Down the Mountain
was just a couple of guys sitting around in a moderately swanky
urban restaurant, catching up after having lost touch with
one another for many years. An eavesdropper wouldn’t have
been fascinated (probably couldn’t be roused to give a good
rat’s butt, in fact), but I was transfixed.
No, I have not revisited My Dinner With Andre again.
I was dining in Washington, D.C., with an old friend—or new
friend, I guess—retrieved from the haze of the past. I use
the word “haze” decidedly, as the friend in question was my
suitemate during freshman year of college. Not a banner year
for clarity, if you want to know the truth. Aside from the
requisite substance abuse and the heady delirium of early
independence, there was the attendant absence of familiar
guideposts or landmarks by which to navigate the new landscape.
For me, slipping the boundaries of my high school years was
like clearing the tree line of my adolescence and bursting
up into the open air of early adulthood. I could see for miles.
And, of course, I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do next.
So, mostly, I just jumped around like a moron and enjoyed
the view—all the while exposed to the elements.
And my suitemate was a more-than-willing companion. We were
kind of co-captains of the dysfunctional team that formed
on our floor. Somehow, in a school of some 10,000 undergraduates,
the housing gurus had managed to identify a dozen or so mostly
Anglo, mostly Northeastern, mostly private-school educated,
mostly underachieving, mostly drunk or otherwise dazed scatterbrains
and plunk them all down on the top floor of the only single-sex
dorm on campus (we all wondered in miserable tones what portion
of the application we had screwed up to be condemned to that
fate). It probably wasn’t quite as mysterious as we thought
at the time: I, for example, had filled out my application
in magic marker; I probably deserved to be sequestered. But,
lacking in realistic self-awareness as we were, we still bemoaned
our punishment. We were stationed at the collegiate equivalent
of the Arctic listening post. It was like an early version
Unlike clever contestants, though, most of us turned our connivance
inward, trying in passive-aggressive or self-destructive ways
to vote ourselves off the island. Within the first two weeks
of school, I had completely lost my voice due to the smoke,
suds and sleep deprivation that constituted our daily regimen.
Later in the year, after drying out a bit, I ran into an attractive
young woman who insisted that we had met earlier; I didn’t
remember her even remotely, but tried to keep the conversation
going anyway (I said I was self-destructive, not stupid).
Sadly, as I spoke to her, the smooth and mellifluous tones
of my naturally pleasing speaking voice rubbed her completely
the wrong way.
She shot me down: “What happened to your voice? You had such
a sexy voice before.”
We sloughed off brain cells and accreted pounds in a mad dash
through the first semester, plowing straight through the holiday
break and hurtling stupidly into the second round. We advanced
the minor but campus-wide notoriety we had gained by showing
up to orientation meetings in blazers and ties and as drunk
as lords. We drank out of bags, stooping on steps across from
the IMF building. We gallivanted around the monuments in chemical
And then I hit the wall.
I was fraying around the edges, and my friendship with my
suitemate—who had considerably more stamina than I—was similarly
I was far from ready to commit to study or anything so dire,
so instead I found a girlfriend and spent the spring blowing
off classes for picnics on the mall, polo games in sight of
the Jefferson Memorial, and hand-in-hand walks through Arlington
Cemetery (way more romantic than it sounds, by the way).
And I ditched my buddy, telling him that he was “a bad influence.”
I know this because he told me so over dinner. Of course,
I recalled my almost exclusive devotion to the girl, and the
shift in allocation of time and attention; but I didn’t recall
my dismissal of my friend. I believe him entirely, it just
seems so unlikely that I would have made such a clear-sighted
and healthy decision at that stage.
And then the school year wrapped up and, from my point of
view, we all went our separate ways. I had burned through
a truly startling chunk of money and would head off to a less-expensive
college for my sophomore year, slowly but surely losing touch
with the girl and the friends. He would stick around the area
for a while, but, too, grow distant from that crew. We would
each spend some time slacking around in the faux-Bohemia of
college-town service-economies. We would each do a bit of
wandering: He, always the bolder, took off to Nepal; I took
off on an ill-advised and failed relocation to L.A. (a city
I don’t even care for). Relationships came and went, personalities
were adjusted (by design and by circumstance) and jobs of
increasing seriousness and longevity finally morphed into
careers. And so on, and so on.
And, 16 or so years later, a lawyer and a journalist sat down
in a French restaurant in the Adams Morgan section of D.C.,
where the journalist was attending a convention, and rehashed
it all, starting with the common ground and filling in the
empty decade and half. We walked each other down that clearing
above the trees, pointing out the roots over which we had
tripped, and the familiar—even commonplace—fauna lining the
It’s a trail indistinguishable from about a million others,
I’m sure. It’d make a serviceable but unremarkable oil painting,
suitably inoffensive for a doctor’s office or a insurance
agent’s waiting room.
But, honestly, it just seemed a masterpiece to me.