It’s late and Springsteen is playing in my sanctum and I’m thinking about friends. About what friendship means to me. I thank God for my friends, I thank them, and I wish I’d been a better friend all along, to all of them. Friends are precious, and I’m blessed to have some.
Friends make you better, even if it’s better at being worse. A true friend will do both things, over the years. That’s how it is. I’ve been lucky enough to have friends like that, and I’ve been a bad influence and a good one, a hellion and a saint, a healer and a divider. My friends have been that too, and that’s good.
We know many people, but have few friends. We have plastic smiles and rainbow relationships which are real in the way of whipped cream, and equally as fulfilling. We all know the difference in our hearts, and miss it when we settle for less.
My friends are few, and I’m all right with that. I’d like to be a better friend, having more to give than I take.
Friends are honest when it hurts, even if it hurts them. Even when honesty is something which pierces a lie most terrible and devouring. There is a certain loyalty in that.
An old friend is someone who is there for you, when you need them. I’ve found that often this doesn’t mean they’re actually around or that I even talk to them. They’re with me in spirit, and their memory speaks wisdom to me, words I need to hear, a voice in my mind like my own conscience, but separate. Sometimes, though, you need a friend to physically pull your ass out of whatever trouble you’ve gotten yourself into.
I’ve had quite a few near-death experiences with one particular old friend of mine, and here’s one. We were SCUBA diving down in the keys. Now, I’m an experienced diver and a strong swimmer, but when things go wrong under water, they tend to go very wrong, very fast. We were spearfishing on a coral reef, and at first we stayed together, but wound up getting separated, each of us chasing fish all over the reef. There is a kind of hyper-focus that happens when you’re after a nice grouper, the thrill of the hunt and the idea of what that fish is going to taste like that afternoon when you pull the boat up to the restaurant and it gets blackened and served with the lobster also in the cooler. An epic meal, a perfect end to a glorious day. An ice cold Red-Stripe, conch-fritters, the sunset on the water, you get the picture…
I was down about a hundred feet, pushing the limits of my air. Visibility had been pretty good, but the current grew stronger and the water got progressively more cloudy. The thing is, I’d speared a nice fish, maybe a 20 pounder, and he’d twisted off the spear. The fish was bleeding, and he was certain to die, and I hated that. So I kept pursuing him, him swimming sideways and thrashing about with blood coming out of him, ringing the dinner bell.
I like the idea of sharks. Diving on the reef, you know they’re around, and sometimes you catch a shadowy glimpse of a torpedo shape gliding through the murk at the edges of your vision. It makes the dive special and memorable when that happens, and there is a sense of being lowered on the food chain and being a part of nature in a way that is impossible in the world of Starbucks and paved paradise. I get alarmed when they start getting overly curious, though. I’ve had sharks and barracuda steal a fish I’ve speared, and that’s an uncomfortable experience. Blood in the water and feeding frenzies and what-not.
This magnificent grouper decided his best bet was to hole up beneath a car-sized brain-coral. I bled air from my BC and put my belly on the sand and peered into the darkness. I could see the blood trailing out, but I couldn’t see the fish. I stuck my arm into the hole (dumb) with the spear gun extended, and wound up nailing the fish with the loaded gun. I dragged him out from under the hole, feeling pretty pleased with myself. My mask was leaking and salt water burned my eyes. My air was critical. I began my ascent.
I should have let the fish go in the first place, because at 100 feet down, I knew I had to make safety stops to avoid getting the bends. When I saw the Great Hammerhead cruise past, then circle, I was afraid. He was about fourteen feet long, and thick, passing close enough that I could see his teeth. I’d never seen one while diving before, only from the safety of a boat. Hammerheads eat people from time to time. Graceful, deadly, moving with effortless, predatory intent.
I’m not one prone to panic. I’ve faced some pretty grim situations where people were trying to kill me with guns or knives. This time though, I started to freak out. I couldn’t think clearly, and even remembering it now, I have a blurry feeling of terror in me. I couldn’t just shoot to the surface because I’d die. I had to pace my ascent from the depths, rising at the same leisurely speed as my bubbles. And I had two safety stops looming ahead, where I’d be forced to hang there in the water. I had about 100 psi left in my tank, so if there wasn’t any sort of reserve in there, and probably even if there was, I was in trouble.I let the line out on the spear gun so that the speared fish dangled about twenty feet below me. It was mostly dead, still bleeding. A reef shark showed up to enjoy the show, but it was the hammerhead and my lack of air that worried me the most.
I heard the engine turn on the boat, twice. My friend telling me to get my dumb ass to the surface. I waited at the first safety stop, and it got hard to pull air. I was at the end of the tank. I could see the boat, a shadow against the sun above me. I was using more air than I should have because I was fighting the current, drifting now, away from the boat, still maintaining my depth. There was a splash.
My friend, deciding that I’d been down too long, and seeing the damn big assed shark, jumped into the ocean. He swam down, and we used the extra regulator, a thing called an octopus, to get to the surface, the big shark giving us the evil eye the whole time.
We pulled into Whale Harbor Marina that evening and ate a platter of grouper, lobster, and conch fritters. It was the best meal I’ve ever had.
That’s a good friend.