043. A Very Smart Man

My life marches on, sometimes without me. I feel stuck in the mud, figuratively. The seasons are moving again. It’s Spring. Soon it will be Summer. I’m cautiously optimistic for Summer. I’ve lost two Summers in a row. I don’t want to hope too much for this one. I don’t want my hopes and dreams to be crushed.

I’ve been procrastinating on so many things. Weeks move by without me noticing, for nothing has changed inside me, only outside me. So, I have little to nothing to report. I thought I would reflect on my past, instead. This is procrastinating, again; refusing to focus on the present by focusing on things that don’t truly matter anymore.

There’s a bunch of times in the last year that I have said something to the effect of “that’s a story for another time”. Well, the time has come to tell some of those stories. I’ll even link back to the original entry that I mentioned it in.

This is the story of the man I loved, who married one of my best friends.

See? Everything in my life can be sensational if I tell the story the right way. But, it wasn’t like that. At least, not really.

P— and I met during the first week of school after the longest, most boring summer of my life. My family had just moved across state lines during the last week of school in the spring, and my mother refused to allow me out of fenced yard of our new home to play with any of the new neighbor kids. I spent nearly three months in isolation from anyone, although they could clearly see me sitting on the grass of our front lawn, and I could clearly see them playing. The first week of school was like being released from prison.

He was on my bus route, and when it became obvious that I didn’t know anyone, he took to sitting by me and talking to me. P— was not really handsome, but he drew attention to himself wherever he went, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. He had this charisma to him that made people smile and got him out of many situations in which someone else would probably have been punished. He was a bouncing, glowing ball of energy, easily distracted, and very smart.

Grumpy and tired on the morning bus ride to school, clutching his coffee to his chest, sipping it between bumps in the road, he would wax philosophical about life and human nature and religion. When he was feeling up to conversation, we would talk together about whatever topics we wanted. Nothing was too weird or too gross or too intimate. We were both content to be entirely objective about our philosophical talks, and that made it comfortable. P— had a sense of humor that could turn any conversation around if it got too grim or depressing. He was nearly fearless, and would talk to anyone, approach anyone.

An adult with similar tendencies would probably have been called an eccentric genius, but as a teenager many adults labeled P— as a troublemaker. In truth, despite his intelligence, he did not do well in school. His tendency toward distraction and procrastination led him to often turn in inferior work. He skated by on his smarts and charisma, getting passing grades, but not much better.

Despite his obvious flaws, or maybe because of them, he became one of my best guy friends, and, gradually, I developed a crush on him. He had the bluest of blue eyes, and while you couldn’t really call the rest of him handsome — his nose was a bit too big for his face, he was gangly and awkward, all legs and arms — there was a certain charm to his quiet acceptance of not just himself, but of everyone around him, their strengths and their flaws. Even more gradually, I grew to even love him.

I first referred to him as “A Very Smart Man” in an essay I turned in to my english-writing teacher. I referenced something he had said to me that week that had been particularly poignant. That particular teacher was extraordinarily fond of the peer reviewed essay, and was in the habit of having our classmates read our submissions and notate corrections in the margin. In order to save P– the embarrassment of being quoted directly, I used “A Very Smart Man” instead of his name. All of my close friends knew who I was talking about, although no one else did. I have continued to use this name for him, even decades after I have last seen him, and despite the fact that at the time he was a mere boy.

P— was, I think, what I would’ve called “an arrogant jerk” if I hadn’t spent so many mornings and evening deep in discussion with him, hadn’t become so enamored with his wit and his mind. He was definitely aware of my affection for him, and even told me as much, but he also remained uninterested. Truthfully, I would’ve done just about anything for him, even though he frequently abused our friendship and my feelings.

Everyone who was close to me knew I adored P—, though my friends were quick to tell me that they didn’t understand the attachment, especially since he made no attempt to woo me or even spare my feelings at all. We both acknowledged my feelings, and then acted as if they did not exist at all. He kissed girls in the hallway on a dare. He loaned his coat out several times to girls who told him they were cold. He even dated other girls, giving me play-by-play of their date on the bus ride to school. I swallowed my pride and listened or even gave him advice, as if I wasn’t dying by a thousand tiny cuts every day.

One instance in particular stands out as evidence of his character: P— and I were in the same high school world history class, same teacher, although in different time slots. On a day that I was out sick, the teacher assigned a large project. Each student in the class would pick a country in the world to research. We would be delivering a speech and presentation on the history of that country and what the culture and political climate was like currently. It was a giant research project, and would take most of a month of hard work. P— had chosen Russia, and he had convinced the teacher to suggest to me that I also chose Russia. We could work together on the research, but had to present our individual work separately. When I returned to class the next day, my history teacher asked  if I was ok with this arrangement. Of course I was ok with it. This was my golden boy we were talking about. We would have so much to talk about on the rides to and from school! It was perfect!

I went about researching like mad. I wanted to know everything I could find out about Russia, in the short time allotted. I made graphs. I make powerpoint slides. I wrote reports. I was ready.

