When I called Mike to let him know I was in Burlington, visiting for five days on business, he was short and guarded with me, almost suspicious. My reason for being in town looked like an innocent coincidence—I was consulting on the financing for a new rec center at the University of Vermont—but it also was true that I’d jumped at the assignment so I could see my best friend again. On the phone, he said without conviction that he’d love to get together but that he was working late all week at his job as an administrator at a food bank and then had to get his boat out of the water for the winter on Saturday—sharp reminders of just how little I knew of what he’d been doing the past two years. I got that he meant the task with his boat as an excuse and not an invitation, but I volunteered I’d come along and help. He hesitated but then agreed by saying, “Um, OK, I guess.”
I met him in the lobby of my hotel and was struck at once by what I didn’t recognize. His hair was longer than ever before, parted carefully in the middle and curled behind his ears, and he had grown a gray-flecked beard. His pillow-soft middle was gone, ironed into something flatter, which made him seem younger than the last time I’d seen him. Although the slight, closed smile was familiar, even that, in this case, surprised me. It lacked the old warmth.
We shook hands, shuffled our feet, and repeated with awkward enthusiasm, “So how’s it been going, man?” He snapped his fingers twice, and I almost laughed aloud in surprise. Two rapid snaps were his tell that he was anxious and worried. Nobody besides me knew about it, including, I was sure, Mike himself. It had always been the one thing that made him seem human to me growing up, a clue that his perpetual calm and confidence was not as complete as it seemed.
Mike was living nearby with Grace, his girlfriend of two years, while he looked for a new apartment. When we’d first spoken, I’d offered to meet him at her place since it would give me a chance to meet her, but he scuttled that right off and told me the waterfront “just made more sense.”
“How long you been living with this Grace then?” I asked after we settled into his Subaru Outback—Vermont’s state car, he joked, as had two other people in the short time I’d been in town. Mike’s car was loaded down with what appeared to be his complete belongings, and it smelled, unmistakably, of pot.
“I don’t know. A couple months probably. It’s tough to find a place at a half-decent price around here. I’d love to move in with Grace, but she’s got a thing about living in sin. Strange these days, isn’t it? Seems to be the one thing from her parents that stuck.”
“Don’t you live with her now?”
“No, no, no. I’m visiting her. Visiting. A big difference.”
“It’s nice she’s looking out for you like that. Keeping you out of hell and all.”
Mike and I had grown up together in Raleigh. When I say together, I mean it, too, like we were as close as brothers. Mike’s parents had been devoted to their jobs and wildly successful. Both worked long hours, leaving the house and Mike in the care of Rosie, a grumpy housemaid who didn’t care for Mike’s incessant talking and insuppressible energy. We’d lived three doors down, and Mike had come and gone as he pleased. He made the guest room his own, kept several changes of clothes there, and often spent days at a time without seeing his real parents, though his mother would call mine for daily updates.
Mike soon became the golden boy in our family. We were capable only of minor successes, and he mesmerized us with his talents. He was popular, successful, and charismatic, waltzing through classes with A’s, picking up girls at will, and starring on various sports teams. I drifted happily in his orbit. After high school, he became a campus folk hero at N.C. State when he walked onto the football team and turned into a special teams demon, culminating with a blocked punt that beat Carolina our junior year. He thrived after college, too, marrying a beautiful, accomplished woman and rising to run his own hedge fund by age thirty-seven. We had bought houses in the same neighborhood and for a while had met for dinner, along with our wives, every Friday night and for golf every Saturday. He was the godfather to my daughter. Then his fund fell apart, done in by some reckless maneuvers—bold, he called them—and, in one six-month stretch, he declared bankruptcy, watched his wife walk out the door for good, and then disappeared like a wanted man on the run. I’d caught him a few times on his cell phone in the two years since then, though he rarely picked up for me and never called me back.
I’d walked the streets in Burlington since I’d arrived, past the artisanal bakeries and dreadlocked street musicians, keenly feeling the distance from our home and wondering how Mike could manage it. Now I’d seen him, though, seen his transformation, and I wondered if he’d simply left us in his past for good. I’d assumed this was a temporary flight, but he seemed like a different guy. He’d been the most driven person I’d ever known, and now his car was piled with boxes and stunk of weed. He looked like a Vermont stereotype, as though he’d arrived in the city, absorbed his new world and then resolved to strike the appropriate notes to fit in.
Mike drove us fifteen minutes south to a quiet neighborhood in Shelburne. Gray houses sat deep on their lots, guarded by abundant pines and maples and oaks. Sunlight seeped onto the windshield and hood in trembling lines and flashes. He parked behind the one-car garage of a Cape Cod with dark windows. Beyond it lay Shelburne Bay, glassy and stirring. The wind off the water was brisk, but the sun was strong and the sky clear. He remarked on the unusually warm temperature for so late in the year. We walked through a sprawling, overgrown backyard to the water’s edge. A guy named Case sat on a log, sleepily smoking a cigarette. Case nodded through Mike’s introduction to me—“a guy I knew back home,” Mike called me—seeming unimpressed. I felt like a silly tool in my khakis, loafers and light jacket. Case and Mike wore ragged jeans, untucked flannel shirts, and days-old beards. It looked like a costume on Mike, and I wondered if I’d have thought the same if I didn’t know him so well.
An old aluminum canoe rested upside down on a beach pockmarked with footprints. Mike pointed to a pile of ashes surrounded by overturned beer bottles in the sand. “Good time last night,” he said, grinning. Mike’s boat, an eighteen-footer used mostly for wakeboarding, was moored offshore. Case rowed us in the canoe.
Mike started the engine, and we gave a wave to Case and headed out. We had the water almost to ourselves. Most everyone else, Mike informed me, already had stored their boats for the winter. The fall colors were fading, the trees crowding the shoreline of Shelburne Bay already less brilliant and full than when I’d arrived.
We skipped across the water at first, and then Mike increased the speed until we were leaping off swells at thirty miles per hour. Each time we landed it felt as if we were a shift of wind away from capsizing. I gripped the dash in front of me, but Mike stood undisturbed, operating with an ease that I recognized from just about everything he’d ever done. When we approached a boat with lines dangling off the rear, Mike slowed so