NR Digital

City Desk

Emeritus Friends

by Richard Brookhiser

My wife came back from lunch with her friend; she was ticked.

She and this friend go a long way back, on parallel paths. Each was a bridesmaid at the other’s wedding, both in the Carter administration. They are in the same profession (shrinks). They do not practice the same religion (Judaism). They are both short, they laugh often and at the same things, and they both like turn-of-the-last-century British genre fiction. (Hint: Whose treatise on the binomial theorem had a European vogue?) And yet despite all that, their lunches have gone from being weekly occasions to monthly to semiannual. Appointments are canceled and remade two or three times before they click. When the two of them meet, though conversation can be as lively as ever, there is no real meshing of the minds. They have become emeritus friends.

Friendship becomes emeritus when it is all but over. If there had never been a friendship in the first place, there would be no detectable relationship whatsoever. But memory and loyalty give scattered moments of contact a shape they would not otherwise possess. Instead of random scraps, emeritus friends share husks. Do not touch them too roughly, though, or they will crumble away.

Emeritus friendship can be painful when it is asymmetrical — when one friend seems to notice, or mourn its withered condition, more than the other. That is my wife’s case, hence her being irked. Emeritus friendship may also be embarrassing, if made explicit. (“When was the last time you saw Shmendrick?”) Everyone knows he himself is a good friend; you mean to tell me I’m not? That is why I began with my wife’s emeritus friendship; most of her old acquaintance is liberal, and hence unlikely to read this. My emeritus friends might experience the shock of recognition.

When emeritus friends feel compelled to justify their state, they offer a variety of explanations, all of them plausible, unless you think about them for two seconds. I am so busy is a popular one: I have 13 children, I am proving Fermat’s theorem; no wonder we’ve lost touch. Right — but even mothers and mathematicians have to eat lunch: Why not with your friend? I moved away is another favorite. How can I meet you for coffee when we live in different states? Distance admittedly complicates a relationship, but the telegraph wires will be laid across the Great Plains any day now, and until then there is the Pony Express. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison maintained their friendship even while living in Paris and Virginia pre-Skype. There were times when one of their letters would take eight months to cross the ocean, but they kept writing them — brilliant, quirky, heart-sore — anyway.

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis wrote that friendship arises from shared interest and activity; lovers gaze at each other, friends look together at a common goal. That is part of the truth: Friends don’t meet across a crowded room, but find each other after being thrown together. The neighborhood was the nexus for friendship in my suburb of tract houses on quarter- and half-acre lots, quickly followed by public school, the great sorter and shelver. Then came college, that peculiar combination of salt mine and spring break; then work. But certain people stand out from the work gangs and posses we find ourselves in because of their qualities, their natures, the melodies they make. What strikes us first may be turns of phrase and mind; next come traits it takes time to notice because only time shows them: constancy, consistently low or high spirits (Hamlet might prize the first, Cole Porter the second — or vice versa). In the end we can only say of a friend what Montaigne said in the most beautiful sentence in his book, and maybe the only beautiful one: “If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I.”

Friendship becomes emeritus because the qualities that we prize change. Their value may change in our eyes: that charming companion is charming still, but isn’t he also a bit of a bum, not to be trusted around money or women? The polymath knows as much as he ever knew, which is everything, but since we now know more ourselves his omniscience wears a different color. Or the qualities themselves, with years of practice, take a more definite form — sometimes for the better, but sometimes not. A thin line separates a friend’s ability to be the life of the party from his need to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral.

The city offers more excuses for friendships’ turning emeritus, because density and busy-ness simulate distance; all you have to do, instead of saying I moved away, is stop shelling out money for cabs. But friendships can stiffen anywhere — in small towns, monasteries, desert islands.

They can last anywhere too. There is one friend I met in the Nixon administration. We have not seen each other in so many years that we missed seeing our hair turn white. She lives two days’ drive from the ocean, and all our correspondence is about her career, which is teaching. One day she wrote to ask if I knew the Poet, whom her students admired. The Poet is a Nobel Prize winner; my friend seemed to think that because I am a writer in the city, I could stroll over to the Laureate’s Café any afternoon and ask Derek, Vidia, and Mario when they expected the Poet to drop by? But when I thought about it, I did know someone who had had a drink with the Poet once, and written a genial column about him. So I made a withdrawal from the favor bank, and in time the Poet was corresponding with my friend’s charges. Her ardor is unchanged, as is my capacity for being impressed by it. Friendship, not emeritus.

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