I was asked to think about a time I chose not to conform and the price I paid for it. Well I can tell you, I could fill a book with examples and prices. Hell, I could show you a price list, a damned catalog with descriptions and prices. But I don’t want to go there now.
I want to talk about someone who wanted to conform. Someone desperate to conform, so desperate that it mired them in the deepest despair. But that despair, that all enveloping darkness has to be held in, kept secret. Because the irony is, that if you can’t fit in, sharing it with people will only get you pushed out more.
My “friend”, if you could call me that, if you could call any of us THAT, inhabited a world that didn’t really want him. Because of what he looked like, nothing big, just because of who he was. Just because of his entire essence. There was another world, a world where people looked like him. But they didn’t want him either.
I’m not saying we, the ones he tried to lean on, didn’t want him. There were other people that surely didn’t want him and let him know that in a variety of ways subtle and not so subtle. No, the part we played in this drama, our failure was one of omission, not commission. We hung out with him, we paled around, he was indeed part of our crowd and welcome in it. He was part of who we were. But no one raised a finger, near as I could tell, to help him. Maybe one or more of the girls talked to him, because they are like that, girls, they will try to understand and help.
To be fair, he did not make it easy. I don’t think he ever shared, at least not with me how deep he was in. He was the class clown in our group, kept us laughing with stupid jokes, dumb songs and complaints about his bad luck with girls. Well, most of us could have complained about that. One by one we broke that ice and paired up. But not without first going through our own heartbreaks and embarrassments.
But for him, his girl problems were the tip of an iceberg. The manifestation of the pain and despair that lie beneath. Girl problems? Join the club. Let’s go out and play frisbee golf or the hundreds of things we found to pass the time. Helpless, sooner or later some girl will come claim us. That’s what we all did, and he did it with us. We did not see the ticking time bomb buried in his soul.
His parents could have asked…could have said something to us. I went to his house once on my way home for a visit. Met his parents. Lovely people. But I could sense something with them that I really did not pick up from their son. I could almost smell the desperation. “Please come back.” “Our home is your home.” “So nice he has a friend like you.” It was the desperation of parents that feared for their child, who desperately wanted him to fit in. That was my first hint.
When I first met him, he was a second semester freshman and I was an upperclassman that had taken a sabbatical from school. In the insular, cliquey world of the Theatre department I came back and destroyed whatever hierarchies had been built while I was away. I took big parts that people thought they were ready for, I dictated how the off-stage world would be run because I was more senior, and I took away a girl. Well, I didn’t take anything, remember the bit about a girl coming to claim us? Precisely.
I had only known him for a few weeks at this point, didn’t understand his girl problems. So when he got me aside and told me “I have been after her for months and you just took her away in a few days” I did what any young man would do with someone he thought he could joke with: I laughed. He laughed too and gave me the finger which, is the appropriate guy response.
But even his response, the thought that a girl had so little agency. In his mind, the problem was not his approach or rapport with the girl. It was always some other guy that beat him to the punch.
I did mention it to the girl in question, just so she would watch what she said. It turns out she had no idea why he wanted her and on the other hand she wasn’t interested anyway. Ouch. Not the part about being uninterested. The part about not even knowing. All the energy he had expended, and to use an old song lyric “he never made her think twice”.
I talked to a few other girls who shied away from him. Was it a racial thing? No, I don’t believe it was, not with these young women. Each one of them had a similar response along the lines of “I like him, he’s good looking, he’s fun to be around and he is really smart.”
So what was it?
Remember the desperation? Desperation never travels alone. It is always accompanied by its fellow traveler: low self esteem. Together, these are not conducive to attracting a partner.
He didn’t return to school in the fall. And it was not long after that visit to his home that he decided to put an end to his pain.
His father, a talented motivational speaker and writer, wrote a guest piece in a big city newspaper. He was not surprised, he wrote, that he always knew his son would take his own life. But he and his wife felt helpless to stop it. That was what I sensed, though could not fully process when I visited. A house heavy with desperation.
I always felt like it was bullshit to say someone that died after enduring pain, “found peace”. Though I guess maybe he did. I wonder about his parents though, did they ever find peace? I wonder, anticipating the horror, not knowing when it would happen, only that it would, if what they found was relief. Because his pain sat heavy on them
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