I’ve known Steve for 27 years. We met in high school. He had long hair, tight jeans (the kind that were cut and restitched by hand) and a love for Metallica. I had contempt for all three. As often happens in youth, what started as disdain transformed into friendship. Aside from our uncommon interests (I cut my long hair before freshman year and before it became fashionable, I wore relaxed fit Silver Tab Levi’s with pegged legs and I liked the Beatles. I still do), we shared a common interest in irreverent humor, an appreciation for great beer (usually stouts) and a fever for football.
In all the years that I’ve known him, I’ve seen Steve cry three times. One of those times I didn’t even see him, I heard him. The first was on the way home from a road trip to Mecca, Rogue Brewery (I highly recommend their Shakespeare Stout). We had rented the most comfortable cruiser we could find, either a Lincoln Continental or a Crown Victoria (I don’t remember which). Instead of esteem, we were more interested in amenities. A/C was a must, but we also wanted reclining seats (so we could sleep), cruise control, a CD player, etc. Our wants were wishes; we slept but never comfortably. Though I’m unsure about the make, I remember how for the first 30 minutes of the trip we played with the controls. Seats forward. Seats backward. Full recline. Fully upright. Windshield wipers and power mirrors. We were like two kids in their dad’s Cadillac before prom, but instead of pretending we knew what we were doing, we relished that we didn’t. “Can you believe those idiots rented us a car?!” we laughed. “What were they thinking? Red line!” Think Ferris Bueller taking a week instead of a day off.
Road trips, and ours was no different, are full of time, time to listen, time to talk, time to stare out the window in silence and time to feel. It’s this last one that created Steve’s tears. If you’ve ever been on a road trip, you know what I’m talking about. We could only listen to so many albums (The Pretenders first was the one we both agreed on) and talk about so many subjects before we ran out of everything else except time. Time seems to stretch endlessly off into the distance when driving cross country. It becomes synonymous with the road ahead. They are one and the same. When the road curves and breaks a straight line, time takes notice.
A good way to guarantee more time driving North from LA to Oregon is to take the 101 or PCH, Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a beautiful route. For much of it, the Coast is on your left. Sometimes a forest is on your right. As scenic as it is, it’s also slow. To save time, there’s the 5. It’s further inland, far less windy and much faster. While the 101 stops at every town to shake hands and say “hello”, the 5 stops for no man. We took the 101 to Oregon and we returned to LA on the 5. It was during this long drive that I looked over and saw Steve with tears in his eyes. He was crying and until I looked over, I didn’t know it was happening. There were no gasps, no quick breathes, no laborious breathing. There were only tears. Silence and tears. Steve was crying the kind of cry that makes no sound. It’s the kind of sadness of that comes creeping gently, calmly and quietly. The kind of sadness you hope disappears as subtly as it came. It’s the kind of crying men do in movie theaters; I don’t know it’s there until I hear the sniffle that betrays a running nose and even then I can’t be sure. The only reason I knew Steve was crying was because I could see it.
My recollection of this event is threefold and conflicting. For one segment, it’s as if I were outside the driver’s side window looking into the car seeing Steve drive. While that’s obviously not likely, two other perspectives are, neither include details about our clothing nor the silent stereo. Rather, one is me looking to my left while sitting in the passenger seat yet another is me turning and talking to my right as though I were in the driver’s seat (funny how memories work that way). This would have been an oddity. In theory, driving was supposed to be divided equally between the two of us, it wasn’t. Steve easily drove 3/4 of the time while I barely drove a 1/4. Whichever recollection is correct, it was during this passage of yellow sunlight, gently sloping golden hills and a dusty black road that I looked up and saw Steve’s face streaming tears.
I was startled and completely caught off guard. “Whoa! Steve, are you ok? What’s going on?”
He paused before the truth seeped out in heartbreaking pieces: “Today is the anniversary… of the day my ex and I…aborted our unborn baby…He would have been five.”
Steve didn’t say “fetus”. He said “baby”. People don’t call it a fetus when they cry. They call it a baby and five years ago to the day, Steve’s baby died.
The decision to have the abortion was mutual between him and his girlfriend and it was one I never knew about until Steve’s tears betrayed him and forced him to tell his secret. I suppose he could have lied when I asked for an explanation but it wouldn’t have done much good. I’ve always had a strange ability to spot lies (probably because I’ve told so many myself) and I know Steve well enough to know he doesn’t cry over a Red Sox loss. Steve doesn’t cry about sports. He doesn’t cry over accomplishment either. In fact, he doesn’t cry about much at all. Steve cries about his baby’s abortday, his dad’s death and his truth and Steve doesn’t share much of it. It’s not that he lies, although he sometimes does, it’s that he doesn’t often talk about what’s going on inside him. I know this because Steve’s been my best friend for over 25 years and I don’t know as much about him as I do strangers in the 12 Step Meetings I attend.
