The Hardest Words . . .

In The Eye-Dancers, each of the main characters has his issues, his hang-ups that he needs to get a handle on.  For Joe Marma, his number-one hang-up is his temper.  He is quick to throw a punch, reluctant to stop and think, and reconsider.  But at one point in the story, his impetuous nature nearly ruins everything.  It takes his friend Ryan Swinton to intervene–a very unlikely occurrence, since Joe has always been the leader, and Ryan the follower.  It’s an epiphany moment for Ryan.  He finally realizes he can make the hard decisions, confront a difficult and tense situation head-on.

But it’s also an epiphany moment for Joe.  He at last comes to see that sometimes it’s better to walk away from a fight.  He’s no angel–he never will be.  But a lesson is learned, and he realizes he’s been wrong before.  He’s lost his head.  Gotten into trouble.  He finally admits it, and resolves to do something about it.

Admitting you’re wrong isn’t easy.  “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” may be the most difficult words to say in our or any language!  They often curl up and die before ever leaving the lips.  But wouldn’t things often be better for all of us if we did say these words?  I know I have regrets. . . .

One of them occurred over twenty years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school.  Looking at the details of the situation, it may not seem that important–it may seem trivial, in fact.  But it meant a lot.  It was a big deal to me.  And it changed the dynamic of an old friendship.  Besides, aren’t the “small” things, the “little” things, often the triggers that set off a conflict?  Maybe we have unspoken frustrations we’re feeling toward someone else.  We bury our hurts.  And then . . . something small, something that should be insignificant (a misplaced item, an errand forgotten due to a busy and stressful day . . .) sets us off, and we spew out our pent-up anger.

Joe Marma learned this difficult lesson, just in time.  I wish I could have.

What follows is a personal essay I wrote recently.  I guess I wrote it for myself.  But I’d like to share it.   And, Tony, if you ever come across this post–I hope you read it, old friend . . .

“I’m Sorry, Tony”

Copyright 2012 by Michael S. Fedison

**************

Tony eyed the just-thrown card, shook his head.  “You don’t want to play that,” he said.  “Pick it up.”

Ken looked at him, puzzled.  I was, too.  What was this about?

“What do you mean?” Ken asked.  All around us, the sounds of the cafeteria buzzed—students carrying their lunch trays back to their tables, girls laughing and talking, varsity lettermen bragging about their conquests on the ball field.

“Just pick it up,” Tony said.  “Throw something lower.”

As soon as Tony said that, I knew what he must be up to.  If Ken threw a lower card, Tony might be able to nail me with the Queen of Spades, hitting me with thirteen points.  But why did he want to resort to such extreme measures?  I was the one who had taught these guys how to play Hearts a few weeks ago.  Each day, during lunch, Tony, Ken, Joe, and I played.  And now he wanted to cheat, just to dump the Queen on me?

Ken picked up his card, threw a lower one, just as Tony had said.  I guess that was to be expected.  Tony had a way about him.  It wasn’t only that he was the most muscular tenth grader in the school.  People just responded to him.  If he said to do something, usually you did it.  But this was crossing the line.  I felt the blood rush to my face.

Tony smiled at me.  Well, smirked was probably more like it.  “There you go,” he said, and laid the Queen of Spades atop the small pile of cards, face-up, on the tabletop.

I swallowed.  “No way,” I said.  How did he think he could get away with this?  And why did he do it in the first place?  We’d been friends since the third grade—he was my oldest friend in school.  I thought we liked and respected each other.  I wondered if I had been wrong about that.

Ken and Joe both sat there, probably not too worried about any of this.  Surely, Tony and I could resolve it.

“I’m not taking the thirteen points,” I said.  From the table behind us, someone told a joke, and his friends moaned at the punch line.  “I mean, c’mon, you cheated!  You told him to throw another card.  You can’t do that.  Let’s just replay the hand.”

Tony smirked again.  “We don’t need to replay any hand,” he said.  “That Queen is yours.  You’re the one who got stuck with it.”

Brilliant.  Just brilliant.  My heart rate accelerated.  It was getting more difficult to think clearly.  He couldn’t just expect me to go along with this nonsense.

I told him again I wouldn’t take the points.  It wasn’t fair.  But he would hear none of it.  When I realized he wasn’t going to budge, I decided I’d make a deal with him.

“Okay,” I said, “listen.  Why don’t you take seven points, and I take six?  I mean, you told Ken to pick up his card.  Why don’t we just split the points, then?”

Tony shook his head, and actually appeared offended at the suggestion.  “I’m not taking any points,” he said.  “That’s your Queen laying there.”  He muttered under his breath, as if to say, Stop being such a stupid jerk.

