By Dimitris Passas
Time stands still as I’m sitting in a highly popular cafeteria near the city center, holding my breath as I’m waiting for him. The man I used to consider as my best friend during the profoundly tempestuous years of my early youth. I haven’t seen or heard from him for a little more than 14 years that have passed since he left Greece to study neuroscience at a fancy American University. Before that, we spent two full years watching our relationship disintegrating slowly but steadily. I had high hopes for our bond. I imagined our liaison would blossom to something meaningful over the course of time, but in vain. He has returned to Greece for good, settling in his maternal house, the one I’ve visited several times back in the day.
I first met him during my freshman year in the Sociology Department of a respected Greek University. Even though we didn’t always see eye to eye regarding our views of the world and others, we seemed to have respect for one another and that was enough both for me and him. There have been countless hours during which we sat in the University’s Park -an overstatement, since it was just a narrow garden facing one of the busiest highways of the city- exchanging opinions and debating future courses of action while smoking joints, oblivious to life’s harsh demands. We were an odd pair of Millennial hippies, united by their inherent curiousness and inquisitive spirit. Together, we became initiated into the wonder world of social sciences, diving into the texts of renowned intellectuals such as Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard.
There were many times that we worked on a paper as a team and once, we even had to travel to Nicosia in order to participate in a sociological conference focused on the Sociology of Health and Sickness. There, we announced our joint social research on the phenomenon of medicalization as manifested in special schools. We did great and had a wonderful time then, I still remember our last night in Cyprus when we got shitfaced from early on and walked all over the streets of Nicosia intoxicated and laughing like lunatics.
Even though we were something akin to inseparable within the confines of the Uni, we didn’t meet as much outside it. During our good years, I used to visit him in his house two or three times per month, a basement dwelling with a view of the sea, and there we would delve into long-winded discussions over scorching social and personal issues while high on weed. His mother, a real heroine who raised her son alone after his father abandoned her, seemed fond of me and what I savored most was the maternal manner in which she spoke to me, like she wanted to guide and protect me from the horrors of the world as a parent does. I wonder how old she must be today. She would be close to 65, the retirement years that herald the arrival of senescence.
I never managed to stomach his friends, they seemed to be entirely different from him and I remember myself always thinking that there has to be a plausible explanation why an educated, subtle in his ways young man would spend his time alongside others who stood below him in the sense that they all were kids who never made it to one of the country’s mediocre institutions of tertiary education and didn’t exhibit any traces of cultural and spiritual maturity. At the time, I put that question on hold but as years gone by, it returned to haunt me during many sleepless, moonless nights.
The unweaving of the fabric that kept us close to one another began when we arranged, for the first time ever, to go on vacation to Rhodes, one of the most attractive Greek islands and a personal favorite of mine since I was a kid. This happened in the summer of 2008. The trip came in a tough period for me, as I had just kicked out a nasty habit and travelled through the hell of withdrawal. I was still shaken and feeling fragile when I set out for my vacation, something that didn’t go unnoticed by him. We were supposed to spend five days in Rhodes, but eventually, we only lasted three as I was clearly in no mood to indulge my friend’s voracious appetite for partying and flirting with women. There had been something else too. On our first day, in an awkward attempt to finally open up and speak freely about myself and my emotions, I confessed something to him that I’ve never ever told anyone, not even my brother.
However, instead of strengthening our rapport, my disclosure produced quite the opposite result. After that, I felt him gradually drifting away from me, and the irrefutable proof came when he announced to me that he had to return home due to a family emergency. A family emergency. Imagine that. A thinly veiled rejection that felt as painful as a direct denunciation. When I met him for the first time after our unfortunate attempt at spending more time together, his behavior towards me felt tangibly different. It was more than an aura; it was palpable and substantial. He used to be consistently in a good mood and was always well-mannered when it came to social interactions. Nevertheless, that time seemed to be out of sorts, almost passive-aggressive, and I quickly realized that he didn’t want me to be anywhere near him. When I left, I experienced the all-too-familiar sense of panic mixed with guilt as I’ve learned to respect and honor this man and I couldn’t fathom the reason for his turnaround. I struggled to remember our days in Rhodes and pinpoint the exact time that the needle in the compass was reversed. In a way, I even looked up to him, especially when it came to certain inclinations and talents of his that I lacked to my detriment. I used to think that this was mutual, at least up to a point. The future would prove that I was dead wrong.
What followed was another difficult winter for me, fighting my addiction that frequently reared its head, screaming and demanding satisfaction. I was living in a state of suspended animation for many years in a row, and my personal life was chaotic. It was during that time that I began to grasp the fact that I’ve perhaps misjudged the man designated as my “best” or “most loyal” amigo. Visiting him gradually became a labor as he seemed to gloat at the fact that he moved on with his life while I remained rooted in a perpetual stalemate. He had also been transformed into a preacher who liked to deliver sermons more than anything. These speeches always aimed at belittling me in multiple ways and at the same time elevating his ego. He chastised every aspect of my profligate lifestyle and insisted I’d had to get accustomed to the new version of him that negated his former, humble self. What I was seeing in front of my eyes, a conceited little man who allowed himself to give monologues oozing with self-righteousness and pretentiousness, came as a shock to me. Where was the humble, inquisitive guy who, I believed, thrived in soul-searching and introspection?
The obvious question is why I didn’t terminate contact altogether when his behavior became so radically altered, borderline offensive. The answer is: I was weak. So weak as not being able to take any form of initiative or enforce my agency in any way. I was convinced that I needed people close to me, even if they thought so little of me. Time proved that, once again, I was wrong. When, in May of 2010, texted me to declare that he was accepted by an American University as a post-grad student, I felt immense relief. It was like a godsent intervention. I would see him no more, without having to do anything myself.
