“I am, in no way, outgoing, but I’ve often the mistake of wanting to make the lives of the people around me brighter. I have had to manually teach myself the virtues of “self-preservation” and keep myself from trying to analyze and relate with any human being that I’ve known for over a day or two. Regardless, I don’t think I could ever completely quit empathizing with others.
“It is my firm belief that everyone on this planet has a spirit, a soul that deserves recognition regardless of how misunderstood the entity behind said soul is. Even the most heartless people who commit the most heinous acts have goals and aspirations. As overly-optimistic and delusional I may sound, I think there’s a salvageable bit of good in everyone. With this in mind, I have no clue how anyone could be completely unconcerned and ambivalent to not only people, but the entire world around them.
“My parents always thought of me as anti-social. It’s hard to deliberate whether they developed this thought from my tendency to stutter words, my shy nature and low self-confidence, or my belief: the myriad of sitcoms that ridiculously portray anybody slightly left of the mainstream curve as regressive freaks, but regardless of their assurance in such a vast dramatization, I can safely say that I don’t fall into that label. Even though I always keep the fear of making mistakes and the resulting scorn of others, I can relate. I can sympathize, I can work with others, and I can look at the world from different perspectives.”
I flipped from this earlier page in my journal to one of the more recent ones, containing various note scratched and scribbled into the margins as I waited in the backseat of Dad’s clunky minivan. The placid hum of the engine groveled as we sped along the interstate. The pitch of the engine rolled higher and lower as my father pressed and eased the gas. Luckily we didn’t have to stop, but merely adjust our speed to the traffic around us, which was claustrophobically dense. The milquetoast, grey weather also hung above the herd of cards, only draping and cramping the highway in sullenness. As Dad flipped the car’s blinker and merged over to reach an exit, he finally cut the doldrum, cloudy silence.
“I still don’t get what those notes are for,” he spoke. “What’s your assignment?” I looked up from my notes. I thought I had explained my project to them earlier, but Dad must’ve not been able to follow my explanation.
“Mr. Sures divided us up into four groups, with two subsections in each. We were given an argument to debate in class on Monday, but we had to meet up and plan our thesis and all before we presented.”
Of course, the statement didn’t come out as smoothly as I could’ve written it. My elucidation was riddled and corrupted with a multitude of “uhs,” “ums,” stutters, and even dead pauses in the train of thought.
“So you’re meeting up with this kid to plan your argument?”
“Yeah, his name is David.”
“Do you know this kid? Are you friends with him?”
“Uh, not really; he doesn’t ever speak up in class, so I really don’t know anything about him. He approached me and asked though, so I guess that means he doesn’t hate me or anything.”
Dad nodded in approval, with prior knowledge that I would rather work alone than in a group. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter though, as if I would have tried, Sures would have paired me up with one of the annoying deadbeats in the class. I would rather work with a quiet kid who carries his load than a dumbass who expects me to put in 100% of the effort.
Although they’ve known me for fourteen years at this point, it still takes two or three explanations for me to clearly lay out my thoughts. With strangers, it’s a marvel if they can even grasp a shadow of my point on the first time. If I had taken a considerable amount of time to prepare, or even rehearse what I’m about to say, the discrepancies are nowhere near as present, but by this point, it was obvious that my improvisational skills were awful. I’ve always been jealous of those who can make things up on the spot and simply speak their mind, but alas, what I had felt like a curse.
It was a chore to try and relate to others, regardless of how much I wanted to, as there were clear miscommunications between my brain and my mouth. It was as if my brain was smart and my mouth was dumb, tiring itself out to try and decode the complex entanglement that is my thought process, but before I could get wrapped up in the shame of incomprehensibility, we had arrived at David’s house. As I stepped out of the car and my dad drove away, I inspected the house.
The curtains blocked any view inside the New England-style abode, and the garage door was sealed. I had to take a winding path through the front yard in order to get to the door. While there was a path of stone platforms that crossed the grass, caution was needed with every step, as mounds of fire ants lined nearly each and every stone. If I had any sort of foresight, I would have opted not to wear sandals that day.
