I hate starting things passively, but I’m going to in this case. There’s this guy that I’ve known since I was pretty young, about ten. We haven’t been friends that whole time. In fact, I haven’t seen or spoken to him in fifteen years, and that’s not because we had a big falling out or anything, it’s mostly because we weren’t really that close and it would have been awkward at best and most likely just painful if we had actually happened to run into each other.
You know the drill: lots of shared experiences in the past but no REAL connection creates a deep seated compulsion to carry on a conversation and an equally deep seated compulsion to end said conversation as quickly, yet politely as possible. In short, there’s nothing worse than running into someone from highschool that you weren’t really friends with, because you’re gonna sit there and exchange dumb pleasantries that take up about ten minutes but reveal exactly nothing and it’s all for the benefit of both of you not feeling like total shitheads, even though neither of you want to be stuck in said conversation. You’re all, undoubtedly familiar with this phenomenon.
Sure you are. Anyway…
This guy and I, however were, at one time long ago, in the same boat. Both nerds, we were the two guys in gradeschool who read other books on top of our schoolwork, and big, thick books, at that. Piers Anthony books, and Stephen King books and shit like that. We’d read them during recess and on the bus and walking down the halls and we’d trade books and every once in a while we’d have sleep overs and shit and dork out about nerdy stuff, but we were never tight. We were more just kind of drawn to each other because we were the only two people in the fourth and fifth grade that were into the dorky shit we were into.
This foundation led to us always being friendly even as we grew older, which was helpful since, as nerdy bookworm types, we were invariably around each other a lot. With the exception of my freshman and sophomore year, when I was living in the suburbs, this guy and I had almost every class together in grade school, middle school and high school. We were in all the advanced maths and Latin 5, and the fast track courses and special groups and all that type of shit. By junior year, we’d all taken standardized tests and when the results came back, he and I were (I believe) the only two National Merit Scholars in our class.
Now, by this time, we’d developed into very different people. He was active in student government and I took great pains to ditch school and leave the campus to go smoke cigarettes and drink coffee during student government. He was holding meetings with teachers and mentoring young students and I was dying my hair blue and blowing off my homework until the very last minute and playing in a rock band (he was in a band too, but it was a completely different kind of thing). In short, we’d become opposites, still friendly, but opposites. His dedication to scholarship was in stark contrast to my notion that school was kind of a waste of time and a prison for idiots, and a “slave farm” or some other such sloganeering idiot notion (a sentiment that I no longer truly believe, by the way…but I was a punk rock teenager and as such I had everything completely figured out).
Okay, so here’s the other thing about this guy. His drive was augmented with a highly competitive streak. This was something I was always kind of aware of, but after the whole merit scholar thing, it became kind of a thing between us. Every test, every essay, every report card that was handed out would be followed immediately by this guy asking me my grade and then showing me his (in retrospect I wouldn’t be surprised if he did this with everybody). Now, this was not something I wanted to take part in. I didn’t give a shit about grades, I didn’t feel like I was competing with him and since I felt like I was being forced into some head-to-head that I wanted no part of, the whole thing kind of bugged me, honestly.
There was, in my mind at the time a real conscious message in this constant comparison, that was, “Hey, BK, I’m gonna leave you in the dust” and I started to resent it, and by extension, him.
We applied to colleges. He of course asked me where I was applying. I had no interest in going to college and my only criteria for a school was that it be in Chicago so I could keep touring with my band. He had applied to all the ivy leagues, with Northwestern, the only school I’d applied to at all, as his safety. Whatever, right? I couldn’t have given two fucks about college and when he got into Harvard, I thought, “hey, good for him. That seems like a perfect fit: Two things that put unnecessary emphasis on grades and pedigree going hand in hand. Wonderful.”
Senior year, he became the student body president and after an incident where a young teacher showed up to a party and smoked weed with the ‘bad kids’ (me and my friends [and yeah, what the fuck was he thinking, eh?]) someone told the faculty and that teacher was fired. Rumors swirled that it was our beloved student body president, my competitor, who had narced, and though he took me aside and assured me that it wasn’t him, I had my lingering doubts and if I’m being honest, that was kind of the end of our friendship.
I started to see him as someone who was living for the exact opposite kind of world that I was into- a goody-two shoes-yes-man-square, as opposed to my…uh, I dunno…reckless awesomeness or something? This was, of course an extremely narrow view based in no small part on just the way we’d grown up and apart, and my desire to be selfish and lazy, but it persisted.
After college, I toured and toured. You guys know that story. This guy became a heart surgeon. Now, it’s hard to find something bad to say about a heart surgeon, especially one who dedicates himself to working in third world countries and with the destitute and with children, but the competition he’d started was, at this point alive in me, even though I hadn’t seen him in years (and for him had likely ended on graduation day). “Oh, good for him” I’d say, kind of shittily, when I heard about his great accomplishments (things that all parents from our highschool class were rightly very impressed with). I had my own gig, man, and I too was doing bold and exciting things.
But of course, that was just the surface. The truth is, I’d started playing in bands with all my friends and their bands, the Rise Againsts and Alkaline Trios and so on were blowing up, becoming careers and of course, my band was on a different track. I couldn’t help but feel that if I ever saw this guy again, that the scene in highschool with the report cards would repeat. “Hey brendan, what are your grades this semester” would be replaced with “so how’s your life path treating you?” and faced with a surgeon who’s wealthy, successful and travelled to more interesting places than I have, well, I’ve got nothing. In my deepest heart I feared seeing him because he’d won and I’d lost. He’d been right all along and I’d been wrong and I KNEW it now. And he’d know I knew, because he’s a smart guy, too smart to fall for any sort of “well, you know, livin’ the dream” kind of bullshit.
Well, that’s where it kind of was. I can honestly say that not going to any reunions at my highschool were fueled directly by this fear of seeing this guy and handing him the victory that (honestly) he’d earned. Until this week.
Apparently, this guy suddenly died early on Monday. Now, like I said, I don’t know him anymore, so I don’t have any details, but the rumors I’ve heard indicate that it was self inflicted. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that he was my age and there’s no cause of death in his obituary.
(I also realize that it’s kind of bad form to publicize a death, especially one so tragic, when you don’t really know the person or family, and that’s hardly my intent, so in the unlikely event anyone close to this individual reads this and finds it gauche, I’m so terribly sorry.)
All this time I was so afraid of this guy, and he was (if the rumors are to be believed) hurting so badly inside. I refused to let him ‘win’ a stupid intellectual competition that I’m sure he didn’t even remember existed when he was obviously grappling with darkness. I avoided this guy when I should and could have been encouraging and supportive, but I was selfish and I didn’t know and we weren’t really friends anyway and it wasn’t my place or anything but right now I would walk to the ends of the earth to show him this note and show him that he’d handily won if I thought that would make even a tiny bit of difference (which it wouldn’t. Again, he was a surgeon. I’m sure the trajectory of a third tier punk rocker from his highschool wasn’t exactly on his mind.)
But, I’d say “man, we’ve all got demons. We’ve all got darkness and shortcomings and we all feel inferior and small at times. Hell, you made me feel that way without even being anything but a stand up and decent guy. That's what life is. It's confusing and hard but it's also beautiful and surprising and confounding and spectacular” But man, ugh. It’s a punch in the gut. I’ll never see him now. I’ll never get over myself and be able to congratulate him for having a great career and talk about the fantasy novels we used to read as kids. Huh. Talk about a hollow and shallow ‘victory’. God.
Rest In Peace, dude. Sorry I couldn’t have seen you once more before you rambled on.
If any of you are hurting out there check out 1800SUICIDE or youspoke.org. Please, please please.