The first time we hung out together, he pissed me off and I threw my bike at a tree.
The last time I saw him, we went out for my birthday, overindulged, and I ended up passing out at some godawful steampunk gig in Oxford.
J. has been my best friend for more than half my life. He’s a quiet badass who’s always tangled up in some new extreme sport or weirdo hipster hobby. Scruffy as I am, around him, I always feel prissy, like a nebbish, like Felix Unger from The Odd Couple (which I guess makes him a musclebound Walter Matthau?).
Sometimes I think he’s taking the piss: during his most hedonistic years, I came over for a big weekend and found him in an incoherent state, in a flat that looked like it belonged to an unloved and recently deceased pensioner. I spent two days cleaning the place, scraping mould from mugs brimming with the stuff to make him tea, sitting him down in front of a TV matinee of Flashdance while I hoovered around his feet. He doesn’t even remember that weekend, or that year.
J.’s dad died after an illness when we were in our teens, just as we were getting to know each other on weekend mountain-bike rides. We must have talked about it a bit on all those absurdly long missions, cycling fifty miles on country roads to do a single indifferently thrilling downhill. He tells me I listened a lot, but I don’t remember; self-absorbed and competitive as any teenage boy anxious to prove his prowess, I just recall always being that little bit slower, less fit, less daring, than my friend.
Running alongside that hedonism in J. is an intense streak of discipline and control. He’s a triathlete, a weightlifter, a high earner. His sister – my high-school crush, a whip-smart redhead – teases him for being on the autistic spectrum, and tells people: “I have twice the social skills of J., so why does he earn five times what I do?”
I texted J. during the Shame screening at Auckland’s Dark Night launch, exploiting the eleven-hour time difference:
YOU REMIND ME OF FASSBENDER’S CHARACTER, BUT NICER. MORE WARM AND LOVING.
J. shot me down with his usual economy: I JUST READ THAT BLOG POST WHERE YOU MODEL YOURSELF ON A CARTOON FOX.
I got told!
All these posts I’ve been writing about bromance sprung from a comment at the Dark Night launch about how men’s social relations with other men define and discipline their gender and sexuality.
There was a time when I was jealous of J.’s party-hard lifestyle, when he was indulging every impulse and I was being a “good” boyfriend to a seriously manipulative girl. Later, when my life was a bit less disciplined, I told him about sleeping with three girls in a single weekend and he told me: “Good effort. I didn’t think you had it in you.”
Another time we’d been sitting in a pub garden, declining over a summer’s afternoon into a boorish and braying state. I was telling J. a story, punctuated by his white-wine-fuelled comments.
“You had two of them in your bed!” He crowed. The women at the next table looked over at us with disgust. I almost gave up hanging out with J. after that afternoon – and our friendship did take a break of years after I cheated on a girlfriend, was overwhelmed with guilt, and his response was, “Oh well, see it as a notch on the bedpost.”
To be honest, we were both putting on roles during these weird man-moments. We’re hardly players, just nerds. I remember the Irish comedian Dave Allen, of all people – no spokesman for political correctness – speaking scathingly in a late TV interview about the fact that straight men talk such crap when they’re trying to one-up each other about sex and women.
In truth, J. and I are quite different. Compared to him, with his armour of muscles, his roll-up fags and his laid-back ways, I’ll always be a ridiculous cartoon fox. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. Like Disney’s Robin Hood, if I have to hide, I favour doing it in plain sight. I get emotionally committed to my work, and sometimes a lot of fretting precedes the outcome.
There was this one time tho’ – J. came to stay with me and my girlfriend. There was a Ladytron album playing – “Seventeen” had just been released and I was keen to share it with the two of them.
“Hm, sounds like a kind of shit 1980s disco,” J. said.
The girlfriend agreed. She and I had an argument about something and she stomped off to bed early. J. and I stayed up drinking and chatting into the wee small hours. At some point in the deep and meaningful, he turned to me and said, “You know, if you were a hot chick, I would totally try to go out with you.”
I don’t cherish that moment in quite the same gleeful way I do the time when, long-haired and eighteen years old in the pub, I was approached by a schoolmate who told me, “You look just like Heather Graham” – but I knew what clumsy, drunken J. meant.
Our bond has lasted years; half a lifetime. Through shrieks and silence, and grief, and douchebaggery, and real tenderness; 3am phone calls, and teenage mixtapes; turning up at each other’s door in the middle of the night; in tears (mostly, but not exclusively, mine), and in mosh pits, and lapsing into Bushmills-flavoured catatonia before the opening credits of The Big Lebowski. We met before we even knew who we really were – and we still have one another now that we’re, well, at least half-way along the journey to knowing.
Sometimes when male friendships discipline your life, it’s about closing down the possibilities of what it means to be a man. It’s bragging like a dickhead in a pub garden about how potent you are sexually.
But sometimes, it soars like the love you find in a couple – it sustains you and challenges you and lifts you to higher things.
And suddenly it doesn’t feel quite so lame to use the word “bromance”.