Thank God for call display.
It not only saved me from blindly picking up the phone one afternoon, it bought me a few milliseconds to process who was calling. Someone I hadn’t heard from in more than five years. My ex’s best friend.
I wrestled with letting it go through to voice mail, but reconsidered at the last moment. I didn’t want the ball left in my court and have to call him back. It was better to get this over with. My breath caught in my throat as I answered on the fourth ring.
“I bet this is a name you never thought you’d see again,” he joked as if he’d read my mind about the call display.
“Uh, yeah, this is quite a surprise,” I stammered.
And then there was a lengthy pause. I assumed he was calling to sell me something; a desperate attempt to meet a quota by dusting off the ol’ Rolodex and reaching out to long lost friends, with an emphasis on “lost.”
He and my ex have been best buddies for more than 25 years. They became fast friends at the office and then outside of work, playing baseball and golf together before bringing their wives and later, their children into their friendship circle. We socialized as couples, and his wife even cared for our baby daughter for a few months when I returned to work after maternity leave. They helped us move into a new home. We exchanged school pictures of the kids and annual Christmas cards for years.
While the four of us got along well, it was clear that the two male friends remained the nucleus of it. Naturally, that continued after my ex and I split up. Both he and she remained friends with my ex, even curling in a mixed league on a weekly basis. I understand that it is written in the man code to be honor-bound even in the face of dishonor, but I was still hurt by it. I never heard a peep from them again, not an expression of sadness, not a single word of condolence (not even from one wife to another), not a Christmas card.
And now here on the phone was my ex’s best friend, his amigo, his brother from another mother – who by the way, is standing up for my ex as best man at his wedding this summer. He said something about needing a favor from me (Really? A favor?) requiring my professional expertise. “Perhaps if we could just meet for coffee this afternoon…?”
I hesitated and didn’t try to hide it in my voice. I wanted him to hear the trepidation. I wanted him to know I wasn’t about to drop everything to help him out like I once would have. Like a friend would have.
“Please,” he said, sounding desperate which he most certainly had to be to call me of all people. “I’m not sure where else to turn right now.”
“Okay,” I replied. “I can squeeze it in tomorrow.”
I wrestled with what to do and more importantly, what to say and how to act. If he was expecting me to be all warm and mushy as we caught up on each other’s lives, he would be sorely disappointed. Instead, I would go in with my eyes wide open and my guard completely up. I no longer considered him trustworthy because to this day, his loyalty remains to the person who betrayed me and irreparably broke my trust.
In a way, it reminded me of Survivor, where your very existence in the game depends on with whom you are aligned. This person made his alliance and chose to plant his flag in the sand without hearing my (unedited and unrevised) version of the truth or bothering to check in even once on my well being. Yet, here he was, begging my tribe for flint so that he could build a fire.
Of course, I was torn. Part of me wanted to turn him away into the cold, dark night to remind him that decisions have consequences. But the better part of me chose to be a compassionate human being capable of sharing my resources so that an opponent doesn’t needlessly freeze or starve to death.
I arrived at the meeting a few minutes early to find him already waiting. He looked pretty much as I remembered him, just older. I imagine he thought the same of me, although he greeted me with a kind compliment instead. We awkwardly hugged hello and he bought our coffees. I remained on alert and stiffly guarded.
“Before we start, I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what happened between you two,” he said, his eyes teary. “When I first found out, I was beyond furious at him. But you know how much he means to me and how much we’ve been through together. Eventually I had to decide that I can still like the person without liking what they did.”
I wish I could say that his words meant something to me, but they didn’t. I’m not sure if that was because it might have come as greater comfort years ago, or if it was because as I looked at him, I only saw an enabler. A deserter. A member of the rival tribe. The only relief I felt at that moment was that he’d addressed the glittering pink elephant in that coffee shop.
Attempting to make small talk, he asked about the kids and about “the new man in my life.” I did not engage because quite simply, he no longer has a right to any intimate details of my life. I also didn’t want to say anything inadvertently positive or negative that would make its way back to my ex. My life has been fodder for enough golf course gossip between them, I’m sure.
I steered the conversation away from the personal, focusing only on the present and professional purpose of our meeting. As it turned out, he was in the midst of a career calamity and needed some crisis management advice. I nodded and took mental notes but through it all, kept my cards tight to my chest.
“Just so you know, I didn’t ask him about this first. He doesn’t even know we’re here today,” he admitted and for a brief moment, there was a small, sweet taste of victory to be secretly meeting behind my ex’s back. Still, I wondered, why me? “Because you’re one of the most creative people I’ve met and I thought you’d know what to do.”
So, you guessed it, I agreed to help him out. Not because he’d flattered me or because I felt sorry for him, but because that is what I do. When someone asks for help building a fire, I give up my flint and help them chop wood.
Two weeks later, I learned that he told my ex everything about our meeting and how I’d come to his aid. Zero discretion and obviously, an equal amount of loyalty to me despite what I’d done. At least I hope he expressed it in such a way that reflects I am a good and kind person and not some kind of chump or a sucker for being willing to help out. You never know. That’s the risk you take when you give a rival tribe flint for fire. Either they can gratefully invite you into their camp to share the feast or they can burn down your hut in the middle of the night.
I doubt we will ever cross paths again and I’m not sad about that. But if he ever needs another favor someday – I will still pick up the phone, remembering that when it comes to people you’ve left in your past, always be kind but be cautious as well.