Eight Metaphors for Being Guarded


In April 2019, I was sitting in the University of Guelph library, on the third floor at 8 PM. I was studying. Early April marked the end of regular scheduled classes and the beginning of the exam period. I was in my fourth year of five, it was the semester before summer break. I dreamed of going home to Barrie and diving into summer, but I had no idea of what I wanted my summer to consist of. I didn’t have a job lined up, I didn’t have any plans. I just wanted to be finished with school. I was studying for my exams in the athlete area — I’d rejoined the varsity swim team after a year-and-a-half hiatus from the sport. It was confusing; I was a senior on the team, a fourth year; it was my third year of eligibility; I was in my second year of swimming at Guelph, and it was completely new roster since I’d last been there, so I felt like a rookie. I was a rookie. I was out of shape, I’d contacted the coach mid-season, in January, and asked if I could practice with her. I wanted some obligations again, and to be fit. Before I knew it, I was swimming seven times a week, waking up at 4:45 for practice. I still remember my first dry land session: we were training in the gym and no one knew who I was. I was older than almost everyone there, but the team was big and drop-ins were common, so no one said anything (except with their eyes, in the form of sideways glances). Then I kept showing up. The male captains (third-years I’d never met) welcomed me. I swam the rest of the season, and I made a couple friends on the men’s side over the four months, but besides the three girls that I knew from way back, I didn’t really talk to anyone on the women’s side. That was, until April, when I was studying in the library. 

This is a piece about friendship. 

It was April 3rd. Fay walked into the athlete section holding a white gift bag. She looked around for her friends on the team before — seeing that I was the only other swimmer there — she was obligated to walk to my table. I inquired first about who she was looking for, then about the gift bag, to which she replied the names of other first-years on the team, then stated it was a birthday gift, from a friend, for her. That’s how I was able to specify from “early April” to April 3rd. I wished her happy birthday and she took a seat. She told me about her day, I asked about her exams. My focus on studying quickly departed. We talked for long time, then she left. 

I saw Fay at the library a handful of times over the rest of the exam period. We had small conversations. We exchanged phone numbers; we texted. We may have gotten food together. If I remember correctly, my exams went swimmingly (pardon the pun), and after a farewell party with the team and other appropriate partings for summer break, I went home. So did Fay. Later, we began video calling into late hours of the night.

This is a piece about friendship.

My parents, recently retired, went travelling for an extended period that spring. I had the house to myself for close to five weeks. I saw my friends in Barrie, I had fun, tried to stay busy, tried desperately to procrastinate getting a factory job at my father’s (prior to his retirement) company. Fay and I Facetimed in the evenings. We talked, learnt a lot more about each other, and we debated about my theories on friendship — which I’ll digress into now: for most, if not all, of university, I was averse to forming new friendships. There were a number of reasons for this. First, I wasn’t happy at school, and I was petty about being unhappy so I resisted others’ attempts to bond with me. The thinking was something along the lines of: “I’m expected to make friends here, and I hate doing something just because it is expected, so I will keep everyone at arm’s length.” Second, I had a great group of friends in Barrie — about twelve of them. I’m still friends with them now, and I’m closer with them than most people I’ve ever met. (I know, I know: “do I have no other friends because I’m close with those guys, or because I have no other friends, I’m close with those guys?” I don’t care to speculate.) And third, it was my experience, up to that point, that people were desperate for connection, adaptable to their situation, that they would attach to people that they spent the most amount of time with. They formed friendships of convenience; something like: “because we’re at the same university, in the same program, or on the same swim team, we’re friends” — even though it’s only coincidence that they ended up in the same place at the same time, and if it were other circumstances, they wouldn’t be close. Not to mention the all-time classic of one friend no longer existing because the other got into a relationship. I’d seen it all, and I’d made note. I’m not saying there weren’t flaws in my reasoning, only that that was my stance at the time. At length, these issues — my issues — Fay and I debated. I tried to tell her that I wasn’t going to get genuinely close with her, because I would graduate a year later and we wouldn’t speak. Not because either of wouldn’t want to — but because life would go on; our two cars would simply part on the highway, not destined for the same location. 

May 6th came, my birthday. It was a longstanding tradition on my birthday to see whichever new superhero movie was out, as their release frequently aligned with the weekend closest to the 6th. For some reason or another, my friends were unavailable to uphold the tradition, so I extended an invite to Fay. It took some coordination — she lived in Scarborough, I in Barrie — we met in York and saw the movie there. It was fantastic. Afterwards, in the parking lot, we debated my theories again, late into the night, or more likely, early into the morning. Then I drove back to Barrie.

This is a piece about friendship.

I had a girlfriend during all that time. Back when I said I went home after exams, I actually visited her in California for a week. She knew about Fay, I’d told her about my new friend. That doesn’t mean I handled my first platonic girl friend while dating someone with expert-level decision making. I made mistakes.

Shortly after my birthday, I invited Fay to Barrie. I said that I would pick her up in York and drive us back. I told her that I would show her around and drive her back to the subway station later. We did all that, but it ended up being a late night, so I offered for her to sleep over and to drive her in the morning. She accepted. She slept in the guest room.

Chronologically after that: Fay went to Illinois for a one-month internship, then she got back and I visited her in Scarborough for a day, then my girlfriend returned from her schooling in California. In a conversation about the then popular film A Star is Born, when my girlfriend told me that she wanted to see it, I let slip that I already had. “When?” she asked. I said, “With Fay… when she’d come to Barrie.” Which was bad since I had told her about Fay, but not the visits. 

