I once had a secret friend. I didn’t mean to keep him a secret; it just worked out that way. Few of my other friends ever met Ajax, and those that had, didn’t like him. They thought he was sullen and arrogant and reactionary—or worse. Lena even called him the “f” word. He was none of those things, but I can see how people could think he was. He could say things that made people deeply uncomfortable, like calling Alzheimer patients ‘post-persons’ or suggesting internment camps for illegal immigrants. That he did so with the unsentimental logic of carefully argued ethical discourse only riled his interlocutors more. There were, of course, ample counter-arguments to his positions and gaps in his reasoning, but most people never got that far. They just got mad.
I felt like a referee whenever we all got together, though Ajax said he didn’t need mediation or defense, which of course I knew. But that didn’t stop me from feeling that I needed to smooth things out. We expect our friends to like one another—after all, we like them—so it can feel as if we’re at fault when they don’t. When you’re with your friends, conversations flows unnoticed along a current of their own. With Ajax, I was all too aware of those shifts in conversation that would steer my friends to another reef of ideologically sensitive ground.
In the end, it was just easier to see Ajax on my own. Which suited him fine, as he was a bit of a recluse anyway and very picky about whom he spent time with. He said we saw other so infrequently that when we did, he wanted me all to himself. And he was right, we didn’t see each other often enough to share our time together with others. I think we both wanted to get together more often, but we kept bouncing off each other, like two atoms of a noble gas. We both had an aversion to talking on the phone and a ridiculously heightened sensitivity for the other’s privacy. We moved in a choreography of avoidance, parrying our text messages and emails and voice mail until somehow we synched ourselves into actually setting up a time to meet.
Most of our time together we spent at his place. He’d cook and we’d talk and then watch a DVD, sometimes a film noir but more often vintage American television shows, like I Love Lucy. Pajama parties for two with TV-dinners.
He said I let him be a boy again, but with the joy and spontaneity that was absent from his childhood. He said I helped him play without needing to win. He didn’t talk much about his past but I knew he had grown up with a mean and at times abusive alcoholic father and a mother too terrified to protect her own child. Luckily he was resilient and though hardened, did not seem embittered about his lost childhood. “They were really awful parents. But they caused me to exist and that’s certainly better than not to have existed at all.” Yes, he actually talked like that.
Despite his reputation for surliness, a reputation Ajax may subconsciously had a part in cultivating, he could be disarmingly affectionate and tender. Long after we stopped having sex, he would still snuggle up to me as we watched the movie on his futon, his face nestled in the back of neck. I remember his laughter, the sense of release it occasioned, as if some precious humor distilled of vulnerability and goodness were suddenly coursing through his body. I remember how his smile would bloom throughout his face like a backrun of watercolor on rag paper.
Perhaps I remember this precisely because of the contrast it made with the sparseness of his surroundings and austerity with which he lived his life.
I never met anyone with so few possessions as Ajax. There was very little furniture in his apartment. (The first time I went to his place I thought he didn’t even have a sofa, though I realized the next morning that the futon we had made love and slept on doubled as one). His place had none of the things that make a space the space of a particular individual, none of the bric-à-brac and curios in that cabinet of memory one calls home.
Ajax didn’t have much of anything in his apartment except for empty space, clean surfaces and the light from the triplets of portafinestre leading out to his veranda. It was like being in a temple, which sounds cool but wasn’t. I felt I was desecrating the space if I kicked off my trainers or dumped my gym bag on the floor. The problem with absolute order is that the smallest of intrusions, a rumpled t-shirt tossed on the bed or the day’s mail carelessly strewn on the kitchen counter, is magnified a hundredfold. There were times I felt downright messy in his apartment, just by being there, and I’m already somewhat of a purger myself. I told him once that his apartment felt a zone blanche, one of those uncolored areas on a city map that represent a no-man’s land of empty lots, warehouse tracts and vast parking lots. “But it’s not empty,” he said. “You’re here.”