After crossing the insect-ridden lawn, I rang the doorbell and stood waiting for a greeting. I couldn’t hear the ring from the outside though, and I began to wonder whether the bell was even operational or not, but as soon as I reached to either press the button again and knock a couple of times, David opened the wooden door and smiled. I don’t ever remember him grinning in class, even if somebody told a joke. Most of the time, he was secluded and flippant, allowing very few instances of attention and interaction. His seat was assigned in the dead center of a class of forty kids, so Sures rarely ever noticed and called out his lackadaisical demeanor in class. It was unusual to see him this pleased.
“Did you have trouble getting here?” he asked genuinely. It was then I noticed he had hazel eyes; the kind that slightly shifted color in different moods of light.
“Eh,” I told him, “we had to take the interstate, but the neighborhood was easy enough to find.” I fished my cellphone out of my front pocket, quickly glancing at the screen and returning it, noticing I was about five minutes later that the expected meetup time. I hoped didn’t think I was going to bail or anything. Since he never really spoke, I had no clue what his level of patience was.
“There was just so much congestion on the interstate. That was annoying, but we didn’t have any trouble finding the place.”
His expression changed from a more analytical complexion back to a welcoming smile, as If he was programmed like a robot, analyzing my input and immediately shifting to a new algorithm based on the variables of the response. While keeping his hand on the door, he stepped back inside and gestured for me to enter the building.
“Kick your shoes off and come on in. It’s been looking like it’s about to rain.” After scrubbing my shoes on the doormat, I promptly removed them and put them to the side of the door, entering David’s house.
The front entrance opened up to the den of the home. Besides a short hallway leading to the den itself, the corridor split into two more passages along the way. To the left, there was a parlor room characterized by various picture frames and a wooden floor, while a carpeted staircase was to the right, assumedly leading to bedrooms, bathrooms, and such.
Everything for the project was set up in the den, however, so I only took a mental note of those paths, so I wouldn’t get lost if I needed to be sent to do something on my own. We continued on and parked on a red, corduroy couch. The room itself was just as plush and cozy. Trace amounts of sunlight from the dreary day reflected onto the rosy hardwood floors. The room itself was painted in an inviting shade of beige and the curtains sported a modern, brown design. Various unlit candles strewn about on the walnut coffee and side tables peppered the air with the faint scent of cinnamon. There was even a television with its accompanying cabinet in the far corner. It was top of the line and fancy. David would have been one of the last few people that I would have guessed was well off, but you learn something new every day, so I was happy that he seemed to live in comfort.
Finally, I took note of our project supplies: A white poster-board, a plethora of markers, pencils and a laptop, which I assume was for David’s own notes and research. Even though I felt a bit empty-handed at the moment, I had bought and given him the poster paper earlier in the week, so I did my part, supply-wise. After picked up a pencil and fingered through my own journal, opening to the page with notes concerning the task.
David smiled and picked up his laptop, opening a word document and turning towards me.
“Alright,” I heard, “let’s begin.”
I cracked my knuckles, and looked down at the page, gathering my thoughts for a thesis and a template to present our argument.
“So, I was thinking that we had to make an argument defending the death penalty, right?”
David simply nodded, keeping an involved demeanor. I continued on with my slightly stuttering banter.
“… So I imagine the biggest point would be about deterrence. Criminals really fear, and will fight ‘til the death to avoid it, but at the same time, it doesn’t dissuade every criminal, so it isn’t totally proven to prevent murder. I bet the other side will try to bring up this point, so I was thinking to counteract that, we can bring up the point that most criminal don’t think through their actions that much. They envision themselves getting away with the crime instead of going to jail, and the short term benefits outweigh the possible consequences to them. It could have been an act of desperation, or a knee-jerk kind of thing.”
It took far longer than intended to make it through my thesis, but David kept his attention locked the entire time. He rubbed his chin with his hands and it seemed like he was following everything almost perfectly. Even though it was obviously taking him time to process my idea, it was the first time in a while when I actually felt like someone could understand me. Even if his listening paradigm seemed almost robotic in its production and shift for ideas, it felt great to not have to slowly reiterate my point to a confused audience.
