"Loner Makes Friend: An Experiment"
Beginning of experiment.
After eight years of quasi isolation I emerge from the recesses of my mind and venture into the world of humans. I have avoided converse with people most of my life, but in the last eight years my avoidance magnified from the natural detachment of a solitary personality to the active withdrawal of a recluse. My need to avoid has passed apparently. I look around and humans attract me. I wonder what it would be like to talk to them. I wonder what it would be like to have friends, to interact, to know what irritates and inspires. I have not enjoyed such communion since I left high school 30 years ago. What might it be like? Only with my wife do I communicate. What about with a buddy? With a cup fellow? With a comradely painter or poet?
We have just relocated to Richmond, Virginia. The mood of the city stimulates this ripening curiosity, this fresh possibility. Artist-types abound. A large university dominates the city center. Murals are everywhere. And a surprising number of cafes populate both busy thoroughfares and lonesome corners on tucked away lanes. If I do not try the experiment here, where? If not now, when?
So I open myself. The mood has been germinating. My mind grants it permission to flower.
How will this evolve? I wonder. Or congeal? Already I feel larger. I ask myself if in your forties you suddenly start craving friendship again like in your teens. I ask myself if this is biological. I ask myself if I am entering a new stage of life. Always I’ve felt sincere affection for the acquaintances around me, even the strangers. But I’ve never been able to endure the obligation that affection confers the moment an acquaintance becomes a friend. Friendship burdens me. I feel duty bound by friendship. And duty is my bane. I just want to be left alone; alone to my thoughts, alone with my notebooks.
A photographic artist sits on a stool in a museum gallery surrounded by his work. He’s giving a talk. I’ve avoided such scenes for over two decades now. In my youth I went to them looking for inspiration. Poetry readings I attended for the same reason. And music recitals. I gave up the poetry readings almost immediately. Beauty and insight I sought in them only to find an orgy of ego masturbation. Artist talks like this one offended less because only one ego was being massaged. But still, always, some poser in the crowd ruined the question and answer session by parading his own intelligence, by attempting to upstage even the artist with his impressive erudition. Recitals remained. I enjoyed them and continued to attend them mostly because nobody talks. Maybe the performer shows off with his horn or organ, but I don’t recognize it. I’m ignorant about music. But here I am experimenting again, like during those days in my early twenties. That’s why I attended this talk. The photographer’s work revolves around consumption and excess and decadence. I like the topic. And I felt a kinship with the artist as he spoke. His work rose from something vital within him, not from a desire to be known or earn money.
“Making pictures like these,” he said. “You spend a lot of time being treated like some kind of terrorist or crazy man. People nervously tell you to leave their stores or threaten to call the police. It’s strange to be suddenly talking to a bunch of people who are seeing the finished product and treating me as if I’m respectable.”
I identified with the story. I’ve suffered like suspicions and evictions while distributing flyers for my website. His success encouraged me, even emboldened me. And onlookers stood shoulder to shoulder in that gallery, craning their necks to hear the man’s comments. At the end the crowd applauded so raucously that the artist showed visible astonishment. And his ego was evident only in the strength of his genuineness. He did not come to show off. He did not have to. Even the questions the audience posed were interesting and authentic. I could not believe it. I did not squirm through that gathering. I left the exhibition, in fact, feeling uplifted, heady. Have I found my place? I asked myself. Are these people like me? I asked myself. Will I actually fit in here? In this fifteenth city I’ve inhabited? Wow, I thought. I might make friends. I might recognize someone in a cafe someday and chat with them about something we mutually care about. They might even allow me the space I need to feel unburdened by them.
This prospect truly affected me. I felt the bite and sharpness of my inner sentences relax a little. I felt them begin to blend into one another and use more contractions and ellipses and demonstrate how the good feeling of a flowing eliding conversation with another human might coax me toward a more seamless personal and artistic continuity. The idea of finally belonging to a community appealed, of being known and knowing, of greeting people by name and maybe echoing their musings on the nearby road construction, or on the rarity of the July chill, or on the young actress who shined through a recent drama at the street theater. Such new experience might merit sacrificing a little of my privacy, a little of my time and hermitage. I could share with a friend sometimes. I could learn a more inclusive way of existing. It would certainly shape my work. The idea inspired. I felt willing to evolve, to embrace the humanity surrounding me instead of just observing and empathizing with it from afar.
