My previous visit to South Carolina, which was May 2014, was strictly supposed to be a “business” trip. Stewart, one of my best friends, was getting married to his girlfriend of a decade, and I made good on the promise that I would attend if such a event ever happened (I honestly thought it would never happen). While I was out there, I figured that I would indulge Rachel in letting her meet my family. Despite my relationship with them back then (there weren’t good feelings) and the fact that I hadn’t seen or talked to them in 8 years, I felt that it would be polite to at least show them what my future wife looked like. It’s not like I cared for their approval; if they said anything negative about her, especially the giant elephant in the room about my fiancee not being black, I’d simply leave and never talk to them again. But something felt wrong about marrying someone before meeting a single member of their family, and I knew doing that would give her some peace of mind, regardless of the outcome.
Rachel and I stayed in a hotel on the other side of town, hoping to avoid contact with the family outside of the bare minimum. She was really excited about eating at Waffle House, which I suppose is as much of a regional culinary monument in the southeast as Roscoe’s is in California. Unfortunately, the difference between the two restaurants is that Waffle House sucks, and although I already knew that, Rachel insisted on finding out the hard way.
Outside of the wedding, she gave me the freedom to come and go as I pleased, as long as I introduced her to the people who I was visiting first. So the very first place we visited was Trey’s house, and we passed my family’s house en route as if it never existed. Trey’s dad greeted us enthusiastically (he specifically said, “I would’ve bet the farm that you were never coming back here!”), but something was off. That “something” was his left leg. Diabetes had claimed half of his leg recently, and the tenor of the entire household was just off in general. Trey and Bill were there, and there was obviously tension between the parents and my two former best friends. It didn’t take long after the requisite pleasantries for Trey’s mother, never one to hold her tongue, to reveal the source of their tension.
Neither Trey nor Bill (who wasn’t related, but like me, was treated like family from our early teens) were really doing much of…anything. After life in Houston fell off the rails, Trey and Bill opted to return to Sumter while I enlisted in the Air Force. Apparently, they took their negative habits along with them. They were basically doing the same things at age 27 as they were at age 22, something that I consciously tried to avoid.
I guess that one of the benefits of being on terrible terms with my family during a drastic decision was that I had no illusion of a safety net in the event of failure. Both Trey and Bill come from cohesive, supportive families who graciously accepted them after the move to Houston didn’t pan out. And while that is a very nice luxury, I think that it also created a barrier to how far they would truly strive to carve out a niche for themselves elsewhere. It’s difficult to give everything you have in a seemingly hopeless situation (and Houston got really, really bad for all of us) when you’re still in touch with your family and they’re begging you to come back for a fresh start and they’re wondering why your pride is keeping you from doing what’s best for your family in the first place. It’s really easy to fold your tent and say, “Hey, I can go back home for a bit, get a job, save money for a few months, then go on a new adventure.” Then boom, five years pass and you haven’t made any real progress towards your goals. I didn’t talk to them during this period of time, but that’s my best guess as to what happened.
Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, and they both seem radically different, not only in terms of progress, but in terms of mindset as well. Trey bought a house on the other side of town and has a stable job with a wife and a brilliant, brilliant 3 year old daughter. Talking to him, as he casually solved a Rubik’s cube in 3 minutes (?!?!?!?!??!?!), I got the sense that he finally settled down and had his head in the right place. His daughter is light years ahead of any 3 year old I’ve seen mentally, and that is almost never an accident. That’s a product of consciously productive, targeted parenting, and I was beyond proud to see that he was taking his job as a husband and father seriously. He said that he had plans of joining the military after he cleared up his tickets, and while that isn’t a bad idea, I would like for him to aim higher than that long term. The question I kept asking him was, “So when are you gonna change the world?” He’s seriously one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, but he suffers from having so many gifts that he can’t seriously hone in on the one or two that can truly be life changing for himself and others. That admittedly nitpicky complaint aside, I couldn’t be happier for him, since I’m well aware of how much he’s been through and how easily he could have fallen off the proverbial cliff.
Bill, on the other hand, had actually fallen off that cliff, but grabbed on to a rock on the way down and is gradually climbing his way to the ledge again. A cocktail of drugs and a very toxic relationship led to jail time for a crime involving burglary, child endangerment, and a slow motion car chase. From everything I’ve heard, his life had only gone downhill from there lately. I didn’t even expect to speak to him, much less see him, after a conversation with his parents led me to believe that he was in a rehab facility in North Carolina. I wondered to myself how bad he could have possibly gotten, but I stopped myself from asking his parents, sensing that it was still a sore spot for them. The next morning, I received a panicked phone call from Bill’s mom. She told me that he had surprised everyone by coming back in town for her 70th birthday party. After talking to him for several hours, it seemed like he was heading in the right direction as well. He had been drug free (even weed) for the last five months, and was taking advantage of the extensive flood cleanup by finding local jobs in the area in the hopes that someone would hire him full-time. His experiences in various drug treatment facilities led him to pursue a new goal, which was to get a degree in counseling and open a facility to help addicts, using the ideas that he gathered from his checkered past. He, like Trey, is still exceptionally gifted, and I was encouraged that he was developing a laser focus towards a particular goal.
Really, general well-being aside, all of the particulars about those two are secondary. For the first time in forever, we got to just hang out and do nothing in particular. We drank, traded all kinds of stories (the wildest of which being Bill’s three week fling with crack), and just…felt normal. The same way we did during our good and bad times in Houston. Or when we first started bonding in high school. Or when they were the only people to really embrace me after I let everyone down by getting kicked out of Rutgers. Regardless of what happens to the three of us from here, I think that we have a bond that time and distance will find really difficult to break, and I’ll always root for them now and in the future.
(Names have been changed. They won’t care. They’ll read this and ask to fight me. Whatever. Still love them.)