The following is an excerpt from Ben Dolnick’s At the Bottom of Everything, now available through Pantheon Books.
I’ve noticed that whenever I tell the story of going to look for Thomas (all it takes is a couple of beers, like quarters into a jukebox), at some point whoever I’m talking to will say two things:
(1) You’re such a good friend!
(2) How could you just pick up and leave like that?
I was nothing like a good friend, and I could only pick up and leave like that because the thing I was picking up and leaving was no longer, in any recognizable sense, a life. But I don’t say this. My conversation self, the one I send out to bars and parties and weddings, is a half-truth-spouting machine. Here I’ll try to do better.
I’d spent the last couple of years (really the years since I was fifteen) ignoring the fact that Thomas needed me, as if his life were a flashing Check Engine light in the corner of my dashboard. I’d let emails from his mom pile up so long that it would have been worse, I convinced myself, to respond that late than just not to respond at all. I’d become an expert at changing the subject whenever his name came up (did you ever think he’d drop out of school? did you hear he was in the hospital? what’s he doing in India?). I’d even, one especially unproud morning, turned and speed-walked out of Safeway because I’d seen Thomas’s dad, or someone who looked like Thomas’s dad, rooting around in the bin of red peppers.
But of course shame was going to catch up with me sooner or later. Shame or Thomas’s mom, who startled me outside the CVS on Wisconsin Avenue one day when I’d just bought a box of condoms.
“You’re just hell to get ahold of,” she said, smiling. I held my bag behind my back. “Do you have time to come back to our place? Richard would love to see you.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’m actually . . .” and pointed off vaguely behind me.
She nodded. “You know Thomas talks about you as much as anybody,” she said. My heart was racing, reasonably enough. “I know he’d love to hear from you.”
“I’ll write to him,” I said, and I did my best to sound as if the thing that had been stopping me until then was just that it had never occurred to me.
We hugged (this took some ginger CVS-bag maneuvering on my part) and promised to see each other soon. “Send your mother our love,” she called out as she got into her car (a new Volvo, this one blue). I was fake smiling and murmuring for a block and a half.
Thomas had been the smartest kid at Dupont Prep, the last person anyone would have pegged for disaster. And I, semireasonable soccer player and wearer of striped polo shirts, had been his best friend. We were, for a few years, one of those pairs, like Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, that no one could quite believe in or understand.
Anyway, childhood friends, given a decade or two, turn into strangers. Their parents don’t. I could more or less convince myself that the Thomas I’d been doing my best not to think about was someone else entirely, but his mom (who looked so pale and defeated, who was probably even then asking Richard to guess who she’d run into) was unmistakably the same woman who’d driven me home when I’d forgotten my retainer, who’d bought me calamine lotion when I came back from field day with poison ivy. But I didn’t turn around.
I won’t try to defend myself except to say that my own life still seemed to me complicated and demanding enough that I didn’t think I had room in it for Thomas. And that I turned out to be as wrong, in imagining the course of those next few months, as I’d ever been about anything.
But just then I only knew that I’d barely escaped a visit to the Pells, and that Anna was waiting for me. I hurried back to my car like a fish released, just in time, from a barbed and rusting hook.