AS SEEN IN:
  • The Washington Post Logo
  • The New York Times Logo
  • The Wall Street Journal Logo
  • BBC World News Logo
  • Time Logo PBS Logo
  • Manliness logo
MARCUS BROTHERTON New York Times Bestselling Author

Who Will You Meet, After You Leave Home?

Aug 25, 2016 // By Marcus Brotherton
Harry James

Harry James, c. 1988, Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy DAJ.

 

 

In late August, university students around the country head to school.

Hold that picture in your mind.

Imagine the possibility.

 

Who did you meet after you left home, and how did they shape you?

Who did you eventually become, thanks in part to your interaction with your new friends?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

Below is my story to get you started.

This is not a short post. Grab a coffee, relax, and take some time to enjoy.

 

me at FIRWOOD

A kid named Marcus, late August, right before a year of college.

 

1.

 

My mother took me to college.

 

We took two cars. She drove her newer Subaru station wagon across the border from Canada into the United States and I trailed in my rusty 1972 Volvo, the car I’d bought for $1,100, the money I’d earned from a boyhood paper route.

 

It was late August 1986, the road hot and swishy through eastern Washington, and we drove from Kelowna down Highway 97 across Pine and sagebrush country until we reached the wild, windy Columbia Gorge.

 

We turned west and accelerated toward Portland along I-84, the straight and honest interstate that runs parallel to the river. A new highway has come through since then, but in those days, my new destination was a 14-hour drive away from home.

 

Two months earlier I had graduated high school at age 17, and because my birthday wasn’t until the end of September I would start college, according to the registrar, as the youngest boy on campus. A few female students were younger than me, but I was the youngest male in a school where the average freshman was said to be 25.

 

Going to college meant I was leaving home for good. I was not inching to the edge of the chasm of independence; I was leaping to the other side. I was leaving my boyhood, and entering young adulthood, and I faced a universal unspoken question.

 

Would I become the someone I needed to be?

 

 

2.

 

 

____________________

The first week of college you entertain the temptation to remake yourself. Your history is safe, and in front of you is a vast unsoiled slate.

____________________

 

 

Maple trees, still green and leafy and rustling, lined the university’s long driveway. We parked our cars and unloaded suitcases and boxes and a lamp, and my mother made sure I found the right dorm room. She went to Fred Meyer and bought me an iron, then did the most sensible thing she could have—though she showed the same uneasiness I did—she hugged me and left.

 

In those first few days of college, everything seemed feral and off-center. My new world unfolded in a haze of maps, buildings, calendars and classrooms. I felt the excitement of newness too, a seduction toward revitalization.

 

The first week of college you entertain the temptation to remake yourself. Your history is safe, and in front of you is a vast unsoiled slate. You can remake yourself as anybody. Even a cool kid. And who wouldn’t want that?

 

I spotted a kid in the cafeteria lunch line who looked like my ticket in. His given name was Harry James, but friends called him Bud, he explained after I invited him to sit down. He was muscular and square-jawed with high, chiseled cheekbones, like the great Blues guitarist Charlie Sexton. Bud was a freshman also, from Alaska, and he didn’t know anybody on campus either. My sinister plan began to form.

 

Since I had a car and Bud didn’t, when he wanted to buy some Converse All-Stars, I offered to drive us to the shoe store. Raven-haired Stephanie and fair-haired Chris, the veritable cousins of Aphrodite, came with us thanks to the pull of Bud’s celebrity good looks. We cruised downtown in my Volvo—two cool boys and two cool girls—with me as the wheelman. I was the new duke of cool.

 

Several weeks passed while I reveled in my new status as king of the freshmen, thanks to my friendship with Bud. He and I ate lunch at the same table. We worked out in the weight room, (I have no idea why I went). And one weekend we even drove up the freeway to Vancouver, BC, to attend the final days of the great world’s fair, Expo ’86.

 

On the interstate on the way back to university, with Bud driving my car, I noticed flashing red lights behind us. Bud got pulled over and received a ticket for doing 73 in a 55 zone. As we drove away, he tossed the ticket behind him and never looked back. He never paid the traffic fine either, and couldn’t drive in Washington State for years afterward. But stuff like that didn’t bother Bud—at least that he let on.