Fay and I didn’t call as much for the rest of the summer. While she was in Illinois, it’d been very frequent, we’d even been watching a show on Netflix simultaneously. And when I visited her in Scarborough, she’d given me a book. After that, though, it was beginning to look like my theories on fading friendship may have been manifesting. But I had assured her that I had let her in — she had been promoted from a friend of convenience to a friend of fondness. For the rest of the summer, I had a wonderful time with my girlfriend.

September, 2019 — I was trying out for the swim team properly, not as a mid-season drop-in. I had to get to Guelph before the semester began. I moved in, my house was vacant. There were many hard training sessions to attend. At the first, I pulled up to the back door of the campus pool on my bike. The team was being bolstered by a fresh crop of recruits and there were many strange faces in the foyer. I was to be competing alongside prospects, green, and fresh out of high school. I was twenty-two, red-faced and panting, looking around at seventeen year olds and wrapping up my headphones, when a body slammed into me. Fay. Giving me a hug. It was our first time seeing each other since June.

Try-outs went well. I made the team. Others, who had been members when I was a late-add in January, had been cut. That felt weird, like I’d come out of retirement and taken their spot. I suppose I had — but I’d earned it. Being on the team officially meant attending fall training camp: two nights, somewhere away from Guelph, to bond with the team, goal set, and work hard. We were all out of shape then; it was an even playing field. It ended up being a fun weekend, I enjoyed the location, the camping we did, and my new position on the team — wise Benny — not the fastest, but experienced. I noticed on the bus ride back to Guelph that Fay cosied up to a new rookie. I wasn’t surprised, I liked him myself.

I had a car for a few months that fall. The weekend after the training camp, Fay and I drove to get groceries together then watched a movie at her place. That evening was the last I saw of her outside of team events. Shortly afterwards, she and the nice rookie started dating. My final year of university continued on, COVID happened, and I went home and began studying for exams again. On April 3rd, 2020, I wished Fay a happy birthday over text. I did the same on April 3rd of this year. It was a much shorter message.

This is a piece about lost friendship.

When I younger, it was harder to see the split coming. In fifth grade, maybe through to eighth, my close friends and I swam with a boy named Brady who was two years older than us. Brady was quiet and mature. He was a kind of person that you wanted to make laugh to break his flat expression. Back then, my friends and I really knew how to have a fun time at swim practice; we blurred the lines between competitive swimming and pool games. Brady was two years older than the rest of us but he was in our group because he wasn’t as fast, and I hope, because he liked to have fun with us. I went to my first sleepover camp with Brady. Then, as he aged into high school, he quit the team. I barely saw him after that.

Another friend in passing I met at that same sleepover camp. Marcus Runkel. Marcus had long blond hair, down to his shoulder blades and bleach blonde. He looked like the lovechild of a Californian and an Australian; he must have been born with a surfboard in his hand. Though, if my memory serves me, his demeanour wasn’t that of a typical surfer. He was a paradoxical combination of innocent and loud, and he had a big smile. We got as close as two ten year olds can get in ten days. And in an unprecedented act of summer-camp friendship, I visited him at his house in Toronto, outside of camp. That was over over a decade ago and I have since deleted my Facebook account — unless the algorithms connect us again down the road, I will never know what became of Marcus Runkel. 

I went to elementary school with Rigel. There were six of us close friends and we did everything together. Rigel had us to his cottage many times in the summers. When we got to grade nine, five of us chose to go to one high school nearby, and he went to a different one further away. I’ve barely seen him since.

Junior, I met at a basketball camp. He had a rat tail! For three years, our friendship existed only in five days stints of hoop shooting in a dried-up hockey rink. Each time it felt like a glorious eternity. Luckily, with Junior, there was a brief resurgence in our pairing during grade twelve, when we would go on late-night coffee dates and catch up. He’d gotten a haircut by then.

There’re countless more summer camp, school, swimming friends that when the right song comes on at the right moment, I think of and wonder how our friendship would be if we hadn’t parted. So many that faded away and I didn’t notice. It was weightless then — being naive, thinking each honeymoon would lead to marriage. Or not thinking at all, more just having a friend, then one day not having them. Maybe it took looking at my circle and realizing the empty spaces, or maybe it took hearing their name or seeing an unsolicited Facebook memory. I find, in the instant of remembering, that I don’t actually want the friendship back; instead, I think: I’ve grown too much, we didn’t have much in common in the first place, or they’ve probably changed. If you were one of the named reading this, know it isn’t a good riddance. It’s a thank you. And if our paths are to intertwine again, I welcome it.

The cessation of my friendship with Fay — or her friendship with me — in fifth year, solidified in me a behaviour that began in first year: if I think that I can definitively foresee the time of death of a new relationship, I will abort it before it has legs. I still do this, and it’s probably sad, though it doesn’t sadden me — it’s just how I am. Besides, it’s a conservation of energy; I don’t have to deal with the wrecking ball if I didn’t let it get swinging, I don’t have to mourn something if I never knew it. Is it so bad? I still form friendships — they just have to appear longevous to me from conception. We all only have so much room for really close friends and I’m at capacity. I fear that inviting someone in will mean evicting someone I already like. The naiveté is gone, I now bear evenly pragmatism and realism. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t wish for it to be weightless again.

Sorry in advance to my future acquaintances,

B.F. Greeno, aka
Limited Seating at the Table of My Heart

About the author

Benny Greeno
By Benny Greeno

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