He finally opened his mouth after a few awkward moments of thought. He was either still trying to piece together what I said, or trying to calculate a thought of his own. Regardless of which circumstance was true, you can look at the fluctuations of his brow and tell he was mentally involved. He switched from a tentative and thoughtful algorithm immediately to that of involvement.
“Well, I thought the purpose of the death penalty was to give the victim’s family a sense of safety from the killer. They can sleep easy because justice was delivered and they got their revenge.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but I think it’s more about the justice than the revenge. We’re making the underlying assumption that those who don’t respect lives of the other, and commit murder, deserve to have their own taken away.”
“In that case, there isn’t a difference between justice and revenge…” David retorted.
I put my pencil down for a minute and tried to come up with an appropriate response, even if I had to switch gears and play devil’s advocate, but I couldn’t really add anything to his point. Logically, David was right. I tend to associate revenge with more negative emotions such as anger and sadness, while justice always has a triumphant, satisfying edge, but after a little bit of thought. The two terms were one in the same. I would normally say that justice is more righteous and satisfying than revenge, but that sort of morality shifts too much from person to person to form a strict theory about it.
Killing a man for sleeping with your wife, regardless of the circumstance, could be just as satisfying, hell, even more than having to wait two or three years for a trial and have the process slowly dragged out by the courts. I felt like I was silent for much too long, but a glance at an electronic clock in the corner of the room showed that only about thirty or forty seconds passed within my train of thought. Regardless, I still didn’t have a proper response. I tweaked my lip in deliberation before finally speaking up.
“I guess you’re right.”
David frowned in response, but he almost immediately returned to a neutral emotion, as if it was in hope that I didn’t notice the moment of doubt. In that moment of negativity, however, I could feel a shock of disappointment. It was almost as if he expected me to come up with a retort. Did he think I was smart or foresighted enough to have a counterpoint to every argument and discrepancy he could bring up? I didn’t really understand why he would be unhappy that I agreed with his point. He spoke up again, this time in a softer and obviously less excited voice.
“Uh, now that we have our thoughts set up, I guess we can put the poster off a bit and save it for later. Let’s go play a game or something.”
I had no objections. I was getting bored of the awkward silences and disjointed conversations as well.
“I’m up, what kind of games you got?”
He started smiling again and walked over towards the television, pulling out old, cobalt GameCube from the cabinet, hooking the system up. From a glance at his game library, I noticed he was into more competitive titles such as Soul Calibur, Melee, and Mortal Kombat. He went straight for melee though. I was glad, since complex combos and maneuvers were not my specialty. I was definitely a filthy casual, so I could at least prove my minimum competence with a game as simple as Smash.
I could tell by this point that he liked it when people were engaged in what he had to say. I started to think that we were pretty similar in terms of how shy we were. The difference was that my aversion to socializing was due to a speech impediment. I had no clue how or why he chose not to divulge to anyone, but if he wanted me as a partner, then perhaps that was a sign he had a similar opinion about the other loud and ne'er-do-well students in the class.
David plugged in the controllers and booted up the game as I pondered how to make friends him. He glanced over a couple of times, but I pretended to read the instruction manual as I speculated.
“Ah, this really takes me back. Are you in to tournaments and stuff?”
His curiosity was peaked again, as if it was an anomaly for anyone else to know about competitive gaming. The majority of people in this area were a socially-horrendous mix of country-bumpkin and prude, aptly dubbed, “prep-neck,” thus a good number of the school’s population didn’t know squat about nerdy pastimes such as competitive gaming. I certainly hope he didn’t lump me into a category with those other people.
“I’ve never been in a tournament before,” he responded, “but I keep up with the meta-game and everything. My main is Marth. What about you?"
“Eh, I’m not too into competitive. If I’m playing seriously, I chose Peach just because she’s pretty easy. Otherwise, if I’m just screwing around, I normally chose Game & Watch. He’s my favorite.”
His eyebrows lifted.
“But, don’t you think that he’s a bit too float-y and random to be a good character? I mean, you can’t even control his side-special.”
