If the Fleeting World is but a long dream,
It does not matter whether one is young or old.
But ever since the day that my friend left my side
And has lived an exile in the City of Chiang-ling,
There is one wish I cannot quite destroy:
That from time to time we may chance to meet again.
—Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi (trans. Arthur Waley)
It has always bothered me that people we have known, but are no longer in touch with, are still out there, as if they live on a different planet. Think of childhood friends, college roommates, romantic partners, fellow employees and confidants at various jobs—all presumably still making lives, day-by-day, as unreachable as characters in a memorable book that now sits on a shelf.
Yet it is nearly as strange that the Internet lets us find many of them, when in any other time in human history they would have to remain memories. We get to see their recent photos, read their chatter on social media, and can even speak with them again. Someone in this scenario is Lazarus, but who?
Sammy was my roommate at my first permanent duty station in the army. He was a homesick kid from Bayamón, Puerto Rico; I was on the lam from a dead-end life. We lived together in a concrete-block room, 150-feet square, for more than a year, ate our meals together, went to work and the field together, and spent our downtime with each other and common friends.
Sammy had a magnificent four-personed name, a cool mustache and sideburns, and big, kind eyes. He was short and squat; he was soft-spoken and generous. He mocked stupidity, including that of authority, wickedly. We became the best possible friends and laughed so hard, so often, that my face cracks along the same lines.
Like any two young guys, Sammy and I had issues, which we ended up having to share as well. He was often overweight by army standards. In order not to be discharged he was made to endure forced diets in distant mess halls, which I went to with him, and a mandatory stay in the post hospital. He was not chosen when several of us went to the Jungle Warfare School in Panama. He could get morose, especially when we drank, and once locked himself in his wall locker and refused to come out.
One day he decided to kill himself by jumping from our room’s small window, though I think it was only the third floor. He changed his mind halfway out and hung there by his armpits, begging for help, as a mutual friend laughed and told him to pull himself back in. Another time, on a demolitions range, he and I lay on our bellies, priming TNT with touchy electrical blasting caps, and Sammy sang a little song he invented as he swung and bounced the explosives by their wires, hoping to get a rise out of me.
He got in a fight in the barracks, with a drunk who stole his stereo, and called, “Help me, Griswold, goddamnit.” Of course I did, though that guy was crazy and put a gas-soaked blanket under a door across the hallway and lit it that night. Another time, two guys jumped us in the tool room. The first one grabbed me, and I hurt him. Sammy called for help but insisted I not hurt the second.
Sammy still had a childlike quality—many soldiers do at that age—and he loved machines, like a boy. He made model cars in the room and painted “Excitable Boy” (from the Zevon song) on the five-ton dump truck he was in charge of. He loved that truck. He seemed resigned to being in that place and tried to make it bearable.
One of my issues, as I remember it, was a restlessness, almost greed, for experience. I wanted to have seen and done things, to have been tested, so I could think well of myself and know when I found a stable and safe situation in life. Even if restlessness served me positively at times, it was based in weakness and fear, and it overrode personal relationships.
A mutual friend and I left to become Army deep-sea divers. I felt awful about leaving Sammy behind, but we did not stay in touch. That was enlisted military life. We did not have easy access to phones, and we were not about to write letters. The expectation, as for most of human history, was that people came and went, sometimes never to be seen again. In truth I abandoned Sammy, when I think he needed me, because I was excited and happy to be on to a greater adventure.
Twenty-four years passed. I lived three or four more lives. Then, in 2008, after mentioning Sammy in writing, it was as if I came to and remembered he existed now, somewhere over the horizon, and had been living his own discrete lives. After two years of spotty searching, I found him on Facebook.
“Oh my GOD!!! My brother!!” he replied. “You have no idea how happy I am to hear from you!! We really gotta talk!! I just got this Facebook page so i can keep in touch with my family back home. Holy la chinga man!!! I’m doing fine. I joined the Coast Guard after got out of the Army and wound up in ICE STATION ZEBRA in Alaska, no shit!! Anyway, I live in [x] now with the wife and 2 kids. My wife is from [x] so she wanted to be close to her family. I hope you are doing great. I’ll be waiting to hear from you.”
