The friendship with Peter is made of another kind of material altogether; something diaphanous, a connection I have to imagine into reality every time. At first, he was only an amiable colleague. We chatted in his shed-office at a writers’ centre, about books, ordinary territory for us both, but I felt some insecurity in the face of his cultivated background.
Because his father was a philosophy professor, he grew up knowing about ideas, books, music; my parents had not finished primary school. Whatever I knew had been scraped together. But gradually, because of simple proximity, we developed a friendship.
“I have five brothers, so for me they laid down a template of connections without erotic disturbance – and, thanks to fair-minded parents, with a sense of equality.”
From the beginning, our conversations filled my brain with a light, airy feeling, as if my head were floating off my shoulders. It wasn’t necessarily serious – he often laughs, almost giggles, at the deliciousness of an image or the absurdity of an idea. He likes original, mischievous things – a kind of literary Puck – and I have often felt as if I am made of coarser stuff than he is, that he will always see more finely than I do.
One morning I heard him sing the 23rd psalm at his wife’s graveside. It was a winter’s day in the mountains, frozen earth beside the open grave under a chilled blue sky, and Peter sang like a hurt angel, his voice only cracking a little at the beginning. He once told me he heard whole symphonies, note by note in his head. “I don’t know what the world is like for people who are not hearing it,” he said. I felt as if he was a creature from another world telling me about life on his planet.
Afterwards I made trips to the mountains to see him. We met in cafes and had our usual mind-floating conversations. My friendship with Peter is not really a friendship between a woman and a man so much as a friendship between an ordinary human being and an airy, gentle sprite mistakenly in a human body.
The friendship with Gordon is more complicated, because it’s shifted several times. He started out as a friend’s husband – an actor, extrovert and entertaining storyteller, someone who bounded into a room and took up most of the space, physically and socially. He seemed to perform – and I’ve never wanted to be an audience in relation to men. But then he became one of my students when I was teaching university entrance. Despite being clever, he had not finished school, but he was 30 and a father and ready to change his life. The shift to being his teacher opened literary territory where we both felt at ease.
One day it shifted dramatically when his wife had a brain haemorrhage and died, leaving their three-year-old child motherless. My connection to Gordon deepened as our conversations centred on the lost little boy. There was an intimacy, the connecting warmth of loving the same child, like a father and mother who don’t have much else to do with each other. We still talked about our work and ideas – he was studying to be a lawyer by now – and argued, both of us enjoying the wired energy of theoretical dissections, but the real connection was as parents.
After a few years he found a new partner and I shuffled back to make room in the way you do for new partners of friends. We don’t talk as much as we used to – in fact, I don’t think I’ve talked to Gordon individually since then. Now that the motherless child is an adult, we still talk about him when the need arises, but the connection has returned to the light friendliness it began with.
It seems the blueprint for friendship with men was made by my brothers, the summer days of playing and working, the long frosty evenings around the fire. It let me know that we are all in the mystery together – and we can share our strength and our bewilderment, the solid foundation of my friendships with both women and men.
True Friends (UQP) by Patti Miller is out now.
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