(come on now, that is the best entry title ever. someone should TOTALLY give me an award. better yet, a book deal!)*
Once upon a time, there was a young girl. That young girl was mean –horribly so, in fact– to a boy. The girl grew up and sometimes wondered about the boy. Worried about the boy. She wished desperately sometimes (she of the no take-backs and nary a do-over) she could erase her part in the Bad Things That Tend To Malform A Person’s View On and/or Grasp Of The World that had rumpled the boy unkindly when they were both children. Yes, back in the wayback of third grade.
I don’t know how long I’d known Mike Ess by the time we were both eight or nine. Maybe two years. Was he in first grade with me at Greene Elementary? I don’t remember for sure. But I get the shadowy impression of his face being impish when he was younger, so he must have been.
Mike wasn’t a bad-looking kid. He could have been classed as damn cute, I think now. He had thick black hair that was heavy and always mussed on top. He also sported a faint trail of freckles under some pretty amazing blue eyes. He always looked somehow sideways and akimbo: The necks of his shirts (even button-ups) endlessly crept toward one shoulder, his pants seemed canted to one side. A shoe always untied? Maybe my mind just pencilled that one in.
I was rarely truly mean to anyone in elementary school, and I don’t know how Mike drew my fire. It seems like some kids have bullseyes stapled to them. I just don’t know.
With Mike, it wasn’t so much outright cruelty as it was a steady barrage of demeaning remarks. I don’t even remember the scope and extent of them now, only that I constantly picked on this kid. And he tried, God love him, that kid tried to befriend me and the other jerky little bastards, he tried to make normal conversation, he tried to joke with us.
Rebuffed. Disacknowledged. Shunned.
I’ve been known to say something along the lines of ‘I’d rather be physically abused than emotionally abused. I can grow new skin; I can’t grow a new psyche.’ I wonder today if Mike Ess felt the same way when I was talking down to him.
I was a fuckface, and I’ve wondered about Mike from time to time over the years. I’ve felt bad, knowing I’ve never attempted an apology to him. I’ve hoped he was one of those people that had some bad shit happen to them and turned out mighty great in spite of (and maybe even because of?) other people’s ignorant-ass behavior.
Yep, I hoped.
Marla Bee is someone I grew up with and loved immensely. Once, when I went away for a year to live with my father in Alaska, Marla couldn’t sleep or eat or stop twitching around for the twelve hours prior to my arrival back in the mighty Midwest. She missed me that much and was that excited about my return. Marla Bee and I were the thickest of thieves. Even now, she’s one of the yardsticks against which I measure potential friends.
Marla Bee and I grew up and did a fair job of keeping in touch until we both had kids and marriages (though not necessarily in that particular order…remember that we were raised Sutherin Babdist). Things fell off for some time, and then about three or four years ago she rang me up one night out of the absolutist of all blues.
I moved a bit as a kid, and calls out of the nowhere past don’t really faze me that much, as I tend to be one of those people who gets them with a fair regularity. But this call from Marla sort of stunned me. I remember being so surprised that we hadn’t kept in touch. I remember thinking, “How foolish is that? It’s something you would have never predicted fifteen years ago.”
When she had a digestive system failure in sixth grade, I begged every day for God not to let her die. I insisted my mother ferry me to the hospital at every possible turn, even though I hated hospitals fervently. I went and went, despite the fact that Marla’s painfully swollen abdomen scared the merciless fuck out of me….me, who was never frightened for self, only for others.
So she called me and we talked well over four hours about all manner of things. With good friends there is this rhythm that outpaces all time, I swear. No matter how long it’s been since you’ve spoken, you fall right into that rhythm again. Somebody should get a grant and study that shit, it’s so amazing. So it was with me and Marla.
As often happens with old friends, you ask for/trade updates on other people you occupied a space in time with. You ‘ooh’, you ‘ahh’, you sigh in relief, you sigh in sadness, you giggle with hilarity and incredulity in turns. The past is a great leveller: It makes everyone equally jelly-brained.
Unless you’re a robotic, non-feeling bastard. You’re not, are you??
At the very end of the conversation, I awkwardly got around to the Mike Ess issue. I asked about him. Right on the heels of the question, I explained in a waterfall of words about how badly I’ve felt about him for years and years now.
“I mean, I hope he’s okay. I’m just really very sorry for it.”
“Don’t be,” Marla said flatly, “That asshole beats his kids, locks them out of the house, shit like that. He turned out to be a real prizewinner.”
The word prizewinner slid around my brainfloor for a while. Prizewinner. Mike never went to the twice-yearly school carnivals and won cheap chinese finger cuffs or a six-pack of cupcakes or tiny little folding fans made of brightly-dyed tissue paper. Mike Ess never had a heavy coat to wear in the biting winter winds. Mike Ess sometimes had dirt caked into the looping creases of his ears.
Mike Ess. I can still remember clearly the way he sometimes tucked his mouth. How pretty fucking smart he actually was, poor grades no marker for his intellect. How things of beauty, of artistic value, moved and excited him even at so young an age.
I wonder at times if I had a hand in creating the part of him that mistreats others. That one really gets all over me something fierce.
Mike Ess, I’d really like to look you up, roll on up your driveway, look you in the eye and admit to what a shit I was back then. I’d also like to tell you that that’s not the person I truly was and I’ve no idea what overcame me and none of that in any way excuses my behavior. You might find some kind of solace or pleasure in the telling of the fact that life knocked me around a good deal not too very long after that and I learned some really important lessons on big things like Humility and The Milk of Human Kindness and Being An Emotional Punching Bag (Parts One and Two).
I’d be unsure as to the appropriateness of telling you that I became a fierce defender of underdogs as early as junior high and petted many an abused dork’s massively bruised feelings well through high school. Would something like that make you feel a little better, or would it mash around on your hurt (while wearing spiky boots a la your much-beloved Gene Simmons) for a little bit? You know, that ‘cold comfort’ thing. That, ‘you just said the very thing that would push me the rest of the way over the edge and set loose the mass murdering fuckup that resides deep within’ sorta deal.
I’m not sure if I’ve paid penance for my ill treatment of you, Mike. If it’s a lifelong thing for me, I guess I’m okay with it.
Just in case you are indeed walking around with a broken heart that I helped set the fault lines on.
I had no right to do that. I’m very, very sorry.
*said with a wink and a nod toward the more-than-slightly-rad y