I: ENOUGH PEANUTS
[Nota bene: This story is in four parts, and parts I-III are pretty grim, but there’s a happy ending. Also, there is a lot of smoking and no small amount of tears.]
I’m making Friday night plans with my brother Caleb. He’s saying we could stay in and watch a movie, or go out and get some drinks. “Or,” he says, “if you want to — and if you don’t want to, that’s fine — some of the guys are getting together to play basketball. We could do that.”
Do I like basketball? I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell whether you like something when the thought of it makes your stomach twist into knots. Some people would say that makes it easy to tell, right? But I make things complicated. Maybe, I think, it’s like someone who is allergic to peanuts, but actually loves peanuts, only he doesn’t realize it because every time he eats them, they make him wish he was dead. Maybe if I just eat enough peanuts, I’ll teach myself not to be allergic to them.
But maybe tonight, dealing with panic is a little bit much, so I say, Let’s stay in. I hang up; but I start to think about it, and think about it, and think and think andthinkandthink until I call Caleb back on my way home from work.
“Hey, so, um. I’m thinking, yeah, let’s go ahead and play basketball instead.” I’m trying not to hyperventilate.
“Yeah, I want to,” I lie.
“Because, you know, I really don’t care. I really don’t.” He doesn’t.
“No,” I say, taking a deep breath. “I mean, I should. I’m a little terrified. But I want to because I’m a little terrified.”
Caleb pauses, triangulating my neuroses. “You know,” he says, “you’re going to have plenty of chances in life to be terrified. You don’t really have to look for them.”
“Hm,” I say.
“So, Let’s stay in.”
“Um,” I say. “Okay.”
“You can eat here. We’re having enchiladas. Unless,” he says, “you’re terrified of enchiladas.”
II: BETTER THAN BASKETBALL
I know I’ve told that story about Caleb before, but it’s been on my mind because of something my friend L. said last weekend, when I visited DC for a mutual friend’s wedding. I was hoping the trip would be a way to get away, to give me some breathing room from my Terrible Situation.
Oh, the Terrible Situation, I can tell you about that now. It goes like this: after a year of living alone, I moved into a house with two other guys last February. Things started out beautifully. Somebody to come home to! Someone to eat with! Someone to chat with at odd moments! Someone who’ll bring their friends around — more people to meet, more people to know!
All this was true, and all this was good. I became surprisingly fond of both of them in a very short time, S. in particular. Then fondness turned to admiration. For me, it’s a short step from admiration to envy, and from envy to neediness, and jealousy, and all the rest of it. There’s a certain kind of admiration that makes me reassess myself, and the everything I used to consider good about myself, to frame my entire life in what-if terms: would I be more like him if I hadn’t been so scared, or so wounded, or so lame…Those of you who have been there can connect the dots; the mind has mountains.
And then when their college friends visited, which they seemed to do in a steady stream — seeing them interact with each other, watching their comfort and hilarity, would drive the knife home. This is what you want, says the old ἐχθρός, and this is what you will never have. Manifestly untrue, as Sal gently pointed out to me later in an email, but somehow I couldn’t call the right memories to mind, couldn’t think of a time when I had ever been at ease with anyone.
I set myself the impossible task of being as comfortable with them as they were with each other — I’d will myself into it — despite the fact that they’d spent every day together for four years, and when I failed I blamed myself, called myself socially inept, a hopeless loner. I knew it was crazy, and I couldn’t stop. Before I knew it I was in the deepest funk I had seen in a decade.
I didn’t think this was going to happen. I didn’t want this to happen. So I did all the right things. I talked to Father T., opened up to friends, wept and prayed and wept some more, read and meditated about the peace that comes from absolute trust in God. My friends couldn’t see why, if I was so miserable, I didn’t just leave.
But they didn’t understand! This was my way out from loneliness, and more than that, a way to get good at what I had always wanted to be good at: being comfortable in the company of other men. It was a second chance at I’d missed, or thought I’d missed, over and over again, all through homeschool and high school and college.
This was better than basketball.
It would get better, I kept saying. And it did. But every time it did, something would happen: some party where I felt left out, some imagined slight in conversation that snowballed into a full-blown self-pity session, some night when I would be bone-tired but couldn’t fall asleep because I envied the sounds of cheerful conversation downstairs — and I’d be right back where I started. But I couldn’t leave! That would be admitting defeat, that would be throwing away this beautiful opportunity that had dropped into my lap. I should be able to deal with this.
Give me more time, and I will get it right.
[ Cliffhanger!!! Continued tomorrow. ]