Old Buddies

(Short Story)Every time I look at the photo, I realize what's going to happen. We are going to stand apart with people, work, ideas, differences, time and space

Raymond was in the same year with us throughout high school. I was invited to the christening of his baby daughter last summer. Before long, I found myself sitting next to your thirteen-year-old boy. It was the first time that I met him. I introduced myself as his father’s high school buddy. I asked him about his age and hobbies, admiring his innocent youth. He blushed and smiled. He reminded me of the first time I asked you those questions decades ago. I never knew anyone who could be so self-confident and yet blushed so readily. Apparently I was the only one who noticed the very subtle blushing. I was certain that I didn’t imagine it. I am not so sure now.

Your parents excluded, that was the only time someone from your family talked with me. That time, your wife could have talked to me. Years ago, you and your wife once passed me by in a mall. You were going down the escalator and I was coming up the other way. You could have seen me but kept on talking to your wife. I guessed you had your reasons for not introducing your old buddy.

I still have a photo of the yesterday us. Our class was out on a picnic. Having to re-write a paper, I came late. I barely made it into the photo. You were in the middle of the front row. I was on the far right in the back. Every time I look at the photo, I realize what's going to happen. We are going to stand apart with people, work, ideas, differences, time and space between us.

After graduation, you got a job in this global firm and were relocated to London. You stayed there for two years. At the same time, I was doing great with my career. Our correspondence stopped after a while. Our communication died actually much sooner when you started saving all your spare time for this English girl you met in London. Years later, I wondered whether we would have kept up with each other if we had email or windows messenger at that time.

In the autumn you returned from London, my father died. That was the first time you called me in months. You said you were sorry to hear about my father's death. I knew you meant every word. My father had always liked you when you used to hang around my place. I could tell that my mother never really liked you. It didn't matter anymore. I was certain that you would not attend my father’s funeral. I would have loved to see you there and then. You would have blushed and petted me on the shoulder. You didn’t turn up on that day.

Many autumns later, we went into each other. We nodded "hello", and that felt easy, although our last “hello” had been years before. "Would you like to sit down for a cup of tea?" I suggested. You blushed and said yes. We went to the coffee shop. I can't remember what we talked about except that your father had also passed away. I said I was sorry to hear that. You said it was OK and that you and your mother were relieved to let him go. You explained that he had a long and painful end. We were silent for a minute. You had to go after an hour or so. That seemed like a long enough time for a get-together after many years of drifting apart.

Five, or even six years later, we met again at Raymond’s wedding reception. We found ourselves seated at the same table, with a few alumni. We had a good time talking about the young and ruthless years. The group exchanged contact numbers before the night ended. It must have been more than eight months later that I asked you out for lunch. You could hardly find anything to order, having this bad allergic rash to something unknown. To this I attributed your bad mood on that day.

We did lunch one more time after that. Your mood wasn't much better this time. You went on about stress from work, debts, family, kids. seniors, secretaries, and in short, mid-life crisis. I was a little bored by your endless grouching. I wasn’t thinking when I said, “that’s nothing compared with having no prospect of having a family or kids, as in having a positive HIV test.” You blushed again and could not find anything to say. That was the last time we had lunch together.

I was away for three months. I only wished that they had come up with kinder treatment with fewer side effects. No one at work or in my social circles knew the reason for my extended leave. I did not bother to explain or make up stories to anyone. The first day I returned to work, I was greeted with all smiles. I certainly had the best secretary in the word. Everybody played the part. Nobody asked me why I was away. An elegant box of chocolates was waiting on my desk, with a note on it. I thought it would have come from my secretary or my boss' secretary. Surprisingly, I could still recognize your familiar hand-writing and signature: “Welcome back, Buddy. Call me when you can do lunch again.”

That’s why I am calling you. “Thank you, Buddy. I know I can’t always have health, love, family or kids. I didn’t expect that I could still have my best friend back after twenty-five years. I was wrong. Life is not always unfair after all.”

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