“You know what’s funny?” says A., coming up to me while we practice Bok Pai Chuan and grinning painfully. “How you’re so much better at that form, even though I’ve been coming here for longer!”
“Aw, but you don’t get to come here as often as I do!” I say, hoping my grin is less transparent than his. He really wants me to think he thinks it’s funny, but he doesn’t think it’s funny, any more than he thinks that time he threw up in class is funny, or the time he lost his balance and crashed into the weapons rack.
But he’s always joking about those things, too, long after everybody else would have forgotten them. It’s a scab he can’t stop picking at.
A. is a gangly blond kid with a high voice, a bad haircut, and glasses that fall off a lot. He’s 15 or 16. Everything he does is a bid for affection. He tells dirty jokes, like he’s heard the other kids do, but gets the rhythm wrong or takes it too far and just ends up sounding like a pervert. He butts into conversations and pretends to know things. He told me that he practices Kung Fu six hours a day.
His wounds couldn’t be more gaping if he were actually bleeding all over the practice mat. I wonder when I look at him: Who did this to you? Who’s responsible? And what can anybody do about it?
I pray for him occasionally, greet him loudly when I see him, laugh at his terrible jokes when there’s anything possible to laugh at. That stuff is easy, and it doesn’t cost anything. I hate the way some of the kids his age treat him — I want to say: Don’t you have any coolness to spare, can’t you spend some of it on him? Are you all so poor that you can’t spare a few pennies of your coolness?
But I remember being that age, and I know what I would have done. I would have been scared that some of his social poverty would rub off on me. God help me, I still do it sometimes, when the stakes are higher. It’s hard to realize that, especially at that age, almost everybody thinks of himself as the odd man out; almost everybody’s a pauper, scrabbling for the riches of confidence, affection, respect.
Good Lord, A., I hope you find somebody to love you besides me. I’m nowhere near enough.