On a frigid winter’s night in December 1994, a group of friends met at some bar in Lakewood, Ohio, I think the name of the place was Around the Corner. Outside, the streets were slick and gray from melted snow and the air so cold it chilled you to your core, no matter how many layers you wore. Like any place we would have chosen, the place was loud with the sounds of people laughing and shouting and music, loud rock and roll music. I don’t recall exactly who was present. Claire? Mary Helen? Probably. Surely Julie’s sisters. While I was always thrilled to see these fine people, the real reason I was in good spirits was sitting in a chair, sipping a watered down Bud Light: Steve, always willing to travel wherever we asked, as long as he got to hang out with Julie and me.
In the back of my mind I realized that nights like these were going to be few and far between as the two of us became entrenched in the states where we chose to live. In the years to come his parents would move away, taking with them any reason for Steve to return to the Cleveland area. Sure, there would be phone calls, letters and emails, but none of those can replace being in the presence of someone more than a friend; someone who is a brother.
Taking my place in a chair next to him, we talked about my job prospects and grand plans of making it in Hollywood; I peppered him with questions about when he might get married; we collectively bitched about the state of Cleveland sports teams and reminisced about old friends we no longer talked to. The evening had the feel of one of the gatherings I used to have in my parents’ basement, when an eclectic mix of people would gather for drinks and music. It’s not the revelations that were made or the great news we had to share, it was the feeling of being is the same room with people you care about, people you love.
One or two drinks into the night and I made my way to the jukebox with a wad of crumpled dollar bills. Ever since college, I loved commandeering the music machine and playing DJ, setting the mood of the room for an hour in hopes of creating a Big Chill moment. You know what I’m talking about: having a particular song that you love playing over the loud speakers in anticipation that something special may happen, a lasting memory that you’ll write about 15 years later.
On the wall hung a CD Jukebox filled with standard bar music like Buffett, Zeppelin and Journey, as well as local favorites such as Michael Stanley, Todd Rundgren and Rush. After a brief review of my choices, I began pressing the letters and numbers that would play my songs and keep the night festive. As soon as I saw the cover to the Rolling Stones Tattoo You, I immediately knew I would play “Waiting on a Friend.” I couldn’t resist, not with my friends and family taking up three tables, their voices louder than most of the music. The sentimentality of the song (by the Stones, no less!) fit the mood, the night… our lives.
I plopped back down in my chair just as Keith Richard’s guitar cut through the noise of the bar. Looking around, a few people nodded their heads in appreciation; and then I glanced over at Steve. He wore a broad smile and a wistful look.
“Good Song,” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
The two of us sat silently, drinking out beers, content to just listen while Jagger sang, Charlie Watt’s kept a precise beat and Sonny Rollins’s saxophone moaned. Life paused for a moment and suddenly it was like those other times in the basement, when Steve and I would just sit and listen to music, oblivious to the chaos around us.
As the song finished, Steve said, “Need another?” “Sure,” I answered. He stood, careful not to let his coat fall to the floor. As he passed me he clamped his hand on my shoulder a told me, “I miss you, brother.” Before I could respond he was striding over to the bar. I sat there, watching Julie and her friends having a good time with a heavy heart. I missed him, too.
Sometimes people play these games in which they imagine what could have been or what they would do differently if they had the chance to be teenagers of in their twenties again. When asked if I would go back I say, “no!” I love my life, as imperfect as it may be. I love where we are, how we depend on each other, our kids… how we manage to survive. Still, there is a part of me that wouldn’t mind going back to that night in a Lakewood, Ohio watering hole, hanging out for a couple of hours with my wife, her childhood friends, and sharing another round with Steve.