We've all had one at some point, or nearly all of us, at an age when folly masqueraded as cool. The wild friend. We were young when the wild friend burst into our lives -- charming, reckless, energetic, a couch-crasher and a trouble-magnet.
"She was my best friend," says Lita de la Torre. She is 21 now, eating lunch at George Washington University's J Street food concourse. She was 14 during the summer of her wild friend. The friend lived in another state, and de la Torre went to visit her for two weeks. "Oh God," de la Torre says, covering her face with her palms. "What didn't happen?" Her wild friend was popular and knew older boys with cars; she had access to a continent of mischief de la Torre had only imagined. Those two weeks were a crash course in wild. De la Torre plucked off her entire eyebrows and drew new ones on.
"First time I drank was there," de la Torre says. "First time I ever smoked weed was there. First time I kissed a guy was there."
Should we curse or celebrate the wild friend? She is seductive, a siren of adolescent badness. She gets you into things you never even knew you wanted to get into. She parks her car half on and half off the sidewalk. She gets a job at a pizza joint and pretends the whole time that she's British. Or maybe the wild friend is a he. He eats dead june bugs for a $5 bet. He hands you your first cigarette. When you drive naked or steal a sign from the school auditorium, the wild friend is with you. Your parents warned you about someone like this.
The vast majority of us are not wild. We are Nick Carraway at one of Jay Gatsby's opulent parties, regarding our bright surroundings with sober detachment and a sense of awe. But arguably, each of us, no matter how staid, has the capacity for one "Risky Business" summer, one brief period of puerile decadence. Wild friends give us access to this.
When we are 14, we can hardly imagine that the wild friend's story may someday become less carefree. De la Torre's wild friend, she says, struggled with bulimia and crack cocaine. Amy Mazin, sitting next to de la Torre, says she had a wild friend who -- after drinking and drugs and even an arrest -- "became, like, an Orthodox Jew."
Maybe you're in your mid-thirties. Maybe you know for a fact that your wild friend, who once wore a mullet and dated a really hot girl, is now a high school teacher. Do your wild friend a favor: When you remember him, remember him in his prime. Remember how he cheered as you sped your Dodge Aries K-car -- going what felt like 60 mph -- toward some railroad tracks atop a knoll. Remember the moment you and your buddies were all suspended in midair, before you hit the ground and dented your car.
Imagine the power ballad that might have been blasting on the radio.
Don't stop believing / Hold on to that feeling.
Yeah. Remember that feeling of weightlessness.
What was it that Thoreau said, about lives of quiet desperation? Maybe there's an evolutionary advantage to cautiousness, but boredom can be its own kind of death. Especially in adolescence.
"I guess they put me in situations I was afraid to put myself in," says Chris Poche, a 40-year-old screenwriter in New Orleans who had several wild friends in his youth. "I was never going to step on the accelerator until it was going 135 miles per hour." But Poche was thrilled to sit in the passenger seat when his college friend did that on the shoulder of an interstate.
The wild friend possesses an infectious energy and the air of someone with nothing to lose. He attracts trouble. He attracts interesting strangers. He regales you with tales of dubious veracity, and he is often slightly eccentric. Maybe he carries nunchucks in his car. He is charming and intelligent -- the sort of guy of whom a mother might say, If only he applied himself. Instead, he bides his time in detention with a Trivial Pursuit game, memorizing the correct answers to all those questions on all those little cards.
The wild friend is an archetype. He is Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet" -- plain-spoken, clever with dirty puns, cynical about love. He is Falstaff, a tutor in badness for Prince Hal in "Henry IV, Part 1." He is Ferris Bueller, or Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."
He is John Belushi's character in "Animal House," or, more darkly, John Belushi in real life. He is Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. The wild friend is always getting away with it all, until he doesn't anymore.