 

He wasn’t a defiant kid. Not much anyway. He was more headstrong, like it’s easy to be at that age. I thought his not paying for his ticket was the ultimate in panache, although deep down I recognized a shade or two of disrespect, but I would say nothing, because Bud’s pull was too powerful. He led our friendship because he was a stronger personality, and I let him lead.

 

Because I was using him.

 

 

3.

 

____________________

It was a season for solitude. For a time, it was just me at college, in a new city, in a new country. The winter chilled, but I felt no pain. I had sketched my freedom and was warm with independence.

____________________

 

 

About November, I realized this.

 

Tests and papers flew with frenzy, and to succeed I needed to schedule and prioritize. One day Bud and I emerged from the same class with Bud leading the way as usual. He turned toward the cafeteria, and out of habit I turned his way, too. Truthfully, I needed to make trips elsewhere—a few errands first. But I said nothing. If Bud wanted to go to lunch, then I would flex to what he wanted to do. I would accommodate.

 

Of course, certain times exist in life when it’s appropriate to say to friends: “Whatever you want is fine with me.” But not then. It wasn’t a matter of me needing to flex to Bud. It was a matter of me not having a voice with Bud. In my immaturity, in my insecurity, I had cut off my tongue and ripped out my larynx, because of what I thought Bud could provide for me.

 

That day marked the end of me playing any sort of sidekick to Bud. There was no blow up. No fighting between friends, or even a conversation. I genuinely liked Bud, willfulness and all. But I made a quiet and deliberate turning.

 

I left Bud in the lunch line and walked down the hallway and into an empty classroom, my errands forgotten. I sat on a chair and stared at the blackboard. The silence made me feel exposed and susceptible and very alone.

 

I knew I had become a follower, and there was one way out. I needed to go my own direction, even if no one came with me.

 

Fall turned into winter, and sleet fell as only Oregon can deliver. I saw Bud around campus, but for weeks I walked to class by myself. I studied, went to the library, and came back to my dorm room, just me.

 

Other students were friendly, and I was cordial in return, but it was a season for solitude. For a time, it was just me at college, in a new city, in a new country. The winter chilled, but I felt no pain. I had sketched my freedom and was warm with independence.

 

I had left home and was growing up. I was becoming the someone I needed to be.

 

 

4.

 

 

____________________

Having a roommate handed to you by the Dean when all your first picks have long been assigned elsewhere feels like taking your cousin to the prom.

____________________

 

 

A year passed.

 

Late August again, and the rains of the Pacific Northwest would arrive soon. I sat in my new dorm room in all the light the opened blind allowed the evening sun. It was the start of my sophomore year, and I sat at my desk and leaned back and put my feet up, legs resting among books. I sipped cafeteria coffee from a Styrofoam cup.

 

Because I was a Resident Assistant that year, I’d been granted the rare privilege of having no roommate. I felt fine about the privilege—I could use the time to myself. In addition to being an R.A., I carried a full academic load and was editor of the student newspaper. I held down a part-time job as a custodian, cleaning office buildings in downtown Portland at night. Life was full.

 

A knock sounded on my dorm room door. There stood the Dean of Men. It was unusual for him to be on campus in the evening. They’d had a late arrival at school, he said after he poked his head inside my door, and dorms were full; would I take a roommate after all? The student had decided at the last minute to come back to school.

 

I wanted to say yes with a smile, but having a roommate handed to you by the Dean when all your first picks of friends have long been assigned elsewhere feels like taking your cousin to the prom.

 

“I don’t know if you guys are already friends,” the Dean said. “He was here last year—you know Bud?”

 

Bud?

 

Sure I knew Bud. I had spent a big chunk of the previous year avoiding him. Or at least distancing myself from his power.

 

But here he was again—in all his rock star magnificence—handed back to me with a key to my room. I quickly figured a year with Bud could go either way. We might have a great time, or we might drive each other nuts.

 

Being roommates was certainly something I would have never dreamed up by myself.

 

 

5.

