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Coming Down the Mountain

It 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 of Survivor.

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 glee.

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 distressed.

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 rough trail.

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.

—John Rodat

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