for mikey

There were a few years in my life before I met my friend Mikey, but I don’t remember them. In my memory, Mikey was always there, just as my brother Greg was always there. Greg was born when I was two and a half years old, and I met Mikey around the same time, when I began going to daycare at Jeannie’s house. Jeannie was a warm grandmotherly woman with big glasses and bright lipstick, who made us oatmeal in the mornings and shooed us outside on sunny days to ride around the backyard pavement on tricycles. In the autumn, Jeannie had a scarecrow decoration that for some reason terrified me, so she took it down and put it away in the back of the hall closet. That was the type of person she was. The only thing I remember ever being upset at her about was that she would insist I wasn’t allowed to marry my brother Greg. At four years old, I was convinced that I was going to marry him one day, only Jeannie said I couldn’t. My mom finally told her, “Jeannie, don’t worry about it. If she still wants to marry her brother when she’s sixteen, then we’ll have a problem.”

Mikey and his younger sister Morgan also went to daycare at Jeannie’s, and we became fast friends. Mikey is three months older than I am, and as a kid he had a bowl haircut, round cheeks, and an ever-present grin. Jeannie watched other kids, too—there were maybe six or eight of us in total—but Mikey and I were a unit. We went to preschool together, too, and spent many mornings playing “house” together in the play kitchen. I might have thought I would one day marry Greg, but Mikey was my pretend-husband. When it came time to enroll in kindergarten, I couldn’t imagine being separated from him. My parents somehow finagled permission to enroll me at Poinsettia Elementary, even though we didn’t live in the district, because that’s where my best friend Mikey was going to school.

The timeline is unclear to me, but around this time, Jeannie got sick. Her cancer had come back. I don’t remember how the grown-ups broke the news to us that Jeannie was gone. I just remember we didn’t go to Jeannie’s anymore. It was around the same time as our transition to kindergarten and full days of school. It was like Jeannie was a magical person—a magical genie—and when we outgrew her, she disappeared. I like to think of her magically reappearing in the lives of some other little boys and girls, greeting them with a lipsticked kiss and a big hug. My memories of that early time in my life are hazy, but they are suffused with a feeling of comfort, safety and love.

Elementary school presented new problems: namely, other little boys our age. Mikey and I still played together at recess, but now I had competition. And it was hard to compete with these boys. I was a shy, soft little kid, and the boys had a secret code language of humor and teasing that I didn’t understand. I remember, in first grade, playing on the basketball court with Mikey and his new best friend Alan, who I was supremely jealous of. Mikey would throw Alan’s basketball down the grass hill so he had to run after it and then trudge back up to the court. The boys seemed to think this was hilarious. I didn’t think it was very nice.

In elementary school, Mikey and I started to grow apart. I made friends with girls in our class, and before long I had BFF necklaces with Kelly, and play dates where we would make up stories with our American girl dolls and paint our nails. By fourth grade, Mikey and I weren’t inviting each other to our birthday parties anymore. We were still friends, but it was different now. It was harder, somehow.

Middle school made things even harder, even more awkward. Boys and girls were not really friends at my middle school. There were big groups of boys and big groups of girls, and sometimes they would collide in giggly flirtation and then bounce away from each other again. Many of my friends from elementary school were in the district for a different middle school across town, so the transition had been a rough one—almost like starting over. Mikey and I did go to the same middle school, and it was nice to know he was still with me. Our joined past seemed almost like another life—like a secret that only we knew. We were in many of the same classes, and his presence was comforting to me, even though we didn’t interact much. Eventually I met Erica, and became part of her friendship group.

High school was much of the same. We ran in separate circles. I remember our sophomore year, Mikey—who was going by Michael or Mike now—had a crush on one of my friends, who treated him scornfully. That was the first inkling in my gut that maybe she and I weren’t going to be friends for much longer. And we weren’t. Junior year, that friendship exploded in a painful flurry. I felt so betrayed, so lost and alone. I remember navigating through the crowds of students to the quad at lunch, passing by the picnic table where Mikey and his friends always sat. Part of me yearned to just walk over and plop down beside him. That’s what my preschool self would have done. She wouldn’t have been able to imagine a time when Mikey and I weren’t a unit. Even though it had been years since we’d had an actual conversation, I sensed that I still would have been welcome there. But things were too complicated now. So I didn’t say anything to Mikey. I walked right on past.

Senior year is when Mikey and I found our way back to our friendship. We were in the same physics class, and were paired up together for many labs. He was still goofy, still nice, still unabashedly himself. This grown-up version of my old friend loved historical reenactments and World War Two. He played classical music on the piano and watched foreign films. He read more widely than anyone else I knew at our school. I was surprised, but also not surprised, when I began to think of him as one of “my people” again. Then, a few of us formed a study group and we’d meet up on weekends to cram for tests together, and sometimes we’d have movie nights at Mikey’s house. He and I slipped back into our friendship like it was a well-worn jacket that we had set down for a moment and forgotten, like it had been waiting patiently for us all this time. I imagined Jeannie looking down at us, smiling, nodding her head in approval.

Soon, it was as if Mikey and I had never had that break in our friendship at all—as if we had always remained close. When we talk about our friendship now, when we introduce each other to someone else, it is always as if we became best friends at the age of three and remained that way throughout school. In a deep, quiet way, maybe that is true. I think I always knew that Mikey was someone I could count on if I needed him. I hope he knew that about me, too. He is one of the few people in my life who has always accepted me exactly as I am. Around him, I have always felt comfortable being nothing other than myself. I have always felt like enough. Even during the challenges of high school, when my self-esteem was sometimes like a gas gauge on Empty, when I felt achingly different from everyone else, when I worried about what people thought about me—I never worried about what Mikey thought about me. I could just relax around him and be myself.