I took a couple of seconds to think.
“Well, that’s what makes him so fun. Sure, there may be a huge variable of luck when I play as him, but when I do finally get lucky; it’s the most satisfying thing.”
“Don’t you get mad when it doesn’t give you what you want though, that would frustrate the hell out of me.”
“Eh, it is what it is. Random stuff like that can test how well you do under pressure. I like having to make split decisions like that.”
He looked down, but he seemed to accept my claims as valid reasons. He was still perplexed with my choice, but he has an idea of why I like that play-style.
“Fair enough, I guess. I play no items, two stocks, Final Destination; are you game?”
I nodded, Items were cheap anyway. I figured this would be a chance to prove my minimum competency when it came to games, so fewer distractions made the experience so much better.
I picked Game & Watch and he picked Marth; the match began. His character dashed sword-first towards mine, and I could hear the clicks and clacks of his controller as he performed complex maneuvers with his fighter. I didn’t attack much; the shield was my best friend.
He finally grew tired of throwing blocked strikes at me, so he grabbed my character and threw it across the stage, this allowed me to gain a bit of footing and using Game & Watch’s neutral: throwing sausages. The impact of the various pork products thrown at David allowed me to run forth and use Judgement, immediately resulting in a “nine”. Marth was knocked off the screen in an instant KO.
David immediately stood up and shut off the GameCube. His face grew redder and redder as the seconds passed, and although I was laughing under my breath at my own fluke, he was pissed. He grabbed me by the shoulders and stood me up, then proceeded to take his frustration out on me.
“What the fuck!” he yelled, “That was bullshit and you know it! Here I am trying to play professionally and you come along and make a complete fool out of my by that judgement shit! Why do you undermine all the effort I put in to try and learn this damn game! I’m more experienced, it’s not fair to just up and die like that…”
He rambled on and on until he finally needed a pause to catch his breath. I could see him fondling an oblong figure in coat pocket. The algorithm had switched from video game focus mode, to aggression mode. He either wanted an explanation or blood.
“Dude, it’s just a game. I didn’t mean to piss you off, I’m sorry.”
My attempt at any sort of consolation was futile though. Not only did he continue to be a spoiled sport, but his anger increased, and he finally unsheathed the object from his pocket: a box-cutter.
“Now listen here! I wanted to hang out with you because I thought you wouldn’t come with all the judgment and mockery with the other baboons in Sures, but I was wrong. All of you are dumbasses that are only out to make a fool of me. I bet you’re going to go back to the class and spill about how you pulled off a bullshit move like that made me angry.”
The blade clicked as he pushed up the switch to reveal the razor.
“I bet my reaction is fucking hilarious, right?”
Even I was fearful of the knife pointed at my stomach, I thought that the only way to quell David’s hysteria and be safe is to convince him that I wasn’t out to get him. He would understand. I just managed to get in a lucky move, after all.
“No it’s not. It’s awful and melodramatic. I’m not out to get you, okay? I don’t know how other people at the school treated you, but I’m not like them.”
I picked up my notebook and flipped to the section about my views on people and my struggles communicating with them. I pointed towards the article in my journal. He gestured to see the notebook, so I handed it over and put my hands up in the air, as anyone would if they were held at knife point. As he looked down to read, I started to speak.
“This is what I honestly think. You know I have trouble speaking, but I just want the best for everyone. I was actually really happy when you asked me to work with you. It made me think that you thought I wasn’t as vapid and coquettish as the others.”
“No,” David finally stated. The hand holding the blade was firmly clutched and trembling. He was squeezing the cutter as if attempting to release all kinds of anger and stress. His eyes were still set in attack mode though; I realized it would take a lot more than two paragraphs and a couple of words on my faith in human nature to calm him down. He dropped the book on the floor and held his blade higher to my neck, as to catch my attention. The intensity in his face made me fear for my life if I were to ever look away. Even though he didn’t outwardly pronounce it, his eyes demanded my attention, or I would face the consequences. He continued his train of thought, in a very monotone, but serious pitch.
