Wednesday 9 August 2023

Friendship by Barry Garelick, espresso americano

    The last time Thomas and Mark met was in New York City. They were friends from college who were so close as to be inseparable. When they suddenly stopped talking to each other after their last visit, people who knew them were shocked.

That last meeting occurred in the early seventies, one year after they were out of school and shakily on their own. Thirty years later, in the early 2000’s, they resumed communication having run into each other as many do through the internet and kept up a sporadic correspondence through email with never the slightest mention of the falling out or what led to it.

Their latest e-mail exchange took Mark by surprise not just because Thomas had almost admitted he might be wrong, but because of his suggestion for a reunion:

I hope we can leave this with no ill feeling and agree to disagree and maybe just leave things be. I’m happy to concede you know more about math and how it should be taught than I do. It was your major for God’s sake even if you turned your back on it. I admire you for the courage of your convictions as well as for wading into teaching math (middle-school no less) in your retirement yearsWhich reminds me, I think it’s high time we had a reunion. I suggest we meet somewhere in between our respective coasts. Our alma mater at Ann Arbor comes to mind but I’ll await your response as to 1) whether you want a reunion, and 2) where it should be.

Ann Arbor seemed right. Thomas now lived in a small town in Connecticut, having moved from New York; Mark lived in a small town in California, having moved from San Francisco. Thomas thought that in the spirit of their friendship that they read a play that Mark had written and which the two of them had performed.

The play was called Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Ode to Something or Other. They had performed it during their senior year in a newly-built theater carved out of what had been a vacant space between two parts of the dormitory that housed the then-new Residential College at University of Michigan. Thomas, as before, would read the part of a man who called himself Ludwig Van Beethoven; Mark would once again be the ‘announcer’. The play was a pastiche of talk show segments which Mark had once described as Waiting for Godot as performed by Abbot and Costello. The segments served as flashbacks which the two characters, now in the future would comment upon. Ultimately flashback and commentary would become indistinguishable.


They met in Mark’s room at the Bell Tower Inn, located in the center of campus. ‘Near our old haunts if they haven’t been replaced with a Starbucks,’ Thomas had said when deciding on the location for their meeting. Thomas’ appearance had changed. At seventy two he walked with a cane, grimaced when he sat down and groaned (softly but audibly) when he shifted positions in his chair. His hip replacements hadn’t taken too well. Mark had aged as well; his face was gaunt and he had a slight stoop.

Thomas’ general health became the focus of their initial small talk. He had given up alcohol, and being a vegan; he now ate meat, claiming that there were definite improvements in his overall health, well-being and general outlook on the world, the latter which he attributed to a tripling of his testosterone level. Conversation then moved on to mutual friends, old girl friends, Thomas’ previous marriages, Mark’s current one, where they had lived, careers, dogs they had owned and other relevant topics that hadn’t been fully covered in their many-years’ email correspondence. There then came a lull in the conversation during which Thomas sighed, ran his hand over his face and said ‘Yeah.’

‘Yeah what?’ Mark said.  

‘There’s something I want to say before we begin,’ Thomas said and took a breath. ‘I guess I never owned up to this, but after we met in New York it was at a time when I was trying to make it as an actor with dreams of stardom and fame and all that. I was a treacherous friend, I’m afraid and it’s been gnawing at my gut for years.’  He sighed again.

‘Yes,’ Mark said.

Yes meaning what, exactly?’

‘Meaning, yes, we’ve all been guilty of treachery.’

 ‘I suppose. But I was particularly treacherous.’

‘I suppose,’ Mark said.

‘I was hoping you would disagree, but that’s fine,’ Thomas said.

 ‘I was going to say ‘I suppose we should begin’.’

 ‘Of course. I knew that’s what you meant!’

And with that, they read in fits and starts, through the many entrances and exits of the one and only guest who called himself Ludwig Van Beethoven. The reading was frequently interrupted with their laughter, punctuated with commentary and reminiscence.

Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Ludwig Van Beethoven!

 LVB (speaking while making entrance): Which is not my real name, but rather something I call myself so that I embody concept not personality, and then, not even that.

Annc: And our one and only guest on the show. Always glad to have you.

LVB: Shut up.

Annc: What’s with you?

LVB: Nothing. I just couldn’t think of anything to say.

Annc: So what have you been up to?

LVB: Do you mean recently?

Annc: I don’t see what else I could have meant.

LVB: You could have meant recently as in immediate past, like what I was doing before I came out on stage or the past few weeks, depending on how long it’s been since you last saw me, or…

Annc: I think you know what I meant…

LVB: But if you meant before I came out on stage, which is what I presume you meant…

Annc: It wasn’t…

LVB: But it’s what I meant, so I’ll answer it that way.