I couldn’t believe it.  How could he be getting mad at me?  He gathered up the loose cards, placed them onto the deck, then put the deck away.  We were finished, at least for today.  I noticed that Joe and Ken now looked a little troubled.  I’m sure neither of them had expected this situation to escalate.  I hadn’t, either, but why was Tony being so unreasonable?  Couldn’t he just admit that he cheated and put an end to this?

Apparently, he couldn’t.  I don’t remember the rest of that lunch period very well.  All I remember is feeling betrayed and disgusted that my friend would act this way.  Tony didn’t say anything more to me the rest of the afternoon.

The incident stuck with me, didn’t let go.  That night, as I lay in bed, I thought about what to do in the morning.  Should I go up to Tony and tell him to forget about it?  That we should just drop the matter?  No!  The more I turned it over in my mind, the angrier I became.  He had some nerve acting upset with me for telling him to split the points between us.  I had been trying to do him a favor with that idea!  And I still didn’t understand why he’d cheated in the first place.  What was his angle?  Whatever it was, he was the one who had done something wrong, not me.

Tony avoided me the next morning.  Normally, he walked down to my home room and struck up a conversation with me for a few minutes to start each day.  But he was nowhere to be seen.  Later, in class, neither of us regarded the other.  The same rage I had felt the day before rose up in me again, only this time it was even stronger.  I hadn’t expected him to act like this.  I had really thought he would apologize, or at least admit he’d cheated.  But he didn’t do anything.  He acted as though I were the one who should come clean.

By the time I sat down at lunch, next to Joe and across from Ken and Tony, my nerves were as taught as coiled springs.  I hoped Tony knew better than to break out the cards.  I didn’t want anything to do with Hearts.  Not now, not ever.  At least, not with him.  Not until he admitted that he’d cheated.

Sure enough, after we had eaten and still had a good half hour left before we had to go back to class, Tony reached into his pocket and took out the box of cards.  Then he opened it, removed the deck, and prepared to deal.

“Wanna play?”  He made it seem like he was asking everyone, but I knew he was asking me.  There was no apology, no “I was wrong.”  Apparently, there never would be.  He wanted to pretend he had never told Ken to pick up his card and throw another in its place.  He wanted yesterday’s game to count.

I knew this was the key moment.  If I said, “Okay, let’s play,” everything would be forgotten.  Except . . . that wasn’t true.  I wouldn’t forget.  And I couldn’t let him get away with this.

“No,” I said.  “Never again.”

It’s funny.  As soon as I said those words, I felt both justified and terrible.  Mine was a righteous stance.  I would no longer play cards with a cheater.  If Tony wouldn’t come right out and say he had cheated, if he wouldn’t agree to disregard yesterday’s game, why should I ever play with him again?  But at the same time, I knew I was making a mistake.  It seemed like a small thing—just a card game at lunchtime.  But it had sprouted bristles and fangs and long, sinuous veins, and turned into something much larger.  Even back then, even in the heat of the moment, I understood that.

Tony’s features hardened.  His face turned red.  I could tell he hadn’t expected me to say that.  He acted as though I had slapped him, or embarrassed him.  Maybe I had.  Any opportunity we might have had then to talk the problem out, to come to some kind of agreement, passed in an instant.  He picked up the cards, put them in the box, then back in his pocket.  I just sat there, silent, wondering what I had done, and questioning whether or not it had been worth the price.

Tony and I didn’t speak after that.  We’d pass each other in the halls without even a glance.  Oh, we still sat together at lunch with Ken and Joe, but we never talked to each other.  I would talk to Ken and Joe, and so would Tony, but I wouldn’t say a word to Tony.  Ken and Joe must have hated it.  They were caught in the middle . . . though I didn’t take that into consideration too much at the time.

After a while, I hoped Tony and I might patch things up.  But I expected him to make the first move.  Besides, this new silent treatment had begun to define our relationship.  It’s strange how something like that can seep into your bones and steel your heart.  I hated it, but felt powerless to do anything about it.

The worst moment came a few weeks later, in English class.  The teacher wanted us to pair up, and Tony sat in front of me.  He was supposed to turn around and work with me.  But he didn’t.  Everyone waited.  All the other students were paired up, but Tony remained seated, face forward, back to me.

Finally the teacher said, “Tony, what’s up?  Why aren’t you working with Mike?”

There was a pause.  Then Tony said, “Because I don’t like him.”

I wanted to fall through the floor, into the basement amidst the boilers and rusty metal pipes.  I hadn’t wanted to work with Tony, either, under the circumstances, but I was shocked he would publicize his new attitude toward me in front of the whole class.  And was it really true?  Did he actually despise me now?  It was all so weird.  We had been friends for years!  How could one card game completely overpower everything else?

But it had.

The remainder of tenth grade was trying.  I continued to eat lunch with Ken, Joe, and Tony, even after the English class fiasco.  I just wanted summer vacation to arrive so I could get out of school.  I breathed a sigh of relief when it finally did.

