“I don’t like anyone in the world. I don’t care if they don’t like me. I’ll be fine on my own. I’ll be fine all alone with my thoughts and my dog. I don’t like my dog.” – Deathray Davies
These are the entire lyrics to “The Bitter Old Man Blues”; in fact, it’s not even that much, as the final line isn’t actually sung, only appearing in the liner notes. The Deathray Davies and Underworld were my two favorite bands in high school. In particular the lyrics of the Davies always appealed to me, in that they were often straightforward and sarcastic, clever but not overly clever, sometimes about specifically strange people, but more often broad enough that they could apply to anything. “The Bitter Old Man Blues”, of course, is over-the-top, but at one moment in my life it just felt right. I remember just driving around town aimlessly one night listening to this song on repeat. I was 17 years old and to hell with ’em, I don’t need anyone and I don’t care anymore. Maybe when you were a teenager you felt the same way at some point.
In the interest of keeping this long-winded let’s start in 7th grade. I was definitely not comfortable that year, feeling like I’d been thrown out into the world a bit early, going from a place where you had recess and fun games to a place where people would openly talk about smoking and getting drunk over the weekend. Most of my elementary school friends went to another school, so I only had a few people to hang out with, and I wound up eating lunch with a crew that would often talk about how they were totally leaving home and dropping out of school when they turned 16 and could get cars and jobs. Sheesh. I’ve never felt that way but these people were nice to me so that was that. Anyway, I did get bullied from time to time, nothing physical or anything, just a couple of guys in a few classes that would routinely pick on me. I can’t remember what they even said to me but I was annoyed by it. And after several months of this I told them, “can you guys stop making fun of me?”, or something like that. Most likely, something much whinier than that.
“What are you going to do, put me on your hit list?”, one of them asked. I don’t know if it’s because I was weird or because of the guys I ate lunch with. The important thing is that I had no idea what a hit list was. I honestly thought, being a dumb not-quite-teenager, that it was a list of people you wanted to hit. Like, you punch ’em in the hallway, and cross them off the list. To me, that made sense. So I said, “yes, I am going to put you on my hit list”, and I wrote “HIT LIST” on a piece of paper and wrote his name on it. And suddenly his demeanor changed. Like – he was almost laughing with me now, saying “oooh! put that guy on it!”, pointing around the classroom, to people who I never talked to, and even the teacher himself. “Put your brother on it!” And I thought that was funny, because now I was some 7th grader who had a bone to pick with the entire school, most of whom I had never spoken to. And I liked the attention besides. So I did. This was a shop class, by the way. There wasn’t much to do. I crumpled it up and threw it out.
I thought that was the end of it. Unfortunately, the guy dug it out of the garbage can and showed it to another teacher. I got called on after a class to explain, and at this point I still don’t know what a hit list is, only that this teacher is taking it pretty seriously. Rumors start going around school about it and I don’t get what the big deal is, though I slowly begin to realize that a “hit list” is actually kind of a sinister thing, and that maybe it’s about more than just punching people. But I still had one saving grace, and that’s that nobody but these two kids had ever seen the thing, so for all anyone knew it could’ve been made up. Then Columbine happened. And suddenly every teacher there is on high alert, looking out for introverted kids and suspicious behavior and hey didn’t one of our students make a hit list a month ago? That’s when it really blew up – I got called in to see the principal, several teachers and the school police officer, each taking turns asking me why I wanted to hurt all these people, including a teacher and my own brother, for crying out loud! And I maintained that I had no idea what a hit list even was then, realizing the whole time that that’s exactly what anyone in my situation was going to say regardless. Maybe they believed me, maybe not, but the point is that I had to be suspended for a week, because they were feeling pressured and had to set and example that no kind of threat is okay. I understand that. But man, coming back was rough. Suddenly I went from the guy who may or may not have had a hit list to the guy who got suspended because he might shoot up the school. I got dirty looks every single day and quite frankly I didn’t blame them. Every day I’d walk down a hall and see people talking in hushed tones as I approached, staying silent and staring me down as I walked past. And I was bitter.
It’s tough to recover from that, let me tell you. I’m outgoing and I still made some friends but it’s not an easy story to tell, a lot of them like…90% believed me. Like, friends with reservations. Maybe to be called upon one day to be the “I always knew he was weird” guy. That stigma followed me into high school and people eventually forgot, but I was a bit…I don’t know, emotionally stunted by it. People talked about me and I knew they talked about me but there’s nothing I could do about it. “I heard that kid was going to shoot up his school” – what an irresistible thing to say in high school. If it were someone else I probably would’ve spread those rumors among my circle too. Eventually they got to know me (my high school was small) and realized that I was basically harmless, but I had this issue where my social skills were a little off because I spent some important years – my puberty years – being on guard all the time. In particular, I was not good with girls. Yeah, that’s what this story is about! Nowadays the whole thing with dating and relationships and meeting people doesn’t seem so hard, but in high school, man, it’s seems so unbelievably complicated. Although there’s something unsettling about the idea of Tinder, they sort of got the idea right, didn’t they? “I want to tell you that I like you and that we should totally go out, but only if I know you feel the same”. To me, not knowing if someone liked you back was a lot better than knowing for sure, and therefore I was the sort of guy who would put these subtle clues out there that I liked someone, thinking “maybe they’ll pick up on this”, and they wouldn’t, because I was an idiot.
