1. I was twenty-one but most of my friends were still twenty. It was the summer before our senior year of college, and we felt more urgently than ever that we needed to have some adventures. On a whim, I’d bought ten tickets to a music festival, headlined by AC/DC and the Rolling Stones and aimed at reviving Toronto’s economy in the wake of the SARS outbreak. We were going to cross the border, raise some hell, and come home with enough stories to carry us through the next two semesters. The tickets weren’t as easy to unload as I’d expected; after running through a checklist of all of my friends, their friends, and their friend’s acquaintances, I still had three leftover tickets. Finally, LauraBeth asked why I hadn’t invited her yet. We’d been dating over two years but somehow I had categorized her on a list adjacent to, but not overlapping with, my friends. “I think of you as my best friend,” she’d said. I responded, “You’re my girlfriend, not my friend.” The only thing I can say in my defense is that I am now acutely aware of what a shitty thing that is to say to someone.
2. LauraBeth’s mom didn’t want to her to go. She was convinced we’d invited her in order to gang rape her in the hotel. We didn’t know each other well, but I’d always thought she liked me. It’s very difficult to assure someone you’re not going to gang rape her daughter without sounding like that’s exactly what you’re planning to do.
3. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that I’d booked a hotel in a gay neighborhood. A mural near the hotel portrayed two cowboys leaning on a fence, their hands in each other’s back pockets. At the first bar we visited, the bartender, a dead ringer for Freddie Mercury, wore hot pants and a referee’s shirt. He called us adorable when we sat down. We spent the next several hours doing shots in this gay bar and reassuring one another that we were totally not gay, that it was okay for a group of heterosexual men (and one woman) to sit down in a gay bar and have some drinks. It was very important to us to keep reminding one another of our collective straightness. This was still a time when we casually used the word “gay” to indicate something was bad. Later that night, we got lost on the way back to the hotel. When we passed a bar filled with men were wearing revealing leather outfits, Steve yelled at me for putting us in this neighborhood, and then spent the next several blocks screaming about how much he hated gay people. “I hope those fucking faggots can hear me,” he yelled, projecting his voice up toward bedroom windows. “I’ll fuck them all up.” I’d been friends with Steve since sixth grade, and I had never seen him so angry. Later he blamed it on the alcohol, but the anger was too intense, the disgust too palpable.
4. For a group of ostensibly intelligent college students, we were remarkably incurious about this new country. Every morning, we ate breakfast in the same diner. In the afternoons, we bought beer, and some of the guys napped. At night, we drank. LauraBeth and I had been upgraded to a suite because our keycard malfunctioned at check-in, so everyone came to our room at night. It was the nicest hotel room I’d ever stayed in. We filled both sinks—there were two sinks—with ice and beer and then played drinking games that were simultaneously convoluted and extremely simple (despite endless permutations of rules, the penalty is always to take a drink and most of the rewards are also taking a drink). We were determined each night to reach levels of drunkenness we never would have achieved in the United States. I tell my students now that there is nothing interesting about a story in which the plot arc is: first we weren’t drunk, then we were drunk. But when I was twenty-one, this seemed like the most interesting story in the world.
5. Ask LauraBeth what she remembers most about this trip and the first thing she’ll say is I spilled a full pitcher of beer directly into her lap on the first night. The next thing she’ll say is she hates omelets; because of her celiac disease and our lazy dependence on one diner, she had a greasy ham and cheese omelet for four consecutive breakfasts, and even now the sight of one can make her retch. She was never a perfect fit in this group, and I did very little to make it easier on her. I’m certain some of my friends resented her being there, because we were still at the age when it was considered a great betrayal for one of the guys to choose his girlfriend over the group. Swanson refused to believe she’d even heard of AC/DC, let alone enjoyed their music, and reminded her several times that this concert probably wasn't for her. She sprained her ankle on the second day, so she spent the last three days limping behind us as we rushed from one bar to the next. Later, I realized how isolated she’d felt, the lone woman in a group of drunken boys talking about sports and The Simpsons. But back then, I was too distracted, too caught up in my own interests, to do anything about it.
6. In the afternoons, LauraBeth, Kevin, and I visited a few tourist attractions, because she insisted we do something besides drinking. Here are the things I can tell you about sightseeing in Toronto: The CN Tower is very tall, and there is a glass floor through which you can see your own death unfold; Casa Loma is a castle in the city that looks very much like a castle in the city and that is all I remember; the Hockey Hall of Fame is in the basement of a mall and has exactly the atmosphere of a museum in the basement of a mall; the downtown area is very clean and the people are unfailingly polite, and I’m not just saying this because those are Canadian stereotypes.
7. The concert—unofficially dubbed SARSfest—drew approximately 500,000 attendees, making it one of the largest outdoor concerts in North America. It was hot and we were hungover, and we spent part of the afternoon stealing water bottles from distracted vendors. We saw many bands perform. The Isley Brothers were good enough to restore my faith in international travel. Justin Timberlake, still trying to emerge from the shadow of NSYNC, was booed off the stage while Steve, and thousands of others around us, shouted gay slurs at him.
8. This trip was not the last time I saw those guys, but it was much closer to the end of our friendship than I’d realized. I married LauraBeth and I still see Kevin semi-regularly, but have had fewer than a handful of interactions with the rest over the past decade. This is natural, the way friendships fray and then fade away, but when you’re twenty-one, it seems impossible. We went on that trip expecting it to be another chapter in the endless, unfolding story of our friendship, but now when I think about it, what I remember is a sweaty desperation to hold on to something that was never going to be the same.
9. We stopped at Niagara Falls on the drive back, but stayed for less than a half hour, because the guys were eager to go home. LauraBeth and I looked at the falls for a few minutes, and then followed the others back to the parking lot. Two of them had bought cheap Niagara Falls boomerangs in the gift shop. While we laughed at them for making such worthless purchases, they both threw them high and far. Both boomerangs got caught in a tree along the parking lot’s edge. We stood beneath the trees staring up at the cheap boomerangs that would never return, and I resisted the urge to suggest it was a metaphor for something. Probably it wasn’t a metaphor. Probably it was just a dumb piece of curved wood stuck in a tree.
*some names in this piece have been changed to protect people’s identities