Marcel Proust once quipped: “friends are for cowards”. Not so, you might say. But I think he had a point. Sociable people who plan their lives around a group of close friends do not really possess the adventurous spirit; they tend to stay in one place and neither have the courage nor the desire to take off alone around the world and make a new life. They are homebirds. Often I envy them.
But if, like me, you have spent most of your life moving around, the friends you make along the journey are only temporary. For the traveller, this is a kind of tragedy: most of the people you meet and grow to like, or love, you never get to see again, and some you miss for the rest of your life. As you get older the past becomes a vast dark space, filled with faces you once knew but are now lost forever.
When I lived in California more than 30 years ago, I met some real characters: funny, warm, crazy, wild. They were my life for almost a year. I drank, slept, cried and starved with them, sat out under the stars and soul-searched with them. Now they are ghosts.
I was an English teacher in Spain for two years, in Andalucia and Madrid. In both places I met an infectious bunch of fellow-teachers. We spent hours together in the local bars, travelling around, clowning about and making plans for the future. We were young and everything was fun. Now I can hardly remember their names.
The same thing happened in Rio twenty years ago. There were more than 30 teachers at the school I worked in – Brits, Brazilians and all sorts. I knew them all – some I could call close friends. My social life was a whirl, my feet never touched the ground. Do I see any of them now? Well, yes, one to be honest, but that’s only because I miraculously bumped into her while on holiday in Rio a few years back.
“Do keep in touch”, everybody says. They mean it – you mean it. At the time. But time rattles on and people get left behind. For me it’s the saddest thing about life. In the end we have to make do with what we have right now, the people we know and see in the present. But the older you get, the less social life you seem to have; there is not enough stimulation in the present to avoid looking back; to stop this maudlin fascination with the past and the people who filled it.
A woman I once knew told me she was still in love with some of her old flames. I found this strange, but later I realised that love doesn’t always wither and die, even though we never see our lovers again. Love changes, it doesn’t go stone cold. All the women I once loved – where are they all now and what are they doing? Do they ever think of me?
The end of a relationship is always tragic – the love has gone, the passion gone cold. Then the doors close forever on that chapter of your life. Neil Young has a song about breaking up called Peace of Mind with the line, “It’s hard to face that empty space”. In my perception of the past, there are many empty spaces.
I suppose it’s romantic to be heart-broken after a love affair, though in time the feeling fades. But for me, the past is heart-breaking. Not just because of lost loves and friendships, but because there is no way back. There is a door marked PAST which is forever locked.
If I had a wish, I would throw a big party and invite all those people – old flames, old mates – who I still feel emotional about. As the night went on I would make a point of talking with every one of them to say how sorry I am that we didn’t stay in touch. I would also tell them how important they were in my life, and that I wouldn’t be the bloke I am – warts and all – if I hadn’t once had the pleasure of their friendship.