I met up with my old friend, "Sam", last week. He was walking his bike up the street, a large bag draped over the handle bars. Sam is about my age, with sun hardened skin and strands of mid length hair pulled back in a tail. He is a generous man, affable and open hearted. He is also a binner, sleeps rough most of the time and, in his own words, usually “drunk as a skunk.” I’ve known him for about sixteen years. Sam is always kind to me, gives me writing advice and once he defended my honour. I like him a lot.
Although it is doubtful he could be diagnosed with a mental health issue, Sam hangs with those who have one: they are the most honest people, he says, good people; you know where they stand. These friends provide him with companionship but also stress and concern; our conversation was filled with both laughter and poignancy as he described recent events. He keeps a look out when buddies go missing or run away in fear; provides food and shelter when he can and is more than willing to share a swig. He offered me a bike once, a dumpster find that needed but few repairs. Security guards and the cops in my neighbourhood know him and give him latitude, shop owners provide him with food for labour done and, ever so often, he tells me of a house sitting job. I gave him a gift certificate one Christmas to a food store. It embarrassed him—he works for his pay.
I am continually amazed at his ingenuity and his willingness to share and yet, I would never invite him home for a cup of tea. There is this fine line, no, I lie, a concrete barrier between him and me. It is not based on class or riches, job status or even alcohol. (Okay, the alcohol does influence my position but he is not always that drunk). The substances that make up this barrier, in fact, are mutable. Some days it is because I fear he may bring bed bugs into my apartment (although I have never seen him scratch); other times it is because he is slightly dirty and still others, a fear of future neediness. But once again, this excuse has no foundation, he has always been respectful of my boundaries.
As I sit here writing I am not quite sure that I even know my truth; like the barriers between Sam and I, that truth is fickle. Perhaps I don’t invite him in because I don’t want to feel obliged. Once invited, the door is open: there is no reason, in my convoluted mind, to bar the entrance again. I will never have peace in my sanctuary—always waiting for the door bell to ring. But that screams out poor boundaries on both our parts and I know that ignoring phone calls or door chimes is not unfamiliar to me.
It is interesting to look at those invisible walls that can lie between us and those in our community. I have friends at work that I don’t see outside the job and I am pretty certain I will not trade phone numbers when I quit. Then there are the shop keepers and clerks, and, vice versa, those I serve as a cashier. I have great conversations with some of these people while errands are done but I find a slight discomfort when I find myself next to them on the bus. It is almost akin to a one-night stand: intimate knowledge of the other’s body (or what they like to buy) but practical ignorance in how the person thinks or feels. What does one say when you are out of your proscribed roles?
Perhaps it is the idea that close friends have been through the ringer while passing acquaintances have not. You both know who the other is. You have experienced (and accepted) most of their personas—and they yours—compromises have been made; tolerances expanded. There is an implicit agreement that you are in it for the long run. With store clerks and work buddies you know your time together is limited and the space constrained. Here, too, compromises are made and tolerance expanded but only because you don’t have to live with them or have them over for coffee.
But all this doesn’t really explain why I keep Sam at arm’s length. Perhaps, I just dont want to be reminded that we are all just ill-fated moments away from living on the street. Then again, maybe it is just my fear of intimacy: do I really want/need another friend who knows me more than I would like?
After a while I told Sam I had to go. Our visit was drawing to a natural close anyway but something else was pulling me away. Although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it that day, in retrospect, I think a part of me was questioning who this man was and what he meant to me. What was my responsibility to him?
As we readied to go, I asked for our usual hug. Our arms wrapped around each other. It was a solid, almost fierce hug.
Thinking back on that short moment in time, I wonder if therein lies the answer. Perhaps our relationship is fine as it stands; perhaps it is enough.