When the wild friend is a woman, she is Maude of "Harold and Maude," who teaches a morbid young man how to live fully. She is the middle-aged, unreformed groupie played by Goldie Hawn in "The Banger Sisters." She is the bad girl in last year's movie "Thirteen." (The heroine meets her wild friend, and within what seems like days, she is shoplifting, cutting herself and doing drugs.)
But we need not revile the wild friend, because in the best cases, it is not only danger that she offers. She offers freedom. She is the id. She is the muse. Her energy is our energy. Her bravery is ours.
Ann Patchett, author of the award-winning novel "Bel Canto," recently wrote "Truth and Beauty," about the uplifting and tragic life of her friend of 17 years, writer Lucy Grealy. Grealy had lost part of her jaw to cancer as a child, and she died in 2002 from an apparent heroin overdose. Throughout her life, she was in pain; she had difficulty swallowing; she toiled under a load of debt from her many surgeries.
Yet she was indomitable. Grealy's spirit was so open that strangers were drawn to her, Patchett says. In college, Lucy partied at gay clubs and ran around with transvestite star Divine, Patchett says. She'd get back to campus after dawn. She was loving and impetuous and messy; Patchett sometimes sorted Grealy's mail and cleaned her apartment. Her mind was so fast and agile that when she spoke of film and poetry and art history, it was as if she were dancing -- another thing she loved to do. Patchett says her friend brought out the best in her own intellect.
"I never was as fluent with anyone as I was with Lucy," Patchett says.
In children's books, the wild friend is embodied by figures like Pippi Longstocking and Peter Pan. They are magical. They are continually beckoning and we are continually following them out windows in our nightshirts.
You never can keep up, of course. The wild friend goes faster. He quits his job. He goes abroad. He changes his women like underwear, like Dean Moriarty of "On the Road." Unsettling things are always happening in the life of the wild friend -- that's the bargain you strike in exchange for the great stories he tells.
Jonathan Scott Chinn's wild friend was good-looking and confident and slightly reckless, "the type of guy that women sometimes, against their better instincts, gravitate to." Chinn, 27, lives in Manhattan and works in advertising. Chinn says his wild friend was the type to close down parties and always seemed to be dating several women at once. If you believed the wild friend's stories, he'd once picked up the actress Natasha Lyonne, who threw him out of her car when he offended her. If you didn't believe it, it was still funny.
Chinn enjoyed this friendship. He had a serious girlfriend, now his wife. He liked basking in his wild friend's glow, gathering his friend's stories for retelling, and then going home to his stable life with the woman he loved.
One day, Chinn's wild friend got a job offer on the West Coast. He gave only two hours' notice at his office, and the next day he moved across the country, upending his life in an instant, leaving several women behind. This is what wild friends do. They leave.
Faith Dawson, now 35 and a magazine editor in New Orleans, was 22 when she met her wild friend. Before they'd even been introduced, Dawson had noticed her at the New Orleans bars she frequented: an impossibly tall, pretty woman with an affinity for "little tiny spandex outfits."
For about a year, they were friends. The wild woman was happiest at parties, drinking champagne, commanding male attention. "She just always had men following her and everyone knew who she was," Dawson says.
The way Dawson tells it, the friends couldn't have been more different. "Some people think of me as a puritan because I'm so responsible and such a good girl," she says. With her wild friend, though, Dawson partied till 5 a.m., something she hadn't done even in college. She met the guys who swarmed around her beautiful friend. She bought some flashy clothes that her wild friend approved of: a miniskirt and a stretchy top with cut-out shoulders.
But the wild friend's life was messy. Sometimes she was hung over and skipped work, Dawson says. She lost her job at a cosmetics counter and then her apartment, and crashed at Dawson's house for a week. She was always optimistic about finding a new job, but seemed incapable of working on her resume.
"She was very Holly Golightly about it all," Dawson says.
The wild friend had disappeared for a few weeks when Dawson saw a mutual acquaintance on the street. He told Dawson that the friend had been shot, apparently in an attempted robbery. He said he'd gone to visit her at the hospital and found her recovering in the men's ward. She was, apparently, a man.
