I never gave much thought to the nature of friendship. If I got along with someone, if we had things to talk or joke about, and if we seemed pleased to see each other, to me, that was a friendship.
Since moving away from Italy and settling in the U.S., I have come to examine friendships more deeply. I used to think that I had many friends; now I can count on one hand how many people are true friends. I tell my wife this does not bother me, but, in fact, it makes me a little sad.
I have tried to keep up with the people I knew in Italy, at first with emails and then through Facebook. But when I returned to Italy for visits, this happened: the first two times, people were happy to see me. They would invite me and my wife to join in group trips to music clubs and restaurants. Some even took us to tour the winding Amalfi coast, chaotic Naples, and other beautiful areas. The third and subsequent times I’ve gone back (I return every one or two years to visit my elderly mother), the feeling I get from those I had considered friends is “Oh, you again.” They express no curiosity about my life in the U.S. They don’t include me in their group outings. They don’t telephone or visit me while I am there. What gives? What has changed?
Looking back, I’ve realized that most of the time I was the one to make the first move. I would be the one to phone someone just to chat and find out how things were going. Or I would be the first one to offer a coffee or a beer if I saw someone I knew at a bar. If I happened to be standing in a group of people and the idea of a group road trip came up, I would be included.
Was I really that blind not to see how things really were?
Another issue that has come up is the sudden, one-sided termination of a friendship. My wife has been on the receiving end of this a few times. Once, it involved her friendship of more than 10 years with a woman she had met through acquaintances. Both single at the time, the two of them would talk on the telephone frequently and would attend movies, art show openings, theater productions of friends’ plays, etc. The friend had a good job and lived in an adequately-sized rent-controlled apartment in New York City, and she seemed satisfied with her life.
One day, my wife called her friend with the news that she was buying a house, the fulfillment of a long-time dream. They spoke one or two times more, and then my wife was not able to get through to her friend over the telephone. Through mutual acquaintances, my wife knew that the other woman was all right. My wife was forced to accept that, without explanation, the friendship was over. She racked her brain to figure out what she might have said or done to offend the woman, but she could think of nothing. She still finds it hard to believe that envy may have played a part.
On the other hand, she has deep friendships that have withstood the test of time. During the current pandemic, my wife has spoken by phone with two friends she has known for more than 30 years but with whom she had not connected for about five years. In both cases, there was no awkwardness, no resentment, just happiness at being in touch once again. My wife was able to pick up the conversation with each friend as if there had been no five-year interruption.
I can top that. As those of you who have read these posts know, when I was very young, I spent four years in an institute for handicapped children in Rome. It was a bleak time of my life. One of the few bright spots was when members of a Boy Scouts-type group would pay us weekly visits. The boys were a little older than us and would entertain us with stories and games. I particularly enjoyed seeing “Carlo.” He was like a friend, mentor, and older brother, rolled up in one. He was compassionate, down-to-earth, and kind. I told him about my life in the countryside, and he told me about his in Rome. When I left the institute abruptly, I lost touch with Carlo.
But I never forgot him.
About 10 years ago, I tried to find Carlo through Facebook. No luck. A couple of years ago I saw a movie about some friends who find each other after a long absence, so I tried again to find Carlo. That time, I found three with the same name on Facebook. I narrowed it down to one who lived in Rome and who looked vaguely like the teenager I used to know. I sent him a short, almost apologetic inquiry. He replied a few days later and confirmed that he was the Carlo I had known. I couldn’t believe it: after 50 years I had found him! We sent each other long messages and even spoke on the phone.
When I was in Rome last year, we saw each other at last. It was a joyous occasion. I met Carlo’s wife, he met mine, and we all spent a lovely afternoon together. I won’t say that Carlo was just as I remembered him. What’s left of his hair is white and he now wears glasses. (I admit I don’t look at all like I did way back when.) But Carlo is the same caring, unpretentious guy I knew half a century ago. We still write to each other and speak occasionally on the phone. I tell him some of my troubles and he tells me his, and we try to encourage each other during this prolonged period of social distancing.
Maybe it’s due to thoughts of mortality stirred up by the pandemic or the difficulty in locating Carlo after so long, but I am determined not lose touch with my friend anymore.