I had dinner with my old friend M. last night, a real mensch who knows how to laugh at himself, a most winning trait in this age of mirthless irony masking insecurity and an almost universal lack of self-knowledge. You have to know who you are to be able to laugh at yourself.
And you can't be beside yourself. Go ahead, take a gander at that queer-looking person staring back at you from inside the mirror: the bug eyes, the receding hairline, the shrinking genitals, the flabby neck. But also the sparkle and smile, the elasticity of the facial muscles twisted into a funny expression, the gracefulness of the hands as they lift cold water to the still sensuous lips. To love begins by being unafraid to show that face to another. To love oneself isn't a call to masturbate, it's a call to acknowledge the worth in every person, starting with yourself.
No one seems particularly embarrassed by naked bodies these days. I see them everywhere, not only online, but on the sidewalks of New York, their nakedness apparent even if covered with pieces of cloth. Outwardly we're all seemingly happy to be on display, with our bulges and curves, our jiggles and wrinkles, our frank appraising looks. But inwardly it's a different matter entirely. We're completely covered up. Peer into someone's psyche and try to see past the blackness within -- no one's giving anything away. No nakedness there, poot. Sure, you may find the glib self-presentation of a personality measuring itself against the pseudo-psychopathic syndromes of the day -- ADD, OCD, MPD, all those fucking dependent, avoidant, depressive, paranoid, passive-aggressive acronyms: you think they add up to a person? Hell, they're just reductive clichés serving duty as soul-armor. Pretty porous soul-armor at that.
The more I tell you about myself, the less you know about me. You can stick your greased fist up my arse but you better not touch my "inner self." Unless you gimme loads of meds first. Otherwise I might really fall to pieces, not just sing about it like Patsy Cline. What a lousy way to interact with other people, to be always on guard, like the poor bastard living in a shack who keeps a snarling Rottweiler out front to protect his pathetic bric-a-brac. No one wants that shite.
Friends don't need to perform that particular masquerade -- we've seen each other for what we are, naked in mind as well as body. There's no need to hide our fears, desires, melancholia, or joy. Whew -- what an effin relief. Your kids may not understand you, your partner may think you're nuts, your co-workers know you're nuts, but an old friend just takes you for who you are -- as long as you know, and accept, yourself. Mr. Magoo walking into a tree ain't got nothing on me, as M. would have it.
Amid the laughter at reliving silly escapades, M. reported that a high school chum had recently died, a woman we both had enormous respect for, partly for her musical talent (she'd become a musical educator of some renown) and partly for her lack of pretension. We had had back then, and still carried, a clear sense of who she was. Rita was one of our gang of misfits who made good -- she lived a good life. In the last couple of years, she and I had exchanged two or three emails in advance of a fortieth high school reunion. I passed up going and she couldn't make it, being ill.
M. apologized for delivering such sad news and I protested that I was glad he had done so. The restaurant was loud but we ignored it and got quiet, honoring one of those small ruminative breaks in time when remembrance trumps exigency. Fuck the next course, we needed a moment to collect ourselves and raise a glass to her memory. We needed to acknowledge that the inexorable movement toward death was carrying us, and everyone else, along with it. We clicked glasses and toasted, "To life."
The past has become terribly remote -- every outer stimulus in this crazed world pushes it further away -- but every so often a piece of it breaks into the present with devastating force. Rita playing the piano. Christ, I had known her in grade school -- she one of the only Jews in the place, the two of us with a shared vocabulary -- our music and our books. Her curly hair, her freckles and dry lips, her essential gravity, especially impressive in one so young. And yet she could laugh. She was a wonderful girl. Tell me, what good is it to outlive your school friends?
The convivial noise that surrounded us broke through again, and that was necessary too, to be reminded of the human need to celebrate friendship with food, especially with grief so close at hand. I thought to myself, Rita knew who she was. Who could have had a better childhood friend than her?