 

 

Bud arrived the next morning after an all-night plane ride from Alaska. He tossed down two duffle bags, plugged in his coffee maker, poured Italian-roast in the hopper, and hoisted two mugs—one for me and one for him.

 

“Thanks for sharing your room,” he said, the smell of rich coffee in the air. “Man, I’ve got to get some sleep.”

 

He stripped to his boxers, flopped on the bottom bunk and was out in minutes. I took a long draught from the mug, a savory contrast to the cafeteria coffee I’d sipped the night before. The year had officially started. I couldn’t help but grin.

 

 

____________________

“I grow old. I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” Bud said as we looked at the city. Startled, I stared at him a second. I didn’t know Bud could quote T.S. Eliot

____________________

 

 

Bud woke up hours later and said he was going for a run—did I want to go? I had jogged throughout high school but wasn’t running much anymore. When I was a freshman I would have thrown on my running shoes in a heartbeat if Bud had asked. But this year was different.

 

Bud put on shorts and a t-shirt and dug shoes out of his duffle bag. “You ride, don’t you?” Bud said, then stood for a moment, unusually quiet. “Why don’t you take your bike, and I’ll run.”

 

I glanced back at the pile of books on my desk, at the craziness of all that needed to get done, then made the mistake of looking at him. He pulled his best Cheshire cat grin and said it would do me good.

 

I closed my book.

 

The evening was warm and quiet and clear as we stepped out into it. I had a 12-speed racing bicycle and rode around the city every so often. Bud and I crossed Glisan Street and headed toward Mount Tabor Park. We kept pace with each other—him running and me pedaling hard uphill—it wasn’t a competition.

 

At Mount Tabor we looped to the top, Cedars branching over our heads in the darkening sky. In a clearing we stopped and looked over downtown Portland. We could see the great stone reservoirs that dammed up city water, the broad stretch of Hawthorne Street with its theaters and funky cafes, and the far skyscrapers mirrored at the end of the day.

 

“I grow old. I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” Bud said as we looked at the city.

 

Startled, I stared at him a second. I didn’t know Bud could quote T.S. Eliot, but he would hand me even more surprises as the year progressed. Here was my new roommate—someone who fished in the harsh-frigid waters of Bristol Bay, a high school wrestling champ from a state where kids tussled polar bears for fun, a Greek god whom women swooned over—who also had an interior to him; a carefully-guarded soul that cared enough to memorize great poetry.

 

Bud was much deeper than I thought he was. I had seen nor known little of his interior until now.

 

That night in our dorm room we listened to Paul Simon. Bud set up his side of the room as the cassette tape played. I have reason to believe, we all shall be received, in Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee …

 

On his bulletin board he pinned a few mementos—snapshots of his girlfriend, Lisa, his class schedule, a flyer from a neighborhood café called Coffee People—their motto: “Good coffee, no backtalk,” and a small sticker I had given him the year before of the national speed limit in those days—55—circled red with a line across it.

 

I liked that Bud hung up the sticker I’d given him. It felt as if our friendship was becoming reciprocal. Bud had savored and even kept something I had given him, and whatever our exteriors were, an unspoken commitment was forming between us to seeing things through.

 

That year Bud and I brewed fine coffee every morning. We listened to the most eclectic music drawn from the wildest tape collections. Some nights we lay in our bunks and talked.

 

We spoke mostly about what we had not yet seen in life, the poems still to read, the literature we’d pour through, the people we’d one day truly get to know.

 

6.

 

 

Another year passed.

 

Late August again, and I always wished I could bottle away the first few days of each new season. For fall, a little chill begins as soon as summer quits. I’d save the first red-raw hints on the tops of trees. The first foggy morning that burns off by afternoon. There’s always hope at the beginning of a school year, but everything changes, too.

 

____________________

“Tonight, phone your Dad and tell him you love him,” Bud said. “Ask him all the questions you’ve ever wanted to. Tell him anything you need to say.”

____________________

 

 

The big change in Bud’s life was that his father had just died. He died right before our third year of college started.

