Should a friend bear his friend’s infirmities?

I’ve never had as many friends as my friends say they have, but that has never bothered me as long as I know that I am claimed as one of them. It is better to be on somebody’s list, however long, than to have one of your own, I think. Their list gets announced, my list stays inside and peers out through my eyes, declares itself with a touch, or is confirmed with a smile. I’ve seldom felt the need to accumulate names or organize them like a phone book; I doubt if I could fill a page with them, even triple-spaced and with capital letters -that’s never been the point of having friends.

In fact, the very definition of a ‘friend’ eludes me. Yes, I understand that they are people who are a part of our social network, and yes, I remember that Dunbar’s ‘magic number’ is 150 -the estimated maximum size of that network. But in fact, I’d be hard pressed to remember the names of 20 of those -even casual acquaintances (assuming I have that many, of course).

No, for me, a friend is somebody I care about, somebody with whom the reason for our interactions is seldom stated, the topic of our conversations often irrelevant. Something is shared, for sure, but it is more the feeling than the substance, I suspect. Still, there can be something shared even with a stranger sitting beside me on a bus, can’t there? I don’t know how to classify them in Dunbar terms; I would hesitate to lump them into any sort of a personal social network, except for the realization that for the brief meeting, something may have been shared that affects me. I may not even ask their name, and yet I know I will remember them long after one of us leaves the bus. For example there was that the time last year…

Mask wearing was still mandatory on buses then, but things were slowly opening up in town: restaurants were limited to serving small vaccinated groups, and people were beginning to mingle again; public transportation was not yet as popular as before the pandemic -many of us were still wary of strangers, but willing nonetheless to make brief socially-distanced sorties into the city. Buses, though, were taken on trust: trust that none of them would be allowed to be as crowded as before; trust that the riders would be respectful of each other; and trust that they were likely vaccinated or would not have chanced a lengthy ride in a closed, and probably inadequately ventilated container. I felt that way, at any rate.

I’m retired, and so Time is, and was, less of an unforgiving master; I could wait for the next bus if what arrived seemed particularly full. Instead of the Express bus, I could take the one that makes the long winding trip from the mall along the seaside. It stops a lot though, because it services many of the older folk who visit shops along the way, or wait patiently until it arrives at one of the senior’s facilities dotted along the route.

I’m older, too, and so they used to talk to me before the pandemic -before, that is, the mask thing. But their hesitant return to the bus was conditional. At first, they would sit on the aisle seat, leaving the window seat empty, or would  sit by the window so they could look out, but stack whatever they had been carrying on the seat beside them as a warning to be left alone, I assume. And that usually worked, unless the bus stopped and a lot of people got on -if it was raining, and I’d missed the Express, and I was tired, I’d get on anything, like I did that day.

There were a lot of empty seats, so it looked safe from the outside, but after I’d swiped my card at the front, I realized that it was an illusion. The empty seats were all taken by parcels, or hats, or umbrellas as if they, too, had all swiped for admission.

I decided to chance the ire of an elderly be-masked man in a wet and faded raincoat who, as I approached, kept glancing at the recyclable cloth bag on the seat beside him. His silvered hair was still glistening like the rain on his coat, but he seemed friendly enough. Everybody else looked stern beneath their masks and unwilling to yield their solitude, but he had soft eyes and reached for the bag beside him to offer me, a stranger, the hospitality of his previously defended kingdom.

I thanked him and tried to respect his privacy, but he would have none of it. The sound of my voice, however muted by my mask, seemed to awaken memories of dialogue for him. He turned his head towards me and sent his eyes to perch on my mask for a moment, uncertain of their reception.

“It seems like a long time since I was on a bus,” he started, his eyes now staring inward somewhere. “Everybody told me to wait a while longer, though.” He chanced a visit to my face again. “At least until things had settled down a bit more… More people vaccinated, less of a chance of catching things…” His eyes and his forehead seemed the only speakers on his face, but they interrogated me as well as anything else.

“I’m double-vaccinated,” I said, although I know he was not trying to force a confession on my part.

I could tell he was smiling beneath his mask. “They told me to ask, but I didn’t think it would be polite.” He was quiet for a moment. “You have to trust people, I think…”

I nodded to show that I agreed with him, but I could already see his forehead wrinkling as he was thinking about something else: something important that he was deciding whether or not to share.

“You know this is the first time I’ve been on this bus since my wife died,” he continued, and then looked out the window briefly to collect his thoughts. “We used to take it downtown to shop, or just to walk along the seawall…” He closed his eyes to savour the memory, and when he opened them, he rushed them over to me again. Clearly he had something he needed to say.

“But, I never realized how hard it would be to travel with an empty seat beside me…” he said in a halting voice as he reached over to squeeze my arm. “Thank you.”

And with that, he looked up and pulled the cord for the bus to stop. I stood up for him to get by me, but as he did so, he caressed me with a glance that I can never forget. Maybe no one is really a stranger…

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