The little red friend request notification blinked at me from my computer. Oh god. I don’t know if I can do this again.
It’s not like a Facebook friend request is a marriage proposal. I barely even know some of the people who are my Facebook “friends”—it’s the absolute lowest level of commitment to human connection. But as I sat there staring at that little red circle, I actually started to panic. I could hear that red dot buzzing in my ears. I felt myself physically recoiling from the screen. This is just the beginning. Remember all the emotional investment? Where did that get either of you last time?
Eventually, after avoiding Facebook altogether for days, I took a deep breath and clicked on “ignore friend request.” But for good measure, I also wrote a terse little note: Michael, I wish nothing but the best for you, but I think I should close the door on that part of my life. Hope you understand.
Our entry into the world of THE NIGHT ALIVE is not the gesture of a door closing, but one of a door opening. When we first meet Tommy, he has come to the rescue of a battered and bloodied Aimee, whom he has just met. He is gentle and tender with her, and though she is a perfect stranger, he offers her his own bed. His small act of kindness is genuinely touching despite the evidence that he is in no position to offer her a legitimate lifeline.
Tommy’s own life is clearly in shambles. He lives in a filthy pigsty of a flat and is much too dependent on the generosity of his uncle for daily necessities like electricity and food; he barely ekes out a living with odd jobs and is estranged from his wife and daughter. The idea that he could possibly save Aimee is laughable.
Maybe laughable is unfair. Let’s call it…optimistic. I’m inclined to be more generous in my judgment of Tommy considering that his desire to save Aimee is so familiar to me: it’s the same desire I felt when I met Michael—the sender of that anxiety-inducing Facebook message—back when I was seventeen.
Michael was the first boy I had ever loved. We talked about our deepest fears, we pondered over the existence of a benevolent god, and we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. It was the first time I felt Deeply Understood.
But Michael was also a manic depressive who couldn’t get his shit together. I just didn’t recognize it at the beginning of our relationship. About a month before my high school graduation, I received an angry phone call from Michael’s stepfather, demanding I tell him everything I knew about what had happened the previous night. Presumably registering the confusion in my voice, he changed his tone and explained: Michael had been arrested and was being held in the county jail for armed robbery of a gas station.
Our friendship fumbled along for ten years or so while Michael was in and out of prison. Michael would find himself in a huge mess of his own making, and then I would try to pull him back from the ledge. At his best, he was gentle, warm, and sincere; at his worst, he was cynical and manipulative. Though it had been years since we were romantically involved, when I told him I was engaged to my now-husband, he sent me an email that described in mind-numbing detail how he had let his car drift into oncoming traffic while he hoped someone would hit him. Our relationship was marked by moments of symbiotic thinking and penetrating insight, but those moments were equally matched by desperate letters, tearful visits, and an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. It was utterly draining. And when that Facebook request popped up after a couple years of silence, I chose to walk away.
Tommy chooses not to walk away. Part of me believes he consciously chooses generosity and compassion rather than retreat. But given the details of his history that we glean as the play goes on, I am suspicious that Tommy’s desire to save Aimee is a manifestation of some misguided deeper need to see himself as some sort of savior.
Even as I make that judgment, I see it reflecting back to me. If I argue that Tommy’s ego is at the root of his efforts to rescue Aimee from her troubles, does that imply that my decade-long campaign to save Michael could also be motivated by some selfish need to see myself as a pillar of strength?
The story I tell myself about why I remained engaged in that relationship for so long is that I believed that my empathy could somehow make things better for Michael. But when I chose to extricate myself from our relationship, did I grieve because I believed things weren’t going to get better for him, or did I grieve because I realized that I was not the person who would activate that change?
I’m ultimately not sure why I felt the need to save Michael. Perhaps I wanted to be a hero. Perhaps I just wanted to believe my empathy could have an impact in the world, that my compassion alone could be a force for good. By the end of my relationship with Michael, time, distance, and self-preservation outweighed both my altruistic impulse and my more selfish need to be a savior. As we watch Tommy begin his relationship with Aimee, I wonder which of his simultaneous motivations will ultimately define that relationship. Or perhaps, the notion of a single “true” motivation is a holdover from naïve seventeen-year-old thinking. Perhaps when it comes to reaching out, the most honest thing we can do is ask: is it possible to save people? What do we get in return? How dangerous does it have to get before we walk away?