I saw a man I used to love on the streets, homeless and in hospital blue paper pants. This is not a metaphor.
I loved this man once, many years ago, for all the reasons one loves another person: he was smart and funny, kind and loyal, and we thought we could read each other’s minds. We hiked the national forests and chased waterfalls, ate Rocky Road ice cream from the carton, competed in Scrabble and listened to his stacks and stacks of music, testing each other on artists and song titles, brainstorming which tracks we would use as theme songs for the movies we would make from our favorite books. We had our inside jokes and our secret language; we shared our mindless minutiae and we spoke of forever.
A social worker called me a few weeks ago because I was the only contact she had. He had been admitted to ICU several times the past few months for drug overdoses and she predicted he was close to death. She apologized to me and said my number was the only contact he would give. I told her I hadn’t seen him in over ten years, that his family all lived in different states, but she said she didn’t know where to turn. She asked me for his full name and birth date, for the numbers of any living relatives I knew. I gave her what I could from memory, which was far more than she had hoped. I asked to speak with him, but she said he was unconscious. He had been living on the streets for over two years. I said I was sorry. She said God bless you. We both hung up.
He would call and leave me voice messages over the years, as his locations and circumstances changed, mostly when he was high and believed he was invincible. I was tolerant of his delusions of grandeur when I had known him. I wanted to believe his tall tales of adventures, his conquests, his plans for a glorious future that was surely coming, just as I once believed my grandfather’s prognostications that the end of the world was nigh.
A few weeks ago, my old friend rode the train without a ticket, walked to the Claremont Public Library and waited for hours until it opened for a used book sale on Saturday morning. I didn’t know he was in town or that he would be there, but I recognized him the moment I walked in. He was well over six feet tall, even with his hunch, and emaciated, weighing 140 at most. He looked 60, though he just turned 40 this year. His hair was thinning and I couldn’t tell if the blond was deeply dirty, or if it had turned a dusty grey in the decade since I last saw him. He reached out to hug me. The smell was palpable and I hope I didn’t flinch. I let him hold me while one librarian and hoards of books stood as witness. His ankle was healing from a break over a year ago that he never had set, so he dragged it behind him when he walked. I took his elbow and seated him outside, then walked across the street and bought him the largest sandwich CKs Café could make, and we sat on the bench outside the library while he ate it. I asked him to please use my phone and call his father. He shook his head, “Don’t be silly, I am a grown man, and can’t be bothering Jim with trivial things.” I asked him if he needed money, where he would go, who I could call and he said, ”I require no funds. All I need is right here,” pointing to his wrinkled temple. I stopped talking and watched him eat. He asked me if I still listened to music. I said yes and asked him what he wanted to hear. He said Chris Cornell, “You Can’t Change Me,” so I toggled my phone and played it for him. He smiled wide and proclaimed, “You are positively magic.” I laughed, “everyone can do this with phones these days,” and he chuckled back, like I was being modest. We sat on the park bench and listened in silence, the entire way through. He smiled wearily and said, “It’s good seeing you Krankstressa,” and he shuffled off into the dark misty night. I did not try to follow him and he did not look back.
There was something so final in this journey of his, crossing state lines to listen to an old song in the steely rain. I don’t know whether he believed he was about to die, but either way, I think it was goodbye. I don’t think I will hear from him again.
This is not a metaphor.
I wish it was.