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Jacob Scheier, poet, essayist and journalist and past winner of the Governor-General’s Literary Award.

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Jacob Scheier is a poet, essayist and journalist and past winner of the Governor-General’s Literary Award.

In the fall of 2019, after a few years living in the United States, I moved back to Toronto, my hometown. I soon bumped into an old friend at my neighbourhood coffee shop. We had been friends for several years, but like with a lot of people in the city, I had lost touch with him. I discovered he lived just down the street from me. We quickly became very close.

Not long after, I saw him, holding court at a table in the neighbourhood coffee shop with about a half dozen people, who were laughing at something he had said. He is perhaps the most gregarious and funniest person I’ve ever known. I sometimes think he missed his calling – he would have been a great stand-up comic.

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But then the pandemic hit. The coffee shop, like everywhere else, cleared out, and I don’t think my friend ever figured out how to adapt to life with a much smaller audience.

In the spring of 2020, in the midst of the first lockdown, he invited me over to his small apartment for a little dinner party and announced that he was “over the pandemic.” I almost thought he was joking. If he couldn’t go to the coffee shop, the coffee shop would come to him, I guessed.

Perhaps one of the reasons complying with lockdown was easier for me than it was for him, is because I have a weakened immune system as a result of my Crohn’s disease medication. This caused me to be potentially more susceptible to COVID-19 than most people. My intense fear of the virus made it easy for me to adhere to public-health guidelines; having an inflammatory bowel disease had also made me used to restricting my lifestyle for the sake of my health.

I declined the invitation, reminded him about my condition, and suggested we go for a physically distanced walk instead. Or rather I thought distance was implied. This walk, like the next several we took that summer became highly anxiety provoking for me: Every time I took a step away from him, he took one closer to me. I constantly was stepping on and off the street to give myself space. A car came too close for comfort a few times. Perhaps, I thought at first, he just isn’t noticing. But once, after watching me jump off and back onto the curb, he said “Don’t you ever get tired of being afraid?”

I was too taken aback to answer, especially since he knew about my lowered immunity.

Maybe it wasn’t his intent, but it felt like he was gaslighting me. Though I think he was motivated by not wanting our friendship to change – by not wanting anything to change.

When I consider that he just couldn’t stand the sense of separation and isolation that came with physical distance and Zoom hangouts, I begin to feel empathy, but when I remember that his need for closeness trumped my need to, you know, not die – my empathy begins to fade.

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After one of those not-nearly-distanced-enough-summer walks, I began to make up excuses to not hang out with him. And, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but to avoid bumping into him on the street, I started exiting my home through the back entrance – into an alleyway. After a couple of weeks of swatting flies away as I passed a couple of perpetually overflowing dumpsters, I realized I couldn’t live like that. I had to confront my friend.

I met him at our neighbourhood park. I sat on the furthest edge of a bench – he sat closer to the middle. We immediately fell into the kind of conversation I’m sure we both missed: intimate, philosophical and peppered with inside jokes. It seemed it had been so long since I had laughed, I barely recognized the sound coming from my mouth. I nearly forgot why I had arranged the hang out in the first place. I nearly forgot about the pandemic entirely – and so I didn’t address my issues with him; I didn’t want the bliss of that forgetfulness to end.

He then accompanied me as I picked up a prescription at the pharmacy. As we entered, I put on a mask, and he, despite the mask mandate having been in effect for several weeks, did not.

At the checkout counter, he stood next to me and started to make small talk with the cashier, who only had a small Plexiglas divider and a mask to protect her. She basically had no choice but to stand there as he talked at her. I don’t blame her for not enforcing the law. I wondered if the cashier felt uncomfortable – maybe even scared. I suddenly felt ashamed to be associated with him. I realized I couldn’t respect my friend’s choices in this pandemic. And if I continued to hang out with him, I would soon no longer respect myself. I’m not sure if the pandemic changed his personality or just revealed the kind of person he had been all along.

Soon after, he sent me an invite to yet another reckless get together. The anger inside me boiled up all at once, and I texted him that he clearly didn’t care about my health or safety.

He wrote back that I had been “very distant” lately and we should talk about it. I’m unsure if he was ironically mockingly me with that word “distant,” but it was clear that he wasn’t ready to recognize the reality of the pandemic, and I was tired of being gaslit. He wanted to talk before the coming Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur – the day of atonement – when it’s customary to forgive all who have wronged you to their face and in your own heart. I told him I would think about it. That was nearly a year ago.

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I moved away from Toronto that fall, but I recently visited the city. Fully vaccinated, I hung out on patios and hugged friends, who a year ago I had to shout at, over traffic on busy streets, while we walked six feet apart. I thought of letting him know I was in town and that he can now stand as close to me as he wants. Perhaps if it had just been about me and my sense of safety, we could have met up and begun repairing the friendship. But when I think about him going into stores, mask-less, and putting front-line workers at risk – I just can’t look past it.

And so the work before me isn’t forgiveness, but grief.

And grieving I’ve come to understand is a practice. I mean that to grieve fully, you must mourn that person in their totality – it’s a lesson that came from losing my mother at a young age. For a long time it was hard not to focus on anything but the last few terrible months of her life when her disease altered both her body and personality until I barely recognized her. But eventually, I was able to think more often of the many good memories we shared – than the few bad ones.

And so, I am trying, although it’s not easy, to not focus on the last chapter of our friendship. To remember the person who saw me a bit lost and alone in Toronto and generously brought me into his lively community. That was the kind of person he was too. I really miss that guy.

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