You look back on your life every so often and you realize that the friends you have today are different than the ones you had years ago. You aren’t exactly thrilled about it, but you admit to yourself that the friends you’ll have years from now, will probably also be different people. We move, we change and we seldom keep the same friends for life.
A best friend is the greatest argument that a person can make for the existence of a God, especially a God that loves us. I suppose no one loves a person more than their own mother, but even then there is a sense of obligation that comes with that love. A best friend loves you for no other reason, other than they chose to. Despite your flaws, your secrets and the deepest darkest facts in which you carry, a best friend bears you as what and who you are.
It’s a term that we often throw around, but not many of us are lucky enough to have ever had a best friend. Many of us go through life having many acquaintances. There are a few of us even lucky enough to say that we had some good friends. Yet only a select group of us, fortunate enough to where we can say without uncertainty or a distrust of our honesty, that we had a true best friend. I am one of those people.
I met Aric when I was six years old. He and his family had moved from St. Cloud, Minnesota to our little town of Oskaloosa, Iowa when Aric was three. By all means Aric and I should have never been friends. Or more so I guess I should say we never should have stayed friends. Yet as other friends eventually let separation come between them as a result of their differences, Aric and I never did. It was, without me knowing it, the first sign of just how good of friends we were.
Aric and I were more different from one another than night is to day. He was very extroverted, outgoing and social. People liked him and wanted to be around him. I was introverted, shy as the sun on a cloudy day and come our senior year, still had kids in our class asking me who I was. They knew me simply as Aric’s best friend. Here was this guy, good at everything he did. Football, wrestling and baseball, Aric was a star athlete. He was immensely musically inclined, playing the drums, piano and guitar. If that weren’t enough Aric could sing. People often compared him to Michael Bolton. I’m not sure if that was because he could sing “When A Man Loves a Woman” the exact same way as him or if it was because when he sang women would flock around him like group of caged starving lions around a hunk of meat. All I knew is that either way people were right to compare him to Michael Bolton. It was no surprise to me, seeing that I wasn’t good at anything and how I was a skinny nerd with big huge square glasses that I had no other characterization. I was simply defined as Aric Gruenwald’s best friend.
The world didn’t know who Larry Lionel was, and frankly I was more than ok with that. Having the distinction of being the coolest guy in school’s best friend meant as much to me as did being the star quarterback on the football team did to someone else. In fact it meant more to me. So much of my youth, I couldn’t make sense of my life or my purpose. I don’t think I meant anything to anyone else, and that included myself, but I meant something to Aric. If it wasn’t for Aric, I had nothing in my life to really look forward to.
That’s why whenever I thought about graduation it used to scare me a lot. I knew damn good and well that Aric and I would keep in contact with one another after high school. It’s not like I thought we’d receive our diplomas, say best of luck to one another and be gone. I knew better than that. Yet, I also knew that cell phones and emails weren’t the same as talking to each other every day at school. They weren’t the same as cruising around in his car talking about life.
I had a rather rough home life. My mom screwed around on my dad and my dad screwed around on my mom. Neither gave much of a shit about me or my brother Lauren. We were ok when we were little because of our grandma. She had a strong influence on us and kept us on the straight and narrow. Yet when she died, we no longer had that guide to lead us on the clear path and Lauren found himself messed up on drugs. One day he wondered into a dark cave of bad choices, and he never found his way out. I can’t say my fate would have been much different if it weren’t for Aric. He saved me from that life.
Once high school was over, I had no real intentions of ever going to college. I had never liked school all that much and my mainly C’s report card reflected it. Yet I knew that while I was stuck in Oskaloosa, Iowa the rest of my life, Aric was going to go out into the world and make something of himself. Some people would argue that Aric already had it made. That he came from a rich home with a rich mommy and Daddy and could have his degree paid for without ever working for it. That wasn’t true at all. Aric’s grades were so good that he could have gone anywhere he wanted in the state of Iowa on scholarship. He was the only one in our class who had received an admission to Grinnell College, one of the hardest schools in the state to get into. While not quite DI material, a bunch of DII and DIII schools were asking him to be a part of their sports programs. In the end though, Aric ended up at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. Why? Because that’s where Aric talked me into applying and that’s where we ended up going together. Aric gave up a multitude of opportunities for me.
