I’m 16, hopping fences, one backyard to the next. It’s Fall and the air is hinting that winter is on its way. It’s one of those nights when you can smell everyone’s dinner cooking. It’s dark out, earlier than the previous month and the kitchen lights are on. I can see entire families seated at the table, eating, talking, enjoying the end of another day together.
I see single people alone, watching TV, eating slowly, stepping outside of themselves, wondering, when this became their nightly routine and how they ending up alone.
I reach my house and enter the back door that we keep open because I am always losing or forgetting my keys.
There are meals prepared for the week by my mother. My parents are both working, and my brothers are nowhere in sight.
I warm up some chicken and rice and I am just about to chow down when the phone starts ringing, back in the day when everyone had a “land line” and if you were talking and someone else was trying to reach you, well they got a “busy” signal.
So, the phone rings, it’s my friend L, she is inviting me over, a bunch of us are going to hang out at her place. She is one of “the houses” everyone feels comfortable crashing at because her parents are never home and there is a fully stocked bar (which we drink from and then refill the bottles with water).
There will be at least a dozen of us, even though we have all just spent the entire day together at school, including the last period which we skipped to go to another “no parents home” house, the time apart has been to much to handle.
My friends are my family. They know everything. Our connection is sacred. They have ventured beyond closed doors, the family dynamics, the problems, the parents who are madly in love, the parents who can’t stand one another but stay together for the kids and the parents who have reached the point of no return and split.
There’s the sibling, the one kid in the family who struggles while the others thrive. The one who can’t seem to walk a straight line and is always taking detours. They serve as prey to the beast that is mental illness, addiction, the drink, the pill, the not being able to get of bed and the claws have dug deep. You care about that sibling as if they were your own. You can’t fully understand the battle they fight, not until you are older, not until you struggle.
You will come to the realization that we are all broken.
There’s the friend who has a car. Perhaps the one that comes from money and whose parents buy them everything, pay their way throughout their lives, never teaching them what it takes to put food on the table, to earn a buck. Their parents do them a great disservice – we all need to know how to feed ourselves and put a roof over our heads.
On the other end of the spectrum there’s the friend who has been working since they were 12, any job that pays, that may be back-breaking, dirty, long hours, but their parents have engrained a work ethic in them along with the knowledge they put into practice; even the small stuff adds up.
We have this thing, every spring, we drive to Plattsburgh for the day. It’s the 80s and that’s where you can buy Freihofer's cookies and Marlboro Reds. That’s where you eat American Flat Giant Slices of pizza in the food court while you flirt with the locals.
Our group of friends consist of males and females who have all made out at some point, even if some of us are just into girls or just into guys, it’s all interchangeable, trial and error because we want to make sure we are sure, and we want to try everything.
There’s that one single parent who hangs out with you and your friends. They may be the first person to take you to buy booze or share a joint or drive you up to the country and let you have the run of the place. You find yourself confiding in them in a way you cannot with your parents. They listen when you speak, they don’t judge but gently they direct you along the right path.
You sense sadness in them, that somewhere along the way they got lost and that makes you wonder what changed the course of their life?
The years go on and eventually the pack separates. Friends leave to school, or their parents get transferred to another city, tragedy hits and some are gone for good; a reminder to live the life you want to live. You venture out and clear a path, a career, a GAP year, a partner, a house, a life abroad moving from place to place, freeing a spirit that cannot be caged.
You meet others along the way, some become close friends, some acquaintances, some just convenient. There is nothing that compares with the love, loyalty and “I’ve got your back”, the gift of childhood friends – the roots beneath the ground, the trunk, the branches, and the leaves that fall but somehow always return.
I’m 55, it’s a fall evening, I am walking my dog, there's the scent of everyone’s cooking, the lit kitchens, the families, and that solo person at the table – well it’s me.
I’ve learned a few things like when to leave and when to stay. I’ve accepted the cards I’ve been dealt. I’ve watched love walk out the door only to have it march right back in again. I’ve experienced the loss of loved ones. I’ve stood by their bedside after they have gone to the other side and wondered, how is it possible I will never see them again?
When I’m tired and spent, I close my eyes and envision myself hopping fences, one backyard to the next until I land in the one filled with my childhood friends. They are smiling and they are young, healthy, without a worry in the world. It’s where I want them to be because it’s a place of love and acceptance, a place where I can be ME.
“A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” Walter Winchell