As senior year sped by, we hung out all the time. Mikey swept me into his friendship group; I called them “the boys.” We would crowd onto the sofa and watch movies at his house; old movies I never would have watched on my own, like Dr. Strangelove. Mikey played songs from Phantom of the Opera on the piano. We went together to Alan’s baseball games and cheered him on from the bleachers. One Sunday, I was stranded in a parking lot when my car wouldn’t start, and my parents were away somewhere. My brother couldn’t drive yet. It was Mikey I called, Mikey who came to rescue me without hesitation. He came to the school play I wrote, bringing along the rest of “the boys” with him, applauding loudly from the front row. He came to my reading and book signing when I published my collection of short stories 3 a.m., talking with me beforehand about normal things—he could probably tell I was nervous. We went to Prom in the same big group of friends. In my yearbook, he wrote, This isn’t really goodbye. Don’t worry—I will always be with you!

{high school graduation, with two of our favorite teachers from elementary school}

During college, we talked on the phone sometimes, and he came to visit occasionally. He and Celine bonded over their mutual Lebanese heritage. Years later, he would travel to Paris with his family, and Celine was living there, and they hung out together and Skyped me from her apartment. I remember the strange joy bubbling up inside me as I laughed with them via a computer screen about some random story. How small and precious and wondrous the world seemed—my oldest friend, and my dear college friend, calling me together from halfway around the world. I wasn’t there physically, but I felt like I was. When Celine died, Mikey was one of the few people in my life who I felt not only understood my grief, but shared in it. He was grieving her, too. It comforted me that the two of them had shared their own adventures. That she still lives on in Mikey’s memories, too.

Celine and Mikey were the same in their blind faith and unfettered support of my writing. They both made me feel like I had nothing at all to prove; like all of the things I was hoping for and dreaming for and striving for already existed in the future, moments just waiting for me to reach them. I didn’t have to worry at all. I didn’t have to doubt myself. I could take a deep breath and just relax, and take pleasure in my writing. Mikey still makes me feel this way. He has always been my fan.

Whenever I have a book event anywhere near Ventura, Mikey is there. He always gives a little shrug, like it is no big deal, like, Of course I’m here. Why wouldn’t I be? Whenever I see his familiar stride loping through the audience, I feel a little less nervous, a little more calm. Deep breath. Mikey’s here. Over all these years, his pride in me has helped me feel more proud of myself.

I vividly remember the first time I met Luana, who was then Mikey’s new girlfriend. I was home for a visit, and the three of us went out for ice cream. I loved her immediately—she is warm, and funny, and welcoming—the kind of person who makes you feel right at ease. Within fifteen minutes of meeting her, I felt as if I had known her for a long time. Luana is a fiery, vibrant, beautiful woman from Brazil, and she draws Mikey out of his shell. I remember the way he looked at her like he couldn’t quite believe she was there sitting next to him, stealing bites of his ice cream. I remember the way they teased each other, and how she made him laugh, and how he seemed a little more open, a little less guarded, a little more himself than I had ever seen him before. At least, I hadn’t seen him this way for a very long time. Perhaps Luana helped him find his way back to that little round-cheeked, goofy-grinned boy I had known at Jeannie’s. Mikey has seemed… freer, ever since he met her.

Please, I remember hoping that night as I drove home. Please don’t break his heart.

She didn’t break his heart. She filled it. They got married a couple weeks ago, on October 6, and my eyes brimmed with tears when they read their beautiful and heartfelt vows to each other. I’ve never seen Mikey as happy as he was that day. They were both radiant. Witnessing their marriage, I felt like I was a balloon swelling with happiness because my dear sweet friend found this incredible woman who loves him so deeply. I couldn’t stop smiling the whole weekend.

Traveling back up to the Bay Area after Mikey and Luana’s wedding, I thought a lot about friendship, and how grateful and lucky I feel that Mikey and I held onto ours. After all, it takes work to keep a friendship going, even when you have a lifetime of history together. But the work is always worth it. More than worth it. Mikey’s sturdy and unwavering friendship has taught me the power of the little things, that are actually the big things. The power of showing up, and keeping promises, and supporting each other without reservation. The power of loving your friends for the people they were and the people they are still becoming. When I look at Mikey, I can see the little kid he was reflected in the man he is now. I can also see the little girl I was, reflected in the way I am around him—a little sillier, a little lighter, a little more playful than I am in my grown-up life. Friendships let us hold onto these past versions of ourselves, incorporating them into our present. Old friends, good friends, true friends—they are depositories, helping us hold our memories closer and keep our dreams alive.

One of my favorite photos of me and Mikey is this one. We are five years old, side by side, squinting into the sun. It looks almost as if we are trying to glimpse a future we can’t see. We don’t know what is coming next. But we do know we’ll have each other. We know our friendship will last.

Your turn:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and “freewrite” about one of more of these questions:

  • Write about one of your oldest, dearest friends. What are your favorite memories from your years together?
  • What do you think are the most important qualities of a true friend?
  • Have you ever grown apart from a friend, and then reconnected? Write about that experience. Or, is there a friend you would like to reconnect with?

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