Sometimes I go to the bar alone and order a burger and a beer and pretend to watch sports. But really, I’m thinking of the men I’ve loved.
Usually it’s football or basketball — those are the popular sports around here. Usually a stranger tries to talk to me about the teams, and I bump along in the conversation until they let me go distant again.
Sometimes I dwell on mistakes I made in those relationships. I remember apologies I’ve said in my head a dozen times but seldom aloud.
Sometimes I dwell on the truly good moments, golden, rare, and sweet. I sip my beer slowly and thank God for those, sighing.
But mostly, I remember those men. I recall what they were like, what they were good at, what was frustrating about them. I picture their faces, clothes, cars. I remember what parts of me originated from them — what rubbed off.
Little things: from one, a certain rural congeniality, lifting two fingers from your steering wheel in greeting to people in your neighborhood; from another, a taste for gin and tonic. Tonic water tastes objectively bad, and I don’t know how anyone acquires a taste for it, except I know how I acquired mine. He made me a G & T, and we played Mario, and I decided to like it.
Also, big things. In the summer of 2014, Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, triggering an avalanche of unrest about the relationship of law enforcement to racial minorities in America. My friend Jon (white, straight, married) isn’t usually very emotive, but the injustices of those years ignited deep anger and sorrow in him, and I paid close attention because my heart was set on him.
I wanted Jon to like me, so I also paid more attention to the news. What I saw didn’t feel like my problem and didn’t seem like it should be Jon’s problem either. Yet Jon wept. As I kept watching and listening, I began to see how you can have a racist society without many particularly, specifically racist individuals. I began to see the subtle ways privilege and complicity wind their way through our lives.
Whether you agree is, perhaps, between you, your neighbor, and God. But I realized washing my hands of it and walking away would not leave me clean.
When we give our hearts to people we are changed, even if they never give us their hearts in return. These effects aren’t scars — they don’t begin as wounds — and I wouldn’t call them baggage. They’re like paint splashes on our canvas hearts or imprints on our soft, clay souls.
They’re the telltale signs, the aftermath, of giving someone the power to change us.
“I can’t stop thinking about him,” my friend Scott confessed over a salad and wine. He’d just pulled the life-support plug on a romantically charged friendship that had lost its goodness. It had been necessary, but Scott was devastated. “A thousand little things remind me of him. I’m brought to my knees over and over. I’m never going to recover.”
I could empathize. I myself was grappling with the sudden collapse of my unbalanced relationship with Jon.
I had been unwise and was reaping the reward: a heaping dose of hindsight and that feeling when the solid ground you step on turns out to be air and your gut lurches.
I saw no end to the things that would remind me of Jon: steak, church, Lord of the Rings, all tinged by a sad, ashamed regret that would twist my stomach on contact and make me freeze up, forgetting what I was doing. Whenever I saw a Toyota Yaris, my heart would skip a beat and I’d have to see inside to know if it was him, though the knowledge was useless to me.
But pain, shame, and regret don’t have the last word. The same God who makes the sun rise and trees grow also makes broken bones knit and the cracked heart re-form. You can’t speed up the healing of a heart or bones any more than you can make the sun rise sooner or make a tree grow faster by pulling on its top. But it’s just as sure to happen.
In fact, if you are redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, no power in the universe can stop that healing from happening, eventually. It’s just a matter of time.
A year later, Scott and I were catching up over a different salad. “I’ve gone from pathetic to angry,” Scott reflected. “I don’t lose sleep anymore. I saw him from a distance the other day, and I wasn’t tempted to text him.”
Scott had been so sure he wouldn’t recover, but now we agreed that things were looking up. I was doing better, too. My remaining friendships were thriving, and promising new ones were forming.
I completed my half-finished reread of Lord of the Rings, crying in public over the last chapters and texting someone besides Jon about it. My heart stopped skipping a beat when I saw a Yaris, and I learned to accept but not surrender to the gentle gravity that car exerted on my gaze.
“When I was with him I felt so weak,” Scott continued. “But I feel strong now — more than I ever thought possible. I feel like I threw years away in that weakness. I hate it, but I can’t un-live those years. I’ll always have those thousand things that remind me of him, needling me.”
I told Scott I didn’t think the pain would always be there. The memory of pain might always be there, but that’s different.
Watching football’s inscrutable choreography unfold, I remember the pain but also the joys. I remember the ways Jon was kind to me, how he ventured outside his comfort zone for me.
I remember his heart for racial reconciliation, how it grew me, and I recognize that, at least this time, I’m better for having given someone power to change me.
Can you point to particular imprints left on you by other men in friendship? Do you struggle to move on from broken friendships?