Friday, April 18, 2008

Waiting on a Friend

"A smile relieves a heart that grieves
Remember what I said..."

I'm knocking on the door of an old friend who won't be happy to see me. He won't be happy because we're not really friends anymore.

It's a sour story to do with money never paid back. But it goes deeper than that, into bad words and bad faith, the way broken trust drops like a cracked stone into the pool of life and sends out dark circles to the edges of memory: that time when..., the moment he said..., a girl, an attitude, a hurt here and there that starts to look like a scheme.

So here I am today at his door.

I want to surprise him. And I know he will be nervous when he sees me.

I'm not sure how I'm feeling. I couldn't say I'm relaxed, but I do feel an unusual, detached calm. A quality in me that doesn't sit right with what I know is ahead of me.

I usually put a lot of energy into avoiding confrontations. I fear them. Yet when the moment comes, rather like stepping off an imaginary cliff, it's strange to find myself just as likely to float as fall. Maybe it's the thought of release from the rage I've been feeling that gives me some premonition of the cruel lightness that will carry me through today.

It's a sunny winter's day. The elements have not aligned themselves ominously.

As I knock, a typically tuneful rhythm, I start when I realize how automatic that rhythm is, how much of a jokey signature it's become for me. He's shared houses with me on and off for over ten years. So I worry he will recognize the knock and stay inside. Then I hear a voice, gravelly with sleep and disorganization somewhere down the hall. Despite the lack of shape in the voice, I know its him.

The next minute he's poking his head round the corner like a rabbit out of a hole. He's wearing a sloppy Joe and clutching a towel to his waist. As soon as he sees me I sense the adrenaline surge in him and my own drop into complete calm. I'll control the situation.

But how to begin?

I don't need to speak much at all as it turns out. He expresses himself in a jumpy dither, c'mon in, I was going to call you, come through, take a seat...

I mention the year old bills that haven't been paid, that he was meant to pay, and the debt collectors out after me, all of it in a reasonably gentle manner. Ask him about the receipts, where they might be?

He fires a round of questions that are coming off the top of his head. They're not questions that are looking for answers, more the rat-a-tat-tat machine gun fire of his nerves and a need to crowd the air.

I suggest we go for a coffee, ask him about a mutual friend, keep the tone bland and lazy. He says sure, runs off to his room to get dressed, stabilize himself. I imagine him shaking inside himself somewhere behind his bedroom door - and I feel a pang of sadness that this is where our friendship has led.

We walk outside to my girlfriend's car. Hop in. I brace myself for a sarcastic comment about the car, a beautiful old Peugeot. I've become used to his light jabs of sarcasm over the years, that undercutting way he has of making me or anyone else feel bad a bout a possession, a sign of progress of any kind.

But he says nothing. Just asks me how I've been.

I talk about work, overcommitments. He mocks the tone in my voice, a tone I did not think was there, says "me oh my" with a whiney laugh.

I feel vindicated. See him. Negative as ever. Correct him bluntly, turn the 'overcommitments' comment into a rally of superiority over him. Don't ask how he is.

We find a nearby coffee shop and park. Make some unbearable small talk while we wait to order coffees. Then it begins.

I quiz him about the bills. Has he really paid them? The debt collectors say they're not paid and it's me who has my name on all of them. He insists he has paid them, but will have to find the receipts. They're at his old girlfriend's, his brother's, his mother's, all the places he slept at and ran to over the past year I've been away.

I ask him if he's surprised that I might not believe him? This is the core matter really - a complete loss of trust. And quietly beneath that, unspoken, my contempt for him.

He looks at me as if he might cry. His eyes seem unduly large in his now shaven head, shaven to compensate for his premature balding, shaven and vulnerable as an eggshell. He says again that he has paid the bills. Talks about what passed between us after he moved in to my house for a few months, the breakup of his seven-year relationship with his girlfriend, how he was "off the rails all last year. I thought you'd understand."

There's barely a moment's silence before he adds that he's "better now".

It all fades away from me, a bunch of air. I go to say he wasn't honest with me. That he wasn't...

"I wasn't myself."

He says 'myself' victoriously. But the word comes out of his mouth all brittle. And when I hear it, my silence, my eyes - even as I feel his hurt, his guilt, his half apology, half attempt to justify himself - are all hard enough to crack the word to pieces.

The rest of the conversation is a spaghetti of details. I let him know about my loss of respect for him, his friends' loss of respect, and implicitly, his ex-girlfriend's loss of respect too. I indicate he has preyed on her trust and mine.

He tries to get angry but he doesn't have the power or the will. He mostly acknowledges my position. Tries again to appeal for understanding. And though I try to give him understanding, it's not soft. Instead I replace understanding with advice.

The conversation is over quickly; the rest is just details. Eventually he wants to leave, but I won't let him go straight away. I go back over the details he has brought up and slice them open with a surgeon's particularity. I have to resist turning hard facts into vicious trivia. And I try again in some qualified way to signal at least some care for his state of mind, for where he might be headed in this world.

Eventually we are out on the sunny street again. He looks shaken, gutted. Trying to act relaxed. We say our banal good-byes in the cool breeze in an old familiar spot where we have stood a hundred times before, and then I turn away in a manner that's not nearly as kindhearted as I wish it could be.

Out of the corner of my eye I catch him walking off alone like someone I know, carrying hurt. I wonder if I should call out to him. But there are no words, so I just stand for a moment, waiting. Then I cross the road and drive away.

- Mark Mordue

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