It was one of the best conversations I've had, and I don’t quite know why. As ever in the summer of 2019, I was seated on the concrete in front of the CenturyLink building, leaning against the warm brick wall and waiting for my 120 to pull around the corner.
He ambled up with a bicycle in hand rolling alongside, forty-five and suntanned, clad in construction-spattered garb with a ponytail and bandanna.
“Man, I try to offer my seat to a lady standing on the bus, I forget how she said it, but she was like, get away from me! And I’m like whoa, lady, I wasn’t tryin’ to do nothin’. People think you're trying to take something, but sometimes it’s–”
I knew exactly what he meant. “Ain't no agenda!”
“Right! I was taught to hold the door open for people.”
So was I, but he abruptly changed course. I leaned forward.
“My girlfriend she works for FedEx. She's private contractor, she gotta load her own stuff. The FedEx Express guys they just stand there. Them boxes now, used to be 70, now they’re 120 pounds, I don't even know. I tell her she should get a DDL.”
“CDL yeah. She has a perfect record, could get retirement, everything, but she says no. She complains. She always be holdin' it in, every car that goes by she has to get eight feet front of that car. I'm getting tired of hearing it, bro.”
The tone infusing his frustration was that of reasonableness, perplexity. He was only exasperated in the sense that it felt as though he should be taking action in some way. I could see the concerns were pressing to him. The seat on the bus was forgotten; these were deeper notions, heavy on the mind. He fumbled with his bicycle. Sometimes you just need someone to talk to.
I said, “that stuff’s dangerous man, ‘cause the five people around us… we end up becoming most like the five people we hang around the most, you know?”
He became animated: “Dude. Dude.”
“It's dangerous to be around all that negative energy. You might start to–”
“You're right! ‘Cause I notice myself starting to bitch about stuff that never used to bother me. She gambles like crazy too.”
“Oh, man. Money's too hard to get.”
“That's what I'm saying!”
He paused. We were in the realm society tells men they can’t go, but we didn’t care. We were talking out our emotions, through them, trying to reach clearer understandings of our mental health and why we cherish what we do. These are the conversations I usually have with my female friends. To be with a man discussing this– especially a bearded He-man in macho construction wear– was intoxicating. We were talking about sensitivity and matters of the heart. Is anything else more worthy of reflection? This is how I wish all men were willing to be.
“I don't know what to do. I care about her but I’ll be honest with you bro, I don't love her. She’s good person though.”
“I'm sure it ain't all bad,” I said. “I'm sure there’s parts about her that are great.”
“Oh hell yeah.”
“But you got to take care uh yourself. Protect yourself. If you can't be yourself in the relationship, that ain't healthy. And it's so hard to see straight when you're inside the relationship.”
He said his next words aloud as immediately as he realized they were true: “I gotta cut loose of her.”
I let the pause which came afterwards live a little. Was it because we were strangers this was going so well? Are the channels of intimate communication only open with either closest confidants or complete strangers, and no one in between?
“That type uh negative stress is like a disease in the mind, I think. It’s tough to get that out, especially if she's around all the time.”
“I don't know what to say to her. Man it's so good to talk about this,” he mused. “I can't be tellin’ my friends, they'll just tell her and tell her all wrong. I don’t know how to say it, you know?”
“Maybe just be like, here's some stuff that's been on my mind. But you ain't got nothing to feel guilty about.”
“She probably gonna react emotional, like what are you trying to say, you tryin' to break up with me, what are you saying.”
“But just be like I ain't trying to have no argument, I'm just lettin’ you know here's some stuff that's important to me that I been thinking about. You ain't responsible for her emotions.”
“You know the thing that always happens to me? Is six months later, I get torn up and regret leaving whoever it is.” His eyes lit up in recognition as I continued: “But that ain't true. It’s just emotions, ‘cause they're still them and you’re still you and it's gonna be all the same problems all over again if you get back together.”
“Bro. Totally. Man, this is so good to talk to strangers. I could never talk to anyone I know about this. My name’s Hendricks.”
“I’m Nathan! Best of luck, I’ll see you around!”
“Hey, anyone ever tell you look seventeen?”
“Ha! Only every day!”
“That’s alright though, keep bein’ you!”
You could smell the ocean of relief within him. He exuded a newfound calm, a sense of belonging in the world. I'm convinced this belonging was only half to do with decisions for his future; it was as much the bodied satisfaction of talking things over with a companionable ear. Of being heard, whether or not anything we discussed would actually prove relevant later. Listened to.
The difference these things can make.