Well, one day things changed. There was this girl who started talking to me, and she was actually popular and pretty, exactly the sort of girl I thought would never like me. My high school wasn’t really divided by the way, it wasn’t like the jocks vs. the nerds (often they were the same people) nor were there the popular clique of girls, so I thought hey, maybe I had a shot. We hung out a few times, signed up for the school play together (she had a starring role, I was a side character with a goofy accent), even talked a bit about our emotions from time to time. I thought she was really mature and fun, and she seemed to “get” me, whatever that means. So I decided to go out on a limb and ask her to the homecoming dance, and she said yes. That was a great moment let me tell ya. I mean every single person in that school had a reason not to like me, if they wanted to. I wanted her to be my girlfriend and I figured if homecoming went well, I’d ask her to be. We talked and would hang out a bit but we weren’t really gonna be alone together until the dance so I thought I’d just see what happens then.
I had another group of people I hung out with, people I worked with at the Burger King, almost all of whom were a few years older than me. After closing on Fridays and Saturdays we’d go to this guy’s brother’s place and play drinking games. I think most of ’em were nervous about having someone my age there but I made them laugh, took care of myself, and wouldn’t cause drama, so they accepted me anyway. Anyway, one night who should stroll in but my homecoming date, along with her several-years-older boyfriend. As a high schooler there’s nothing that makes you feel more inadequate than that, that here was this girl you liked but the guy you’re competing with has a car and a job and he’s actually kind of a real man, not some high school kid who worked the Burger King drive-thru on weekends. This guy was someone I knew and got along with too, which made it worse! Well I knew I had to play it off cool like I didn’t even care, but man I felt this woman was staring holes through me with her eyeballs, every time I turned away I felt her look at me with a glare that said “you better realize what your place is here”. Boy did I ever. Still, I was upset. I even heard her say in a quiet voice, “he’s my boyfriend, and that’s the guy I’m going to the homecoming dance with” while I was at the table, like I couldn’t even hear her (actually, I missed the first part of that conversation). I had no reason to expect anything else, but I figured that given the amount of time we spent together, given that we kinda sorta had a “date”, and that I clearly liked her (a fact I probably made obvious to no one, but this is just my perception here), that maybe she should’ve mentioned at some point that she had a boyfriend. And I mentally went through all our interactions, wondering “did we really have some connection, or was she just being friendly in a way you’re not used to?” Did I have a reason to be upset? Well whatever the question was I knew the answer was to play drinking games until 3:30 AM and ride my bike home. Damn straight!
So what did we do? Well I guess we should’ve talked about it and cleared up the misunderstanding, but we’re teenagers. Clearly this woman felt like she did something, because we didn’t really talk after that, and even though I hadn’t said anything, it felt like she was avoiding me (though, was she really? Ah, to be 17 and have the ability read volumes into every single non-event…). Did she know I was upset? And me, well, I sure as hell wasn’t going to be mature about it either. We still had the homecoming dance. We were going with another couple, two people who were just friends and nothing more, just like my date probably figured we were all along. For some reason I agreed to drive, even though I had no car and had only driven once since passing my driving test. I was terrified, as I was driving my Grandma’s car, an Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight that was a freakin’ tank. Turns out I had good reason, three months later I’d wind up totalling the thing, but that’s a story for another day. Anyway I drove and things went…not well (my driving was fine). We had dinner and I was just kinda awkwardly making conversation, as this woman wanted nothing to do with me. The other guy was totally amused by all this by the way. I really didn’t have a bad time at the dance, I just avoided her and hung out with my friends since I had no idea where she went.
One night, eight years later, I was out at a local bar over Thanksgiving and ran into this woman again. Thanksgiving is a neat time for the small town bar scene because you start seeing all sorts of characters from your past, but all grown up. Sometimes you don’t even recognize them. It was strange because an hour earlier I had seen the guy from above, the dude who turned in my so-called hit list, someone I hadn’t seen since middle school (I wouldn’t have recognized him, but he still had the same haircut!) Anyway, she stops me as I’m out the door – I hadn’t seen her sitting there – and we wind up chatting for a while about our lives, our jobs, and our marriages. She had married someone in the class above her, someone I thought was a real cool dude, and they moved to Iowa or something. She was doing great, no surprise there – this was the girl I knew from the beginning. Why hadn’t I talked to her then? She was probably avoiding me because she thought I was going to be upset when she never wanted anything but friendship in the first place. That’s just a bad situation all around, exactly the thing that terrifies you about asking anyone out at that age. But now it all seems so trivial. We graduated high school and never thought of it again. Even talking to her eight years later none of those memories came up. In the back of my mind sure, but I didn’t remember exactly how I felt back then. During every single graduation party we talked about our 5 and 10 year reunions and how awesome and profound it wound be to see how everything worked out for everyone. But I didn’t go, and from what I heard neither did most people. Too much happened in between. I had a lot of fun those years, but I don’t exactly stand behind the person I was then (see: New Traditionalists). We were now two completely different people, with only the most basic of traits still remaining – she was still sweet and engaging and I was still some guy telling jokes all the time.
After the homecoming dance, we wound up going to this girl’s house for a party, and quite frankly I wasn’t really in the mood. Besides, the boyfriend was going to show up and I just wanted to go home. But before I did I decided I’d tell her how I felt, because I think she could figure I was mad and I at least owed her an explanation. I think it went something like this – “Look…I um…I asked you to the dance because I thought me and you could be something…because I uh, I like you…I just wish that like, I had known, you know?” And she hugged me and said, “I’m sorry”. Can’t blame her, what the hell did I have to offer anyway? I made $6 an hour and spent most of my spare time playing Magic cards and video games. So I walked away and got in the car, listening to “The Bitter Old Man Blues” over and over, thinking “it’s ridiculous, but I identify with this right now”. Funny how running into the girl doesn’t bring back these memories but relistening to the song does.