They say that it's hard to keep childhood friends. Something about how you don't really know who you are when you're a kid so you can't make the best decisions about what's going to last you a lifetime. And while that may be true, If you go through enough crap with people--no matter how much they make you want to tie them to a chair and duct tape their mouths closed so you can beat them about the head and explain just how wrong they are--one day you'll wake up and they're part of your family. And everybody knows, no matter what you do, it's not easy to break away from family.
If you search this blog for Ale, or Ri, or Kai/Kaiya, or Highcon/High Contrast or even Chandler, you'll see that I'm still pretty tight with my high school peeps. And it's been a good while, now. In October we went to the ten-year reunion together and some of us have known each other since fifth grade, collecting the rest along the way.
We've been through a lot. There have been unproductive library meetups, school dances, aid to hide those *secret* highschool sweethearts, cross-country moves, inter-university visits, weddings, funerals, graduations, intercontinental moves and long long waits in hospitals. There have been eight-hour tournaments of how-long-can-we-keep-this-tennis-ball-in-the-air and 5 a.m. post-clubbing sing-alongs of '80s television theme songs. There has been puking in the street, screaming at top volume in public and bouts of the silent treatment. There have been long evenings of hanging out followed by long nights of sitting in somebody's driveway, discussing relationships. There have been out-of-state vacations, out-of-country vacations and out-of-mind vacations. There have been three- and four-person telephone marathons. There has been crying on shoulders and lots and lots and lots of listening. And then there was that time we all tried to share one tiny futon mattress in Buffalo. (Everyone sleeping with both their head and their feet hanging off a mattress just so nobody has to be on the floor is not a good idea, trust me.)
The beauty of a longterm closeknit group is that you learn what everyone's weak points are, but that doesn't make those habits irritate you any less. While arguments are never restricted to the two people directly involved, it also means there are more hands to mend fences and more pressure to make nice. And if there's one thing in abundance when that many people are that comfortable with each other, it is opinionated discussion. Plenty of it.
Our nongroup friends, families and even coworkers often hear more than they should about the group--sometimes simply from overhearing phone conversations over the years. That talk gained enough notoriety that someone I worked with suggested our group be featured by a suburban Chicago newspaper as the "real-life local counterparts" to television's Friends in the coverage of the show's series finale. We are nothing like that tv bunch but, then again, in some respects we are exactly like them.
As reporters sometimes do, he doggedly pursued ridiculous angles he wanted for the story: Did any of you have a pet monkey? No. Are any of you neat freaks or actors? Nope. Did any of you marry somebody who turned out to be gay? Uh, definitely not.
The story was cute and very short. (No, you can't find it online.) But to be honest, it would have been a lot better if the reporter wasn't trying so hard to squeeze us into Central Perk stereotypes. He should have focused on the best gems about our group instead. Like how Highcon and I once went toe-to-toe yelling at each other so loudly outside an improv comedy theater--screaming with the force and flying spit of a baseball manager and umpire--that when we paused to take a breath and realized the entire block was staring, Ri, Kai and Chandler thought fast enough to clap as though it was all just a "sketch." We took a bow and smiled even though we were livid. (I believe that fight was about shoes. Don't ask.)
For better or worse, one thing that's always brought us all together is a birthday. We've always done those up with style. Overpriced 30-person meals at some frou-frou restaurant? Sure, sometimes. But we've also thrown a dress-the-part murder mystery; a full-out luau with an island mural, leis and all kinds of tropical food/drinks; a Guy-Smiley This is Your Life gameshow (where are my Sesame Street fans?) complete with a big board and question cards; and a 40-person suburban houseparty with samosas and jell-o shots that somehow migrated to a field beyond somebody's back yard.
Unfortunately as the years went on, free time began to evaporate. People moved away, got longterm partners, were chained to dungeons or became 90-hour-a-week work dorks. These days, hanging out needs to be scheduled a month in advance and getting someone on the phone for a chat is tricky in itself. Gone are the days when you could call somebody up and say, "Hey I'm thinking about going to the movies; meet me in 20 minutes?" Even the annual post-family-11-pm Thanksgiving rendezvous at our favorite latenight diner may not be a tradition much longer. But we'll always have birthdays.
A couple weekends ago, Highcon was in town for his 29th. This was especially nice because he moved to New York last year and few of us have seen him since. We decided to keep the celebration small but loud and took him to a homey Thai restaurant for family-style face stuffing, followed by an evening of entertainment at a nondescript Karaoke place in Korea Town where you can rent a private room and rock out to your heart's content with an audience of only your best pals. And for a guy who--until he went corporate--was notorious for singing into everybody's voicemail at the top of his lungs, Karaoke was right up his alley.
The place was seriously high-tech, with a huge flatscreen tv showing lyrics, TWO microphones, and a songbook in English, Korean and Chinese. The remote control wasn't in English, so that took some getting used to, but soon enough we were all belting out everything from Guns 'N Roses to Shakira. The light-up tambourines, disco lights and free champagne all helped with the so-you-think-you-can-sing ambiance.
At the end of the night, we were hoarse and pooped. It had been just like old times in somebody's car jamming to the radio and singing along at the top of our lungs. Except now it's 12 years later and we can't stay up late anymore. We went out for one last drink, said our bon voyages and talk to you laters and went off in different directions into the night.
It was the best kind of oldschool fun. Who knows when we'll all be in the same place to cut cake and sing with abandon again. Maybe we shouldn't have taken it for granted back when we could.