Friends In The Blink Of An Eye

By Eric Le Roy

      Content 18+ I never used to give much thought to the subject of friendship. Oh, surface-wise I did, and I have assigned ‘Friendship’ as a topic many times to students over the years. “What Qualities Do You Look For in a Friendship? ” has always been a go-to gas burner for stiff brains.  One of those generic things like “What is the Meaning of ‘Success’” and “Can Money Buy Happiness?” – the sort of task that can always be guaranteed to prompt a response. I mean, that’s the idea right? To get students in a writing class to Write. And hopefully to Think first – though it’s not a lock that they will do it.

Predictably, you end up reading about Trust, Having things in Common, and Someone you can Count On when everyone else is ready to cancel you or boil you alive. Occasionally, a student will ‘go the extra mile’ and mention things like sharing a similar sense of humor, being of equal status in the beauty and money game (more important than people like to admit), and having someone to promote or protect you. It’s always more interesting to me when a student perceives, then actually captures in writing some of the edgier sides of ‘friendship’. How tentative and fragile it can be. How jealousy and betrayal can lead to very bitter outcomes. How sometimes we are attracted to dangerous people. You don’t often get that.

    Now and then – at the risk of boring them –  I tell my students how, back in the old days (that means the 1950s if we are speaking about me), people died in roughly the same world they were born into – at least one you still recognized – and, measured by the same standards, longevity seemed part of friendship whether you necessarily wanted it to be or not. What I mean is that, although of course the world was changing before our very eyes, it did not seem to be. It was a world we continued to recognize. This went on throughout an average lifespan of 65-70 years. 

  Now let’s get one thing out of the way first. We were NOT better people back then. And we certainly didn’t Love each other any more than would be worth mentioning. In many cases we just ‘put up with’ each other. A lot of marriages were that way because folks tied the knot at a young age, had lots of children and women were pretty much kept in captivity because they had no financial clout. It was either deal with drunken Bucky, subsist on his paycheck, or go stand outside your parents’ locked door. Also, the church mattered back then, and the church didn’t like single mothers; it didn’t like men and women getting divorced after taking holy vows to the contrary.

  I mention all this, not to get off track but to show that friendship worked the same way. In the town I grew up in and eventually the small capital city, Charleston (West Virginia),  the kids you played ball with as an adolescent in some scraggly vacant lot were the same guys whose coffins you carried to the Green Green Grass of the Headstone Pleasure Grounds a half century later when the sun went down. Or else they carried you, probably telling the same jokes they told back in those jaggedy-assed dusty lots.

   Just about everyone had a few friends, and pity the poor soul without one. Mostly, we lived in a tactile world where sensory experiences reigned: the pungence of freshly formed dogshit in the apple field, the rat-a-tat-tat of the basketball in front of that telephone pole where the basket hung there on Hudson Street, the wafting flavor of a warm and just-now baked cake from a kitchen window, the sharp steam off the asphalt after rain and likewise, the rainy perfume of wet grass. A mud-party in the cold stew of autumn when we played touch-football and the endless sweat of summer. Winters of cheek-reddening snow. Outside of places like Martinsburg, Morgantown, and Charleston, the rest of the world existed, as far as I knew, inside a black and white television set, and there wasn’t much else to it. 

   It was technology that changed everything. When I first arrived in Moscow in 2007 to start my job as an ESL tutor, not many people spoke English. There were VERY FEW mobile phones, so few that those who had them (mostly men) would jump on the metro with one packed against his ear shouting as loudly as possible just to let you know he had such a device. I was told later that many of these ‘important’ conversations were purely imaginary: the dude wasn’t talking to anyone; he was just trying to impress you. Who knows or cares?

  But what I do know is that I rode trains and buses and walked long distances in Moscow to reach my locations. I slipped and fell, dodged traffic, skirted the endless puddles that spread everywhere after even the slightest rain because of the non-existent drainage system, and always felt the bite of the raw air in winter just as I drew in its stench in the summer. The people I saw and met – millions of them, I noticed, actually had arms and legs (the relevance of this I will come to later). In short, it was the temporal world with all its wonderful, fabulous inconveniences (I am playing it straight here – no sarcasm or joking around.) It was LIFE in one of the great cities of the world. The crappy weather and other hardships were part of the fun. It’s part of what you remember and that’s for a reason: it was real.