But the fall came too quickly, and before I knew it, it was time for my junior year to start.  I hadn’t thought about Tony much throughout the summer, but as September neared, I resolved that something had to be done.  We couldn’t just avoid each other.  And yet . . . I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go up to him and try to set things right.  I’m not sure if it was pride, fear of rejection, uncertainty about his response . . . maybe it was all three.  Maybe I was just stubborn.

Before home room, the first day of school, Tony walked up to me.  I tensed.  But then he just started talking, acting as if the last semester of our sophomore year had never happened.  Acting as if we had never argued over a stupid card game.  He didn’t come right out and apologize, and I didn’t, either.  We just picked up where we had left off before our quarrel.  Or so it seemed.

It was a great relief to have Tony back as my friend.  But it wasn’t the same.  Sure, we got along fine, but there was something unspoken between us, something that flowed beneath the surface like a toxic river.  We had buried the hatchet, it was true.  But we hadn’t dealt with the issue.  Why had he cheated?  Why had he gotten so mad when I called him out on it?  Why did I make such a big deal out of it?  We never addressed any of these questions.  And I don’t think our friendship was ever quite the same again.

I haven’t seen Tony or talked with him since we graduated from high school.

Now, more than twenty years later, I still look back on that card game with regret.  I wish I could go back in time, shake myself, and say, “Don’t take it so seriously!  It’s not worth the cost.”  Or I wish I could whisper in the ear of my sixteen-year-old self and say, “Did you ever wonder why he cheated?  Maybe you did something to get under his skin without realizing it.”  That is certainly possible.  I never thought of Tony as a cheater.  He was a good kid.  And I did sometimes mouth off back then, get a bit too full of myself.  Maybe I had made him feel stupid when I was teaching him how to play Hearts.  Maybe I had said something condescending about the way he played a hand once.  I don’t know.  I don’t remember.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if the root of the trouble began with something just like that.

More than anything, I regret my smallness, my pettiness.  I cringe when I think back to that moment when Tony had pulled out the cards and said, “Wanna play?”  In his own way, he was trying to move on, I think, to put the argument behind us.  I could have said, “Okay, but don’t tell anyone what card to throw anymore,” and I’m sure he would have responded well.

And I feel bad that, on the first day of eleventh grade, he had walked up to me.  He had made the first move.  I wish I had.

All I can do now is say, “Tony, you did cheat, and that did make me mad.  But you must have had a reason, I guess.”

And I can say, also, two decades after the fact, but better late than never, “I shouldn’t have overreacted the way I did.  I should have been able to let it go.

“I’m sorry, Tony.  I was wrong.”

*******************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jpaetsch
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 20:59:26

    It’s hard to let go of all kinds of things. I still think about things that happened with people who are long gone. It would be great to be able to say that forgiveness, even now, would cover it, make things better, but that isn’t always the case, as you pointed out. That time is long gone. “Where are now the horse and rider?” as they say… Anyway, it was a good read. Thank you for posting it.

    Reply

  2. kelihasablog
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 14:59:46

    I’ve wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your book!! I love that you left it open so you could write a follow up adventure! I wrote a review for it… or at least tried to. It’s a good YA book! 😀

    Reply

  3. Ms. Qudaparcs
    Jan 23, 2013 @ 17:38:23

    I view it so important and necessary that we, as individuals, can reflect and recontextualize our experiences with the benefit of both doubt and the application of new wisdom. There was a stretch of time in my own life where memories and sentiments, such as you’ve recounted here, were quite often aroused and then would weigh on my consciousness. I would do my best to learn from these hindsights and to manifest those lessons in my present life. In turn, came further lessons, insights, and re-understood hindsights. Among them was a realization that many of the exchanges and events I had felt regret for were, more realistically, appropriate to the dynamic of that moment and time. That I, in fact, did not singularly ‘own’ the problematics or outcome. Often enough my intuitive reaction, albeit compulsive or unawares, had merit. Our actions and behaviours toward others are but one part of many influences taking place, from one moment to the next. We need take responsibility for ourselves and our treatment of others, there is no doubt. But we cannot claim to be more powerful than we are. In short: Sometimes, I discovered, the sense of accountability I carried around was disproportionate. I suspect, given your high school friend’s rage-like responses, this may pertain to you. His approaching you did not necessarily infer an apology and may just as well have been intended to sweep the event under the carpet, in like kind to his original response. There’s likely no way for you to know what his own motivations or intentions were. But that he decided he ‘didn’t like you’ as resolution to you being angry with him, I think, moreso indicates something about his character (rather than yours).

    A long comment, that may even be too bold for assertion, among strangers. I couldn’t help myself 😉 … Just felt inclined to share whatever of it I could relate to – take it or leave it, of course!

    Reply

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