The Saddest Punchline I know

It’s funny how much clearer a thing sometimes becomes once it’s dead, its lifecycle complete.   It happens with people, and beloved pets and it happens with relationships gone wrong.   You see the thing whole, finally.    I recently lost a friend I’ve known since we were eight and it’s been bothering me for some time, exactly how the friendship became toxic, why it is now so intolerable to me to be treated the way he continues to treat me.

Now that our long friendship is truly dead, the whole outline is there for me to see.  Today I got the last few elusive pieces to complete a sorry picture I could not, for the life of me, truly understand.   Now I finally get it.  The punchline is deep, but about the unfunniest one I can think of at the moment.

He seemed to look up to me and often competed with me, and I never knew why.   Years ago he told me to use a certain gauge of string on my guitar “you’ll feel better about yourself,” he told me unaccountably.   His vying sometimes took insane forms.   

At some point he found he could make me angry by being provocative and steadily ignoring my mounting aggravation.  As my feelings got more unpleasantly stirred, and he pressed on stirring, I’d eventually react with anger, restraining myself each time, but barely.   This sick pastime seemed to become a tic with him.   I really believe he actually could not help himself, it gratified him, somehow, to see me angry.

His wife, who I was quite friendly with [1], was often furious with him because he was not always honest with her. The thing she hated most was a liar, which I can understand, since without trust, what do you really have with another person?   Funny to say, his occasional untruthfulness never bothered me that much, though I prize honesty more than most things.  

It also outraged her that he never stood up for himself, except against her.  I think this enraged her even more than his occasional looseness with the facts.

My childhood friend’s wife weaponized a casual remark I made to her and deployed it to crippling effect during a marriage counseling session they were having.  “Your best friend says you’re a fucking liar too!” and she took my remark, which she bent to her use, and whipped him across the face with it until he was bloody.  

“And you’re not even man enough to stand up to him!” she later told him.  The therapist apparently agreed with his wife that if he didn’t confront me, his marriage was over.

He showed up in a panic to confront me, his right eye actually twitching as he leveled his accusation:  you deliberately or recklessly tried to destroy my marriage, our friendship is probably over, it all depends on your answers.   I thought hard and explained things as best I could, as friendship demands — when you see a friend in anguish you do what you can to help.  I agreed that if I maliciously or negligently undermined his marriage, neither he nor his wife should be friends with me.  I described how my casual remark was weaponized and gave him reasonable things to tell the therapist and his wife.  I did this under pressure, but though he seemed calmed down, gratitude wasn’t in the cards any more than an apology was for the wild accusation.

I realized afterwards that things had clearly gotten out of hand and we needed to either stop the ugly cycle or call it a day on our friendship.   We spent five hours or more trying to talk it out, but he could not yield.   He would not allow that he’d been a shaky friend, put me in impossible positions, returned acts of friendship with repeated senseless provocation.  He defended his actions in detail and when I remained skeptical (it was at the end of five hours of this) told me he loved me.   I told him love is how you act when someone you care about is in pain.  Doing a dance and singing a song and telling your friend he is not really hurt when he is, none of that is  love.  Merciful action is love.

Provoking, being unrepentant, though you apologize grudgingly, explaining why you really didn’t provoke, how there was actually an implied apology that you’re lying about not receiving, well, that’s not really love.

One thing bothered me more and more.   With our estrangement I’d lost the friendship of his wife, his two sons, great young men, and a mutual friend who appeared to have taken his side in our impasse.   I wanted to know what my final unforgivable act against him had been.  I suspected it was my exasperated detailing of many the reasons I don’t respect him, twenty minutes into our five hour marathon, but I couldn’t be sure, since he never contacted me or sought to reconcile after our meeting went badly.  “It was a bad day,” he admitted today with some sadness, as close to admitting he’d been wrong in how he acted as he can get.

It took some time, and some work on my part, a series of calls and emails, but today he called me back to answer my question.  He did not want to talk about the past.  He felt it was a mistake to go over the hurtful things again, it would only lead to more and more conflict to go back over those mutually aggravating things.  It was both of our faults, even though he admitted without condition that he’d been wrong too.   His idea was that we just need to put it all behind us and continue on as if none of it had ever happened, just be friends again, like we used to be.   It struck me as an impossibly stupid idea and I told him why.  

With patience, about forty minutes in, I was able to get the answer to my original question about my unforgivable final act.   When we parted after the long talk he had no particular gripe against me, he said, in fact, he was still hopeful about saving our friendship.   After all, I had been for the most part mild during most of that long, sometimes agonizing conversation on that bad day for him.   It was after his wife called a week later to give me an ultimatum about forgiving him immediately and unconditionally or dropping dead that he learned the reasons to be furious at me.

His wife told him I’d made a secret recording of our conversation, which was a betrayal he simply could not forgive.   I explained the difference between being a fucking fuck who wears a fucking wire (for purposes of making a tape for others to use to incriminate somebody) and recording a talk, for personal use, with someone who has a famously spotty memory, is addicted to equivocation and energetic and nimble disputing specific arguable details.   This guy, I must point out, while very emotional, is also highly intelligent and skilled in the art of verbal self-defense.

The second unforgivable thing I’d done, and again, he qualified it, this was admittedly second hand, from his wife again, was that I’d told her that shortly into his bad day trying to make me accept his apology without having to take full responsibility for his actions, he’d made me mad enough to feel like socking him, throwing him on the ground and kicking him, just to make it stop.  In his opinion, and in his wife’s, that is simply intolerable to say about a friend of more than fifty years, no matter how mad you feel, no matter what the provocation might have been, no matter how many provocations in a row you’d been hit with.

I didn’t bother pointing out that I hadn’t laid a finger on him, that I used the image of violence to convey to his wife how angry he’d made me.  Fuck him, you know? Plus, of course, his wife, who I said this to (“to whom I said this”…), has felt exactly the same way about him countless times and understood the impulse very well when I said it.

Now here is the punchline, and it is as horrible as I promised.   

The real reason he was so angry at me was that I’d told his wife, and I had this insight only at the very end of a long talk with her, that the reason he always feels he’s in an unfair competition with me is that he has trouble standing up for himself and believes that I don’t.   “Rob feels like he’s a pussy,” I told her,  as it dawned on me, “and he believes, for whatever reason, that I am not a pussy, and he’s very angry about it.”    

“You are definitely not a pussy,” she told me.

Then she told her husband that anyone who could be friends with someone who says he’s a pussy is a fucking pussy she will not be married to.


It also turns out she never conveyed my conciliatory offer, made several times and emphasized, repeated once more as I said goodbye.   I told her Rob was welcome to call me as soon as he made some of the progress he promised he was striving for in therapy.   He needs to develop some insight about the often provocative effect of his actions on those close to him.   “She never told me that,” he said, sounding sad.

Lady MacBeth got nothing on this girl, nor does her husband either, for that matter.

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