old friends and the parties they throw

maybe love is a way of inventing one another

There is nothing to do about grief, so we make a lasagna and take it over to the old building. There is nothing to do about bad news so we text some people and then eight people in a room together is a party. We tell stories. There is nothing to do about anything. It’s Sunday; we are all trying to shut out the day, and trying to make it last forever. Death is very stupid, but there is food, and there is a party, and there are all the old stories.

Here is the most important story as I know it: My dad is young, in his twenties, and has moved into a building downtown. He meets his neighbor in the stairwell. His neighbor is trying to fix something with a drill, but has the drill set backward. He gently attempts to correct her, and she yells at him, and then they are best friends for the next fifty years. Lee is already a downtown legend; my dad is young and lost and nobody. His life grows out of knowing Lee and her wife Essie, whose love story is also already a small legend below fourteenth street. 

I don’t remember when I first heard this story. I only remember knowing it. I have no memories in which I do not know this story; the whole of my life that I know about, that I can inhabit in memory, is one in which I already know this story. 

Neither do I remember the first time I went to Lee and Essie’s loft, the one in the same building where my dad lived when he was young and lost and first met them, the one where they still live now. I was there, I assume, over and over again as a small child, since we lived only a few blocks away before we moved. But I don’t really know. I was too young to form memories, and I am making up the whole thing, based on assumptions and wishes and old photographs. Maybe we saw them a lot; maybe we didn’t, in the way that in New York you often only see your friends who live an easy twenty-minute walk away once or twice a year, despite your best intentions. I have chosen one made-up version of a story from before I was old enough to retain stories, and I carry it around with me, taping it up, papering it over the walls. 

I make that same brief walk all the time now, from the church to Crosby street and back again. I can tell you what happens now, and has happened, the days last summer when Thomas and I walked two hours downtown to sit on a roof for forty-five minutes, and then walked two hours back uptown. I know that there were parties in the winter at the end of 2019, that small groups of people gathered around a table when it was cold outside, and again in the spring of this year, when we were all ecstatic to be in a room together again. I know that that room looked exactly the same as it had when I was a small child, and that the lamp above the table was the same one it was twenty and thirty years ago. The room promised that memory was real, that stories could be relied upon, and that anything anyone says happened happened. It was a place for telling stories. I sat and listened, I wove myself backward into the things that had happened before I was part of them.

But I cannot tell you where these memories start, when the first one occurred, or how far back they go. The stories, and table, and the lamp, and these people and their faces, were familiar to me before I could remember them becoming familiar. They have simply always been there. I sort of remember visiting in late childhood or early adolescence, but the memory I have is a composite memory, with little to narrative to it; the jokes and feelings loom large, and the details of one action and another, what happened and when, how old everyone was and how long we stayed, slide off like hands on a glass wall. I remember the quality of light then and how it was exactly the same as it is now, the long afternoon turning into evening, and that no-clocks-in-Las-Vegas drowsiness that certain old-timer apartments in New York have, despite the presence of a huge clock over the doorway to the kitchen.

We sat around the table, and Lee told stories. Lee telling stories was the center and foundation, the still point around which everything revolved. I don’t really know when, or how often, I was actually in this room in childhood, but I know that the same lamp was there, and I know that Lee told stories. They were different every time, although the heart of them persisted, and she took such lavish joy in them, like someone getting into a warm bath on a cold day. 

Sometimes I become convinced that I can place my first clear memory of sitting around the kitchen table and listening to Lee tell stories. It was the late ‘90s. She would have been in her sixties then. I remember her large and majestic, drinking wine and telling her old jokes with my dad, huge in a denim shirt and jeans and a big silver belt, her hair still dark, her body still capacious and taking up half the room. I was scared of her, partly because I was so young but partly because everyone was scared of Lee; I don’t think there was any other possible response to have to her. I had never met anyone like her, but then again, I think neither had anyone else, her whole life, from end to end.

I think it was maybe this same time of year; I think I was not quite yet a teenager; I think my parents were visiting the city and letting me tag along to see their old friends. I think she was happy to see us; I think it was after dinner; I think we stayed late, sitting around the table listening to her. I think she hadn’t gotten sick at all yet; I think she told the stories about downtown theater in the 1970s, and art shows at the loft, and how she got here out of the Midwest, and the artists she came up with and befriended, and the shows at Judson and the music Al wrote, and who was a bitch and who wasn’t, and the arguments she had with people, and how she was right, and how she met Essie, and how they fell in love, and how it made them, in a small and yet not-so-small way, famous for a while.

