I merge onto the 55 north from the 5 north. I have at least an hour, depending on traffic in Corona.
There aren’t any podcasts I really feel like listening to as I drive back from dog-sitting in Orange County to my in-laws’ in Temecula, where my wife and I have been staying before we move to Ireland next week.
It’s a perfect time to catch up with some friends. I have Siri dial one up.
Just as the number starts ringing, I hang up. It’s about 12:30pm on a Sunday, his time. He’s probably having a Bloody Mary at his parents’ or catching up on chores around his house. I shouldn’t bug him.
But I can hear my friend venting about how his girlfriend never pitches in. About how he still puts together dinner after an 11-hour workday. About news I saw on Facebook of the latest engagement, job promotion, home ownership, or birth announcements from old friends we shared over a decade ago. About friends still working at the same jobs they had in high school. About him saying he’ll try to make a visit. He’s got a lot going on, I know. I wonder if he’ll get engaged soon.
I have Siri dial him up again. Through my Prius’ Bluetooth, each subsequent ring sounds louder and louder as I come into the Inland Empire on the 91 east.
I don’t leave a voicemail.
You don’t have to tell an old friend who you are. The knowledge is automatic, like the way you can scratch an itch on an impossibly small part of your back without even thinking about it.
We’ve had a little rain recently. The canyons burst with green, but they’ll be brown again soon. It’s not clear enough today to see if there’s any snow left on top the distant San Gabriels.
I try another friend. I’ll ask him how he’s been doing after everything he’s been through recently. He’ll speak thoughtfully about his goings-on, philosophically about his current orientation in our cold and ever-expanding universe. He’ll recommend an author, a director, an artist I’ll pretend I’ve heard of. I’m sure he’ll be excited about my move to Dublin, but somehow I’ll never quite hear it in his voice. I’ll ask him more questions.
The phone rings through. He’s probably at the gym. I don’t leave a voicemail.
I don’t try a third friend I’ve been meaning to call. I can’t think of the last time he reached out to me since he remarried and became a father. He works so hard for his family. I think of him often. I’m sure he thinks of me, too.
At the 15, overpasses and onramps in mid-construction bestride the existing highways like the arching ribs of a cement giant. The air is hazy with smog from traffic, already thickening even though it’s a Sunday morning. With dust from constant bulldozers, with dirt kicked up by the desert winds. It’s hard to tell whether the colossal structures are being built or demolished.
My mom answers my next phone call. We chat until I’m just about back.
In Henry IV, Part 2, we see Prince Harry complete his maturation from madcap youth to new monarch, King Henry V, after his father dies from illness. Just as he accepts the crown, he rejects his old friend, Falstaff:
FALSTAFF. My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart.
KING HARRY. I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.…
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away from my former self;
So will I those that kept me company. (5.5.44-57)
The new king continues, banishing Falstaff and his old companions from coming within 10 miles of him. He declares he will provide for them, so that “lack of means enforce [them] not to evils,” welcoming them back only if they leave their drunken, lascivious, and thieving ways (5.5.65).
Falstaff mets Harry’s decree with denial. As he tries to convince a minor law official, Shallow, (and himself): “I shall be sent for in private to him. Look you, he must seem thus to the world” (5.5.74-75). But Falstaff is only sent to prison.
Granted, Falstaff is mostly interested in how he will richly benefit from his association with the new king when he learns of Harry’s coronation. But for all the fat knight’s vices, it’s hard not to commiserate with him.
And it’s hard not to condemn Harry for using his former friends, as we saw in Henry IV, Part I.
The Earl of Warwick, a supporter of King Henry IV, echoes Harry’s maturational strategy. When a moribund Henry, unaware of his son’s metamorphosis, imagines the “rotten times” (4.3.60) England has ahead when Harry succeeds him, Warwick offers:
The Prince but studies his companions,
Like a strange tongue, wherein to gain the language,
’Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learnt, which once attained,
Your highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated…(4.3.67-73)
It’s a very curious way to go about virtue. I guess Harry found a way to have his cake and eat it, too.
But it’s not all quite so easy for Harry, to be fair. We see him craving nothing more than a light beer, a drink below his royal rank, early in the play: “Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” (2.2.6). Later, we see him prematurely try on his father’s heavy crown, “to try with it, as with an enemy,” when he thinks his father, only asleep, has passed on (4.3.294).
His cake isn’t always so sweet.
In my wife’s old bedroom, squeezed between two dogs, I startle myself awake when I drop the book I’m reading about Ancient Rome. I set my phone alarms, cue up a podcast, and hit the light. I have not heard back from my friends that day, I realize. Not that I expected them to, if I’m honest. I mostly forgot about it. Mostly.
The bluish light of my iPhone illuminates the room as I check my messages and phone log once more time.
Henry IV, Part 2 has really gotten me thinking about friendship. Not anything quite so dramatic as Harry’s bald repudiation of Falstaff, but about the ways we come in and out of each other’s lives.
Reflecting on the changing alliances between rulers and rebels in recent memory, on the ways in which we think we know the people in our lives, King Henry IV observes:
O God, that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea…(3.1.44-48)
But we can’t, as I’m sure Henry would agree.
“We are all time’s subjects,” one of the king’s opponents sums its up. And space’s, too.
I usually say I have about five close friends, almost all back in my hometown, Cincinnati. Lately, it can feel like one or two. I didn’t really make any new ones after I left. Not in Minneapolis. Not in Laguna Beach. Certainly not in Irvine.
Time gives friendship inertia. Space takes away its momentum.
I suppose I could have worked harder at it, but I’ve liked saving that effort to keep up with phone calls and making visits back home. Plus, there was family to get closer to out here in California and new colleagues when I was working in the autism field.
Does one really make new, close friends after a certain point? It feels hard to get to know someone after 30. Our pasts become so dense and opaque. You don’t have to tell an old friend who you are, who you really are. The knowledge is assumed and invisible. Automatic, like the way you can scratch an itch on an impossibly small part of your back without even thinking about it. How do you recreate gravity?
Time gives friendship inertia, fortunately. Thanks to that shared history, a college tall-tale and a couple of beers can make it feel like you’ve never missed a beat. There’s a shared psychology, too, with childhood friends. The selves you fulfilled. The many more you didn’t. Blame, perspective, circumstances.
But space, geography, takes away friendship’s momentum. Yes, there’s Facebook and FaceTime, weddings and holidays, but you just can’t call up your friend across the country Friday after work to see if he wants a beer. All those missed drinks accrete.
Just because you act as a sort of Hal, moving on, doesn’t mean your friends are Falstaffs, never changing. They move on, too. You can’t begrudge them that you’ve moved away. You can’t begrudge them circumstances.
This has been easy for me to forget.
We are all our own Hals, turning away from our former selves. For new crowns heavy with the weight of bills, obligations. Glistening with new possibilities.
We are all our own Hals. We are all our own Falstaffs.
We are all our own Falstaffs, inveterately ourselves, naively ourselves in our petty and pompous everyday lives as they unfold in time and space – which, beautifully, thankfully, we get to share, sometimes more often, sometime less, with others.
This is so easy to forget.
A few days later, I shoot my friends a text sometime before dinnertime, Pacific Time. Eventually, I hear back from one: “miss you man.”
It’s enough, like a tiny bit of thrust in a spacecraft sent adrift.