Colleen has a Master’s degree in English Literature and is an author of stories and articles focusing on the dynamics of human relationships
When does the joy in giving begin to erode into exploitation? While friendships can offer an anchor when life seems almost beyond bearing, a point can arise where its balance shifts into a form of vampirism. The following 3 short stories express this dilemma in their own unique ways.
My first story of 490 words and titled “In Quest of Friendship” indicates the difficulty of turning away someone voicing a crucial need for contact and companionship.
My second story of 535 words and titled “Learning From a Book On My Head” refers to a childhood lesson, which takes on deeper layers of meaning as the years pass.
My third story of 253 words and titled “The Sandwich People” addresses the subtle ways in which a generous heart can result in the constant expectation of giving.
In Quest of Friendship
The new lady at our book group was attractive, though in an off-beat way. While her clothes and accessories had their own flare, she appeared to have snatched them up where she had found them.
During the first meeting, she said nothing beyond her name, and even then, only when asked to do so. Still, none of us found this unique, in that when new to any group, each of us had experienced the need to sense its ambience, before participating.
Then, as the book discussion waned, this lady took a pen and a sheet of paper, held in readiness, before any of us could leave without discourtesy. She walked throughout the room, almost as if her pen had been a dagger, her paper a battlefield, asking /demanding home phone numbers.
Amazed, I watched my strong-minded friends, never afraid to state what they believed, forfeit an avenue into their lives, for no reasons beyond the fact of its being demanded.
I sat still, head slightly lowered, hoping this lady would not notice me. Still, all too soon, though she had not even asked my name, she touched the back of my neck, saying, “I would like your phone number, too.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Harriet,” she said, as if that were sufficient information.
Given my travels, I well-understood the need to find and formulate new ties. Still, I knew bonds could not be commandeered. Instead, they must develop, if at all, where they took root. Thus, seeing her pen begin to shake, I knew I had no option but to say, “Well, Harriet, I would like to wait until you and I become better acquainted.”
As she skulked off, my compassion faded, hearing her grouse, “That witch would not give me her phone number.”
After that, I gained new credibility within the group, as being its only hold-out. My choice was validated when this woman began phoning others at 2 or 3 A.M., without apology, in order to ask questions they could not answer, such as whether she was bipolar, OCD, and which new therapy she ought to try. Soon, some of those members who had succumbed, blocked her calls, or even changed their numbers.
Although she did not return to our group, during post-meeting snacks and wine, she became a wellspring of jibes and mockeries.
This happened years ago, but recently, a friend I have kept close to through these years, wrote to me to say, “Guess who showed up last night with pen and paper, but this time she got no-one’s number, so she left, empty.”
“Great,” I responded. “Let’s hope she won’t come back.”
Still, I found no pleasure in their scoffing. While not regretting my decision, Cloying and irritating as this lady was, her days and nights must have been, and still be, as empty as that sheet of paper to which I remained aware I could contribute nothing, but still found saddening.
Learning From a Book on My Head
As a child, I was told I had a cousin, Bruce. Whether Bruce was told he had me as his cousin, Zoe, I will never know, but as I was six and Bruce eleven when we met, I feel sure he understood the difference. In short, my uncle had married Bruce’s mum, a woman a dozen or so years older than he was.
Some years before, Bruce’s dad had been sent to prison for a crime which, though I never learned its nature, was grave enough to result in what might turn out to be a lifetime sentence.
So why return to all this anguish now? I guess because I think it goes some way towards understanding why things happened the way they did later. At first, our would-be upscale neighbourhood ostracised Bruce and his mum. Some evenings, through my window, I would see Bruce standing outside his house, while kids his age, riding their motorbikes, slowed them just long enough to yell, “Hey, jail bird’s kid”.
Though Bruce never seemed to notice, I sometimes saw him flinch a little, and then go back inside his house, not coming out again until the next day, and even then, only in late afternoon. Sometimes kids say mean words about his mum. I had not heard those words before, and did not want to understand their meaning, as by their tone I knew they must be ugly.
I liked my aunt. Once, when I asked my mum why neighbours said those things, she said, “Sometimes people make mistakes when they are young, which they don’t understand will follow them forever. Still, other people like to make them remember. That’s not right, is it?”
From the beginning, Bruce and I seemed to find an understanding, some basis for a friendship to be formed. Then, one evening, after a birthday party, Bruce and I played a game, the goal of which was to see who could keep a book atop our head the longest.
I had been balancing with some aplomb. Then, Bruce touched my wrist, lightly, but just enough to startle me into letting the book fly from my head onto the ground, near a mud puddle.
“You gutless cheat.” I cried. “That wasn’t fair.”
“You’re right, it wasn’t.” Bruce replied. “That’s why I did it.”
“Why? “I asked. “It’s never right to cheat somebody, is it, even in a simple game, like this one?”
I turned my back on him and rushed towards home. He did not follow me, but then half-shouted, “Hang on a minute. Don’t run off yet, Zoe, please. Let me tell you my reason.”
When I stopped walking, Bruce strode towards me, saying, “I did not touch that book or your head either. I only tapped your wrist, but you let that one touch startle you into letting the book float off. Just think about that for a while, will you, Zoe?”
“I guess I will,” I said, still sulking somewhat at having lost a game I might well have won otherwise.
By then, our mothers were calling us to hurry; they wanted to head home.
“Look,” Bruce said, “walking beside me now, “when gangs yell” Jail bird’s kid” at me, I want to cry, or punch them in their faces, or both. Still, I never do, because I know if I got started, I would wind up where my dad is now, and I can’t let that happen.”
“I understand,” I said, not sure I did, but sensing Bruce was opening his soul more than he had to anyone before; I had to hear him.
He went on, “I also hear the taunts of “zero- Zoe”, because you’re family has been stuck on welfare. Your dad works in a steel mill, where getting laid off can happen in a day.”
After that, Bruce and I saw less of one another. In time we both grew up and relocated. I wish I could reconnect with him now, to voice appreciation, but cannot, as I now realise I had never known his last name. Such details seemed meaningless when we are children, and grow significant when it cannot be changed.
Still, I would like to think there is some way he understands, that book is still there, if no longer on my head, a good deal deeper. I have learned more from that memory than I have garnered from the most esteemed textbook.
Thank you, my cousin/friend.
The Sandwich People
Walking past a group of students standing outside a take-away café, I heard one long-term member of a crowd declare, “All right, you guys, I’m ordering one rye bread sandwich, and this time none of you get any bites.”
The girl who seemed to be their leader said, “I get one bite because –” Then, a young man with a swagger interrupted, “Also, you’re buying me a beer. No worries though; some time I’ll buy you one."
I walked on, aware of a scenario encapsulated in those few sentences.
This student I will dub “the Sandwich Girl” had been captured by a group of booby-trappers. Perhaps, initially, sharing had been communal, until, by slow degrees, the giving shifted until this sandwich girl became its wellspring.
She had learned, by the time her sandwich reached her hand, passed from one’s hand and mouth onto another, she would be left with one half or third, tainted by teeth marks and saliva, but worst of all, her forfeiture of pride.
All this fuss about a sandwich and one beer can be construed as nothing, often by those who seek its largest share. I wish I could rescue all those sandwich people, but recognise the fear of saying “no” is far too global.
© 2019 Colleen Swan