It had always been that way the entire time I had known Aric. It had always been him who had done something for me. I realized one day that I could look back on it all and name time after time after time where Aric had gotten me out of trouble or helped me out in one way or another. I couldn’t think of a single time where I had done something for him. It bothered me a great deal. I wanted to show Aric how much his friendship meant to me, like he had me for all this time. I wanted to be as good of a friend as he was to me. Nothing had ever come though. No opportunity had ever come to where I could prove myself as his best friend. It would.
“Larry”, Aric said to me as he threw me a soda, “Have you seen Brandy?”
“No”, I replied not knowing or caring where she was, “I haven’t”
I didn’t care much for Brandy. She was way too prissy and concerned with the rules of popularity for me. I never felt she cared much for Aric and always had another agenda for dating him. She was so fake. She didn’t like me anymore than I liked her either. I knew she would have talked Aric into not being my friend anymore if she could have. She knew just as well that if I could have I would have talked Aric into dumping her. He could have any girl that he wanted and to know that he chose such a conniving little wench like her, drove me to the edge. Aric was a stubborn man though, and Brandy and I had no choice but to tolerate one another.
“Will you go see if she’s in her room?”
I’d just as soon that we went wherever we were going alone. Aric had said that we were going on a long road trip to a party somewhere near Davenport. A long road trip with Aric couldn’t last long enough. Aric was so much fun to talk to. He could make a trip through western Nebraska entertaining. Yet you put Brandy in the car with us and between her constant nagging and annoying bickering, backing up out of a parking space seemed like an eternity. If that weren’t enough she was also bringing Claire. I didn’t know Claire very well but I had preconceived notions about her. Like Brandy, she was very pretty and she knew it. Why Aric wanted to set me up with her, I’ll never know. He saw a lot in me I suppose. That’s what he told me anyway. He saw an intelligent, inspiring, motivational and mesmerizing mystical soul. That’s not what anyone else saw though. A girl like Claire saw a nerdy, boring, goofy looking guy that she wanted nothing to do with. The last thing I wanted to do was spend a combined five hours in a car with a girl who was going to make it more than clear that she was insulted that Brandy and Aric had presented me as her date. Yet I knew Aric wanted me to give it a shot, so I agreed to it.
As I approached Brandy’s room, I heard a faint, flirtatious giggle. Upon getting closer, I began to make out one side of a conversation.
“Yeah, I got it’s Lowell”, Brandy’s irritating voice I could make out easily, “Let me just take care of this and we’ll be together soon”
I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. I had done that once before and not only did I put my foot, I put my whole damn leg in my mouth by being wrong. I didn’t want to go through that again, but it sure sounded like the kind of words you’d say to a significant other. Whoever was on the other line with Brandy, it wasn’t Aric.
I waited for about thirty seconds more and knocked on the already opened a hair door.
“Yeah” she answered as I opened the door up completely and walked in, “What?”
“Aric’s ready to go”
“Ok” she said as if she already knew, “Get out”
Even though she meant it as an insult, I gladly stepped out of her room. The less time I had to spend around her the better. As I walked down the hall to Aric and I’s room I began to imagine what Hell was like. I figured it must not be that bad of a place considering Brandy wasn’t in it yet.
I went into Aric and I’s room, sat down and started playing Super Nintendo. Brandy and Claire came into the room.
Aric who was coming back from the bathroom came up behind them.
“Brandy”, he greeted, “Claire. You two ready to go?”
