When I played football as a child, there was this guy on the team named Joe Alvarez. You could go to every practice, read all the names on the team-sheet and play countless matches together, and of all the kids there, Joe was the one you’d notice the least.
He was quiet, sure, but lots of kids were quiet. (I, alas, was not one of them.) Joe just happened to look like every youngster. He was normal height, normal build; his cap sat too far down over his eyes like every other guy that age. Absolutely nothing exceptional existed about Joe. He wasn’t cuter than anyone else, he wasn’t fatter, he wasn’t any more talented, he wasn’t any more anything. No one really hung out with Joe, but no one ever made fun of him either. Joe was the type of guy who would play in every game and never score a goal. Joe was just simply there.
Joe was a year older than me, so when he moved up to the next level, any thoughts I might have happened to have of him vanished. He had rarely entered my mind in the first place, and once he was out of my severely limited circle of awareness, he might as well have never existed in the first place.
Which is why it was strange when my mother took me aside after dinner one night, when I was 10.
“David… you remember Joe, the boy from your team?” Mum had an odd look on her face. She wasn’t sad or anything, or at least it didn’t seem like it, but her eyes were pinched, narrowed, serious. It was almost comical the way she looked. I hadn’t seen her look that way before; it must have made an effect, because I remember it all these years later.
I told Mum I kind of remembered him. “He played on the wing, right?” But Mum wasn’t thinking of Joe’s position in the field. “Listen, David… Joe had an accident. He wasn’t feeling well, and it turned out, something inside of him burst, like a balloon. They took him to the hospital, but it was too late.” I asked her what it was too late for. “David, Joe… Joe died. He died.” She didn’t cry. She just stared at me, as if I were about to make a vital decision about something. It seemed as if I was being tested.
Here is where my memory fails me. I have no idea what I did next. Did I cry? Probably. I would cry if I got benched back then. But I wouldn’t have been crying out of grief. I think I would have been crying because that’s what I assumed I was supposed to do. The next part, I do remember. I went to bed early that night and stayed awake for hours, trying to think. I wasn’t thinking about death, or if I could die, or if Mum or Dad or one of my siblings could die. I was thinking of what I remembered about Joe. I didn’t come up with much.
But Joe suddenly became a centerpiece of my life. I found myself scouring my brain for little details, a certain hat he wore, his place in the team, the number on the back of his shirt. In life, he was one of many; in death, he rose up, a singular entity, worthy of studious remembrance and commemoration. Joe was no longer an anonymous face in the crowd; he had become the crowd.
It occurred to me that if I had known him better… it would have been unbearable. But that didn’t stop me from trying to make friends with every single teammate I had, from then on.
As I have grown older, I have faced more death, and more loss, and more suffering. Each and every time, it seems impossible to grasp. They were here a moment ago, and they’re not now. What left? Where did they go? I should have been nicer to them, I should have sent them a Christmas card, I should have not been so busy all the time. I should have known a day like this would come, sometime.
I’m not sure why I suddenly thought about Joe again today. But the thing about sudden tragedies, you see, is that whoever has been lost has a tendency to spring from the depths of your brain to the forefront. Every interaction with them, every second you spent with them, whether it was to tell them you loved them, to fight with them over the last chip, or simply to provide them, a passing acquaintance, the woman you see on the train once a week, with a “bless you” when they sneezed, the memories seem to gather the gravity of scripture. It all takes on a glow, like they were followed by this white gleam shining beneath them, a pale, endless spotlight. You don’t even need to have met the person; when they’re gone, even passing conversations about them seem etched in time. It was like they were the most significant part in your life, though you never could have known it.
If there is a better reason to celebrate life while we have it, and everyone we come into contact with in our cluttered tunnels, I haven’t found it.
I’m on the job hunt these days, and a friend of mine just quit the one she’s had for two years. This piqued my interest because hers was the sort of role that I always found interesting and even coveted. But she insists that I’d be a fool to go for it. “I quit this job to go into the job market, as tough as it is. Doesn’t that tell you anything?”
She has a point. Right now, even the rats in London are claiming benefits. I tried to explain to her my own situation and why I wanted – needed – to move on. She wouldn’t have it. She said the job was demeaning and demoralising and degrading and any other progressive adjective with the de- prefix, save for maybe detoxifying. It will break your spirit, she said. It’s a bunch of delusional balding men trying to hang on to their waning libidos, she said. You’ll hate it there just as much.
