A long time ago, way back in college, I had an apartment two blocks off Height Street in San Francisco. It was a nondescript thing just a box on the third floor where the “rooms” were defined by how you placed the furniture. But I had a TV and a stereo with large speakers and a really great collection of CDs and LPs. Also I had a job and could afford to buy beer. So people came round from time to time, usually at night after the bars closed.
One time after a party (it was to my recollection completely uneventful) I invited several friends back to my place. As I recall there was Pete and Andy – they were brothers – and there was Angela and Stacey – they were friends from back in New Jersey – and there was Liz and Matt and Dan. And there was this one guy I didn’t know with a buzz cut and a tee shirt that read “Nasal Sex” in jagged letters. I didn’t understand what that meant but never asked him about it assuming it would come up in conversation. It never did. I remember looking at Mr. Buzz Cut wondering where he came from and why he was here when Dan slapped me on the back and said, “He’s cool. I’ve seen him around.” I shrugged. That was settled.
Music was chosen – something loud and lively, Nirvana’s new album if I’m not mistaken – and soon everyone had a drink and dispersed around the “rooms”. Some sat in living room (which you could tell was a “living room” because it had a couch), some sat in the dining room (which you could tell was a “dining room” because it had a table) and some gathered in the kitchen (which you could tell was a “kitchen” because…well… it was a kitchen) and individual conversations broke out in groups of two or three.
Everyone smoked so soon the apartment seemed as if a fog had descended and we were looking at each other through a haze of grey-blue clouds. I liked to think this added a noir feel to the proceedings or maybe we were all in Casablanca hanging out at Rick’s Place. I was Humphrey Bogart of course.
After a time and a few shots Mr. Buzz Cut started taking in a loud voice about all the Chinks in the city. There were just so many. No one made eye contact and it got very quiet. Andy and Pete, the only San Francisco natives in the group, pulled him aside and had a conversation in the corner while we all made awkward small talk. Afterwards Mr. Buzz Cut sat by himself for a bit and finished his drink then quietly left. I never found out what his name was.
Stacey, who was always a bubbly type, announced that we should play a game; you know to liven things up. There were sighs and shuffles and moans of disapproval, but Stacey was enthusiastic and determined so soon it was what going to be played not if it was going to be played.
After a long, long debate (and several shots) it was decided to just read Trivial Pursuit questions out loud and scream the answers out if you knew them. This, as it turned out, was one of the most enjoyable things I ever experienced.
Because that’s when the laughter started.
Uninhibited laughter in the greatest sound I have ever heard. A true laugh, the kind where you simply can’t control the volume or sound, is a brilliant thing. And it is as unique as fingerprints.
Stacey laughed in little whoops – Uh Huh, Uh Huh, Uh Huh – like joyous hiccups. Andy had a breathless wheeze that came out in staggered gasps. Dan had explosive bursts of laugh – Whah Ha! Ha! – as he threw his head back mouth wide. Angela had a dainty little snuffle like she was trying to hold back a sneeze. My laugh is rapid fire “hups” like a car trying to start in cold weather. And on and on and on.
All of these sounds combined into a chorus, a cacophonic symphony more beautiful than the greatest classical composition. A song I remember perfectly but sadly cannot replicate. The happiest noise I have ever heard.
But soon it was very late. Dan and Liz went home. Stacey and Angela fell asleep on either side of the couch. We put blankets on them so they would be warm. The rest of us retired to the Veranda; which was the fire escape outside the main window. I had put a fake grass rug down to make it seem elegant.
We sat in the cool summer night and we drank and we talked and we smoked. We talked about politics and religion and movies and how all those things are really just the same thing. And we laughed. God, how we laughed, so much my stomach hurt and I couldn’t breathe.
A neighbor opened a window and called out, “Do you know what time it is? Its 4 o’clock in the morning!” And in response Pete, in complete sincerity, yelled back, “I did not know that. Thank you!” I almost wet myself.
We went back inside then and chose appropriate music (Dylan or Waits, something emotional and hard to listen to) as we solved most of the world’s problems until Don, blinking and rubbing his eyes said, “What is that strange glow outside the window?”
“I think it’s the sun,” I said. And slowly everyone roused to go home.
The story ends there.
There is nothing more or less to it. There was no lesson learned, no conflict overcome. It wasn’t a turning point or a dramatic moment where I suddenly realized a truth or a lesson in life. It was just a night. A night with friends. A night with laughter.
I think I dwell too often on the “significant moments”; the births and the deaths and the anniversaries and the things that can be marked and recorded. But the story I just told you is a meaningless story and one that for most people and for history is forgotten.
The things I just told you I remember as if it happened tonight. I remember the way the night air felt on my skin and the way the stars shimmered in the sky. The way the cigarette smoke burnt my eyes and the way the sound of friends talking made my smile and feel warm inside. I remember that sound, that sound of laughter and of music and all the silence in between waiting for it to happen again. It sounded like being alive.
I love that.
originally published January 30, 2016