“Now listen here. You may think that the world operates through beneficiaries helping other beneficiaries and passing on the favor, but that sounds like the kind of logic that Sesame Street would spew at children to make them behave. Everyone out there, even you, only have self-centered reasons for everything. The only way to be successful in life is to take advantage of your situation, even if that means you have to take advantage of others. You only want personal, fucking satisfaction and the respect of others.
Even if you don’t like them, you would trade your freedom away for everyone to listen to you and get rid of that accursed stutter. You’re smart enough to know all this already, you’re just in denial. As for me, I’ve seen the truth and I’m fucking ambivalent to everything now. There’s no righteousness or order to anything, it’s just people taking advantage of other people in a vicious cycle. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop this, so might as well get to the top.”
He pointed the box cutter at himself for a split second, returning it near my neck once he finished his next line, “If I’m on top, nobody can take advantage of me. I’ll be satisfied.”
David paced around the room, with his eyes and blade still pointed at me. At this point, I was getting dizzy from fear and my face was most likely flushed and pale white.
“You’re going to face a lot of disappointment in life if you think that most people are going to be your friend, just because you have good ideas.”
I put my hands down. I was ready to speak. It finally occurred to me that his ambivalence, tonal-shifts, and general nihilism were due to a sociopathic nature. He never cared about making any sort of friend in that class, he just wanted to escape school with a good grade to continue on with his life. This wouldn’t be problematic, except he believes that only bad things come out of the goals of humanity. Not only did he subscribe to this belief, but he also embraced it.
He would do anything to get ahead, and in terms of happiness, he only wanted to satisfy his own desires for the here and now. This is why he had such an adverse reaction to the Smash incident: At that very moment, I had ruined his plan and happiness, causing a rush of fears, mostly of my own scorn and judgement. I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t be angry if somebody made me speak just to make fun of my impediment, but I would never pull a blade out on others.
“Just because you’ve lost faith in the people around you doesn’t mean there are people out there who want to help. Even if, in the end, it was for my own satisfaction, the satisfaction comes from helping others and seeing me as a positive influence. I don’t want to be recognized, or be immortalized as some kind of hero, I want the environment and the people around me to reflect the attitude that I wish to spread: happiness.”
David sighed. It was obvious that my words were not connecting. Even if I knew that he couldn’t help but to be negative due to mental issues, it didn’t seem like his attitude changed at all. That is, until he lowered the knife. His icy glare, still fixed on me, cut into my soul instead. His voice changed algorithms, however, morphing from sharp and angry to calm and mellow, as if he was trying to suppress his own fury.
“Let’s go back to working on the project…” he clicked the blade back into its holster and put it back in his coat.
“I agree,” I said before letting my shoulders down in relief.
The two of us worked on that project until it was finally time for me to leave. We managed to get the whole thing done, and I decided to put the box-cutter incident behind me during the process. It seemed to go pretty well, but at the same time, it was easy to tell that we were both feigning an apologetic attitude in order to finish the poster. In different ways, we were both emotionally affected by what had just happened.
I didn’t really talk much about the time with my dad. It was a bit of an awkward trip home. I lied to him about having a good time though. My mind was preoccupied on recounting what had happened and trying to piece everything together.
I was absolutely convinced that David was a sociopath. With this in mind, there must have been something I said or did that convinced him to calm down and continue cooperating with me. Perhaps he noticed that I had had a mental breakthrough. I finally learned that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never truly be able to connect and understand with everyone. It’s not my fault or the way I said it, some people are just not open to different mindsets and ideas and despite whether from legitimate experience or mental illness, there is nothing I can do to fully know every thought and process going on in their head.
Regardless, I still don’t understand why he didn’t snap. What caused that complete shift in attitude? Was there something salvageable about me? He seemed almost wistful when I finally showed him my thoughts. That icy look was not only of pity, but they almost looked like they were begging me for something. It was something that he didn’t want to outright say, but it was obvious that the child was going through a struggle. Nobody was there to guide him through the mess of emotions that is life.
Then, another question popped into my head as I stared out of the car window: Where were his parents?
Written by Austin Bison