Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Bears Play Tonight but this is better

Before I go on, let me say, "Believe in Monsters."  Go Bears!

I had a friend whom we will call William and he was one of those people whose looks were so unusual and intriguing that he was catapulted into the category of handsome.  He was naturally thin and had white hair which he made whiter by using a shampoo with a bleaching agent.  He started going white when he was just 16 and decided not to fight it.  It was what added him to the handsome category.

He had a very strong personality.  All his friends had strong personalities, including me.  The personalities were all different which made for rollicking discussions, laughs, and performances, since most of us were in theater at the time.  His personality and his looks attracted a lot of people.

This is not about any of those friends.  This is about a new friend who came on the scene and decided she was the head friend and her friends were, therefore, his friends, and the rest of us were just background noise.

Here's something about being friends with the friends of new friends:  Hold back, get to know them slowly, don't act like you've saved that person from insanity, don't talk down to the old friends, be at least a little grateful to be included.  Don't reject or dismiss the old friends.  Chances are if someone's been friends with someone for a while, the friendship will continue.  Your new friendship might not last.  Relax about it.  There is no new-friend crown.

William and his partner, whom we will call Z, lived in a building in a marginal neighborhood.  It was a huge apartment, the rent was low, and they weren't too far from public transportation.  At least once a year, units were vacated and new tenants moved in.  This one particular year a woman whom we will call Sarah moved in.  She was quite pretty and had a huge personality.  She thought she was the head new friend.

William enjoyed having people over to play games, listen to music, and talk.  Sarah and another new tenant -- let's call him Carl -- were invited, as were all of William's usual old friend subjects.

William happened upon Sarah one day in the hall and after coffee together, he thought she was a great person and that they'd be friends.  He was not so keen on Carl although Sarah and Carl had been fast friends and confidants.  Because she was fond of Carl, she thought William would be, too.

Sarah swept into the party and totally dominated William.  The rest of us had known each other for a long time so we talked and caught up.  When William toured around the party, Sarah was right there to make us feel like we were all now minor players in his life.

At the time of the arrival of Sarah and Carl in the building, William had been diagnosed with full-blow AIDS and could no longer work.  He was spending his days at home doing not much of anything until he decided to have a garden.  His parents came from Peoria and brought small trees and plants and garden tools.  William happily spent his days tending the flowers and making sure there were no weeds creeping in.  He never knew he'd like gardening so he was pleased that something so simple yet so pretty could come from him.  He was a natural landscape architect and put together a lovely plot.

Carl was a nice guy but thought he knew it all and often said so.  He was friendly but not the sharpest knife in the drawer.  Not being the sharpest knife in the drawer but thinking you know it all is not a good combination in life even though being nice and friendly lessens the blow.

Sarah was functionally nice.  She was quite bright and had terrible taste in men.  She was friendly only as it suited her.  She liked to be first in the hearts and minds of those she thought of first.  That she would not be first didn't occur to her.  Sarah thought if she was in someone's life then all others before her had to step aside and she treated William's other friends curtly.  She was all passive-aggressive shyness but mostly, Sarah was arrogant.

We'd all come across people like Sarah.  We just mentally hunkered down and waited for her to make some sort of misstep that would send her packing.  We didn't have to discuss it because we knew.

William and I had long phone chats almost every day and he asked if I like her.  I was forced to say that I didn't.  I found her kind of overbearing in how she treated those of us who'd know him longest which surprised him.  He hadn't noticed.  Sarah was between boyfriends, worked strange hours, and had lots of time to spend with William when he wanted company.  He liked her, he said.  I told him good because she was company for him when Z was working.  I left it alone.  I knew he'd figure it out for himself eventually.

Sarah was very fond of Carl probably because Carl mostly flattered her.  William told her he really didn't like Carl at all.  He said he found it difficult to be civil to him and Sarah agreed that, yes, knowing William as she did -- which she didn't -- there was no way he'd be able to get on with Carl.  William differed, saying he could do it for money.  Sarah suggested they make it interesting and they made a bet.  They wagered $10 -- huge for someone who wasn't working because he was too sick.  If William could be nice to Carl for 3 months, he would win the $10.  If he couldn't Sarah, would claim the prize.

When William told me about this, it was the end of May and his gardening was going into full swing.  "How you gonna do that?" I asked.  William didn't suffer fools gladly.  "I can do it for three months.  It's just three months."  "You're right," I said.  "I hope you win."  Of course I hoped he'd win.  It was winning over that Sarah person and I could not stand her.

So, William turned on his charm.  He invited Carl to his apartment for afternoon coffee with himself and Sarah.  Then he invited Carl to just come over on his own then told him to stop over any time.  They took short walks together.  Carl listened to William's beloved music collection.  Carl would watch William do his gardening, blabbing happily to William.

One day William told me Carl had said to him, "Our friendship just keeps getting better and better."  Carl meant it and William laughed because he was on his way to winning the bet and because Carl was too dumb to recognize insincerity.  William was an actor and this was his final great performance.  (No, he wasn't the nicest guy either but he never tried to be.  He was what he was and we loved him and all his faults.)

In early July, William stepped out onto his back porch one morning and found Carl weeding the garden.  He had the hoe William's parents had brought from Peoria and was really having at the weeds.  Except they weren't weeds.  These were actually plants that he was ripping out.

Before I went to work that evening, William called me.

"I just lost the bet," he said.

"Oh!  What happened?" I asked.

After watching William at his gardening, Carl decided to help him out and get rid of the nasty weeds so William could relax that day.  Remember -- Carl thought he knew it all but was also a dope.  He didn't know a weed from a dusty miller which is what he was removing.  He was about to smack the shit out of the begonias when William stopped him as William did best.

William ripped him a new one.  He screamed at him up one side and down the other.  He called him as many names as he could come up with that are associated with being a dunce.  He let Carl have it.  Carl finally blurted out that he was sorry, dropped the hoe, and fled.

William surveyed the damage and took a deep breath to calmly assess the situation.  He regarded the  scene and slowly walked up the back steps to Carl's apartment and gently knocked at the door.

When Carl answered, William went off on him again.  He plumbed the depths of his vocabulary to find new descriptions for Carl's knuckleheadedness.  He felt like he burned a hole into the porch with his anger.  His parting shot was telling Carl to stay away from him and his garden.  Carl had the good sense to listen.

He paid Sarah the ten bucks and she, too self-centered to see that this amount of money was a hardship for him, took it.  He continued to be friends with her although he talked of her less and when their leases were up, Carl and Sarah each moved out.  Sarah and William continued to be friends but then they were acquaintances and then she was someone who used to live in the building.  When William passed away, no one thought to call Sarah to come and celebrate his life at his memorial gathering.

No one missed her.

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