The song River brings to mind Robert Downey Jr. and my college friends. Every Monday night we’d gather to watch our favorite shows. Conveniently, junior year we met up in the house where I and 3 others of our gang lived.
Robert Downey Jr. joined the cast of Ally McBeal during season 4. It was a risky decision at the time, as he was fresh from a stint in rehab- or was it jail? We were enthralled by the character he played. It didn’t take long for a romantic storyline to begin between him and Ally. Every once in awhile, if we were lucky, he’d break into song. Much swooning occurred in Rock Island, IL those days.
Such was the case of the Christmas episode that year. Downey (as Larry Paul) sat down at a piano and sang River to Ally. My friends and I were swept away all over again. I haven’t forgotten it since.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the song. My mom passed her love of Joni Mitchell down to me and I adore the original version. But something about Downey singing it, in light of his rehab stints and knowing he’d blown another chance, made it that much more poignant. I can’t remember if they were able to wind down his role. I do remember how disappointed we were that Larry and Ally were no longer meant to be.
We kept gathering Monday nights to watch but the show lost some of its sparkle. Still, our beloved shows were only ever an excuse to gather.
By the end of freshman year, friendships had solidified with 8 other girls in my dorm. (Among others but these women became my core group.) We became friends because of math class, because they were roommates, because we liked the same music. We were ports in the storm for one another. While many of our craziest stories come courtesy of parties and camping trips, our friendships formed from the minutia of daily life. These were and are some of my most important relationships.
Most days we could count on eating lunch or dinner together. Monday nights we’d pile into Kelly and Brooke’s room to watch Ally McBeal and Party of Five. We’d meet in the dorm common area for Dawson’s Creek and Felicity and rest assured we made time for Beverly Hills, 90210. Students do not live by studying alone. To that end, we’d often head to the Borders bookstore on Thursday nights and partake of coffee while underlining texts and filling out note cards.
As the years progressed, our days circled around one another. Sure, we each had other friends but our group of nine (a nonet?) was the presiding force. Even so, it took me awhile to really believe I belonged. Not because of anything my friends did but because I have long viewed myself as an outsider, in spite of much evidence to the contrary.
By junior year, I rested in the knowledge that these were my people and I was theirs. In spite of my unrest over what faith meant and who I was (good ol’ college angst), they loved me. I slipped their friendship on like a glove and held fast. Sure, the old insecurities came to visit every once in awhile. But it didn’t take much to bat them away.
With the exception of freshman and senior years, our group was scattered across campus. And yet our routines continued to unite us. Monday night for Ally McBeal, Thursday for Borders, at least lunch at the cafeteria. We strove for a majority gathering whenever possible.
I suppose that’s why River is so closely associated with my friends. It’s a gorgeous song sung by a gorgeous man but what I remember most is simply being with my people.
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on
River is not about friendship. What stands out to me is the nostalgia. A desire to skate away- something this Midwestern girl understands though it’s been years since I set skate in an ice rink. A wistfulness for a previous, happier time.
And oh do I get this. I’m still friends with all 8 women but in varying degrees. I don’t think we’ve all been together since Kelly’s wedding a decade ago. We no longer live in the same city or even the same country. We’re no longer the same people and yet we love each other. When we do meet up, in groups of twos or threes, it’s as if time never passed. In my heart, we’re still the girls sighing over Robert Downey Jr. and pondering the odds of his return to the show.
We’re still the girls sitting in a living room doing the best we can.
For your listening enjoyment, Robert Downey Jr. singing River: