One is the Loneliest Number
by Michael D. Brooks
One of the first things you learn in life is that you don’t want to be alone. As a baby, you get attached to your mother, father, or some relative that you take a liking to. As you get older, you start making friends. You start looking forward to spending time with them and making new ones. The problem with not wanting to be alone is that sometimes you end up that way anyway. And that’s what happened to me.
When I was a kid, I didn’t have friends. I didn’t even have acquaintances. And I could never understand why. It wasn’t because I was a mean, nasty person; I wasn’t. For some reason, the other kids just never really liked me, even though I wanted them to.
I saw how they got along with each other and I wanted that kind of feeling. I wanted to get along with them too. I wasn’t the handsomest kid. I wasn’t the fastest on the track, the best on the basketball court, or softball field. Hell, I didn’t even get to play games on the playground.
When the other kids got together to pick teams, I was either the last one picked or I wasn’t picked at all. I really hated it when there was an odd number of us. That usually meant that I ended up being by myself.
And when I was picked, it was usually for games like dodge ball where everyone tried to get me out first. The kids who threw the ball never tried to hit anyone but me. I was always hit first. And it always seemed like they threw the ball harder at me and toward my face and head.
But I was desperate for friends. I was so desperate that I used to do things I thought the other kids would like so they would like me. I wanted to impress them. The trouble was, whatever I did usually got me in trouble and made the other kids laugh at me and not want to be my friend.
There was this one time I saw some of the older kids smoking cigarettes back behind the school gym. They were called the “cool kids.” I wanted to be cool. I thought that if I smoked like them, then some of the other kids would be impressed and want to hang out with me. I’d be a cool kid.
So when my mom wasn’t looking one day, I stole a couple of her cigarettes and a book of matches. I ducked behind the gym and lit up one hoping the kids I wanted to be friends with would see me. Well, they did. And one of them went and told my teacher and she called my mom up to the school.
I hated it when my mom came up to the school because everyone used to stare at her and say rude things about her. It wasn’t my fault that she smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, couldn’t hold a job, and had a reputation for being easy. But everyone treated me like it was. It was her reputation that I felt was the reason I didn’t have any friends, but I could never prove it, especially since I was doing a good job of getting a bad rep of my own, sometimes through no fault of my own. Like the time I got caught peeking in Old Lady Johnson’s back yard.
I was playing by myself one day when I saw some of the kids I wanted to be like stealing some empty soda bottles from out of the bin at the old corner store. So I followed them to see what they were going to do with them. They ran through a couple of alleys before finally stopping at the spooky lady’s house. That’s what they called Old Lady Johnson.
Then they tossed the bottles into her yard and ran. The stepping stones and narrow walkway in her yard made excellent impact points for airborne bottles. I could hear the tinkling glass when the bottles shattered as they hit the ground.
Stupid me, I wanted to get a better look at what they did. So I snuck up the alley and peeked over the white picket fence into the old lady’s yard. There was broken glass all through her flower bed and vegetable garden. What I didn’t notice, that the other kids did, was Old Lady Johnson storming down the alley. I didn’t know anything until I felt a sharp pain on the top of my head and saw a bright, white flash when she hit me with her broomstick. The other kids started laughing at me and told her I was the one who threw the bottles into her yard.
Needless to say, my mom was called up to the school and I had to clean up Old Lady Johnson’s yard, and sit in the principal’s office after school for a week. None of the adults spoke to me and the kids, who passed the office on their way down the hall, whispered and snickered. I was forced to sit on a hard wooden chair for an hour after school facing a corner of the room.
It was while sitting in that office that I finally faced the painful reality that I was lonely and alone. I could have been in a crowded room and still felt I was alone. So I became a loner. I convinced myself I was better off without friends — especially since I didn’t have any anyway. They didn’t want me and I didn’t need them. For the rest of grade school and junior high, I stayed to myself. I learned to embrace being alone.