Then she paused. “Well… you’re a guy. It might be easier for you.”
I knew immediately what she meant, but I can’t figure out whether or not to agree with her. I know what she was trying to get across: that it was a work environment that perhaps isn’t as accommodating to women as it is to men (which I think is classified as “illegal,” but hey, never you mind). And I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted by the implication. Would I be complicit, a willing party, if I benefited from an environment that excludes women? (And seriously, boys, the Mad Men days are over. You can’t even smoke in the office anymore.)
These are all fascinating questions, really – they are, honest – but, me being me, her comment got me thinking about myself, and myself only. It affected me less on the Should-I-Take-This-Job-If-Offered front and more on the Wait… I’m-A-Guy? front.
The concept that there is some fundamental difference between the sexes, something deep down, ingrained, either through nature or nurture, a little pink or blue dot in the middle of our brains that determines how we see the world, is one that has always frustrated me.
It’s always been my belief – and feel free to mock here, because everybody does – that men and women are essentially the same. We all just want happiness, and peace, and comfort. We might go about it differently on occasion, but shit, we’re all on the same team here. But no one ever agrees with me.
I missed the blokes’ handbook they evidently handed out in primary school, along with the What’s Happening to My Body? book. I don’t think of myself as some member of an enormous fraternity, a man before I’m a human. I mean, I can barely grow a decent mat of chest hair, I really love Meryl Streep and I often talk to little babies and small, furry animals using words like “cute yiddle puddy wuddy.” If I’m supposed to be a representative of some guy culture by my very existence, I think I’m doing a very poor job. Shit, sometimes, get this, I even talk about my feelings.
But the rest of the world doesn’t seem to see it that way. And I wonder if I have a choice. I will admit, there are most certainly benefits I have received only because I am a guy, most of which I’ve never noticed and likely never will. But I didn’t sign up for this. I’m just a person, like everybody else.
I fail the Bloke Test in almost every way. Sure I talk meaningless shit about girls with the guys – and sometimes to the girls, which usually gets me in trouble. But that’s all it is to me – meaningless shit. I’ve never been in a real fight. I own no weaponry. If pressed, I’ll confess I prefer cricket, and maybe even tennis, to football. Wrestling and Formula One confuse me. I don’t spit in public. I worry about my weight. I’m not sensitive about my penis size (OK, maybe a little).
These are all stereotypes, urban legends, myths passed down through the generations. (When did they become hard, real ways to live our lives?) But I’ll never be able to live them down.
Put it this way: I was out with some friends the other evening, and one of them, a post-grad student, mentioned that she was working on a paper. She asked everyone she knew a question: If you found out your partner had developed a deep emotional attachment to someone of the opposite sex, would it bother you more than if he/she had meaningless sex with someone he/she hardly knew?
The student claimed that of the 50-something-odd people she asked, every single woman said she would be more bothered by the deep emotional connection, and every single man said he would be more bothered by the sex. She revealed this after she’d polled us, and, lo and behold, her postulate proved accurate. The four women didn’t care so much about the sex, and the two guys (myself included) did, quite so. The student was quite pleased with herself, convinced she’d stumbled across a universal truth.
I dissented, strongly. Listen, I calmly explicated, the reason I give that answer is not that I’m a guy. Don’t we, as humans, have the right, no, the duty, to develop as many “deep emotional connections” with as many people as possible? If I recognise someone as some sort of kindred spirit, male or female, why is it wrong for me to pursue a relationship – and by “relationship,” I mean an exploration of another person’s mind and thought processes, not anything sexual – with them? Isn’t it inherently flawed thinking to limit ourselves to enjoying the company of only one person, female or male? Would a girlfriend of mine object to me making a new male friend? Isn’t the real betrayal sex, and cheating, and lying?
For not the first time, the group of women laughed at me. “Guy,” they said. “You’re just a guy, and you’re full of shit, and you know it.”
See what I’m up against here?
If I die
Do not cry
Remember me as I am
Remember me as a friend
Remember me without tears
Remember this one thing:
That I haven’t really gone away
My mind always ran free
It’s just time for my feet
To catch up with me!