(This a bit of real-life foreshadowing. If I had not learned so much about Russia then, I would not have found Lev quite so intriguing when I finally met him years later. Although this anecdote does not end well, I suppose you could say that it’s end result was a good one.)

Gradually, over the course of the month, I began to feel odd about discussing the project with P—. Unlike all our other conversation, where he had distinct opinions, well-thought out and well-reasoned, these talks felt more one-sided. I would explain new information I had gathered, and he would spin his thoughts off of mine, never adding anything to them, just drawing it to it’s natural conclusion. It felt… incomplete, and unusual for him. I stopped sharing information with him, and talked of other things.

Then that fateful day came: the day of the presentation. P– had the class in an earlier time slot than me and presented earlier. By the time my history class started, I had been aware of people whispering around me, glancing at me, and weird looks of… pity, maybe? During my presentation, the teacher had looked strangely relieved and excited, at one point jumping up to say, “Ah, yes! That’s right!” My classmates all commented on how thorough and clear my presentation was, and how good it was. I accepted the praise, but was confused about the weirdness surrounding their comments. Why wouldn’t it be a good presentation? I was a good student. This was one of my favorite classes with one of my favorite teachers. Something was off.

It wasn’t until the next class period when one of my close friends explained it to me. P— had done a presentation that was a poor shadow of mine. He had neglected to do any of his own research, basing his entire project on the little I had shared with him, using sweeping generalizations and charismatic presentation to try to carry the whole thing. Then he had unveiled one of my elaborate charts, that I had spent days making, as the only hard data in the entire thing. I had told him he could use the chart, as long as he gave me credit, but I had expected that he was going to put in effort of his own as well.

I met him at passing period, walking him to the class we shared together, as always. Our conversation went like this:

“I heard what happened,” I said.

His eyes, which had been contemplating the sidewalk, flew up and met mine.

“How did you know?” he asked.

“A little bird told me.”

I gave him a sad smile, and went quiet, waiting for him to explain, or not.

“I was stupid,” he told me, “I thought I could just bluff my way through it, using what you had told me, and show off your fancy chart, dazzle them with some sweet talk, and boom! I would be good to go.”

I held his gaze, face neutral, waiting. I was always waiting on him, eternally patient, eternally forgiving. He offered me no apology.

“When we get to class,” he said slowly, “people are going to say things about me. You are going to want to defend me, but don’t.”

I nodded, and we walked together to class. When we arrived, it was how he predicted. Our classmates scolded and sneered at him. Some called him names. They were defending me, but it was hard to watch. Through it all, I said not a word for or against him. I’m nothing if not insanely loyal.

On my sixteenth birthday, P— arrived with his group of guy friends, who were, loosely, also mine. None of them had any presents for me, but I never expected my friends to bring me gifts. It was enough that they were there.

I was leaning on the large chest freezer my parents kept in our finished basement. P— and several others were lounging on the couch nearby or on the floor. I don’t remember what we were talking about.

“I have a present for you,” P— said suddenly, getting up.

“Oh?” I said, disinterested. Gifts have never been important to me. Possessions are too easy to take away, break, or lose.

“Yes,” P— said, coming closer, “Happy Birthday.”

By the time I realized what he was doing, it was too late. I moved to back up, but I had nowhere to go. My eyes went wide in surprise.

And then he kissed me.

His lips were only on me for a fraction of a second, but when I recall the memory, I can still feel them. He told me later that he expected me to push him away. How could I, when I had dreamt of that moment for years? I was angry at him, for I knew he didn’t mean anything by it, and angry at myself for wanting it to have lasted longer.

That was my first kiss.

That was a wake-up call, of sorts. I tried to move on, bestowing my admiration on other friends-turned-crushes. I even dated P–‘s best friend, for a short while. And when Senior Prom came around, I had no illusions that P— would go with me. I did not, in fact, expect to go with anyone at all (story for another time, I swear).

So, when P— asked one, then another of my friends to prom, I was sad, but not crushed. At college, I got a call from Harmony, one of my closest friends.

“I… I wanted to tell you…”

She was nervous. She took a deep breath.

“I want to tell you… that P— and I… got engaged.”

I felt like the floor had disappeared from beneath me.

“I know you still like him,” she continued, scared, I think, of my reaction, “and I didn’t mean this to happen. I just… we fell in love, you know? Are you ok with this?”

God bless Harmony. She was asking for my permission to marry my crush.

I took a deep breath, buried my resentment, and gave her my blessing. She was, and, actually, still is, one of my best friends. I was not going to stand in the way of her happiness, or of P—‘s happiness. Later, I sent them wedding gifts and well-wishes. I am nothing if not stupidly, insanely loyal.

Read more: Intro | Smoke Dragon: Ever Clearer | People in my life

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April 7, 2021

Wow. I feel this story so much. And the beginning of this entry–oof. I could’ve written that myself.

April 8, 2021

@soldis Yeah, it’s a bit of an emotional one for me. I wasn’t intending to make it so incredibly long…. But I guess there’s no short way to tell that story.