Sitting down in the café, we ordered café au lait from a girl as pretty as the morning sun. It was a beautiful day, a Sunday, and we ate brioche with our coffee and lingered over conversation for hours.
It was a delightful time in our lives. We were 20. While we were men, we had the barest notion of what it meant to be adults. Our view was that of the moment. We thought little of what we would have to do to get where we wanted to go. All we knew is that we wanted to be writers.
We carried our notebooks and pens in pouches slung over our shoulders. We scribbled in our journals and thought about the great stories we might someday pen. We even tried to write stories and poems. We read about writers. Dreamed of standing up at our desks like Hemingway and worrying our way through four of five hundred words a day before we went off to play.
I look back on that time and my friend. We were yet unsullied. We had suffered our disappointments but we had not been defeated by them. We had known love, I did anyway, and I knew of what it meant to have love turned away by another. But in my youth, I got up again, swatted myself free of distress, and was ready, even eager to feel the warmth of yearning and want again.
I remember, too, sitting one night in the park in Brookside. We felt the warm wind of a summer night flow down the hill and over us. We took in the lights coming on in the houses of the neighborhood across the Boulevard. Of course, we were drinking then, too. But I remember we talked of one day going to Europe, seeing the cities we had heard so much about, and tasting the culture that seemed so different and exotic from our own.
I don’t know how many years it took before we became jaded. Maybe it was the DUI my friend earned when I was passed out in the passenger seat of his car on the way home from a wine tasting we were too young to attend. It was in the newspaper and nearly ended the career of the academic who taught Wine and Civilization and held private tastings for his students at his house. He had no idea we weren’t 21 or that the both of us tended to drink to excess. It was a harmless gathering of friends that resulted in disaster.
My friend never went to Europe. He got bogged down in love and never saw straight again. He wanted to marry the pretty waitress at the cafe but she had other plans. Even today, he is devoted to her, even if she’s married. He lives in the ground floor of the house that her husband and she own. She drops her kid off for my friend to watch whenever she wants. He is at her beck and call.
I, however, went off to Europe, twice, living there among workers for almost two years. At first, I worked in the vineyards in Trier, finding that my meager, Spartan existence and outdoor work suited me. It was then that I began to find out what I needed and what I wanted. I had what I needed on my back. I wanted other things to make my room in the attic of the winemakers’ apprentice school a little more comfortable—cleaning supplies, soap and shampoo, towels, soap for washing my clothes in the sink, a razor, a typewriter.
Here’s the thing: Though I was often alone and sometimes suffered the worst of loneliness, I knew how good I had it. I was an American kid without a clue, living in a foreign country with an income, no matter how slight. I had breakfast at the school each day that I stretched into lunch. I had just enough left over after paying rent and board to feed myself, buy a paperback every weeks, keep myself in typing paper, and sit for an hour at the brewery on the next block on Friday or Saturday night.
I knew what I had at the time that I had it. That’s not insight many 20-some year olds have. I had friends, which was a bonus, and as the months went by we became closer and closer. I spent just as much time alone but wasn’t plagued with loneliness.
I came back to Kansas City after fifteen months, chasing an opera singer who I happened to meet just before I left for Germany and had a torrid affair with in the summer of 1986. I fell in love again, and while I was setting myself up for a good life in Germany—school on the horizon, visas secured, at the start of an arc of a career that I might still be working in today, thirty years later—I threw it all away for the opera singer. The relationship lasted just weeks after I returned from Germany.
I went back and spent time as a student in the wine school in Geisenheim. I wasn’t doing well. I was 25. Drinking was catching up to me. I worked all evening at the wineries in my little village. I stayed drunk and hardly ate. I fell asleep in school. I was earning passing grades but becoming more and more isolated. The task looked too great for me. I gave up after seven months and returned to Kansas City.
Maybe this is where I began to grow up. Faced with my incessant drinking and the sordid state of the life I built when I returned to Kansas City, I had to make a choice. I was sick. My kidneys hurt all the time. My liver bulged from my side. I couldn’t quit drinking, however. How would I live my life?
I gave up only when I couldn’t go on. The last twenty-five years have taught me a great deal and I wouldn’t trade them. I have a good life now, one that’s fulfilling and filled with love.
But I look back on those early years when the world awestruck my friend and me. I remember how it seemed our friendship would never end. Then a car crash. Then love. Then finally the moment I was sober enough to tell him that I couldn’t divine who was married to whom at his house. The woman he loved, and claimed not to anymore, spoke to and acted toward him as an overweening spouse would to an emasculated man.
I can’t take part in this anymore, I told him. You’re sick. I feel like I’m part of the sickness.
He kicked me out of his house and hasn’t had a thing to do with me since. I didn’t want it that way, but when a friend suffers, is ill but continues to do what’s bad for him, you tell him. It’s what friends do. You have to find that selfless part of yourself to do such a thing. He’s going to kick you out. You won’t be a part of his life anymore. That’s the consequence of doing the right thing.
It’s been five years ago now. I run into him occasionally but rarely at the grocery store. We talk like old friends. But the rift between us has become so great that it will take the miracle of his recovery, of his submission to the idea that he is sick, to bridge the gap between us.
But there are nights, like tonight, when I remember that time before we became adults, when the world was just another series of marvels to boys who couldn’t see the difference between being a kid and being an adult. I miss those times, and I’d be a liar if I told you otherwise. I wouldn’t want to be 20 again, however. Too much good has happened to get me right where I am today.