“I need to talk to you out in the hall alone”, I could tell as Brandy spoke that she was probably going to try and talk Aric into not bringing me along.
Aric and Brandy went out into the hall and it made for an awkward silence between Claire and I.
“You want to play Donkey Kong with me?”
As soon as she rolled her eyes at me, I felt as much regret as I did patronized. I knew it was going to be a long night.
Aric and Brandy came back into the room as Brandy motioned Claire to come with her.
“We’ll see you outside” she said to Aric as the two of them left.
I knew Aric had been given the order to cut me from the traveling squad and frankly, I was more than ok with it. I actually looked forward to it. While I felt sorry for Aric having to be alone in the car with the two of them, I was sleepy. I figured an hour or two more of Donkey Kong and I’d be out. I had no problem staying behind.
“You know man” Aric said as he sat down beside me, “I really hate to ask this of you but..”
“It’s ok”, I cut him off, “I’m cool with staying here dude”
Aric let out a little laugh, “No, not that. Brandy wants to talk to me alone on the way there. I was going to ask you if you’d drive Claire in your car”
The only thing fun about going was that I could bullshit with Aric on the way there and on the way back. Other than that there wasn’t anything to look forward to. Now I had to be stuck alone in the car with Claire. If you saw Claire you’d probably wonder what in the Hell was wrong with me. Pretty face, dark straight brown shoulder length hair and a pair of D as in damn those are big double D’s. Who wouldn’t want to be alone in a car with that? Me. I liked beautiful women too, the hidden files on my computer will more than attest to that. Yet as far as I’m concerned, they need a bit of personality too. “Bitch” isn’t exactly a quality that I look for in a woman and so far that’s the only quality Claire had shown me.
I knew as hard as I was taking the news, Claire had to be taking it even worse. I could just imagine Claire’s response as Brandy told her the situation. I pictured Claire throwing a fit and acting like contracting terminal cancer would have been a fairer fate. As my thoughts began to run, I pictured myself doing 140 mph down the interstate just to get there as fast as possible. I had to get myself out of this.
“Aric”, I came up with my plan as I spoke, “I’d really like to help you out, but I don’t have the gas money to get all the way up there and back”
As Aric handed me $40, I turned off the TV and followed him out the door.
It was very uncomfortable sitting in the car waiting for Aric and Brandy to get going so we could follow them. A part of me wanted to try and clear the air again, but I figured my warm May gesture would probably garner another bitter cold January response. About 15 minutes down the road, I wanted to turn the radio on, but I wasn’t in the mood to have Claire shoot down my taste in music. So, we sat in silence.
I believe we were a little past Fairfield when Claire reached up and turned the radio on herself. A song that I knew I liked, but couldn’t quite remember came on. It put me in a good mood hearing a song I hadn’t heard in forever. Then right as the singer was about to start the first verse, Claire switched the station.
Hip hop. It just had to be hip hop. I had to put up with songs about girls wishing that the abusive and adulterous boyfriends they had restraining orders would come back and love them for the next two hours. If that weren’t enough, she blared the volume as loud as it would go. My buttons had now been pushed. I turned the volume down. It earned me a second time of Claire rolling her eyes at me. I didn’t care. She was lucky I just didn’t turn the damn shit off or make her listen to my country. I’m sure she’d have been thrilled to listen to two hours’ worth of unfaithful cowboys singing about drinking beer and seeking forgiveness. As much as I couldn’t stand the hip hop, I was glad for it because it made the future certain instead of unknown. It kept Claire happy and it allowed me to relax.
As we rolled down the highway I began to think of how I got my car. While we were in high school Aric’s father had gotten him a dark green 1969 Chevy Chevelle. I loved that car. Aric and I would cruise all over Oskaloosa in it. We’d go on road trips to Des Moines and Iowa City. Sometimes we’d go with other people and sometimes we’d go alone.