   Nobody had a laptop. At the big school office in the center where all the teachers would gather for sundry reasons, there was a very strong ‘state-of-the-art’ computer at the front desk, and three real clunkers in the back. No smart phones or watches or AI-driven appliances. NONE of that existed in 2007 – at least not for regular people. You had to stand in line for your turn to send an email or two, and even then the computers were so slow that using Morse code would have been quicker.

    But somehow I liked it better then. 

   Now, I am aware that many people would dispute me on a lot I’ve said, and I make allowances for that. For example, somebody once pointed out to me that “of all the people who have ever lived on the face of the earth, HALF of them are alive now.”

That is one hell of a pool of potential friends. Moreover, general literacy is at an all-time high. We tend to think of the Renaissance and the Elizabethan-Shakespearian epochs as proof that back then people were smarter and wiser than they are now. “They weren’t wasting their time at Burger King and WalMart!” cry the Traditionalists. “They were studying GREEK and LATIN, goddamn it, not like these fools today with their pants pulled down so you can see the crack of their asses!” But the truth is, at least 80% of the people back then couldn’t read a death sentence if it was laid before them. Still, they had conversations and told stories. It was indeed a story-telling world. They had time.

   But now we live in the days of Big Data, and we know the dirty secrets of all the movie stars.. Not only do people still talk, they never shut up. So why is so much attention paid, so many dystopian books written, about existential loneliness, some kind of ‘spiritual’ disconnect, and the bizarre emptiness of modern life?.? Jeff Bezos sees a different world than Raphael painted. AI perfects our flaws, and now makes music and art as well. Does it surpass us? Does it somehow fail us?  Why? Too many choices? Shrinking attention span? Invisibility brought on by the sheer weight of numbers? Amid stupendous speed, there seems to be a kind of inertia taking up space in us. Ennui. Many feel like strangers at their own weddings and birthday parties.

   Now I live in Bulgaria and I do EVERYTHING online. Unlike those long lost days back in West Virginia, and not like in Moscow. I have students from all over Hell’s creation and if one were to think of them as ‘friends’, I’d be doing better than a lot of folks on Facebook. I mean, you name the continent, I have business there.

It makes you feel kind of important until you realize that you really aren’t. It’s just an illusion. I also think that I have a lot of friends, and I don’t. It’s an illusion too, made of the same flimsy material: patchwork pantheism – the gods and goddesses of air. Or, in this case, cyberspace. It’s sort of like you are walking along and faces keep popping up from behind the rocks and then disappearing. Are they, were they, really there? I joke with some of my longer term online student-friends that I have known for months (sometimes even years) without knowing if they really have bodies. You know: stomachs, legs, asses, ankles, the works. And how would I know since I only see their faces and shoulders? Of course I can chase them up on FB and Instagram, but somehow it still rings false. On those platforms they always look too fucking happy for their own good.

   No, what it is – what is lacking – goes right back to the sensory qualities of real time and space that bind us together. Have you ever watched a rock concert live as opposed to seeing one recorded for TV? Or have you wandered around off the beaten track in foreign cities and then did a virtual walking tour of the same city? Something is lost, right? What is food without the taste and smell (as the Covid19 victims discovered)? What is a restaurant without ambiance, (maybe even candles and a violin!); what is a park without birds and squirrels, a beach without the chanting plainsong of the surf? If it’s all on film or on a screen. it just doesn’t work. Not really.  You become a sensory leper that way, and to a degree it’s the same with online friendships. Not only can you not touch the people, but you can’t feel their aura or intuit anything much of their true  essence online. 

For example, I worked for several years for a company which procured potential students for me. A trial lesson would be set up (the company collected the full fee and gave me nothing) and I would find myself in front of Person X from Time Zone X. Some of these would-be students no doubt booked lessons with several other prospective tutors, not just me. Fair and Square. They deserved to decide who they would be most compatible with. Usually, I myself could tell if it was going to work or not. In fact I had a lot of success.

   But there were times when the lesson went so well that I’d really be pumped. It had all gone according to plan. But then I’d never hear from those people again. So why did they mislead me?  I didn’t have them in a hammer lock, forcing promises out of them. To this day, I wonder why some people ‘ghost’ you like that for no necessary reason. Maybe they know right away what the deal is and are just too embarrassed to say.

