Wednesday, October 7, 2015

No Heart Unshattered

[From my 2002 song "I Apologize”: No one departs with heart unshattered when something once so precious dies.]

Name Withheld and I met 45 years ago. Tripping on mescaline, if memory serves, I was awed by his physical beauty. When it emerged that he played a musical instrument, it occurred to me that if we were in a band together, maybe I would be able to seduce a few of the girlies for whom he couldn’t find the time. (Thirteen years later, I married one of his many former short-term girlfriends.) Later that evening, we and our respective gals drove together to a screening of Fantasia, a movie traditionally much enjoyed by persons tripping on mescaline. I remarked to my girlfriend, beside me in the front seat, on The Who’s use of a particular brand of amplifier. NW, in the back seat, set the record straight with scorching, censorious umbrage, as though I hadn’t misidentified The Who’s amplification, but called his sister a slut. I was duly embarrassed, thought to myself, “Gosh, what a jerk,” and decided maybe the band idea wasn’t so hot after all. But when I encountered him by chance several days later, he was cordiality itself, and we went on to perform together for three years, and to be good friends for nearly 20.

No friendship’s without glitches, and glitches were us. On one memorable occasion, when I suggested we go out for a bit of skirt-chasing, he affirmed the idea — with the understanding that he reserved the right to cancel if he received a better offer. On another occasion, I’d talked a record company into financing the recording of some of my new songs. When he heard that I was going to be working with a producer of our mutual acquaintance, NW volunteered to play. I’d already recruited a full complement of musicians, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He played poorly and, at one point in the session, loudly groused, in our mutual acquaintance’s hearing, “When are we going to do the good song?” The implication being that his talents were being squandered on three of the four original songs I’d brought in. His penchant for trying to humiliate me in the eyes of others, in other words, was undiminished. 

He speculated at one point that he might subconsciously see me as the brilliant older brother to whom he’d spent his formative years being unfavorably compared. His childhood had been no more my fault than mine had been his.

In nearly 20 additional years of estrangement, there arose this thing called the Internet, by use of which one could try to track down persons from his past. I tracked down and contacted NW, whom I’d unsuccessfully begged not to abandon our friendship in the first place, and suggested we attempt restoration. He wouldn’t consider it until I’d jumped through a few hoops, though. “What,” he wondered icily, “do you think a friendship is?” I knew that there was no correct answer, that he was just setting me up to chastise for having failed to live up to his expectations. I emphatically declined the hoop-jumping, but his heart eventually softened, which softening he signaled by begrudgingly granting me the privilege of designing advertising materials for him at no charge. We took to talking on Skype a lot.

A couple of years later, as an American expatriate in England, I became fatally tired of feeling a stranger in a strange land and resolved to return to where I feel most at home in the world — southern California, which NW had never left. When I had broken up with my second major adult girlfriend in 1980, he’d generously invited me to stay with him at the house he was housesitting, and we’d gotten along fine, so I suggested we share an apartment. Doing so turned out to be a disaster. In the intervening 32 years, NW turned out to have developed a raft of compulsions. Germs, he seemed to believe, were not only everywhere, but intent on infecting him! Need proof? Well, here was an article from the Internet! He was pretty sure that if we didn’t keep the door locked, evildoers might, even if we were both home, burst into the apartment and steal either his large collection of seldom-touched guitars, or the even larger collection of severely mismatched wooden furniture he’d acquired over the years.

The happy couple in 1971.
We hadn’t been roommates two weeks when, without provocation, he invoked an incident from around 1971 in which he believed me to have improperly handled some financial transaction involving both of us. “Do you not realize,” I said, shocked and dismayed, “that when you do this, you’re effectively kicking the chair out from under our friendship?” Well, of course he didn’t. While thinking of himself as the soul of forgiveness and charity, he lovingly nurtures his every ancient grievance. Why was I unable to understand that his invocation of a long-forgotten-by-me incident from 42 years before was unimpeachably reasonable!

It hasn’t failed to occur to me that those things we find most insufferable about each other may be those we like least about ourselves. The difference being, I think, that I’m painfully aware of my own myriad imperfections. While NW may be aware of his own, deep down, he literally can’t bear for another to  point them out. The slightest criticism invariably elicits a spirited counterattack. If, for instance, one plays a recording of him singing terribly out of tune, his reflexive reaction will be a four-year-old’s —something along the lines of, “Well, you sing worse!” 

His appetite for embarrassing me in front of third parties remained unsated.. He invited a musician friend over. In the course of chatting with said friend about my own music, I acknowledged that I’m a terrible guitarist. “And a terrible singer too,” NW eagerly noted, unprovoked. Later, when I told him how embarrassed I’d been by the remark, he professed incredulity at my inability to take a joke. Getting him to “I apologize” had always been a remarkably exhausting undertaking. Contrition doesn’t come easily to one who can’t bear the thought of having behaved imperfectly.

I am a chronic depressive. We had many conversations over the years about what he, not understanding depression, sees as my disinclination (as opposed to inability) to opt for joy over despair. He proudly points out that he consciously makes that decision on a regular basis. Thus, I am to understand that he is able to consciously choose joyfulness, but unable to choose not to be plunged into emotional disrepair by my leaving a kitchen drawe or cabinet — or maybe even two! — open. I began to understand that he derives considerable joy from scolding. I, unfortunately, derive none whatever from being scolded. 

Using the same wholesome, self-admiring tone in which he spoke of his choice of joy over despair, he spoke also of how, unlike me, he always assumed that his friends wished the best for him. Which sounded just lovely, and wasn’t remotely the case. If, on the way into the kitchen, I gave his big toe an affectionate squeeze during one of his Tuesday evening CSI-fests, I had to be mocking him, just as when I would ask on Tuesday afternoons if he were excited about his favorite crime dramas coming on later. 

The friendship was nonetheless precious to me. There is no question that he can be wonderfully kind and generous. But I began to feel as though living with an alcoholic parent — inexpressibly sweet one moment, and a nightmare the next. I come to live in dread of his sarcasm and censure. It reached the point at which I explicitly encouraged his cutting back on the kindness and generosity if it meant he’d stop nagging and do something about his compulsion to try to humiliate me in front of third parties. No sale.

Because one doesn’t prevail in an argument with him, not ever, and because I’d repeatedly expressed as clearly as it’s in me to express anything how intolerable I found his nagging, sarcasm, and compulsion to embarrass me, I regretfully reached the point at which, to protect myself, I avoided any interaction with him.

He lost a parent (I’m presuming) a few weeks ago. I offered my condolences, and expressed my regret about the death of our friendship. He mocked me on both counts, and ferociously decried my insensitivity in mentioning the two things together. If the friendship was dead, he asserted, with no little viciousness, it was because I'd lied four years before when I'd told him I'd do my utmost to make it work. He had played no part whatever! 

It was unmistakable that the point of no return was now several miles behind us. The person I'd loved so long, if interruptedly, as a friend, looked to me now like nothing but a grade-A prick. 

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