Issue Forty-Two - Summer 2023

You Can Call Him Al

By Kathleen McGuire

It was sometime during the blurry semester-to-semester haze of my sophomore year of college that I met Albert. My best friend Nick (now my husband) introduced us outside a dive bar in Ybor city or maybe Albert just hopped into Nick’s car on the way to Chipotle one night. What I do know is that once I knew Albert, he was always there, like a facial feature, permanent and recognizable and without it, you aren’t quite you.

When I met Albert, he was wearing a Star Wars baseball tee and had shoulder length ash-blond hair and eyes the color of the moon. He didn’t engage in the usual disaster of small talk. I was never asked what my major was or how I like the Florida humidity. I was asked some strangely deep query like, “Who are you?” or “What is the meaning of life?” And as weird and on the spot as these questions were, I instantly felt a kinship with his brain. Like our minds were both floating in the same gelatinous liquid, trying to figure out all this life-stuff. Although we shared a kinship for the weird, we released these thoughts in different ways. I instantly babble whatever tiny thoughts are in my brain and he mulls and mulls everything over and maybe never speaks about it. But I can see all the hidden words dancing in his moon-eyes.

Speaking of moons, the second time I hung out with Albert he mooned me from a passing car. He just dropped his drawers and let it all hang out of the passenger’s side window. I was driving beside their car over a large bridge and saw what I thought was the brightest and closest full moon of my life, but it was Albert’s ass, reflecting white and shiny against the night sky. I drove on ahead laughing and questioning the reality of the moon and thinking how wonderfully odd he was.

He’s not dead, in case you were thinking that, this is no eulogy. I’m friends with him still, these ten years later, although we live 2000 miles apart now. What I’m doing here is paying homage to one of my best friends and letting you get to know Albert and maybe be reminded how beautiful and rare a good friendship is.

Albert is idealistic, perhaps to a fault, and impulsive. If things aren’t going how he imagines they should be going he has a fiery impulse to transform circumstances (relationships, foods, concepts, beliefs, living arrangements) into what they should be. He doesn’t do this in a bullish or particular manner. He mostly goes about his crusades with humility. I can remember him laying into someone only once. That someone was Nick and it was over something as stupid as Nick’s inability to decide on going to the beach or chilling at home. Albert pulled the car to the side of the road, wheeled around and looked at Nick in the backseat and berated him well and good. Nick’s indecision was in opposition to the ideal.

Things weren’t going how he thought they should be going his junior year. He was trapped in a major he didn’t care about and saw no path forward that would lead to the life he wanted. He quit college and decided majors and jobs and mortgages were useless constraints of modern existence. He moved out of his apartment and made his home in the back of his Toyota Corolla, smug with his frugality and anti-system gun slinging. I thought he was being foolish and ridiculous and knew he wouldn’t last long in that car but he was dead set on making this new “car as house ecosystem” work for him. He lasted a week and then moved in with me and my family.

Living with someone for a while bonds you in ways that wouldn’t be realized otherwise. Albert moved into the back bedroom with my older brother who was temporarily home after graduating college trying to pay his loans by organizing after school music programs. I thought Albert and I would hang out all the time, chatting while making dinner and watching movies at night. But I hardly saw him the three months he lived with me.

He got a job at Screwy Louie’s, this terrible tourist-aimed seafood joint all too common on the West Coast of Florida. He biked there at dawn, scrubbed grates, prepared overly seasoned grouper sandwiches and biked back. Imagining a full time future at Screwy Louie’s depressed him. He spent most of his non-screwey time in the bedroom, curtains drawn, reading Reddit threads. He’d emerge and cook something creative and delicious for lunch and then slink back to the cave. I worried about him. He is naturally the quiet, interior-landscape type but this hiding out and reading threads seemed to shut him down completely. In an attempt to pry open the sealed doors of his thoughts, I invited him to go to Starbucks after his shift.

Once we’d settled down with our steaming cups of coffee, I looked across the table at him with expectation. He looked beyond me into some wide-expanding otherworld and got lost. His eyes were somewhere else entirely and I had no way of bringing them back down to earth. I tried conversation starters but they dissipated after a few sentences. Conversation is a dance and if a partner is unwilling, it turns into a sad bedroom dance party for one. We were there for over three hours, which shocked me because surely if we weren’t conversing there would be no reason to sit across from each other and sip hot drinks in contemplation. I can do that alone. As the hours ticked by, my verbal-processing heart started to soften and note the beauty of just existing together but separate, alone with our thoughts but united in the act of thinking itself.

We went to a park afterwards, which I thought was to stretch our legs and suck fresh air into our staling lungs. Instead, he parked the car and we sat in the parking lot listening to the Ramones. The tracks rolled from one to the next and we bobbed our heads and watched kids and their mothers walk to the playground. After the album circled back to the start he split himself open and told me all the thoughts that were walking through his brain-folds the past few months and I started to understand his behavior, his motives and his contemplation better. It was enough to satiate my word-hunger but more than that it was enough to make me realize I didn’t need to get anything more out of him than what he was willing to give me. I learned how to let Albert be Albert and expect nothing else.

At the end of that summer Albert decided to give college another good old college try. He moved out of my house and back onto campus. The night Nick and I got him settled back into his apartment we went out to a golf course near the complex. The moon was golden and bursting and made the green all magic. We ran over the grass and got dew on our bare feet and were filled with youth and laughter and all young good things. We sat in the grass making a circle with our knees and Albert made us promise to come out here on our 21st birthdays with a six pack toasting our friendship and our vigor. We promised each other and awaited another magical night two years later. It never came. Nick and I had married and moved by our 21st birthdays. It’s now been five years.

We were just talking to Albert on the phone the other morning and he threatened, “What’s even the point of keeping up with friends who are so far away. It’s just not the same.” Again, I find his idealism clouds the what-is-ism. Our friendship has been made purer by the trial, the fire, of distance and has come out shining. It’s shining and burnished because it is still whole, regardless of proximity. Because friendship is beyond location, it’s a mindset, a pact, a promise to keep our brains swimming and connected through the sludge and mystery of life. Maybe next year we’ll give him a call and tell him to grab a six pack and we’ll grab one and go to our prospective golf courses in our separate time zones and share that moment despite the distance. It’s the spirit, the communion of a thing that lends it its significance.

Cheers, mate.

Copyright McGuire 2023