The hovering thumb: On mates I don’t call

It seems like I’ve been driving away from friends. The last two years I’ve moved from Sydney to Melbourne to Sydney to Murwillumbah and back again; packing up when things get old, returning for a season to the last place. I’ve got a van that’s green and fits everything like a tortoise shell and we’ve moved up and down the east coast together, dropping into mates’ lives and taking off again, with very little contact between times. 

Keeping in touch is not a skill of mine, it doesn’t come naturally. Rarely do I use social media to make or maintain or deepen relationships, even with new and interesting people I meet. Rarely do I call or text to catch up with old friends. And rarely do I receive any calls. At sixteen I had hot fingers, bashing out texts with a ravenous interest in who did what with who on the weekend, but since then my enthusiasm for contact has waned. I’m less interested, more isolated, though I still consider myself someone with a large number of friends. 

Is it strange to consider people friends despite barely seeing them in a decade? Or having seen them only two or three times in a decade? High school finished and ten years evaporated. In spite of that stretch, my daydreams swirl with a friendly cluster; faces I was surrounded by in the transition between school and world. In the daydreams they keep me company, making me laugh out loud on the bus. 

Many times I hit the icon on the phone that symbolises my contacts, scroll and linger over names, and delay, with a hovering thumb, until something else comes to mind – which doesn’t take long. It’s strange, but quite familiar, to want to subdue the urge to do what feels most right. 

Reasons abound, many of them trivial. The queasy cliché of intimacy. The lack of obligation to call, in days peppered with other tiny obligations and chores. And there’s doubt as to how a call might be received after all this time in silence. There are certainly feelings of being owed something: why should I make the call when no one bothers to reach out to me? And the risk involved, risk of exposing weaknesses, and of giving voice to the self that changes, even if it’s a self that has matured. Certainly, men can sometimes love their friends static; encouraging old habits to the point of detriment. Change can mean loss, or force us to reflect on our own change or lack thereof, and that’s why many of us fear it. There might be something telling in how often the adjective ‘old’ is thrown before a nickname. I’ve clung nostalgically to the most immature of traits in friends, thinking nothing should forgo laughter. 

I think I’ve become a man like this. It’s as if growing distanced is part of a prescription. Fellas’ farewells involve punched arms, slapped hands and cracked jokes. Throw away ‘see you laters’ or ‘until next times’ can be taken in the most literal sense; for many, no words are spoken between meetings. 

But sometimes, in some early hour, a call will come out of the blue, fed by the fuel of a good night, and I’ll be standing there howling down the line in hysterics. Calls for laughs are more common than calls for help, in spite of our problems and the private worries we may have for one another. If permitted, a bloke will sit and confess trials like he’s paid by the minute, but won’t follow up with enquiries the way women will. Won’t check in with concern or well wishes. Instead, after brief spurts of empathy or kindly confirmation of doubts, we return to our corners to duke it out alone. Yet it’s clear we need each other. 

Travelling with a handful of friends through the Americas a year out of school, we told everyone who asked that our friendships were based on geographical convenience. One of us would say the line and then we’d laugh like kookaburras. It took a few more years, I think, for the fact within the joke to become clear, though already the map of our relatively large friend group was dissecting down council boundaries. 

Back in Sydney there’s one household of friends within walking distance of my parents’ place. That’s where I stay, and that’s who I see. There are ways I still operate like my sixteen-year-old self, simply messaging those in my proximity on a whim when I come up with an activity for tonight, this afternoon, a half-hour’s time. If it’s a growing concern, I haven’t yet matured to the calendar. Currently my network is walking distance. My partner, two housemates, my cousin and another guy; all of us in Melbourne’s inner north, same as last time. 

Lack of contact doesn’t change the way I feel about my friends. Hard to say how it makes them feel about me. Really, there’s quite a lot of faith involved. Faith that they secretly feel the same about me as I secretly feel about them. ‘Have faith in me and I’ll have faith in you. And if you ever need help, don’t hesitate to call.’ That might be the prayer, forever unspoken. Chances are they’ll end up with the hovering thumb, scrolling slowly through the contact list until one preoccupation gives way to another, leaving us unbothered, here to duke it out ourselves. 

So I’m trying to work out my stake. It’s probable good fortune has made me selfish. For the last five years I’ve been in a loving relationship. I’ve been in close contact with my parents. I’ve had no health issues. No bouts of depression. Some mild anxieties that I seem to manage. Meaningful employment. By almost any measure it’s been smooth sailing. But the ride has required floating over private worries and even outright knowledge of the struggles of old friends. Predictably, they haven’t been calling for help. And yet I’ve felt strife through the grapevine and let my gut just grumble it away, saying leave them by the wayside, don’t allow them to compete with those things I was supposed to get done yesterday, today, tomorrow. Items on the list wait to be crossed off. Days get busy, priorities get made, people get left out.

The circle gets smaller and simpler to manage, but a byproduct of the contraction is the guilt I carry like a sack, shifting it shoulder to shoulder to prevent it wearing me out. Still, it’s heavy some days and the excuses don’t stack up. The priorities appear parochial. Daily chores get you to the end of a day with a neat sense of accomplishment, but to love and be loved requires cultivating friends through a lifetime. 

The writing may help. Drafting, waiting, tinkering, taking advice; it’s a process that changes more than how words are laid out. Writing, as a form of thinking, has the potential to amend the self. Sometimes I write to work out what to do. Sometimes it feels easier than picking up the phone. It’s possible that writing is similar to opening up to people one goes to the trouble of consistently getting to know. It’s possible I’ve juggled the two poorly. If it’s the case that writing has simply been more romanticised and encouraged than becoming close with real people, then when I’m done writing, I’ll pick up the phone. 

Header image by Courtney Clayton

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