Tommy was one of my closest friends my junior year of college. Accidental neighbors, I had outwardly rolled my eyes while bracing myself for a year filled with drunken, slurred shouting and loud music. Not that I knew the guy, then, but I’d heard enough and seen him around. Tall, with dark hair and classically Italian looks, I had quietly resented his smirk and good posture, equating confidence with douchebaggery. I resolved to stay out of his way that first month of the semester, scuttling around the hallways, trying to avoid eye contact or acknowledgment that I existed. But both of us ended up showing up to too many of the same impromptu frat parties, and fueled by a little liquid courage, I finally admitted that I lived next to him.
“Man, you must think I’m a total asshole,” he said.
At that moment, although the 3 a.m. blasting of Nas and Eminem came to mind, I couldn’t say that I did. Maybe I was too surprised at his response to be totally honest. Maybe his cute roommate - who made both my best friend and me spend our time competitively trying to bump into him - came to mind. Maybe it was Tommy himself, who was charmingly attractive, that confident smirk broadening easily into a happy smile that I later learned would earn him forgiveness from most women. I laughed in response to his comment as I offered him a light, and over cigarettes and red plastic cups filled with cheap, cold beer, we became friends. By the end of our first conversation, I went so far as to mention my secret little crush on his roommate: “Hey, that guy you live with? He’s kind of cute.”
His roommate started saying hi to me after that. Probably because Tommy had informed him that “that chick that lives next to us? She told me she wants to fuck you.”
Despite this obvious miscommunication, Tommy and I became solid friends. He was the guy that would lead me to believe that most American guys could easily finish a case of beer by themselves and also sparked my soft spot for thick Boston accents. I voluntarily played drunken slut to get jealous girls to hook up with him, and when I made it a habit of passing out on the frat house couch after my one obligatory beer, Tommy would play pitbull, just in case. He’d go home for the night with someone else [as would I], but we’d reconvene in the morning. We always did. And because of our adherence to each other, deep inside, I felt as if he were all mine.
The next year, though we lived on the same hall again, things changed. Tommy fell in love with someone he probably shouldn’t have and our friendship faded. He was no longer mine - not even partially - and when I finally admitted it to myself, my heart cracked a little.
It wasn’t the shattering that happens when someone you believe you love drifts away. Because though that’s a unique kind of hurt, that Hiroshima-ed part of you tends to grow back. There may be weeks or months of broken hearted tears, but in those times of “I’m never going to date again,” it’s your friends that will pick you up, dust you off, and drag you back onto the bike or into life. When you lose one of those friends, though, it goes straight to the part of you that doesn’t heal over after pints of ice cream and shots of vodka. That part of your heart that doesn’t so much as shatter as crack or chip. Like a well worn steel frame, the blemishes build character, but that doesn’t mean the process doesn’t suck.
I am intimately familiar with this due to my own special blend of social retardation and immature pride. Never blessed with the charisma to rake in crowds of potential friends [even on Facebook where the ability to operate a mouse qualifies you to be “friends” with celebrities], I’ve hoarded whatever friends I could earn. Their relative rarity leads me to treat them like treasured $20 bills, individuals to be saved for those good coffee shops that only take cash. Viewed objectively, the exchange of tender looks the same, but those friends are somehow more valuable than a promiscuous swipe of the credit card.
It doesn’t make sense, but then again, it probably shouldn’t. The currency of friendship is an odd one because no one should be keeping score. A good thing if, like me, you tend to always be in the red. Not that I don’t attempt efforts at repayment, but my friends are either too clueless to understand basic economics or, more foolishly, don’t care about the glaring liability that is our friendship. I can only hope that they have enough asset-producing friends to balance out whatever detriment I incur in their lives as I, ever the debtor, luck out on their generosity.
In a way, this deceptive sense of never returning what is paid to you is what makes the friendship real. Because in truth, friendships are costly. Socializing having become an integral part of my ride in recent weeks, my lone jersey gets squeezed out multiple times a week in my bathtub. That’s a lot more times than I would have washed my jersey otherwise, as, often stranded on solitary rides, being close enough to be smelled was never an issue. My bathroom resembles a makeshift closet of bike gear most of the time, cuticles are always dry, and those now-clean shorts are going to be slathered with chamois cream yet again tomorrow. Submerging hands in a sink full of soapy water almost every day is becoming routine, but the trade-off is worth the unpleasantly pruned fingers.
Not incidentally, my legs and ego are paying up as well. The luxury of solitude, of course, is that no one ever has to hear you voice what you suspect might be true about your abilities on a bike. When you make bike friends, however, the sharing of vulnerabilities centers not around crushes and personal complexes [as is usually the case], but strength and speed. This means I am consistently faced with the uncomfortable choice of either blowing myself up on these rides or gasping out a request to slow down. My legs might be getting murdered by people I genuinely like, and it’s not like anyone’s judging, but it remains a humbling experience to state my [many] limitations.
But despite all this, I have too easily agreed to join in on too many rides of the Jesus-Hernandez-this-hurts variety this week. Friends iron out the creases that develop on my forehead as they pull me up another climb or drag me through some dirt and gravel, and I repay them in kind with my complaining. I get dropped here and there, but I know they’ll be waiting at the top of a climb or around the corner of the next turn.
Waiting to reconvene. Because we always do.