I thought these things as I walked to a nearby cafe.
I ordered an herbal tea and took a seat at a sidewalk table. Evening was falling and the table offered choice views of slowly passing automobiles, of pedestrians strolling a promenade of warehouses-turned-condos, of foot traffic from a supermarket behind. The mix of lifestyles stimulated me further. Hippie types. Student types of a half dozen ethnicities. But also street people begging dollar bills and lean worker-folk from a raft of government housing three blocks off. The scene mingled mind with raw risk, the promise of future with the uncontrollable present. Exactly what I live for.
A skinny man leaned back from a near table. In his mid-twenties with a fire orange beard and torch of hair, he sat alone and seemed to appraise the scene with an openness matching mine. He bobbed his head to the folk-pop tune piped from within the cafe. He refilled his coffee and gave it to a homeless man. He mumbled something about brotherhood amid this act, but then, edgily, chided the panhandler for not offering thanks. Disconsonant, this perspective seemed to me, provocative. I don’t remember how our conversation started but soon we opined together on the pathologies of civilization. His name was Dale and he played trumpet and had a bachelor’s degree in the graphic arts.
I said, “I just left a janitorial job in a North Carolina hospital. When I read Toni Morrison I hear the voices of the ageing black women I worked with there. I adore Toni Morrison’s voice.”
He imitated the voice perfectly. He said, “That’s actually my version of a high school teacher I had in Alabama. Loved that woman.”
“Perfect. You got the music, the poetry.”
We swapped impressions of Mobile, of New Orleans.
He said, “I played with The Bryan Setzer Orchestra.”
“I remember him.”
“I just filled in for a night. Most of the guys I play with are still back in Alabama. The soul food there’s better. Been in a fine dining soul food joint yet? The idea is definitely catching on. That and chicken and waffle places.”
The conversation progressed. More and more animated I became. I heard my verbal sentences elongating now and meshing with one another. I heard their communications overlap and blend the way I might now with unmet personalities. Here it is, I said to myself. I’m conversing with a stranger in a cafe like never before in my life and we have something to talk about because our histories share a couple of cities and he dallies with spirituality like me and he’s an artist like me and he seems to lack social polish like me.
Maybe this is an experiment for him too, I wondered.
Because soon we were heeing and hawing like two comrades. You would think we sat in a bar over beers, that convivially we slapped each other’s shoulders over old times. The high I felt at leaving the photograph exhibit crept now toward euphoria. My life was shifting gears, I realized. My lifetime of isolation ebbed. I envisioned myself learning about music from my new friend; going to shows with my new friend; watching my new friend play jazz. I envisioned us collaborating on works I could publish on my website. We could do a combined trumpet, word and visual piece that I could present to my Facebook followers. What possibilities comradeship offered! Just think! I’ve never experienced this kind of thing. I didn’t know it could be so much fun. Adventurous, it felt, promising, fraternal.
“Which civilization?” Dale huffed, unsheathing again his edginess. “You mean Western Civilization?”
“No, I mean all civilization. All of human culture, really. I should probably use the word culture instead of civilization. It conditions us to behave this way. To take. To expect. To hoard everything from chocolate to affection. It conditions us away from our natural state. I think it’s more natural for us to be easy with one another, to share. How else could we have survived as we evolved? The way modern human culture functions, though, we can’t. We have to demand from each other. To demand and demand again.”
Dale and I exchanged email addresses. Carefully I explained to him how I write four days at a stretch and stay out of touch while doing so; how I don’t check my inbox during these periods, or answer my telephone, or listen to music, or watch TV; how my life remains totally silent across my work days. So, depending on when he corresponds, he might not get an immediate reply. The idea seemed to astound the man, but also to inspire. He seemed instantly to comprehend why I would work this way, to respect it. Dale’s girlfriend drove up then. He left. I shook my head. I could hardly believe this was happening. It all felt predestined.
The next day I received this missive:
“It was nice meeting you. I’m around Wednesdays most weeks. Feel free to drop me a line if you ever want to rap on things. Here’s my number... Dale.”