It’s amazing sometimes as forgetful as we sometimes are, how well we can recall certain events in our lives. We were both sophomores in high school. Aric had only had his license for a few months. We were coming back from a concert in Des Moines. We had just passed Prairie City.
“You know Larry” the Led Zeppelin that played in the background fit his tone perfectly, “I wonder sometimes if I didn’t have a rich father and all of this money…this car and everything if all of these people who are my friends would still be my friends”
I wanted to believe that Aric would still be as well liked as what he was but I knew better than that. If the world judged you on the kind of person you were, then yes, he would have. People don’t judge you that way though. They judge you in very superficial and shallow ways. The money you have. The car you drive. The girlfriend that you date. That’s how people look at you. That’s how people see you. I knew that even then and it made me really ponder about the question Aric had just asked me.
“You’re the only one” he looked me dead in the eye as he spoke, “that I don’t doubt”
I wasn’t sure exactly how to respond to what Aric had just said to me. I needed a moment to take it all in and process it. I wondered exactly what he meant by what he had just said and luckily for me, he explained it.
“If I didn’t have all this”, he said, “You’re the only one that I know that would still be my friend. Dan, Jenny I don’t know.”
That really threw me for a loop. I always knew Aric thought of me as one of his best friends but I guess I just never really let him saying that I was his very best friend be enough for me to really accept that title. I had always thought for a long time that Aric thought more of Dan than he did of me. Dan and he had a lot more in common. Wasn’t that justification enough for me to feel that way? After all, he and Dan had been the superstars of junior high. They were the best athletes, the best students and not only did all of the girls in junior high want to date them, but some of the ones in high school did too. They were labeled to be the next best things their freshman year. Like a UPS man in the dead of a winter’s day, they more than delivered. Both played varsity football during the season. Both qualified for state in wrestling and both made all state in baseball. People associated them together on about every level. I didn’t even play sports in high school. In junior high I played two seventh grade football games as an eighth grader. I won two matches in two years of wrestling and between basketball and baseball I hold an unbeatable school record for most time accumulated on the bench. I was no athlete. You’d have better luck finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq during the Bush administration than you would an A or B on my report card. The plus next to a C is the highest it ever got. It made sense to me why Aric would have, had he have thought more of Dan than he did of me. Dan was an equal. I wasn’t.
Yet I knew as I looked over at Aric that night he didn’t see me as inferior and he never had. Jenny was his girlfriend at the time. Unlike Brandy, I liked her. I know Aric really cared a lot for her too. She cared for him too, but would she have if he wasn’t rich? Would she have if he wasn’t popular? He didn’t know. What he did know is that if there was no money, no car, no fame, Larry Lionel would still be there.
Two years later, Aric and I graduated on May 22nd. For a graduation gift, Aric’s father had gotten him a newer car.
“Are you going to keep the Chevelle?”, I asked him
“No”, I figured that Aric would be as upset as I was at the idea of giving it up, but his words said otherwise, “I’m going to give it away”
“Do you think we could take one last ride in it?” I looked at that Chevelle as a friend. A proper goodbye is what you give a friend when you part ways.
We just drove around Oskaloosa all night. Aric still put 100 miles on it though. We sat in the mall parking lot and down by William Penn University talking about all of the fun times we had in that car. We spent close to five hours cruising along and when Aric dropped me off that night I felt that it hadn’t been long enough.
It may be hard for people to understand why the idea of Aric giving up that Chevelle was so hard on me. I think most people would look at the situation and figure that Aric and I would have just as good of times in his new car as we did in the Chevelle, so what was my problem?
I guess I saw that Chevelle as a symbolism of my youth. A symbolism of a time in my life that I held so dear to my heart that I didn’t want to let go of. It was a reminder to me that even though Aric still was a part of my life, that one day maybe he wouldn’t be. I guess that’s why the thought of the Chevelle being given up bothered me.
