You may never have had that awkward moment of talking to someone you haven't seen in a while, and they ask if you want to get together, so you suggest having lunch. Picking that midday meal is the sure bet for containing the potential commitment of time and energy. If it all goes dumpy wrong or embarrassing, you can always look at your watch and say, "Oh, I've got to get going." Last week I had lunch with the woman I grew up with, the one I occasionally refer to as "my childhood sweetheart." I didn't have that awkward feeling. I felt the years melt away and remembered, upon her reference, that we had known each other since we were three. The reference was in regard to my ordering the barbecue brisket sandwich. "You can be as messy as you like," she assured me, "We've known each other since we were three."
And that's why the "childhood sweetheart" label is just a little unfair. It implies a limit to the relationship that never really existed. The fact that we were friends before the implication of boyfriends or girlfriends or K-I-S-S-I-N-G or trees was even a wisp of a notion. As we sat across the table from one another, catching up on the time we had spent being grownups, parents, married, changing jobs, we kept sliding back to the stories of that extraordinary youth we shared. We played together. Oh how we played. We used our imaginations. I told her how much I appreciated being allowed to participate in those games of make-believe that boys don't often get to: our front yards became horse pastures or German POW camps. We recreated all five of the Planet of the Apes movies in repertory, with periodic improvisation, but always with great reverence to the details. I got to pretend. We made up stories. There was an afternoon that, along with my younger brother, we imagined a story in which all the GI Joes came to life, armaments included and decided to take on these three youngsters whose parents had gone and left them for the night. Long before Toy Story, we created a tragic tale of playthings gone bad. Tragic because I insisted on writing myself a death scene, noble to the end where I saved my friends by sacrificing myself. It's where I began to feel like a writer inside.
And there were still more stories to tell, so many in fact that she admonished me, when we began the second hour of holding down our table at the outdoor cafe, "I'm going to the bathroom. Stay right there." She needn't have worried. I was happy to stay if only for the incredible comfort I felt as I mined our collective reality. A reality that didn't feel constrained by age or youth. It just was. We talked about our kids and our spouses and the jobs we do and the history we shared and how it made us what we are today: Friends. When I realized that we had held down our table for more than two hours, our waitress had stopped coming by to refill our iced tea glasses, I felt the social cue to move the party elsewhere. But life intrudes and we really didn't have forever. Sooner or later the restaurant police would show up and ticket us for loitering or one of us would get a call from the cell phones that we never used to carry when we spent all those hours walking our dogs together or creating new variations on episodes of Hogan's Heroes. She drove me back to my mother's house, where she came in and we shared another flurry of reminiscences. It made me think of all the people in my life who had drifted away, I let them go. I wouldn't let her go. She's a keeper.