” I agreed.
You taught me to jump off bridges. We would drive in your truck north of town, Merle Haggard turned up loud, into the thick Southern summer cicada nights onto roads that were being devoured by kudzu. You’d pull over on the shoulder, cut the engine, and throw the keys on the dash in one motion and look over and grin at me like you’re grinning tonight. “Ready?” you’d ask, and I never was, but you’d be gone, sometimes not even closing the door. Your lanky body retreating back down the road, your shoes kicked off, one landing in the gravel, the other on the yellow line. In the darkness, I’d hear you holler — you called it the rebel yell — and then your body would hit the water, a splash in the blackness below. I’d hold my breath waiting for you to resurface, to hear you gulp in their air, to hear you howl out again. Every time, I held my breath with a hollow feeling wondering if this time was the time I had feared.
But you’d always resurface. I’d see your body treading water below in a shivering watery moonlight. “Jump!” you’d yell to me as I stood on the railing unsure. “Jump!” I didn’t come from where you came from; I wasn’t sure I had the luck you had.
Tonight you seem less invincible, and it is you who follows me out onto the beach and you who stays back on the shore while my son and I wade in the crashing dark waves.
Later, I sit on your tailgate, and I see the veins in your deeply tanned hands that look like rivers drawn on maps, estuaries into seas of knuckles and fingers that lead to oceans. You tell me that my eyes have wrinkled but they look wise, that you like them, and I actually believe you because you have loved me in the way that would make this true.
It’s been 20 years since that tobacco field and those bridges, and it’s been a hard 20 years, too.
The second-to-last time I saw you, you were tying a boat up to a dock, your tattoos fading in the sun, your blonde hair salty and stuck to your cheeks. I sat up on the bow, and I told you I was hungry and you crawled down into the hull and came back up with a beer. “No, like hungry-hungry,” I laughed, and you laughed too, but then I realized this was all you had, a 25-foot boat, a sunburn, and some beer. It would have been a dream if we were still 16, but we weren’t, and so we sat in silence in the sun, and I think you were crying, but I did not turn to look at you.
The last time I saw you, we rode bikes out to the quarry where we used to swim in high school, and you rode ahead with my son in a trailer behind you. You had a backpack of beer for us and a Snickers bar for him, and you got there first, and when I arrived, you were standing too close to the edge with him. “Please don’t,” I said from a distance behind, and when you did not respond I said, “Bring him here.”
“He’s fine,” you said to me without looking back, and I said, “He’s mine” to you, meaning, of course, not yours, and you walked him back to me. Then you grinned that same grin and said “I know,” and in one motion, you jumped, your long thin body straight like a dart falling until you pierced the water down below, and I waited that familiar wait until you resurfaced, a small dot of blonde hair in blue water. You did not yell for me to join you. Instead, you just swam back down under the water leaving me to guess where you might come up for air again.
Later that night, we are sitting by the campfire and you say, “I have a son, too,” which I did not know. You tell me he is two and that you have never met him, and I think you are the most chicken man I have ever met. I tell you so as I stuff my rainfly into my backpack the next morning, the dew trickling down my arms making me shiver.
We could not have turned out more differently. I swear to myself I don’t want to know you.
But tonight I am in your neck of the woods, and we have spent the day wandering on dunes and rolling our jeans up to muck for clams because we are, after all, imperfect. We sit on your tailgate and watch old men play cornhole under the street lamps, and you open a cooler where you have beers. I think back all the years, all the times when we would drink around bonfires, all the times we would row out onto Falls Lake with whiskey, the time we drove to Crooked Oak for moonshine, and I wonder if I could take back those times and change things for you. But tonight you open two, handing me one, and say, “Cheers, old friend,” and I say, “Cheers.”
We sit in silence, and the men playing cornhole go into their motel rooms, and my son who has been flying his kite comes up to us, and you say, “Hey, buddy,” and you lean into your truck through the window and open the glove box to get him a Snickers.
“Have you met him yet?” I ask as we try to make out the constellations. You point out to me Ursa Major.
“He has a dad that’s better than me, a real dad,” you say. “I don’t need to mess that up.”
Your voice is even and clear, more steady than usual. I realize you are telling the truth; you are a lot of things, but I haven’t known you to be a liar. I realize in this moment, you are braver than rolling a truck, braver than jumping off bridges or quarries.
“I want you to last forever,” I say.
“I can’t,” you tell me as if I didn’t already know that was true.