We chatted in Messenger but ran out of energy. He worked exhausting hours. We were on opposite sides of the widening American fracture. He made a joke of his real dismay at my political leanings and job as a “perfessor.” I “liked” his family photos but was bothered that he was all bootstraps and no empathy for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. We were Facebook friends for ten years but had little interaction after briefly catching up. He took that on himself, which was as generous as always.
“Need to do a better job at keeping in touch,” he wrote. “Maybe if I just sleep a couple of hours at night, I might get caught up! By the way, you need to introduce your kids to some Puerto Rican Salsa! Hahaha! Rico Suave! Take Care Bud.”
A couple of years ago, I think, he made his first trollish comment on something I posted. I have never had many trolls, maybe because I never troll others. We got past it. “Ricky!!!” he said by Messenger, using an old affectionate nickname. “What the hell is wrong with this country? I hope you’re taking notes. There’s enough material for a few books eh! Hope you’re doing well old friend.”
There was another trolling, which blew up when others responded. Sammy told me in Messenger, “You’ve really gone to the dark side Ricky!” but I did not hold it against him, really. I figured he and others had gotten marching orders and talking points from their media, because they tended to come in waves. I guess I had thought that with our history and lingering respect would come restraint.
Then came the biggest trolling, the start of last month. I asked Sammy publicly to behave on my page, and he did not stop right away. Privately he said, “You should know that I’m a smartass professor! Disagreeing is not trolling! I’m hurt! [laughing, crying emojis]. But if you can handle it, fell free to block me for all times sake. I still think you’re pretty fly for a white guy [thumbs-up emoji].”
Then, shortly afterward, he sent a 500-word Messenger note that began, “You know, I think I’m gonna sign off but before I do I’d like to say that people nowadays are to quick to dismiss others than disagree with their agendas or points of view. The default response is to label people right away or pull the offended card. Maybe people should try to see where other people come from. Allow me to reintroduce myself.”
He told me things I knew—that he has been married 25 years and has a son, a daughter, and three grandchildren. He also said he was involved in army operations that I doubt he saw—“Covert, shady stuff. CIA. Special forces crap”—and that as a result he “Got to see first hand what real heroes look like. Guys that risk life and limb with no recognition or accolades. Not some asshole that types a letter or takes a knee.”
He said after the Army he joined the Coast Guard, was discharged for drinking, worked on a tug, became a millwright, and has been sober 32 years.
“I’m not into the All in Red or Blue bullshit,” he said, but “I believe that if you want something, you should work for it and not expect a hand out. You’re not entitled to someone else’s hard earned money. Ever. Our border security is a joke. What’s wrong with trying to control who’s coming into this country? I guess I’m racist.”
He ranted about someone who “can’t tell if he’s a boy or a girl” walking into a bathroom with his wife, daughter, or granddaughter. “Give me a break. Don’t validate and applaud mental illness and get those people help. I guess I don’t have compassion. I think abortion is murder. […] So bigot, homophobic, misogynist, old fashion, obsolete. Quick way to label someone and end a conversation that doesn’t agree with your personal opinion. Chicken shit. I’m sure we all have more in common than not. We let passion and hate get in the way of common sense. Sad and pathetic. Time for me to drop the Mike. Peace.”
At the end of the message he left me photos of his AA medallion and family, including three beautiful little kids dressed as ranchers, with Sammy in his distinguished beard and black cowboy hat. I felt a sad happiness for him, not just because of what was in the photos, but because they implied a life of hard work and satisfaction and lovingness, which I can imagine in part because I remember who Sammy was at 19.
It is not just that I knew him and others for a year or a few. It is that I have carried them with me ever since, and I find they are still the same people in important ways. Is that friendship now? If it is not, what is it?
I was glad for Sammy’s message and planned to write a long response that would be as genuine as possible, and which would portray who I thought I had become in the intervening years, but he unfriended me before I could even brainstorm what that was.