3. Growing

Third grade gave way to fourth, fourth to fifth, fifth to sixth. During these years Matt and I became more firmly who we each were, both individually and as the duo of "best friends" that we were. Our friends came to expect that when they saw one of us, more often than not they'd see the other. The occasional explosions of hatred we'd sometimes expressed for each other in our earlier childhood subsided; they were replaced by a steadily growing mutual regard and respect, a respect given to each other for our differences as much as for our similarities. Each of us moved with comfort into our own personalities and into the roles life seemed to carve for us. As elementary school gave way to junior high, we ended up, without consciously trying, in that small group of "leaders of the pack," that upper echelon of kids who seem to slide through the school years as if the way had been paved for them.  To some extent an outsider might think of all the members of that crew as clones; but as we grew, in spite of all the time we spent with each other, our peers became much less likely to see us as undifferentiated "Matt-and-Andy," and more likely to see us as clearly distinguishable individual personalities.

My neurotic resolve to be in control of the world around me reinforced some basic abilities I already had. I'd worked hard to master as much of the world as I could, and things had come together pretty well for me intellectually, socially, and athletically.  "Can-Do" became my basic operating principle, and I discovered that both peers and adults responded positively. 

The outpouring of all this good will was bewildering: Whatever I brought to the table that impressed anyone was brought out of desperation. These people didn't understand that the world scared the shit out of me.

That was fine, though. I'd just as soon not have anyone know that the only way I got through my life was by putting on bravery and can-do-manship daily and deliberately, as if they were battle armor, with a lot of self-talk. Sometimes I felt as if I were performing a role in a play that required me to become someone I wasn't. But that never seemed apparent to anyone else; and I wouldn't have had it any other way. I disguised my inner wariness with a disarming, no-worries exterior face.

Ultimately, I suppose, when you play a part long enough, you become that which you play. These days, those traits have been with me for so long now, I don't know anymore where the role ends and I begin. But back then I was only too aware that there was a scared little boy inside. The qualities that everyone seemed to admire in me were created from nothing more than sheer force of will. Those qualities were alien to me, I felt, and not natural.

As further defense, I countered my interior caution with an external devil-may-care attitude that led me into more than my share of risky adventures involving railroad tracks, water towers, abandoned houses, drainage ditches, dirt bikes and ramps; things that would have caused my parents to ground me permanently if I'd been caught. That typical boyhood-daredevil stuff occasionally kills a boy or two here and there. The irony of this escaped me, however; I was too busy living, and playing roles--roles to keep myself feeling safe, roles to help me in my project to be the kid everybody liked. I was the golden boy with adults, and the kid who acted as if he had the devil in him behind their backs. But I knew how to keep my nose clean and my reputation intact. I wasn't a bad kid; I just felt compelled to push the envelope while maintaining the persona of being unusually responsible. After all, if you're gonna be prepared to fight with monsters, you have to have some "bad" in you yourself.

My covert refusal to be entirely "the good boy" earned respect from my pack; I was "ballsy" and "cool," and above all, I "got away with it." And I was never alone in my adventures, inside the lines or outside. Matt, too, was every bit "all boy" and was generally my partner in crime in the petty misdemeanors of my boyhood.

Of course, Matt had his own pain to deal with, pain that was much more personally grounded in horrible reality than mine was.  But he was dealing with it in his own way, just as I was.  In school he was a capable leader, a skilled athlete, and an intensely likeable guy.  But where I tended toward "fiery" and "explosive," Matt was generally more placid, and was always friendly to just about everybody. 

As time went by, it became increasingly clear that Matt was the better athlete of the two of us. Style and agility and strength flowed effortlessly through him and from him. He had an instinctual and thorough command of his body, and the natural, effortless masculine grace of a jaguar. I was an athlete; but I had to supplement my physical talents by applying my brains to my game. The combination of those two made me almost as good an athlete as he was. Almost; but not quite. Still, I was never resentful or jealous. His accomplishments and abilities made me as happy as my own. And together, we were a formidable pair, on the playing field, in the social realm, and, eventually and especially, with the girls.

Matt struggled with schoolwork, however; I spent a lot of time helping him there. He always received the help with gratitude and without feeling inadequate. His untroubled acceptance of his lesser gifts in this area earned my deep respect, because I often tended to torture myself over my own perceived shortcomings. And while my drive to excel derived from, and hid, an almost manic desperation, Matt appeared to be the very essence of calm, which mystified me.  My game, on the field and in life, radiated passion and intensity and an almost fuck-you defiance towards challenges and obstacles. Matt's approach, on the field and off, was one of calm yet steady progress toward the goal. He displayed quiet confidence in his ability to achieve what he needed to. And Matt never met a person he didn't like or wouldn't accept, in contrast to my own growing belligerence.

As we grew older, we began increasingly to diverge from one another on this critical front. From the fourth through the sixth grade I was in danger of becoming the typical jock who bullies "lesser kids." I'd worked hard to master a threatening world, and it had worked for me. But along with that I had grown into a boy who had little patience with, or compassion for, those I perceived as too lazy or cowardly to have developed a battle-mentality like mine. It wasn't that I went around beating up on kids, although by sixth grade I was getting close to flirting with that extreme. More typically, I had a tendency to lacerate kids verbally and to get in their faces physically. I never really had a malicious or violent heart; but I'll admit with shame that during those three years I was increasingly prone to humiliate peers who displayed cowardice or tentativeness toward the world. Inside, I felt a rage at them for taking the easy way out and crawling under the blankets instead of fighting back when life threatened them, and I think I was subconsciously attempting to bring the warrior out in them by confronting them with the fact that there was nowhere to hide.