Promisingly short. And demanding nothing. I know this guy, I thought. Intuitively we understand one another, I thought. We might be friends a long time.
The next day he wrote, “I was wondering if you might decide to hit the cafe this week. Feel free to send a text if you’re heading down the block. Peace. Dale.”
But at this I squirmed. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Now came the sticking point. Here rose the obstacle that always stalled my friendships. Obliged, I felt, to respond. Obliged, I felt, to meet Dale at the cafe. And these obligations weighed on my soul. I respect this person. I feel affection for him. So much so that I want him to feel valued by me, to know I care. But I also need to maintain a distance from him, a defined independence. In other words, I want to be Dale’s friend, but I don’t want him to bother me too much. I don’t want emails all the time. I don’t want invitations to the cafe every week. I’m in my mid forties. I’m deep in the middle of my body of work. He’s in his mid twenties and groping still for direction. We’re living different lives right now but we can be good friends. We can learn from each other and feed each other’s minds and aspirations. I need to make sure Dale understands my limitations as a comrade. But I don’t want to offend him or make him feel rejected.
Thus I stewed over how I should reply to this simplest of messages, over whether I should reply at all. Now was the moment to back away. Always previously I had backed off even before the exchange of ideas and comradely feeling. This stewing was why. Because I take it all too seriously. Because I can’t just forget people for awhile and pick them up again later. Because the sensitivities of others are like black holes to me, inescapable once I start to closen. I can only belong to people totally, it seems, or not at all. I fail at managing the middle ground between these extremes. How do I convey that my appearance in that cafe was spontaneous, was rare? That I won’t be meeting him there on a weekly basis? But that I want still to be his friend and share more conversation and hear what he has to say? These questions depressed me. But I felt my life might be entering a new phase. So it was worth wrestling with the problem this time instead of evading it. It was worth struggling to make myself understood instead of detaching myself and staying so goddamned aloof. I had been contemplating our meeting for weeks, almost anticipating it. The photographer’s talk fertilized me for it, and the cafe scene was a harvest. Forward! A new path beckoned! This was more than possibility! This was an invitation to a new kind of being!
I gathered together some words that I felt expressed all this. They read:
“Hey, Dale! That was rocking conversation we had and we’ll do it again, bro. But I don’t know when. Like I said hurriedly the other night I have only Wednesdays free right now which actually just changed to Thursdays because of a writing day I lost nursing my wife’s broken Toyota. I’m never really sure where I’m going to be on my day off anyway, but I know I’ll be dropping into that scene once in awhile. That mix is ripe and I like how it moves. When the weather warms up come spring it should get even richer. One guy sitting behind us was eavesdropping pretty hungrily. Next time I’m roping people like that into our philosophizing. You’re a great guy and I already think of you as my brother but my schedule is apt to change at any moment and I don’t like talking on the phone so just keep an eye out for me and I’ll watch for you. I’m sure we will meet again and when we do I will shake your hand with great warmth. Until then I’m famously unreliable, bro. Peace.”
I clicked send and felt relief. That sums it up, I thought. A dash of honest brotherliness with a dash of frank distance and all completely forthright and heartfelt. Friends but with space.
And Dale’s initial answer encouraged me with its brevity.
“Dude, whatever. D,” he wrote back.
I thought: Ah ha! He knows what I mean. He understands where I’m coming from. See? We are kindred souls. This will work out great. I’ll see him in that cafe weeks from now and we’ll thrash through another superb discussion.
The next day Dale sent another email:
“Dude, I just can’t let that letter go by without a proper response. You are a rude, egotistical, arrogant prick. Shut the fuck up. Get a life. If you don’t want to talk, just don’t write back with that bullshit. Maybe you’ll be a real artist one day. Maybe someone will give a shit. But until then give out your number or don’t and don’t think without reading your work or spending more time with you anybody gives a rip about your schedule and how unreliable you are. Seriously. Prick.”
End of experiment.
About the author
Stephenson Muret lives and writes in southern California. His plays, stories, essays and poems have appeared in scores of publications, touching virtually all genres. Links to his works can be clicked at www.stephensonmuret.com.