like high school, but more civilized.
Travel and work have conspired to keep me from jiu-jitsu class of late. It’s just as well, since I’ve yet to find my killer instinct. Without it, I am lunch meat for James (aka Angry McTwerpface), a guy in my class who can choke me into near-unconsciousness based on his ability to channel the angst of past humiliations at the hands of his nemeses. If I’m to fight off this little man and his weaponized self-esteem issues, I must summon my inner agro-douche. I looked up “nemesis” in the dictionary: a) an opponent or rival whom a person cannot best or overcome; b) an agent of retribution. There were several definitions, and I would have continued to read all of them, but really, there was no need. I know I’ve said Jake Pavelka is my nemesis, but by any definition, that distinction really belongs to Rick, my “best friend” in high school.
Rick was a classic tennis club preppy with a penchant for polo shirts, boat shoes and Levi’s, a uniform he wore with little variation the entire time I knew him. He had jet black hair that was styled into vaguely unfashionable haircut which I found odd until I realized both his older brother and dad had the very same one, making me wonder if his family had been hatched from pods. Rick was tall, sinewy, blandly handsome – a Ken doll with testicles. A fixture at both my high school and my church, I would see my friend pretty much everyday. For the most part, it was torture.
I call Rick a friend because he wasn’t a violent bully, or a misanthrope. We had many friends in common, a lot of whom liked us more or less equally. Rick never made specific efforts to ostracize me. Rather, he was more like Stifler in American Pie, taking malignant glee in singling out and mocking other people’s shortcomings. Unfortunately for me, I gave Rick plenty of material to work with – perhaps I had no more than the usual supply every awkward high school kid has, but by virtue of our proximity I would hear about them from Rick ALL. THE. TIME. Maybe it’s the cruelty of memory but I don’t think there was ever a social humiliation in my teen years that Rick wasn’t present for, and happy to exploit for his own amusement and the amusement of those around him.
There were my quaint efforts at joining the rugby team, which I tried to keep quiet in the event of the very real possibility that I did NOT make the team. Nonetheless I told Rick of my plans, perhaps in a vain attempt to impress him. What he did was try out for the team as well, despite little to no interest in rugby. The last day of tryouts there were only three spots remaining and four guys vying for them, Rick and I among them. We had to run 100 metres flat out. Blessed with natural athleticism, Rick came in first. Cursed with a body akin to Spongebob Squarepants, I pulled in dead last. For three weeks Rick would recount how with virtually no effort or desire on his part he’d managed to make a team that for all my passion and hard work I could not manage to get on myself. Perhaps to add insult to injury, Rick then proceeded to play with half-hearted interest. Eventually he stopped going to practices or games altogether .
Then there was Hope. She was in our youth group at church. She had blond hair, blue eyes, an arrow for a chin and a sweet demure manner that was so proper it bordered on regal. She was an inter-varsity Grace Kelly, and I was convinced Jesus had sent her to earth personally, an angel walking among us as a reminder of his everlasting grace. Naturally I had a crush on her. I found Hope’s company a welcome respite as she was the antithesis of Rick in every way. Once again I confessed my crush to Rick, whereupon he said that monkeys would fly out of my butt before she’d ever date me.
I realized shortly thereafter that Rick’s opinion was perhaps an informed one, since Rick and Hope started going out. It was like we were two cold war superpowers and he had unlawfully annexed a neutral country, the last remaining place I might find some relief from him. That Hope could love Rick didn’t just make me seethe with jealousy, it undermined my existence. I was forced to think that his habit for casual cruelty was a ruse to hide some tragic pain that belied an essential goodness. I had no wish to acknowledge this, as it would only make it harder for me to vilify him. Yet it was Rick who was at the hospital when my dad had a near-fatal heart attack. I was apoplectic, and my mother was unprepared to stabilize the shifting ground underneath my life as well as her own. She thought it best if I “spend time amongst friends who cared about me.” So she called Rick (the only friend whose name she could remember), and that fucker came and took me roller skating. Moreover, he granted me a general amnesty for a week, about as long as it took for the doctors to confirm that my dad would recover. I hated Rick for being so uncharacteristically nice, and hated myself for hating him.
Perhaps the only thing more infuriating than the humiliations was the fact that Rick never really singled me out for it. He was an egalitarian, ridiculing everyone more or less equally. I suppose if I felt like he was targeting me, it would be for some special reason beyond my social ineptitude. In a bizarre way I thought it might signal some kind of approval. He certainly didn’t seem to require mine, or anyone else’s for that matter. For the most part Rick seemed happy to offend anyone and everyone. His sheer lack of consideration seemed like an act of reckless bravery, and it made him a dashing figure to me and perhaps to Hope as well.
Nonetheless, I owe Rick a debt. With the exception of the largesse he showed concerning my dad, he was relentless. Every time I would appeal for mercy it would only get worse. The only option was to sublimate that angst, to soldier on and take it. So I developed a gift for suppressing rage, for not flinching when he said or did something mean. I started reading Lenny Bruce, and practicing witty retorts in the privacy of my bedroom. It was like Navy SEAL training, and without it I would never have developed the thick skin and sharp wit I needed to defend myself, the same skin and wit that I use today to survive in my contemptible industry.
Moreover, it was Rick’s dubious Christian example that inspired my healthy skepticism. His investment in religion was less moral than legalistic: follow the rules and you get into Heaven. As such he ascetically observed such pious ordinances as no smoking, no drinking, and no cursing. He didn’t dance, as it may have lead to sex. As far as I know he didn’t have sex standing up as it may have lead to dancing. I suspect he missed the rule about treating your neighbour the same way you’d want to be treated yourself, although it’s more likely he regarded Christianity as a kind of spiritual alegbra exam – he didn’t have to get everything right in order to pass. So as I understood it, Rick would inherit to the kingdom of Heaven while it would be denied to someone like my dad- a decent, honest non-believer who lived a life closer to the example set by Christ than Rick ever would. I couldn’t accept such arbitrariness on the part of God, and over time I grew disenchanted and left church altogether. Today, I question everything. I make an effort to understand why the I think the way that I do, and I’m open to the possibility of changing my opinions if new facts come to light. I can even go so far as to accept that Rick may be a better person than I realized, although such evidence has yet to present itself.
Regardless of my personal feelings for Rick, I am a better man than I would’ve been because of his cruelty and fecklessness. Not that he would know, mind you – in my senior year, I moved with my family to another city, and I never spoke to Rick again. I don’t think it would’ve mattered to him anyway. I’ve found it’s rare for any bully, bad friend and frenemy to have a reflective nature . Writer Jonathan Goldstein once produced an amazing story on the excellent radio program This American Life , in an episode devoted to “The Allure of Mean Friend”: Is it mean of the ravenous lion to devour the frightened zebra? As the first terrible bites sink into his legs and stomach, does the zebra look in the lion’s eyes as though to say “why are doing this to me, friend? and why, by my very nature, have I demanded it?” It occurs to me that only the zebra would do a story (on this subject). The lion could care less.
Although I haven’t seen him in more than twenty years, Rick is still with me, helping me become a better man. I’ll be thinking of him when I take McTwerpface to the mat.