Soon after I was filing financial aid papers and borrowing money from the Iowa student loan. Seeing that neither one of my parents would cosign for me, Aric’s dad did. We made the half hour drive from Oskaloosa to Ottumwa on a Thursday morning. Aric’s mom went with us to help us move into the dorms. Aric’s dad would be up later.
When I was little Grandma had instilled in me that I needed to work for the things in life that I needed and wanted. All throughout high school I worked at the YMCA near my house and would again that following summer. During the school year though I wanted to find a job in Ottumwa near the school.
“Aric” I said to him as we finished getting our room situated, “You mind driving me around to look for a job?”
“I think he could”, I turned to see Aric’s dad just arrived standing in our door way, “but I think maybe you ought to drive instead”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a very recognizable pair of keys. He threw them at me as I caught them in my hand. A tingle went up and down my neck as I held them. Aric looked over at me as I raced him outside. There in the parking lot parked right next to his Silverado was the Chevelle. Aric made his way over to the passenger side door and opened it up.
“Well come on man”, he said getting in, “Let’s go see who’s hiring around here”
My mom was too busy chasing men around the bars of Oskaloosa to even given me a ride in her car, let alone let me use it. I wasn’t even for positive where my dad was. Last I heard he was staying in What Cheer with a woman and her kids. They didn’t care whether I had transportation. It meant nothing to them. Yet here was Aric and his family, giving me a car.
“We figured we might as well give it to someone who would treat it right” Aric’s mom said to me later on.
“Think of it as a gift” was Aric’s Dad’s response when I insisted on paying for it, “Sort of a late graduation present”
I didn’t feel it was right getting the Chevelle for free. So I sent a check to Aric’s parent’s house for an entire year. At $300 a month, I figured that $3,600 ought to be enough. I came to find out a short time after making my last payment that I was $3,600 richer than I thought. The Gruenwald’s tore up every check I had sent them.
I was always worried that other people would believe that I was friends with Aric only because of what he did for me economically. It made sense considering that everyone else that was friends with him was for that exact reason. Yet Aric’s mom knew, Aric’s Dad knew and most of all Aric knew that wasn’t true about me. Despite what the rest of the world thought, it didn’t matter. Aric knew the truth, and that did. I didn’t see Aric as the son of a millionaire. I didn’t see Aric as the most popular kid in Oskaloosa High’s 2000 graduation class. I saw Aric as my best friend. That’s who he was to me.
“Hey!!!”, even though Claire had yelled it, it sounded like a faint whisper below the obnoxiously deafening Hip Hop music, “They’re getting off on the exit”
I slowed down and followed Aric and Brandy off the interstate. We drove for about twenty more minutes, when we came to a set of three houses all within a short distance of one another out in the country. From all of the people outside and the fire light scattered among the beer cans, it was an easy guess to which house the party was going on at.
I parked on the grass next to Aric. As we got out of the Chevelle, Claire walked over to Brandy as if she were on the coast of freedom and I had been a viper pit in Vietnam.
“Larry!” Aric shouted in my direction as I walked towards him, “Don’t let me get too messed up tonight. I gotta drive home!”
“I won’t” I promised him as he put his arm around me and we headed towards the house. As we went in I still wasn’t exactly sure where we were so I asked Aric.
“Beats me man” as good as Aric was with the geography of the world, it surprised me he didn’t even know his own home state well enough to know where we were.
“We’re near Clarence” a guy who had heard me ask the question, answered it.
I had never heard of Clarence before. So, “near Davenport” was a good enough answer for me. As we got closer to the living room, the Hip Hop music coming from it became much clearer. Without realizing it, I found myself singing along with a song that I heard on the way up. Once I became aware of my illicit actions, I stopped immediately hoping that my Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney CD’s would forgive me for my musical infidelity.
A few hours later I found myself oddly enough sitting on the couch beside Claire. She was straddled on top of another guy kissing him, but she was still beside me. Even though I was neither drunk, nor tired, I figured the safest thing for me to do would be to pretend like I had passed out.