Matt had a different approach. If I'd nursed an imaginary wound during those years, he'd been living with the real thing. That pain gave birth to a compassion that refused to treat anyone badly. But since I was usually wherever he was, he was almost always witness to my petty acts of cruelty.

He never openly called me on those, but he invariably came to the rescue of whatever kid I'd zeroed in on. Matt was a master at diverting my attack, walking a fine and delicate line with the tact and skill of a born diplomat, making light-hearted cracks about his "big bad friend" and making it clear to the kid in question that as long as Matt was at the scene, Andy wasn’t any threat to anyone. This usually ended up eliciting a smile out of the poor victim. I always knew what was going on and was usually secretly thankful for Matt's intervention. My attack-dog instincts were a by-product of viewing life as a chronic threat, and those instincts were often stronger than my ability to control them. I didn't like the way it made me feel about myself, and I was always relieved when Matt stepped in and defused things. And I usually then ended up trying to make nice with the kid I'd almost flayed. As a result, many a boy who might have otherwise grown to hate me during that three-year period managed, by virtue of Matt's skill, to view me in a much more kindly light than I actually deserved.

One day in the sixth grade, during a meaningless pick-up basketball game after school, one of my teammates, a kid named Josh, allowed his opponent to intimidate him out of a crucial go-ahead basket. Thwarted, he backed off the offense and, tripping over his own feet, crashed to the ground. I extended a hand, pulled him to his feet...and proceeded to rip him a new asshole.

"You worthless piece of shit," I raged, "pull up your diapers and fuckin' go for it. You think he's gonna ask you to make the basket? I can't believe I picked you for my team. Jesus fuckin' Christ! I don't want you ever watchin' my back or I'm dead meat. Get off the fuckin' court and go play with the girls, ya little pansy."

My teammates began to grin and giggle; Josh turned pale and looked from me to his other teammates with the eyes of a cornered wild animal. I could feel a dogpile of insult and humiliation coming Josh's way, and I was frankly eager to watch it happen.
But Matt called attention to himself by stretching and yawning and feigning boredom over the entire development: "Who gives a rat's ass? Y'all outgunned us today anyway. I don't have time for this shit any more. I gotta go do my homework before my mom has a cow. We're just gonna give you this one...but watch out next time."

I glared at him, on fire with rage and frustration: He was damn well not going to call off the dogs the way he usually did; anyway, we had a motherfuckin' goddam basketball war to win! But he met my look with a determined one of his own that said, "Nope; not this time."

I was livid. I couldn't even speak I was so angry. Matt, for his part, never flinched. His eyes held mine unapologetically, in calm but determined defiance.

Furious, but outmaneuvered, I mumbled something about a rematch later in the week. Everybody began to walk off the court, some hopping on bikes, and we all began to head for home. I stormed off by myself in the direction of my house, but Matt wasn't far behind me. Sensing his presence, I turned around before I'd gone a hundred steps. I stopped in my tracks, and waited for him to catch up. While he was getting closer, I debated whether I should just take a swing at him or whether I should go for a verbal evisceration. He was not fuckin' getting away with rescuing that little candy-ass.

I'd realized in the intervening seconds that it had been a while since we'd really had a good fight, and that these days he'd probably end up kicking my ass; so I'd decided to bruise him up with my words. As he got within hearing distance, I opened my mouth to savage his "let's all be friends" bullshit, but again, the calm steadiness in his gaze unnerved me. Standing face-to-face with me he held me fixed, as he always could, with the determination radiating from those ice-blue eyes of his; then, after half a minute of silence, he quietly said, "Isn't there enough hurt in the world already, Andy?"

My stomach felt like it had fallen out and hit the ground. I felt the blood drain from my head, and for a few seconds, I felt dizzy and light-headed, and things actually started to grow dark. I shook it off and continued my walk home, with Matt right beside me, his very presence now tormenting me with guilt and shame. I was silent all the way to my house. Before I turned onto the walk toward my front door, Matt slapped me on the back, smiled, and said, "See you tomorrow, bad boy." I nodded silently, unable to speak, and went inside.

Matt was right. He knew hurt personally. It was his daily silent companion. I knew he still hurt over the loss of his big brother; I knew the knife-edge that sliced into him when birthdays went by without a word from his father. Pain was his mortal enemy. He hated it. And he would give its deliberate infliction--upon anyone--no quarter. And finally, he'd seen all of it he could stomach from me.
In that moment, a gut-wrenching truth assaulted me with a punishing clarity: Matt lived with genuine loss throughout these years and carried himself with more grace and dignity than I had managed, even though I'd lived only with its false twin. And in putting up with, and having to defuse, my own escalating acts of cruelty toward others, Matt felt his hurt reflected back onto him. I'd betrayed him. In bringing hurt on others, I'd been rubbing his own pain in his face and disrespecting him. And worse: I'd been spitting on the childhood promise I made to him. I went straight to my room and cried my eyes out.

In that single determined act of confrontation, Matt tamed the demon of rage inside me. "Isn't there enough hurt in the world already?" became my mantra from then on whenever I felt anger pushing me toward cruelty. Matt's tragedy had early on given me bravery in a threatening world; now it gave me the seeds from which would spring my desire to model in my own life his unconditional compassion. It was a gift that would keep on giving.

Copyright 2003 by Adam Phillips.  Thanks for reading.  You can email me at aaptx28@yahoo.com