The elderly family friend just beams at us. Such beautiful girls, she says several times over the course of the conversation, and we smile bashfully and say, Thank you, and I am just thinking: Does he think so? And: Where the hell is he, anyway? The phone rings a few minutes later and she thinks it must be him. She rolls her eyes. He is very chatty, clingy, even from a hundred miles away. He likes to call, to text, to update everyone on simple things that are really only interesting to him, or rather to any actual observer of such events: deers on the lawn, the black bear in the woods, the sparrow trapped in the greenhouse. And then you try to share your own observations, and he doesn’t actually care or seem to listen. The line goes dead. He likes to give, but not to receive.
He doesn’t want to show his cards, I tell my father, my enabler, who mostly sees me as a friend, indulges my mental wanderlust because he’s afflicted with it too. It’s like he wants other people to react, to have emotions. He says the most lovely things. And you try to reciprocate the loveliness and he just shuts down, rescinds the offer.
He says he sounds too immature for me. Who’s going to cut the umbilical cord at last?, he asks. He sounds scolding — of me — when he says it. Furrowed eyebrows. I want to say something foolish like, Oh, but his soul is good. Who gives a fuck about his soul though, when everything else he does is unfeeling at worst, mercurial at best? Oh, but his soul is good is something I could only say to a girlfriend who knew from experience what it was like to be so deluded, to choose a “soul,” to root for it, over the conflicting evidence on the table. Who would probably also say I was too old to be deluded still, because of settling down and children, those things women of a certain age seem required to care about. He is never going to be that person for me, love of my life, father of my children.
How I know that: I am dancing around trying to catch a wayward dog, and he doesn’t even look over at me. He knows I am there, can see me out of the corner of his left eye, can hear me, but he stares straight ahead in his expensive sunglasses that he can’t afford but did somehow pay for, back in the airport in New York, which is the only place in that city he’s ever been. I flop my arms down at my sides at frustration at the dog and at him. I want to scream something. He knows that there is so much stewing in me. He knows I hide most of my emotions from view; he knows that the emotions are there. I used to write love letters to his cousin and get him to deliver them for me. But I come here now and I become like all of them: reserved, repressed, tentative. I drink too much in the hopes that I’ll get sloppy enough to throw my arms around him later on — there is always a later on, it seems, always a point to which these imagined breakthroughs can be deferred — and tell him that I love him. But when I drink here I just become more reserved, if that’s even possible.
Which made me realize that alcohol can only turn up the volume on however you’re already feeling. That’s all it ever does. But we all still drink too much here, in the hopes it will change us, I think, make us different people. Well, I am a different person, I want to tell them. But you cage me, you fence me in, with your propriety and your deference. I want someone to raise their voice, but not angrily, like they sometimes do with his sister when they are getting fed up with her various bad boyfriends. But happily. To rejoice at something, like I sometimes used to, like when I would announce that I was staying for an extra week, or when I beat one of them at whatever game: pool, tennis, a swimming race to a vague destination, like the fourth rock from the end.
And yet. He comes through in the clutch: that’s something you could say about him. I wonder whether his other friends know him as well as I do, then I wonder why I want it to be a competition. Anyway, if all I can say about someone is that they’re mercurial, I obviously can’t know them very well.
No pressure, I want to tell him, but this is it. I need to lay everything out on the line now, so that I can move on. But he wouldn’t trust whatever I had to say. He knows the way my clan is, how we tend to give things either 200 percent of our attention or 10 percent. That we ask too much of people and then run away if we’re not given each of the items on our list. To wit: if I asked him now if he loved me back, if he could love me back, and he said no, I might never come here again. I might never be able to. The dream would be dead, and I’d want to just toss our friendship, leave it to gather dust as I did once before. It’s not enough for me.
What is friendship? What are the rewards associated with it? What claim can we make of it? Only — and possibly not even this — that we know a person. Know someone a long time; that is a substantial claim. The years gather and the accomplishment seems greater as the years go on. But what if the mind can’t see the person as they were and the person as they are as one and the same? One is a form and the other is a shadow. Perhaps the person as they are now is the shadow, and the person they were is the form. Build up enough memories, a pastiche of how things really went, and they calcify into something like a sculpture in the mind. The real person, however, wavers and darts like a dusky shadow on the grass. They are not subject to the same rules as our mind. They are not subject to any rules except their own inner narrative, shaped by genes and circumstance.
I flit about just as he does. I am a shadow too. We don’t know ourselves as people once knew themselves, I think. My father relays an anecdote from a friend. The friend’s son asked him, How will I know that I’ve found “the one”? The father said: Son, you’ll just know. But I wonder. This seems to be the Australian way, my father says. Resolute. I said this wasn’t true of our people. It’s true. There’s something dark in the northern races. Something dark, and something uncertain. Or it’s just our times. We are supposed to be grateful that the world is smaller than it used to be. But maybe we all have too many influences pulling us now. We don’t know who we really are.
I don’t think anything will happen, I say. He says, If you know that, then it will likely never happen. If you know, you know. I want to say it’s not that simple. But instead I say silent, respectful of these words, in the hope I will start to believe them.
In the photo from the most recent vacation with his friends they’re all standing in front of a pretty row of cypress trees. It’s not clear where they are. Some rich person’s house? A resort? The girls look like, I don’t know, like girls. Young girls. Even though they’re all 30 or above. He seems like the odd one out to me. But that’s because I want to see him as the odd one out, a lost soul to be rescued. And it’s because his is the only face in the bunch that means anything to me. But there is something vacant in his expression, it can’t be denied. What is going on in that head? Does the taker of the photo know what’s going on in that head? Does anyone?
Wanting to save someone, or change them, or even enlighten them, is a fool’s errand. Wanting to hold his whiskey-soused head in my arms is a fool’s errand. It’s predatory, I’ve decided, and strange. There are moments in each day when I see him from an outsider’s perspective, when I see him simply as another person in the world, a person I happen to know “very” well, and I really do wish I could stay in that frame of mind forever. I don’t want my head full of another person, of an incorrigible way of seeing things, concocted of facts and imagined ideas, memories, and memories of memories.