Ajax lived with the discipline of a soldier and the ascetic detachment of a monk. There were no frills or silliness in his life. Even his motions were slow and deliberate, the kinetic equivalent of chanting. His pleasures, like his possessions, were measured and modest. He drank wine, but never more than a glass or two. He ate, but never had seconds. It was as if he ate not out of hunger or appetite but rather of responsibility. I asked him about this one evening, when, on my insistence, we had called out for a pizza, and I was scarfing down my third piece. “It just looks like that way to you,” he said. “I love to eat. But taste is all in the first bites. Afterwards it’s just shoving down nutrients.”
His equanimity could be exasperating and at times I felt an irrational, almost irrepressible urge to lure him beyond the close of contained desire into pure excess, shorn of his shield of ataraxia. Whether out of love for Ajax or fear of the consequences, I never did act on these urges.
He was a smart guy who lived his life according to principles. He said he was a man of very few principles, but that’s because the few he had more than sufficed. Live with integrity but without hope. Care for the persons around you. Be a trustworthy friend. Eschew dogmatism. Remain a skeptic.
There was another principle, one that was different from the others. It scared me. He never articulated it, though he did once remind me that his namesake was the only major character in the Iliad that didn’t receive help from the gods.
It was less a principle than a character flaw: Ajax wouldn’t or couldn’t ask for help. And it was this myth of utter self-sufficiency, shaped, if not created, by the remarkable fact of his surviving an abusive father and a shattered childhood, more or less intact and more or less on his own, which prevented him from feeling empathy with the victims of injustice.
He had little patience with what he called the congregation of the faithful, by which he meant eco-friendly, politically correct liberals who, he said, acted for the most part on the basis more of faith than of reason (I wondered to what extent I belonged in this category). He said they were “gluttons for righteousness”. They wanted it all, he said, even when, as in most cases, there were competing claims to the desire to act justly. What, he asked, if all of us started buying local foods to reduce our carbon footprint. That’s good, he said, but doing so would reduce the demand for the same food crops in the developing world and further depress prices for local farmers. That’s not good. And this in turn would mean more farm failures and increased pressure to immigrate. And for Ajax, that was definitely not good.
Of course Lena was wrong when she called Ajax a fascist. I don’t think she knows what the term means—not surprisingly since scholars don’t entirely agree either. It’s been so overused that, as George Orwell once suggested, it has come to mean nothing more than a synonym for bully. And that’s how she used it I think, as a catch-all term to discredit an adversary. Surely Ajax was deeply suspicious of nationalism, even more so of militarism. . (Ironically, in her fondness for tradition and rejection of modernism, her almost blind faith in the innate superiority of the ethnos, Lena was more deeply conservative than Ajax would ever be.) He didn’t resent democracy, even if he believed it was wasted on the overwhelming majority of citizens, whom he considered unfit to vote, which didn’t mean that they shouldn’t vote.
I would sometimes agree with Ajax. In fact, we were more alike than I wanted to admit. In some (but not all) ways Ajax was a more extreme version of myself, a poster guy for what I could become if I indulged my more anti-social inclinations and fixations about order.
But I confess that the internment camps were a stumbling block even for me.
Ajax was fiercely loyal and protective and forgiving of my faults, why couldn’t I be of his? Actually for Ajax, there was nothing to forgive. He accepted me unreservedly for who I am. Ajax didn’t want to change me. Why should I want to change him?
I told myself I didn’t want to change him, just his position on certain issues. But I came to realize that the distinction only existed in my mind. I could no more sever his ideological stance from his character and history than I could his asceticism or reluctance to be helped. He was what he believed, only because he believed these things so ardently.
I suppose I am not as principled a man as Ajax. He was my friend and I loved him. It was not despite his ideas, but paradoxically in part because of them. I still love him. He’s moved out of the city and I hardly see him now. But I would if he were here. Internment camps and all.
ImageL Geert Goiris, Tunnel Vision, 2000