I started to sit a little closer to Joe during lunch. Close enough to catch the odd snippet of conversation, but not so close that chunks of Francine Wilson’s lunch could land on me. I also made sure to be no more than two seats away from him in the classes we shared and hovered at the edges of the field when he played football.
Gradually, I began to piece together a list of facts, common topics and events that I heard him talk about. I wrote them down in a notebook and analysed them for hours to see whether I could gleam anything interesting from them – something that proved to me there was more to him than this calm, mundane façade.
But there was nothing.
He only ever spoke about popular music, blockbuster movies, accessible video games and primetime TV shows. Of course, there was also talk of homework, parties and inoffensive gossip, but he only ever disagreed with someone if they said something so profoundly stupid it would have been weird of him not to. Nothing he did or said indicated he was anything other than a dullard.
He was middle ground, middle man, middle of the road, plain old average Joe. I started thinking of him as Average Joe, which infuriated me because I knew deep down he wasn’t. There was something else, something other to him that no one else had seen. His inoffensiveness, his politeness, his nimble catching abilities – why did everyone focus on those things rather than his evasiveness, his ambiguousness, his clear attempts at deceit? Would their views of him change if they’d also seen him aggressively dig his fingernails into his thighs like I had?
I thought about that moment a lot. Was it aggression I had seen? Anger? Or maybe fear? Frustration? Despair? Why had Average Joe been so overcome with emotion? Why did he feel the need to hide it? And why did he have to self-harm in order to withstand it? Because that’s what it was, wasn’t it? Self-harm. Self-destructiveness. Maybe he hated himself. Maybe he hated others. But the idea of Average Joe hating anything or anyone was almost laughable.
I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the ineffectiveness of my covert investigation, so one day in history class, without even really thinking about it, I saw an empty seat and sat right down next to him. I turned to see how he’d react, and while it was very quick, while it was very, very fleeting, there was a momentary lapse. Confusion. Hesitation.
I could almost feel his thoughts: Mark Lifton doesn’t – no he shouldn’t – sit next to me. It’s against the natural order of things. He’s been a clichéd angry teen since the age of six. Everything he says, does and wears is an attempt to make a statement he doesn’t fully understand. He hates me because everyone else doesn’t. Something isn’t right here.
I grinned, because in the heat of the moment I had decided to be all nicey-nicey with him like everyone else was.
And he couldn’t handle it at all.
“Hi, Joe,” I said. “How are you?”
“Hi,” he said slowly. There was a pause, and then, “Do you want to sit next to your friend?” He hovered slightly above his seat as if to get up and turned to Kay, who was in the row behind us.
Kay remained silent and stared at the desk, his long greasy hair clinging to the sides of his face. I usually sat with Kay because he smelled bad and the discomfort of breathing in his body odour was a reminder that I’m not the worst person in the world. At least I don’t stink. At least people dislike me for the stuff I do rather than the person they think I am. It was also a reminder that most people are cunts.
“Well, I’m here now, I might as well stay,” I said, settling into my chair and opening my exercise book. “Unless you don’t want to sit next to me?”
He had never been challenged like this before, I could tell. No one had ever implied anything negative about him, and the panic was palpable. “Nah,” he said, emulating my light tone as he sat back down. “I do. I mean… I don’t mind.”
That right there was my first taste, and it became addictive. Whenever he had a spare seat next to him I would sit in it, even if I wasn’t supposed to be in his class. If I stumbled across him in the library doing his homework, I would go over and say hi. If he was in the queue at lunchtime, I’d chat about the weather and the upcoming weekend until he collected his food, then make my way to the back of the line to get my own (my walk back was always accompanied by bemused chuckles from his entourage).
It didn’t happen very often, in fact I think it only happened three or four times, but the absolute bullseye, knockout, goal, gold medal, gold star award moment was if I ever saw him unlocking his bike an hour or two after school had ended. He’d probably finished some sort of extracurricular activity, and I was…well, I just happened to be there. Without his hordes of whores around him he looked small, even though he was above average height and unsurprisingly muscular.
I would walk up to him, clamp a hand on his shoulder and laugh as he jumped out of his skin. He would smile nervously, recover, then continue to unlock his bike.
“You going home?” I would ask.
“Cool, I’ll ride with you.”
“You don’t have a bike.”
“Oh, yeah. I’ll get on the back of yours then.”
“You live the opposite way.”
I’d shrug and jump on the back of his bike anyway.