 

A row of old houses sat on the other side of campus, on Pacific Street, and Bud and I were set to room in the same house. When Bud got to school he and I went out for coffee. He had grown his hair all summer and it hung to his shoulders. Bud sat without saying anything for about half an hour then looked at me, his jaw set, his eyes the most faraway I’d ever seen.

 

“Tonight, phone your Dad and tell him you love him,” Bud said. “Ask him all the questions you’ve ever wanted to. Tell him anything you need to say.”

 

Those were his words exactly. I nodded. That was the extent of our conversation. We paid for our coffee and left.

 

Bud stayed in the campus house for about a week, then quit college. He needed a year off to think, he said. He got a job at a gas station and rented an apartment about 10 minutes away from campus with a roommate. They decorated it with old bongs and hash pipes and a Persian rug the other kid used to drop acid on.

 

One day Bud phoned and asked if I could drive him over to Gresham. He had $3,000 in his pocket and wanted to look at a used Harley Davidson.

 

I drove him over. Bud paid cash for the motorcycle and drove it home. A few days later he took me for a ride. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail and he wore a black leather jacket and brown canvas pants. The bike slithered out on the wet freeway as we rode through the night streets. My fingers and knees grew cold from the wind, and the engine pulsed low with every gear change.

 

 

____________________

Some friends are meant to be here for today, to be enjoyed and drawn close, and then let slip away, whether it’s time or circumstance that takes them.

____________________

 

 

I didn’t see much of Bud the rest of that year. His girlfriend was still on campus, and I asked how he was doing whenever I saw her.

 

Late one evening, me and a thickset kid named Nick stopped by the gas station during one of Bud’s shifts. It was quiet around midnight except for the odd car that came in. It was the height of 1980s yuppiedom, and Bud cursed under his breath at every BMW that passed. He was in that stage where sorrow is translated into anger, and his grief flashed at the smallest annoyances.

 

While Nick and I lounged on stools, Bud spent most of the time sketching a picture of a Grateful Dead emblem. He was far away still.

 

It’s a funny thing when a friend drifts out of your life. Or maybe you drift out of his. Some friends are meant to be here for today, to be enjoyed and drawn close, and then let slip away, whether it’s time or circumstance that takes them. That was Bud.

 

7.

 

 

I learned so much about myself in those first few years after leaving my parents’ home. I learned how some friends can become kinglike in our minds, and their royalty can encompass us if we’re not careful.

 

But if we see beyond their looks, their money, their talent—whatever sets this person higher than us in our eyes—we can discern how there may be far more to this king than we first imagine.

 

It is only when we suspend judgment on who we imagine that person is, on who we initially think they are to us—that the friendship has a chance of becoming real.

 

And when that happens. Wow. Suddenly the world is richer, fuller, brighter. And you, as you emerge into your own sense of identity, as you withhold judgement and learn to truly care for people, as you learn to see them for the very deep selves they are, have every potential to become kinglike yourself.

 

It’s not a royalty of elevation, where you see yourself as higher than anyone else. It’s a regality of being real. Of sincerity. Of having genuine friendships of depth.

 

____________________

I have reason to believe, we all shall be received, in Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee …

____________________

 

 

It would be another two years before I saw Bud again. He moved several times and his address was tough to track. This time it was in Mount Vernon where Bud worked construction.

 

He had a bigger Harley then, a real purple beast, and his hair fell nearly to his waist. I stayed over at his apartment and he told me about traveling around the United States on his motorbike in the meantime.

 

“It’s such an amazing feeling,” he said. “I love it when it’s just the road and me and my Harley. It’s so free.”

 

He seemed happy at last, although he was still working through his grief. Still working to emerge. Still working to become the someone he needed to be.

 

Like we both were.

 

Bud had lived in California for a while where he worked as a baker, rising at 3:30 every morning to knead bread. He had fished two more summers in Alaska where he planned to become a skipper of his own boat soon.

 

And he had ridden his Harley to Memphis to see Graceland, sensing the ground room of reception that exists when you have reason to believe.

 

I haven’t seen him since.

 

 

Question: Who did you meet after you left home? How did your new friends, mentors, or classmates help you emerge into your own sense of identity?