“Hey” Aric said as he came up behind me and shook me awake, “You know it isn’t always going to be this way”. I guess from the way he looked over at Claire and the guy she was dry humping, he took it harder than I did.
“Someday Larry” he said to me pounding his fist on my shoulder, “Someday, you won’t be on the bottom looking up anymore. You’re too good of a guy for that. There’s a place for you on top of the mountain. It just isn’t there yet.”
“I know Aric” a part of me doubted it, but he didn’t.
“You God Damn right you know it” he said reaching across me and grabbing a hold of the beer I had poured couple of hours earlier and handing it to me, “Now finish this! I want to say that you had at least one beer before we head on out.”
I held my beer up and nodded to let Aric know that I’d finish it. Yet as he walked away to go find Brandy, I put the beer back on the table no more finished that it was before. Beer was an acquired taste that I just hadn’t acquired. I preferred the red wine Aric’s parents had in their cellar.
I got up and said to Claire that it was time to leave.
“Go Fuck Yourself” the guy she was with obviously had the type of personality that a girl like Claire would be attracted to.
“If you want a ride home”, I said remaining polite, “We’ll be outside”
The guy Claire was with suddenly stopped feeling her body with his hands and threw her off of himself.
“What’d you say you little shit”, I’m not sure what he thought I said, but whatever it was it must have been pretty bad.
Before I could respond he had me by the throat pinned up against the couch. I tried to fight, but didn’t have the strength to get him off. At 19 years old I began to think that I might never experience my twenties. Before I knew it Aric had come out of nowhere, grabbing the guy by the hair and ripping him off of me. He went to attack Aric, and Aric hit him so hard in the face that he went down hard. Shaken he came back at Aric as Aric hit one of his wrestling moves on him and sent him crashing through the coffee table.
The music stopped and the oxygen that came back to my lungs was the only thing I could hear as all eyes lay on Aric who was standing over the guy as if he were an executioner about to make a kill.
“Aric” I said to him as he remained starring at the guy who sat still in total terror, “It’s time to go”
Aric had been in some sort of zone. It was a zone I had only seen him in a few times before. When he got in it, he was no one to mess with. As we walked outside, the people in the room more than made room for us.
Brandy and Claire were more than upset with Aric as they ripped into him like a fat kid into a bag of Ruffles. Claire was upset that Aric had put her potential reproductive partner out of commission. I think Brandy was upset with Aric because he had gotten that guy off of me before he had killed me.
“Larry” Aric said to me as he walked up to me, “I’m going to have Brandy and Claire ride home with you”
“Couldn’t Brandy and Claire take the Silverado and you ride back with me?” I did not want to be stuck in my car with two girls aggressively competing for National Bitch of the Year honors. I was going to do what I could to get out of it. I knew there was no hope though. Aric let no one, and I mean no one drive his Silverado except for him.
“I won’t ever ask this of you again”, his words gave me encouragement that maybe he might be ending things with Brandy, “but, I need to ride home alone tonight”
I wasn’t sure what was all going through Aric’s mind, but it didn’t matter. After all that he had just done for me, I at least owed him that.
“Ok man” and that was my agreeing statement.
“Here” he said handing me a pair of headphones and an MP3 player, “It has plenty of juice on it. There’s a ton of country on it too”
I figured if there wasn’t a gun to put to my head while being stuck in a small space with Brandy and Claire, a pair of headphones to drown out whatever they said or the crappy music they played was the next best thing.
Aric had to go back inside the house to try and find his hat that he had left inside. He told me to go on ahead and not wait for him. He joked that he could wait 15 minutes and still beat us home as slow as I drove. I just laughed and told him that I’d see him back at school. Had I known the future that lay ahead, I would have waited for Aric to come back out. I didn’t know though, so I drove down the road thinking Aric would pass us eventually. He never did.