Time passes quickly, a realization that becomes painstakingly evident as you grow up, and my life had gone from spinning in vicious cycles to a clean, balanced act that allowed me to feel optimistic, practically for the first time in my life. I’ve even begun writing my own fiction. When I first saw his message on LinkedIn, my knee-jerk reaction was to neglect it. However, the thought nagged me for days and, finally, I decided that I felt mature and confident enough to confront him. Besides, approximately 15 years have passed since we last laid eyes on one another. I look at the café’s clock. It’s 11:25. We were supposed to be meeting at eleven sharp. I feel anger building up inside me. Would he be so rude to skip our reunion?
Yes, he would be. I waited for another 30 minutes before standing up and starting walking toward the exit. What is that supposed to mean? The ultimate expression of absolute scorn that remained unquenched in his heart for so many years? Hadn’t time changed him at all? The question tugs at my soul. As I begin to get lost in the labyrinthine knots of my own thought process, I spot a bike moving in low gear, evidently searching for a parking place. I recognize his silhouette even though he wears a black helmet that doesn’t allow me to see his face. He parks, takes out the hard hat and starts walking toward the café’s entrance where I’m standing still. He wears a thin smile and looks smug and in good shape. Time hadn’t left many marks on him except for a little grey in his temples and a few added kilograms. He always had an athletic build and used to exercise; he did capoeira for several years that boosted his strength and agility.
We shake hands in a rather awkward moment -a hug would feel like too much- and I decide not to mention the fact that he was late. I don’t want to start on the wrong foot. We sit down and we order two beers. The waitress, a slim young woman who must be an undergrad student, is more than attentive to us and her beautiful face shines as we thank her for serving us. I realize that he feels as uncomfortable as I do and so I start asking him about his academic career. While in the States, he earned a PhD in psychology, something that I hoped fulfilled his wild ambitions and made him wiser.
He begins talking and soon I experience the same feeling as I did then. I’m listening to his harangue that stinks of arrogance and self-importance. I don’t interrupt him though. I just sit and wait when, and if, he will ask about my life. He keeps droning on, and his words start fading into the background as a million memories flood my brain. Our golden years in the University, sitting in the park and talking about all sorts of things. Relaxing in his house with a malt in one hand and a doobie in the other. The U-Turn which was instigated in Rhodes. Him lecturing me like I was a lesser being, a student who should keep his mouth shut and listen to his enlightened teacher. The words escape my mouth almost accidentally:
“You haven’t changed in the slightest.”
He looks at me trying to discern if this is a compliment or not.
“I feel the same.”
“That’s too bad. I’m really sorry for that.”
He frowns and the look in his eyes indicates that he is irritated.
“I don’t know what you mean. Can you please elaborate so I can understand?”
“I think you know very well. You treated me like garbage for two years, imposing your hypertrophic ego and projecting your own flaws on me. I truly hoped that time would eradicate your smugness and heal your narcissism but no, it seems that nothing can intercept your vanity.”
He forces himself to a smile that looks more like a grotesque grimace.
“Well now Dim, you seem to forget how much I helped you when you were down. But it’s ok, no hard feelings, I know how ungrateful people are.”
“Ungrateful? Are you serious? You did nothing else than constantly deriding me and treating me like detritus. Do you want me to remind you of some of the things you said to me while I was struggling with substance abuse? You’ve even called me a eunuch. A eunuch.”
“I kept you close to me when nobody else wanted anything to do with you. You were a junkie who even neglected his personal hygiene. Every time you left my home, I had to open the windows to air the stench away.”
That was low even for his standards. Deep inside me a rage rises.
“You could have been straight with me and told me that you didn’t want to see me until I’ve cleaned my act. Many people did so and now I hold no grudge against them. But you saw me as your personal toy or punching bag. I can’t forgive that.”
He abruptly stands up from his seat and reaches out for his leather jacket which was beside him. As he wears it, he says:
“You know, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to meet you, to see you. Now I understand why.”
I stare at him for a moment and then turn my head away in a gesture of intense disapproval. As he walks out of the café, I’m still sitting and looking at his unfinished beer left on the tiny table. At the table’s corner, I spot a pack of cigarettes, his cigarettes, that he forgot amidst his anger and confusion in the end. I pick it up and exit the café to sense the eeriness of the night and its mystic quality whose essence still evaded human knowledge. I take short steps while my mind is in overdrive. I ponder on the dissolution of a friendship that I invested so much on, the only time I thought I got close with another man or woman. So many broken promises. I guess my aspirations regarding me and him were established on wobbly foundations. Of course, I was younger then, 22 years old, when he left for his post-grad studies, and that explains my nescience when it came to assess the true quality of the people around me. I should have been more attentive then and discern the sperms that made possible his contemptible metamorphosis. The vexation of disillusionment eradicates all the beautiful moments before our fated trip to Rhodes that summer. It taints the entirety of our relationship, outstretching toward our shared past that could give me some precious moments to hold on to in my memory.
I crush his pack of cigarettes in my palm and throw it away in the first garbage bin I find on my way home while three words are churning in my mind: No love lost…
Dimitris Passas is a freelance writer and the editor of the online magazine Tap the Line, in which he reviews books, movies, and TV series while also featuring articles, news, and Q+As with authors and artists. His academic background includes bachelor studies in sociology and a master’s degree in philosophy. His work can also be found in ITW’s legendary magazine The Big Thrill and various online platforms such as DMovies, PopMatters, Off-Chance, and others. His latest book reviews have been accepted for publication in the esteemed film journals Alphaville and Bright Lights. Dimitris's short and flash fiction can be found in various literary magazines such as Unlikely Stories, Asylum Magazine (UK), Resurrection mag and others.