  Sometimes, the rude awakening happens when I (in my needy naivete I guess) have imagined a blossoming friendship while the student, as friendly as he or she could be, never thought of it as more than a professional relationship. Yeah, I have been guilty of that. But sometimes you work with these people for a year or two. You get to know them. They tell you their stories. They confide all sorts of stuff to you. You laugh with them and if something bad happens to them, you suffer too. Hell, you start to think “Friend”. Is it so presumptuous?

  Blink and they’re gone. And you never, ever ever know who they were. I don’t blame them anymore because they aren’t aware (probably not) of doing anything wrong. They just want the information, not the song. Their sailboat is beyond the sunset before the sun knows it’s time to go down. No malice aforethought. Just the moments we live.     

    That is why online friendships, despite all efforts to make them otherwise, are as vapid as electronic cigarettes. The people are there and not there. Of course, the great paradox, as I freely admit and shout my praise because of it – is that without the secular miracles of technology, I could never meet those people in the first place. For instance, I see people in Shanghai and Beijing every day that I will never encounter in a real setting. They come and go like phantoms, but the miracle is that I meet them in the first place; the unraveling of the miracle (as my experience with the Chinese can attest) is when the kids’ parents stop the lessons and the kids vanish as fast as Halloween candy. It is simply inevitable. At that point they cease to exist.  The same applies to adults. The Harry Houdinis of cyberspace.

Unwillingly, my emotions harden as time passes. I have always been a sentimental sort, very reluctant to let go of relationships once their significance has impressed itself on my soul. I suffer – or did – from what I was told was ‘separation anxiety’ – probably stemming from my childhood. Goodbyes tormented me. And if it involved someone I still loved or had loved a while ago, I felt that a part of my soul was going with them, a part of me I had given them, as they had given theirs to me. Goodbye was excruciating even when goodbye was all that was left.

   It’s different now. People enter and depart, Stage Left, Stage Right. Mumbo jumbo ! Hark!  Hail to Thee, Sweet Caesar! Poof and Gone to the Night ! And I have learned to welcome them as they arrive and not think too much about it when time is up. It’s in the nature of modern things, I understand, and I accept it. Something is lost in the transaction, naturally or I wouldn’t be calling it a ‘transaction’ would I? 

  But what is missing is the casual intimacy of close contact. The smell of ‘homemade’ food and steaming coffee in the cluttered kitchen. The uproar of kids playing in another part of the house or apartment. The dog on the floor, the cat on the mantelpiece. The toasty room, the  frosty, windy, or boiling streets of a thousand surfaces waiting outside. Grandma and Grandpa roaming about in their old sweaters and me looking at the fine woman in front of me wondering if she’ll look like that too. In time. Then off with the slippers, on with the shoes, and out the door. Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Till next time!

   In cyberspace I speak all day and evening to widely scattered people, first one, then the oher. It is my job to be animated, to leave one person in Hong Kong and go to another in Sakhalin, then to Warsaw and afterwards off to LA. I have a helluva wonderful time, feeling almost….indispensable, a valuable cog in a massive sharing of linguistic knowledge and convivial companionship. Or so it seems.  Some of the men you meet are great guys, and there are women the same. Stars in life. Once in a while I meet a woman that takes my breath…

   And, when it is over, I switch off  my channel to the rest of the earth, and I sit before an empty screen. In Varna, Bulgaria. 

   Where did all my friends go? It’s a question many must ask themselves. Something is missing. What is it? What causes it? Eternal Angst?  Or is it a subtle psychological pathology that forms the basis of modern existence?

   Ah, the screen, so animated for hours, has called it a day, called it quits, and the computer must be shut off so it can cool down. I close it like a book; otherwise Sammy the Cat will sit on the keys and mess something up. So the people are gone, the multitudes of day and evening, lost into Shakespeare’s words: 

“These our actors, 

As I foretold you, were all spirits and 

Are melted into air, into thin air: 

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, 

The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 

Leave not a rack behind.”

   Oh well, I have my wife, my dogs, and my cat, and they are real. They are with me in the thought-deafening night, which is “rounded with a sleep”, and, for a while, they will remain so as I lay breathing, waiting for the next day’s miracles to begin anew, the hum of a far off ocean that is really the machine before me softly grinding, and a gallery of images suggestive of human faces.

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