I think I listened and was nervous and reverent and didn’t say anything stupid; I think maybe for a minute I understood how important it all was, before I went downstairs and back outside and wrapped myself up in the native self-centeredness of being almost a teenager, of being so eager for the world as to insist on ignoring it entirely. I think she and my dad made fun of each other, and drank wine like they used to, and talked about the old days. I think everyone got drunk and I think I didn’t understand why everyone was in a better and better mood as the evening went on, but I think I was happy about it. I think that was when I knew these people mattered to me, that I wanted them to be in my life, and that I wanted to be in theirs, if I could ever be cool enough for it.

But maybe none of this happened, or maybe none of it happened like this. So much of this is guesses, so much of it is fictionalized and constructed. I have been inventing these people and their history so long that now I cannot pry apart the facts I do know, and the ones I have made up, filled in, or assumed. I have heard so many stories, and told so many myself secondhand, that they crowd out the memories; the two twine up together, a text at once invented and true. During those nights, or after them, my mom would gently make fun of my dad and his stories, how much of them was made up or exaggerated. She was definitely right, but maybe that was the point; love was creating a mythology, and building it bigger over the years, until it was large and bright enough to survive beyond the people in it, to carry them forward past themselves.

Here is the oldest, the most hackneyed and cliche, story, the one from movies and books and from years around the kitchen table, under the same antique lamp, bathed in the same stopped-clock glow: Sometimes your friends, through time and repetition, become your family. Sometimes this sort of friendship can, in the manner of family, be handed down generationally, persisting from one era to another, passing between hands and faces and decades. Sometimes people take root in one another’s hearts, and grow there as trees. Nothing that grows is permanent, but sometimes a person inhabits the world in a way that makes this seem like it could not possibly be true; surely some people must earn the right to live forever. Sometimes it is a Sunday, and there is bad news and nothing to do, and you bring over food and tell stories. Sometimes family and friends are the same, and sometimes grief is a party.

People at Judson, the church we started attending a few years ago because Lee and Essie told us stories about it, say “holding you in our hearts.” I don’t entirely know what the phrase means although it’s self-explanatory enough, but I like the heavy weight of it, the substance in a text like a smooth stone in a palm. I tell Essie we are holding them in our hearts. We gather around a bedside; we bring over useless gifts. We sit on the couches and tell stories. We hold Lee in our hearts. Maybe it is presumptuous to even include myself in that we. I rewrite the story; I paper over the details. I try to sort out what is love in the here and now, and what is borrowing old stories.

When my dad would tell his stories about them, and about being young, and cool, and lost and ecstatic, in the way one can only be in a certain version of being young, I cared too much, and understood too little. I didn’t recognize it yet because I hadn’t been there; I thought what he was describing was what all of adulthood held, and that it would last forever once I arrived. I thought everyone I loved would always be around; I thought the chances were infinite; I thought there would always be more time. I was late, when I finally got out past the stories and through them to loving the people who actually stood in front of me. But I thought it didn’t matter; I thought I could start whenever I arrived. I thought what I had missed would not make a difference, that there would always be enough time to catch up. 

I remember how my dad’s stories about the days he first knew Lee and Essie, when all of them were young— the friendships, the building, the ease and wildness, the downtown city and what was possible there—seemed to describe something he had stepped away from, and could go back to at any time, at which point he would find it waiting for him, unchanged. It was only when I got older that I realized this is the way people tell stories about the things that are profoundly lost, that which time has rolled over heavy as it repaves the roads, the things to which there is no way back.

So many of the stories were about parties; my dad would tell me that people used to climb up the fire escapes to get into the parties in this building. In recent months, Lee often didn’t know what year it was, or who we were, but she always knew that she was throwing a great party. Now we stand in a room where the room is stories. The room is the day and the day is a party; we eat cookies and we talk to the cat who wanders around trying to attack people’s shoelaces. We walk over to the bed and get quiet and then we go back over to the couches and whisper about stupid shit and try to make each other laugh. The point of a party is to try to freeze time in its tracks, so that it is only this room, and there is no forward motion, just the amber stasis of getting up to get drinks, and sitting down again, and telling jokes, and holding each other’s hands, and offering each other food over and over. We all tell Lee she threw such a good party; we all decide she can hear us, and that she knows. “Of course I did,” I imagine she says, annoyed at being told. We are all telling stories but that’s what we’ve always been doing, picking up where she left off, keeping the party going. 

this is griefbacon’s weekly public essay. if you enjoyed this, maybe consider subscribing? you can also buy a subscription for a friend, or email me if you want to subscribe but can’t afford to do so. this is, sort of, a part of something longer I’m writing about versions of love, old friends, and friends-as-family. more on other topics, including the final version of the big green essay, and probably more on this topic because I’m always writing about this topic, soon.

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