Annc: I meant recently in the last few days.

LVB: I would rather not say.

Annc: Not the last few days? Or would you rather talk about what you were doing before you came out on stage.

LVB: Actually, why do we always have to talk about something?

Annc: Well, now I feel we’re getting somewhere. Would you mind telling me what you’ve been up to …uh, in the last few days, say?

LVB: If you insist…    

Annc: I do insist!

LVB: (pause) Not much.

(Postures and lighting change to indicate that they are now viewers of the flashback just seen.)

Annc: I think what we were trying to do back then was demonstrate there was no difference between those things thought to be different from each other and in so doing we created what I call the ‘vacuum of concern’.

LVB: Yes, that and trying to give everything a meaning where none will serve.


They had reached the fifth or sixth talk segment, when Mark who had the next line stopped. They had been reading for a while and were nearing the end of the play.

‘Yeah,’ Mark said and sighed.

‘Yeah what?’

‘I was thinking of something Scott Daly said to me the day after we did the play.’

‘I’ll bite,’ Thomas said. ‘Though I’m not sure I want or need to hear this, but go on.’

‘He asked what the play was supposed to mean,’ Mark said.

‘That sounds like him. And you said what?’

‘I told him ‘Your problem is you try to give everything a meaning where none will serve.’’

‘Beautiful. And his come-back?’

‘Nothing,’ Mark said. ‘And he said it quite well, I must admit.’

‘He was a master, I’ll give him that. Didn’t you tell me he was a professor somewhere?’

‘Yes,’ Mark said. ‘I Googled his name a few years ago. He’s a drama professor at Boston College. Or was at the time. It’s been a while since I looked him up.’

‘Good God. He was a one-note actor. Based on my unpleasant memories of him, I would guess he is or was an aggressive but undistinguished academic.’

‘I seem to remember he had a penchant for wearing white face no matter what role he was in,’ Mark said. ‘I’m sure I’m exaggerating, but not by much.’

‘Yeah, well, if it’s any distant consolation, I broke his nose in a touch football game at Dick Larson’s first wedding. Not sure about the locale, but I did crack his snooty snooter.’

‘I didn’t know this.’

‘Whatever led you to track down that jerk?’

‘A morbid curiosity I possess over people who would best be forgotten, I guess.’

Thomas shifted in his seat with a slight groan.

‘He came to mind just now,’ Mark said, ‘because I can see that the play has its good points but I can also see how I was trying to be absurdist and philosophical and imitating who knows how many people. So as much as I disliked Scott, I can’t help but think that he saw through the veneer.’

‘Listen, homie,’ Thomas said. ‘Whether you knew it or not – and I seriously doubt that Scott knew it – the play was illustrating Derrida’s ideas about metaphorical displacement. Among other things. The center of the structure has to be hidden within the structure, but escapes structure itself. So you weren’t too far off with your ‘vacuum of concern’. And the performers commenting about it as if they knew what they were talking about – that’s what you were parodying. And talk about imitation, what the hell was he all about? Scott didn’t have a clue.’


‘I didn’t know who Derrida was any more than I knew who Marcuse was, and who everyone was reading at the time, going around saying ‘Oooh Marcuse, he’s so great.’

‘I get it. I really do. But so what? Writers don’t always know what motivates what they write. People like Scott don’t understand that; they require convenience over cogitation. They’ve grown up to be the idiots with all the answers based on some YouTube video they saw. Or what they read on Twitter. So it isn’t too hard for me to tell a hawk from a handsaw when the wind is right.

Thomas drank from his water bottle and walked over to the window, looking out at the town that was both the same and different.

‘I wonder if Scott has mellowed with age,’ Mark said.

            ‘Maybe. Although in the case of Scott, any mellowness that has ensued is likely because his nose is now impossible to break, being too well protected by the tight fit in his own greasy anus.’

‘I should be writing this down,’ Mark said.

‘I’ll send you a transcript when I get back home,’ Thomas said. ‘Anyway, I’m willing to give him his due and admit that my ill feelings toward the shmuck are probably due to jealousy on my part. At least he made it in drama. I’m a certified flop in that arena.’

‘It’s always good to give people their due.’ Mark said.

‘I suppose.’

 ‘Well, the way I often think about it, is that at our age the people we hated might be dead. Then you feel bad for speaking ill of them. It’s been a while since I Googled his name.’

‘Well then. If he is indeed dead…’

Thomas raised an imaginary glass. ‘To Scott,’ he said.

‘To Scott,’ Mark said.

‘Long may his memory endure,’ Thomas said. ‘Jerk,’ he added with a sardonic grin.