By the time I got to high school, my mom stopped smoking because the doctor told her to quit or die. She started drinking more instead and latched onto an abusive boyfriend because, as she put it, “He has money and I won’t have to do tricks anymore.” The one person who should have been remotely close to me was barely a part of my life.
I rarely saw her sober. And when I did, she found it hard to speak to me because the reason we had money was because her boyfriend had her and other women working for him. He was nothing more than a pimp. All she ever did was look at me with a pained look in her eyes as if she was apologizing for all the things she never did.
I stuck with my regimen of social solitude, living alone in my myopic world. The other kids left me alone because they didn’t know what I was about. Those who did know me from grade school left me alone because I had changed. I wasn’t the same person they once knew.
I spent the first couple of weeks of my freshman year learning my way around the school scoping out locations on campus where I could be alone.
When I was in class, I sat in the last seat in the back of the room closest to the door so I could be the first one out when class was over. However, my favorite spot was a table tucked away in the least populated section of the cafeteria. A table that was built to seat sixteen served its purpose by playing host to me. From my vantage point, I could survey the rest of the cafeteria. I watched the other kids go about their business. Most of them were oblivious to my presence or pretended to be.
Every day I sat and watched as they laughed, joked, played around with one another, and studied with each other. I despised every moment. I kept thinking that could be me. I could be one of them. Then I wouldn’t be by myself. But I was by myself, and that suited me just fine. Then one day a strange thing happened. Some kids sat down at my table.
At first all they did was sit at my table. They did acknowledge my presence by saying hi, but they didn’t say anything else. The next day they came and sat at my table again. Eventually they sat at my table regularly. They made me nervous. I was used to sitting alone; being alone. I thought they were up to something at my expense so I kept a watchful eye on them.
A month later, they were sitting at my table when they asked me my name. No one but my teachers ever asked me my name. I told them and waited for the inevitable verbal attack. None came. They all introduced themselves to me and asked if I wanted to join their club. I told them I’d think about it. In the days that followed, they made attempts to include me in their conversations.
I made half-hearted attempts to stay out of them. It just seemed the safest thing to do. I wasn’t accustomed to anyone wanting to be my friend. But I felt a strange desire to accept their offer. I told myself I wanted to satisfy a curiosity.
I could have gotten up and moved to another table or told them to get lost, but I couldn’t bring myself to do either. It was as though I needed them to be there. So I let them come by my table everyday and talk to me. Before I realized it, I was talking with them and felt comfortable doing it. It came as a surprise to me just how much I wanted their company.
Turns out they weren’t that much different from me. They were just a bunch of plain, everyday kids who didn’t fit in. They were made fun of, mistreated, socially ignored, and were virtually invisible until they became the object of someone’s ridicule or were the butt of someone’s joke. Witnessing their humiliation forced me to relive a childhood I thought I had successfully forgotten.
Initially I didn’t trust those kids or their motives, but their invitation of friendship reawakened buried feelings. I never thought I’d feel the desire to be wanted or liked again, but apparently the need to be a part of something is an inborn trait. Like a baby that needs its mother. I hated how I felt because I had tried so hard to never feel that way again.
I also came to realize that despite being a loner, deep down a small part of me desired companionship. I was desperate for it. I was simply in denial. I’d spent so many years sublimating my feelings that I felt betrayed by the ones I had for those kids who were being treated as I used to be.
I shouldn’t have given a damn, but I did; the need to belong was stronger than I had been willing to admit. But my skepticism was also strong. I wondered if I was being set up. I eventually decided the only way to find out was to take the next step and accept their invitation.
Mentally overcoming my emotional uncertainty, I cautiously prepared to defend myself from an anticipated barrage of insults and juvenile tricks by strategically accepting their hand of friendship. I was not prepared for what came next. I was warmly received into the hearts of a group of kids others referred to as the nerd herd. They had succeeded in breaking through my social barriers and touched the very core of my being. I was no longer alone.
Copyright © 2010 by Michael D. Brooks