A few years back, and nearly twenty after our trip up the Coast, while I was living in Spain, Steve paid me a compliment. He hasn’t paid me many but he paid me one. And I remember it.
“I gotta tell you, I can’t believe you moved to Spain.”
“What do you mean? I’ve lived here for close to two years now” I said.
“I know. I can’t believe it. When you moved there I thought you’d be coming back quickly, like within months. I thought it was insane! You picked up, moved everything, all that you had to a country on another continent that doesn’t speak your language. That’s nuts! If I had no job, no money and were living on the streets and a company in Spain offered me a million bucks to move there, I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I would die in the gutter before I would move to a country on the other side of the planet where I had nothing and knew no one.”
As I said, I still remember it. It took me a while to understand it as a compliment. If you missed it like I did when I first heard it, Steve was saying “I thought you were stupid. Now I think you’re courageous.” It’s a kind thing to say really, especially between two grown men.
When I returned from Spain, Steve was kind enough to invite me into his home and let me live with him for a couple months. That should tell you something about Steve. He’s very generous and paradoxically very selfish. He’s sometimes more selfish than I am and considering part of my disease of alcoholism is selfishness, that’s saying something. Just as I can act better than my impulses, so too can Steve. Though he may not open up much about his feelings, Steve can open up his home for a friend in need and that’s exactly what he did. And those couple of months were more than a couple, they were nine and they were rent free.
Just over a year ago, when I returned from China, I was in need again. This time Steve didn’t offer his home. He couldn’t. His girlfriend was living with him. Steve couldn’t do something else either, he couldn’t be considerate. We had made plans. He had changed plans. He had broken our plans and he had offered excuses without offering an apology for any of it. The only thing unusual about it was that that was the last time I would allow it. For years, I had expected Steve to change. I had expected him to not act so selfishly and to be considerate of others around him. This time, I stopped expecting Steve to be someone other than who he is. I accepted him as he was and I moved on. I didn’t make an announcement and didn’t make a final phone call explaining my decision. I just walked away.
Over a month later, a fairly long time for us not to talk, when I was homeless living in a friend’s guest house I received a text. It was Steve. I knew enough to know he was reaching out to see if I were still around, to see if we were still friends. I was polite, but I was distant. His response was vulnerable and engaging. Steve is almost never vulnerable. As I said, before this, Steve had rarely cried in my presence. He had cried twice, once at the loss of his child and once at the loss of his dad. He was about to cry a third time; he was looking at the loss of his job. He needed to talk and I needed to listen. He opened up, shared hopelessness, shared defeat, shared fear and shared his worry. When he was done, I shared something else. I made a few observations and I shared what I thought was hope.
Steve started to cry. As unusual an act as that was, Steve made another equally unusual act. He shared another one of his secrets.
“Remember when you lived with me, Pete?”
“Of course” I acknowledged.
“Remember how you’d get phone calls from people asking for your help?”
“I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t understand why all these people were calling you asking for advice. You had no job, no money, no place of your own but they kept calling you and you kept answering and every time you did, I’d listen to what you’d tell them and I’d think ‘Obviously. Anybody could have said that. Why are they calling Peter for advice? They can call me and I’d tell them the same damn thing.’ I thought they were idiots and I resented you for it.”
“I didn’t know that” I confessed.
“I know you didn’t. I didn’t tell you. I didn’t tell you anything. I just kept it inside and couldn’t understand why they kept calling you.”
“Umm…” I stammered.
“Now I do” he continued. His tears increased in intensity. “Now I get it” he revealed. “You tell people things about themselves that they need to hear. You tell them things they need to admit but don’t want to admit. You tell people their truth. That’s why they call you.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I know I’m abrupt. I know I’m often abrasive and I know I do a poor job of being diplomatic and until that moment I didn’t know what Steve was trying to say. In retrospect, Steve was probably telling me a few things; he was telling me one of his secrets, he was telling me what was inside him and he was telling me “I’m sorry.” Steve was telling me all of these things and I think he was telling me one more thing; I think Steve was thanking me and he was thanking me with his tears.
That I know of, Steve has had three reasons to cry: The death of a child, the death of a parent, and to say “Thank you.” I don’t want to have the first. I have had the second and I look forward to having the third.