Both laughed like two fiends as drunk as hoot owls after a night of debauchery, though neither of them had touched a drop of alcohol. After a moment they sat in a somewhat rueful silence.

‘Yeah,’ Thomas said.

‘Yeah what?’

‘Yeah, fifty years is one fuck of a long time,’ Thomas said.

‘I agree.’

‘I look out the window and I see these kids plugged into a totally different world that didn’t exist when we were here. But as much as the world changes, people stay the same somehow. Some for good, some for ill, some for death, and some for life, most for a witches brew of all of the above.’

‘Plus toads,’ Mark said.

‘Yes. Plus toads, thank you. We become fortified in what we know we know. For a long time I looked back on those heady days when we thought we knew it all and were going to conquer the world with our genius – I look back with a sense of tragic irony over the things that didn’t work out as I had fantasized. It seemed that life was one broken promise.’  Thomas looked up at the ceiling and then at Mark. ‘But maybe not so much anymore.’

Mark’s mind wandered in time with Thomas’ ramblings about past regrets. He thought about Thomas’ earlier apology. A treacherous friend; yes. The twenties were about promises, broken or otherwise, and battling demons, Mark decided. After they left college and headed for their separate coasts, Mark realized more and more how dependent he had been on Thomas’ approval and his running interference and supplying the credibility for Mark’s writing.

Shortly after their reunion in New York those fifty or so years ago, Mark wrote a letter to Thomas, with all the good intentions of trying to express why he now chose to keep what he was working on to himself. What came out in his letter, however, was terse and full of accusations. Thomas’ letter back was even more to the point:

‘Your letter has cast a pall over my existence for the last two days. I am now over it. I used to look up to you as a writer and a playwright and maybe even a genius; but since moving here I’ve met real playwrights who have the élan and vision and insight that I was supplying and which you sorely lack. Whatever promise you seemed to hold is nothing more than the pose of a navel-contemplating superior asshole.’ 

In stark counterpoint to the missive that Mark had committed to memory, Thomas was now rhapsodizing about and giving tributes to Mark’s writing. 

‘I think you misremember how ‘Ludwig’ and your other plays were received,’ Thomas said, now sitting on the edge of the bed. ‘It’s not what you write. It’s how you write it. You taught me more in those plays than any literary/theatre class ever did. It certainly kicked me off in my wobbly wanderings in search of an acting career. And you were on my mind when I finally settled down and got my PhD. And eventually teaching young know-it-alls like me.’ He paused once more. ‘Trying to keep them from making the same mistakes I made.’

Mark was on the fence as to whether he believed what Thomas was saying. He wanted to, but knew that he had outgrown it. Thomas probably meant what he was saying right now, and perhaps needed to believe it, he thought. Like many of Thomas’ friends, Mark had learned how to walk the thin line that accepts faults and values friendships.


The sun now cast an orangish glow on the wall; it wouldn’t be long before it was night.

‘Well, what say we continue and put this play to bed,’ Thomas asked.

‘Either that or lay it to rest,’ Mark replied.

‘Have it your way, homie.’

They continued, and when finished, they sat not saying anything, both wondering who would be first to break the silence.


(Postures and lighting indicate that they are now viewers of a flashback)

Annc: I think the danger of the series at first was we were trying to keep it real, and by keeping it real, it tempered the absurdity.

LVB: Yes, but by accepting the absurdity as real rather than the other way around, we were able to create a situation that was both unbelievable and TOTALLY unbelievable.

Annc: Yes, absolutely.

LVB: I overheard a conversation last night about the show, centering on the fact that our conversations could be considered to be art, and then the discussion turned to the inevitable question of what is art.

Annc: And what was the outcome? –

(Lighting changes to that of a flashback)

LVB: I don’t know. I fell asleep.

Annc: I think we’ve finally done it.  We’re on different shows.

LVB: I think you’re right.

Annc: I never thought I’d hear you say that.

LVB: But I think I’m wrong for the part.

Annc: Are you saying that there’s more than one Ludwig Van?

LVB: I think I said so quite some time ago.

Annc: I don’t recall you saying it.

LVB: Well, maybe I didn’t.

Annc: Do they all go by the name of Ludwig Van?

LVB: One of them goes by the name of Batman.

Annc: I know you’re making that up.

LVB: Could be.

Annc: Perhaps it would be interesting if we revealed who we really are.

LVB: But everyone knows who we really are.

Annc: You’re drifting off.

LVB: Maybe.

Annc: I feel as if I’ve been here before.

LVB: I feel as if I’d never left.

About the author


Barry Garelick has written non-fiction pieces that have been published in Atlantic, and Education Next. His fiction has appeared in The Globe Review, Cafe Lit and Fiction on the Web. He lives in Morro Bay, California with his wife. 

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