His movements were uncertain and stiff, as if he was struggling with our combined weight on the bike (which was unlikely as I can’t have been more than a hundred and twenty pounds at the time) and we’d slowly set off in the direction of his average-sized but lovely home. We wouldn’t say much other than surface-level pleasantries, he because of disinterest and me because of fear; I was never one of those kids to get backies on bikes, skateboard, climb trees or do anything remotely risky, and I must admit I was a little petrified as we wobbled down the road.
Then we’d arrive. I’d tell him I’d see him soon, he’d try to mask his distaste, and then I’d walk back in the direction we came from to get back to my grandparents’ flat. I got back late, hungry and exhausted, but at the same time I was completely elated. I had chipped another layer off Average Joe.
The agitation he felt, or revealed, was always brief, but I learned what to look out for – the crinkled brow, the tightened jaw, the balled fist. My goal was to witness these little displays of hatred every single time I spoke to him. I wanted daily victories.
But Joe soon caught on, and it became more and more difficult for me to win in our little games. His amiability was hard to shift at times, and I didn’t want to resort to being an out-and-out arsehole and make him angry in an understandable, rational way. I wanted the illogical, hidden side of him to come out. I also didn’t want his friends to intervene, which was a continual worry of mine.
So my next tact was to try and make him give an opinion. The dream was to make him say something unpopular or controversial, but while it never quite got to that, I at least achieved the reaction I had wanted.
“Are there any foods you don’t like?”
To the untrained eye his golden-brown eyes were amused, maybe a little unimpressed, but I knew what was really behind them. Annoyance.
“I don’t know.”
“How can you hate peas?”
“I don’t hate them, I just think that maybe I don’t like them as much as other vegetables.”
“Hmm, okay then.”
It was nonsensical and pathetic, but it worked. Whenever I gave him a look of disproval, or pretended not to have understood something he had said even though I clearly did, he would almost writhe with discomfort.
“What do you think of Hitler?”
“What do you think of him?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t think there was anything interesting about him?”
“I suppose he was clever.”
“So you think Hitler was some kind of genius? I don’t know, Joe, I think he was just an evil dictator who killed millions of people. I don’t think there’s much to respect in that.”
He looked around, making sure no one had heard him declare his affinity with Hitler, then smiled, shrugged and busied himself with whatever he could to get away from me.
These conversations were fun but stilted, and far too brief. I memorised his timetable and followed him around school, trying to extend our chats as much as possible. I loved watching him leave a classroom, look left and right, decide he had been successful in avoiding me, then freeze when he spotted me coming towards him. His shoulders would tense up and he always pretended he hadn’t noticed me, but I always caught up with him.
It wasn’t enough. It was never enough.
Some days I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him. I couldn’t stand the idea of failing, seeing his easy-breezy smile and hear his throwaway laugh as I tried my hardest to anger him. He started clinging to his friends and it became difficult to intercept them, so after a while I didn’t bother. I began following him instead, silently, not caring whether he noticed me or not. I wouldn’t hide. I just needed more intel.
At first he ignored me, probably happy about the fact that I wasn’t speaking to him that day. Then he started acknowledging me with an uncertain wave and a nod. I didn’t respond. I just watched.
Then he got it. Finally. He knew. I was stepping things up.
I remember it so clearly. We were fifteen by this point. It was a Wednesday in May. I had avoided him all day by skipping classes, running into bathrooms and waiting around outside, just so he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of me. A whiff of me. I wanted there to be no trace of me in the air.
Then school ended, and I had an almost excruciatingly long wait. I walked up and down the street in a little circuit, trying to slow my racing heart and the squirming feeling in my stomach.
Not yet. Not yet. Just a little longer.
Then it was time.
The carpet was thick and spongy beneath my feet. A small black and white spaniel lay beside me, looking dolefully into my eyes as I cupped a cold glass of orange juice in between my hands.
I was there. But I wasn’t there. My mind was simultaneously erratic and serene. My skin felt strange – as if I were freezing cold but had just been plunged into a hot bath.
I smiled at her, and she smiled weakly back. She was holding a cup of tea and looking periodically over her shoulder, waiting.
Then the door opened and closed and he walked into the living room holding his rucksack in front of him.
“There he is!”
He froze midstep and stared. I held his gaze but spoke to his mother.
“Thanks so much for inviting me to dinner, Mrs Miller.”
The rucksack dropped from Joe’s grip and he sunk his fingernails into his palms with such force I saw those familiar tendons popping up on his forearms, the yellowy white knuckles.
I could have screamed with joy.