The weather here in South New Jersey (just outside of Philadelphia) has been rather mild – it’s been in the 50s and clear – very fresh and clean on the lungs.
I’m staying for a few days through the New Year, before I head off to New York City for a couple weeks. Until then I’m going to do a few stories on Philadelphia.
But I’ve spent the last days just hanging out, spending time with my family and enjoying the holiday cheer (and food and booze). In this downtime, as I prepare to print The Girl From Last Night, I’ve had the opportunity to read a lot of my old work, to relive the memories that they bring of the time they were written.
I got reacquainted with a non-fiction personal essay I wrote in grad school in 2008. This is one of my favorite pieces I’ve written, even today it still speaks to me very clearly – it’s called The Biggest Asshole I’ve Ever Met.
Quite an abrasive name, for sure, and it’s loaded with language – but I promise it eventually wraps up into a tasteful piece.
Funny story: It cost me a job with a small publishing company about two years ago when I included it in a packet of writing samples – the bossman thought it was an incredible and moving story, but that it’s inclusion in my application was inappropriate and thus forecasted bad judgement on my part.
It’s all good – for some reason I’ve always held tighter to his statement about it being a moving story. Driving around later that day after receiving the rejection e-mail, I found myself thinking more about how he liked the story than the news that it had been a mistake to submit.
Confidence is sometimes one of the greatest gifts you can give.
The Biggest Asshole I’ve Ever Met
When I left Salesianum School in Wilmington, Delaware, and began packing my bags for Blacksburg, Virginia, I had very few thoughts of ever returning. The deal seemed like a no-brainer – leave behind an all-boys private school and enroll in a college packed with over 25,000 students and co-ed dormitories.
I’ve learned though, that no matter where I go and whatever I do, one thing is sure to happen – I’ll meet an asshole. That’s right, an asshole. I’ve spent my entire existence trying to avoid assholes, but somehow they always find a way to creep into my life. It’s unbelievable. Some stay for only a few days, some stick around for what seems like an eternity, as if God himself had appeared and said to him: make Will McGough’s life fucking miserable.
When you come into contact with an asshole, not only do you become aware of it immediately, but you do whatever you can to push them off and away to ruin someone else’s day. The plan is simple: asshole appear, make asshole disappear.
Assholes come in all different forms. Many of them are easy to get rid of – like the guy who cuts you off on the freeway. No worries. He’s off and out of your life in a matter of seconds.
Some are more challenging. The guy who sits behind you at the baseball game screaming and spilling beer down your neck leaves you in a position where you begin to feel like slitting your own throat might be worth never hearing him scream “YOU SUCK!” again. Settle in – only eight more innings to go.
But what about the asshole that you just can’t get out of your head? The one who you obsess over in your sleep and you ask yourself: why? Why would this person choose to be such an asshole? Is it me? No. Couldn’t be me. That guy’s a dick.
These are the people that we remember forever. Forget little Timmy who was so nice to me in grade school – it’s the people who fucked with me that I can’t forget. At least that’s how it is with my asshole. It’s been almost five years and the thought of him – the thought of the decision he made – still makes my blood boil.
As I said, few of my thoughts were on Wilmington, Delaware, as I unloaded my life into half of a room that was no bigger than my bedroom at home. That all changed though, when I received word that one of my former classmates had died, ending a two-year struggle with cancer. To say I was shocked wouldn’t be fair – I was not used to that sort of thing. We wore shirts and ties to school. Smart kids aren’t supposed to die young.
The viewing was to be held the next day, on Thursday, on the day of my chemistry test. I wanted desperately to be there – to walk down that aisle next to my friends so they didn’t go it alone, to say the final goodbye to a young man who we had watched deteriorate and grow weak as we celebrated our graduation last May. I sent my professor an email explaining the situation. I told him my friend had passed away and that the viewing was tomorrow – that I wanted to leave town and pay my respects.
I was always taught growing up that school was important, but I knew it wasn’t the only thing, and I always told myself that I’d know the difference when something more significant came along. This was one of those times. Missing two days of school and having to take a make up exam seemed insignificant when compared to death.
As soon as I began to pack my bags it started to get real. I had always imagined in my head how I would respond to that type of loss. I was sturdy when I got the call – I kept my cool even when I heard the pain in the voice at the other end of the phone. But somehow stuffing four shirts and a pair of jeans into a backpack became difficult.
When I opened my email a few hours before I planned on leaving I never expected what my eyes would reveal. My professor had written me back. At first I was comforted – he had gotten the email and would understand. But that’s not what he said. In fact, it’s not even close.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I read that day. I don’t see how it would be possible. The words have since become a part of me. After all, how could you forget an email that contained only one sentence? The email, in response to my tragedy, read: Please be advised that I never change test times for individual students.
And that was that. Nothing more. No apologies, no compromising. Nothing. Just a white screen with twelve, cold words – perhaps entered in between sips of coffee – that forever altered my life. My pathetic, self-loathing return email in a final attempt to negotiate was never answered.
I’m not sure why I didn’t call him when I got his email, nor do I understand why I continued to sit in his class three days a week for the rest of the semester. Maybe I was afraid of what I might say if a confrontation occurred. Maybe I needed someone to blame for the pain I was feeling.
But I stayed. I stayed for all the reasons I now regret, because I had a chemistry test, because my professor was too self-involved to care. I wonder what would have happened if the situation were reversed. Would he have skipped his friend’s funeral so he could be there to hand out the exam?
There are a lot of things I wanted to say to my friend before he was placed in the ground, things I didn’t say before I left because I was too anxious to move on.
If I had gone to the viewing, and stood before him one last time, I no doubt would have told him that I admire the courage he showed in his fight to stay in this world, and that I remember the times he made me laugh in health class. Perhaps I would have described to him the proud tears that streamed down his mother’s face when she saw him smile and receive his high school diploma with a bald head.
But I wasn’t there, and it had nothing to do with a professor who had grown old and miserable, and it wasn’t because I was all the way in Virginia. It was because the biggest asshole I’ve ever met was too much of a coward to know the difference between a chemistry test and one of life’s most important moments.
I’m sorry, Ray.
I’m sorry for not being there on the day that you became immortal in the minds of the two-hundred and forty eight boys that called you their classmate.