Dawson never saw her wild friend again. She kept going to the bars they'd frequented together, but her friend had vanished. At first, Dawson felt shocked and betrayed by her friend's secret, but in later years she came to feel guilt, a sense that she didn't give back as much as her friend gave her.
"How hard must that have been to keep that secret from so many people, and to go through that kind of anguish?" Dawson asks. "In retrospect, I really feel like she provided me this avenue for fun and some excitement. I think I could've offered her some stability."
As with rock stars, wild friends can disappoint us in old age. If real life were a movie, the wild friend would always die young, and the mode of death would be reckless enough to remind us that wild things aren't meant for this world -- to reassure us that our own lives, no matter how regimented and boring, are a smart calculation.
It could be a car crash or overdose, or maybe a poison snake in the jungles of the Amazon. The wild friend could disappear into the woods, like Chris McCandless, whose life story Jon Krakauer told in "Into the Wild." Like all wild guys, McCandless was brash and charming. He went into the Alaskan wilderness to find himself. He died without a map.
But real life isn't always like that. In real life, we sometimes see our wild friends years later and we feel bad for them. Poche, the screenwriter, remembers running into a wild friend about a decade ago at a gas station. He'd emulated this guy in middle school. Back then, the guy had been rude and fearless; he drove a Rally Sport Camaro and the girls loved him. When Poche saw him again, the guy was still driving a muscle car and seemed hauntingly unchanged.
Poche says all four of the wild friends from his youth seem to have had downward trajectories, including dead-end jobs and troubled marriages.
"Wild is harder and harder the older you get," he e-mails. "You can't go where the wild friend is going, and he can't go where you are headed and you both know it from the very beginning. There comes the fork in the road and you go straight and they go where the wild guys go."
In real life, we sometimes leave our wild friends before they leave us.
"I'm married now. I have three small children," Poche says. "Maybe that's enough chaos in my life."
Michelle Ann Abate, 28, had a wild roommate when she was a grad student in Brooklyn. Abate, now an assistant professor of English at Hollins University in Roanoke, describes herself as a "really square, responsible homebody" and says she hadn't known her wild friend terribly well when they decided to live together.
Abate says her roommate had also enrolled in graduate school but dropped out a few weeks into the first semester. After that, she had a series of low-level jobs but often skipped work. A tall, slender blonde, the roommate also had a chaotic love life. Abate says she grew used to "waking up every morning and seeing some naked stranger shuffling into the bathroom."
Abate says that at first she enjoyed living with her roommate, through whom she met a wide range of people. Her exploits produced great stories, which Abate used to entertain her other friends. But Abate never knew what she'd find when she came home and turned her key in the apartment lock. One time, Abate says, a guy her roommate brought home stole some money from Abate's wallet. Her roommate would disappear sometimes for a week or two at a time with no notice, and her employers would call, looking for her. Abate had to play the heavy, and she hated it.
"She was always not paying the bills, or her rent check would bounce, or she would disappear for a week and I wouldn't know where she was. And she'd come home with great stories like being at P. Diddy's white party," Abate says. "It was like, 'But the phone bill!' And I felt like such a nerd."
One of the more dramatic episodes came after Abate's roommate became engaged to two guys at once. One fiance gave her a diamond ring. The other fiance opted for matching tribal tattoos. Both men lived elsewhere, so the roommate was able to keep it from them for a while. One day, Abate came home to find a hole had been punched in a wall of her roommate's room. Her roommate reported that one of her fiances had found out and come over in a rage. She said she threw the first punches.
When the roommates split, after about a year, Abate says the decision was mutual. They did not stay friends. Abate did not miss the excitement.
"I really wouldn't trade my mortgage and my 401(k)" to have back that chaotic year in Brooklyn, Abate says. "On a day-to-day basis, I like who I am. I like being the square."