It’s been over a year now since I saw that David Foster Wallace movie at the Enzian, my first outing out in Orlando. There was a bat flying in circles at the top of the theater, and one of the workers assured us that it was just a fruit bat, that they don’t bite, that the film would begin shortly. Welcome to Florida, I thought. Last week I was back at the Enzian, my first time since then. There was no bat inside. The theater is getting ready to expand. Nothing ever stays the same.
It didn’t seem that long ago that, newly twenty-four, I was lamenting how old I was. I complained out loud with Dad in the room. “You don’t know how offensive that is to me,” he said. He was approaching sixty, and he was right. I shut up. Now thirty, I know I’m still young. Still, I feel that same obsession with mortality as I did at twenty-four. The panic attacks stopped but not the thoughts. It’s the driving force behind my restlessness, my craving adventure, my grass-is-always-greener mindset. Wherever I am, I’m missing something somewhere else. This is a futile mindset, I know. I should listen to the Buddhists, have a routine, stick with it, let patience set in. I should enjoy seeing the impressive sunrises from my rearview mirror, enjoy the walk across campus to my classroom. But I can’t. Not now at least. For now, it’s about collecting experiences, discovering the unfamiliar. Still, as the universe expands, all the memories I have grow more distant. I can only imagine how far they’ll feel at sixty.
This year I saw my closest friend Martin for the first time in four years. The last time was 2012. We had an American road trip from Folly Beach to New Orleans. We danced in Uncle Lionel’s Second Line, heard amazing music at a juke joint in Treme, and met interesting people, the way we always seem to. I left New Orleans refreshed, happy to be back in the States, happy to be home. Nothing had changed between Martin and me.
We had met a year before New Orleans. At a hostel in Tirana. We’d gotten along that first night—we were both into art—so he asked me to join him at an art museum with his girlfriend the next morning. I had been hoping he’d ask when he had brought up his plans. And grateful when he did.
But we had no idea what would follow. Objectively, there wasn’t much to the day—walking around, admiring the cardboard stalls, laughing at the counterfeit restaurants, enjoying the stares from the locals unaccustomed to pale Scandinavian skin. We sat in a park for awhile, ate some chestnuts, and played soccer with some Albanian kids. A pleasant day of travel, interesting even, but nothing seemingly profound.
But something happened. Something I don’t quite understand, something Martin doesn’t quite understand. It started on that bench in the park, the bench where we saw the man and his daughter, where we felt their palpable love. Staring at the water, we both realized simultaneously that, man, we get along really well. Later, after Josh and Wouter joined us, sitting on the grass in the park, I felt an incredible calm wash over me, where the world rippled like a lake, where I experienced the universe shrinking for a moment. A moment no longer than five seconds. But immediately afterwards Martin said, “I’m having one of those deep, profound calm moments right now.” Looking back, it feels like we spent the entire day looking at Tirana through one pair of eyes. We were in sync somehow. By nightfall, we were incredibly close friends. That is the best I can explain it. Words can only do so much.
Last June was the first time I’d seen Martin in four years. The fourth time we were seeing each other in person after Tirana. The train rolled up to Aarhus, like last time I had visited. I walked out into the station, towards the escalators. It was much busier than the other times I’d come. Soon, I saw Martin. He looked different—older but stronger. His body was bigger, his beard thicker. His crows feet were set deeper in his face.
Martin told me I looked older too. Stronger, more confident. Life had not been easy on us the last few years. And during hard times, you have to fight sadness, fear, despair. Look at emotions rationally to conquer them. And once that happens, the next bout of grief is weaker. You become more stoic. But overcoming negative emotions affects the positive ones too. A barrier forms around the self, a hard shell, difficult to penetrate.
I wondered if I could still feel like that day we shared that moment five years ago, if I still had that youthful excitement buried in me. Martin said that he felt like a different person than that day in Tirana, that so much had happened since then, so much had changed. I agreed. Things did seem different. We were both really happy to see each other, but the happiness was subdued. It didn’t feel like the old times. Maybe we had both changed too much. Maybe we had lost that energy.
But a few weeks later, we’re drinking a beer, looking out at the river, watching the girls go by. Sitting and talking, the way we’ve spent countless hours together. Conversations whose words I’ve mostly forgotten but always felt meaningful. That day, by the river, Martin looked at me and said, “I feel like we’re going to be old men one day, drinking beers just like this.”
“I have no doubt.”
That night, we’re at a table in a smoky bar with some interesting people we just met, the way we always seem to. It was just like old times—things felt electric. Our energy from Tirana was back. It didn’t rely on the city, our timing, our youth. Maybe some things can stay the same. Even with hard shells.