On Gifts From Friends | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

On Gifts From Friends

On a recent Sunday evening, 3,000 miles from home and feeling every inch of it, I opened a bottle of wine. It was a gift from friends, an Argentinean red I knew to be excellent, but contrary to plans I had for it, it was not a joyous occasion. Across from me, my wife sat slumped on the couch, the two of us hungover from a crying jag. Circumstances forcing us into a decision we would have preferred not to make, we'd just finished a number of physically and emotionally grueling days, and the reality of our new situation was settling in. I seldom like to drink when feeling blue, alcohol for me a celebratory drug, one used to augment happy occasions, not mask the bad ones.

That said, it functions well to bevel the hard edges of the world, and I will admit to feeling the need. The bottle, it turned out, was the only alcohol we had on the premises. Scarcity, as much as necessity it seemed, would press it into service. When it was given to us, I promised to open it only when the time (and more importantly) the people, were right. Having come from dear friends, I didn't want to share this bottle with just anyone, my idea being to toast the best of the old as I rang in the new.

Rituals are important. As a society we have largely done away with a good number of them, much to our detriment. On that particular evening, leaning on memory, hanging on to the ritual of raising a glass to people we love and speaking their names across the miles, it was more than just solace: it seemed necessary and important. Going into the kitchen, I unearthed a corkscrew and a mismatched pair of glasses. Familiar actions performed in unfamiliar surroundings often come with the illusion of unreality. As I poured a generous helping into the glasses, I thought how that afternoon my wife and I had stood looking out across a river at a skyline without mountains. How bizarre. Instead, the most famous city in the world looked back at us, and it was hard to reconcile its stare with the people we imagined ourselves to be.

Returning to the living room, I passed one of the glasses to my wife. "To friends." We held the glasses up and then let them lean in toward each other. They were two lovers leaning in to kiss. I've said the same toast many, many times, and as far as I can remember, always in the company of friends. The tiny tink of our glasses meeting fell on no other ears but our own and in that moment was one of the saddest sounds I can ever remember hearing. Had I not known better, I'd have thought it was the sound of our hearts breaking - and maybe it was.

Outside, the light faded and a siren wailed. I sat opposite my wife and toyed with the wine. To be robbed of friends, a community, an entire landscape, I thought, is one of the worst losses a person can endure. Taking a sip, I held my glass up to the light. Fine legs, like tracks of tears, ran down the inside of the glass: a needless reminder.

Above my wife was a large pastel of a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. Above me was another by the same artist, this one of a slough along the Bitterroot River in Montana. There was also a photograph of Sparks Lake in Oregon, taken at sunset, and across the room above the desk where I type, a snow scene on a bright sunny day along the Bitterroot River. I'd been to the exact spot where the photo was taken many, many times, in all seasons and kinds of weather. I asked my wife to look at them. Together they totaled many thousands of dollars, but that's not why we value them. Like the wine, they had been gifts from friends. We could look at them and feel better.

"Words," I once wrote, "they are poor and inaccurate records compared to the feelings etched on a heart." I traffic in words, they are my stock and trade. Still, I stand by this statement. That evening, my wife and I talked well into the night. Our sadness and bitterness retired. We spoke of our friends, their gifts and the gift of their friendship. We could feel the etchings grow deeper. Miles from home we toasted such good fortune, it wasn't just words, and gradually the wine began to taste better.

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