Sunday, March 2, 2008

Ricky Sprague's Tales of Regret

I get a lot of emails asking me for advice on various topics, from the romantic to the financial (sometimes both at the same time!). I usually keep these to myself, answering the email discreetly and in the style of a gentleman, and not mentioning it on my blog. But this week I got an email that, in providing an answer, led into a tale of regret. I asked the sender of the question if I could use his/her email as part of this entry in the series, and s/he said certainly. S/he seemed flattered by the request. So here it is:

Dear Ricky,

Long ago, my stepbrother broke my nose. We were just kids at the time, but I have not forgiven him. My nose was badly reset by the doctor and, while I understand that it’s not my stepbrother’s fault that the doctor made a mistake, I still blame my stepbrother for all the reconstructive surgery I’ve had to undergo since then. My friends and other members of the family tell me that I should let it go, especially now that my stepbrother is a drug addict and they’re planning an intervention for him. Frankly, I’m thinking of going to the intervention and bringing him some drugs he can take afterward. He’ll probably be jonesing after everyone’s done lecturing him.

Am I wrong to feel this way? Should I just "let it go"? Should I go to the intervention and bring him some drugs? Please help!

Bitter in Albany

Dear Bitter,

I’ll answer your question with a story of my own:

When I was in second grade, my family was torn apart by a particularly acrimonious divorce. After a long, hard courtroom battle, my mother got custody of me and my sister. But my family then hit hard times, and we had to go on welfare. We were so poor that I had to wear my sister’s clothing (she was two years younger than me, and had let’s say eccentric taste). We had to share food. I don’t want to get into this too deeply; it is painful.

Second grade was a difficult time for me. I had been a shy child, but I became withdrawn, and almost totally unsocial. I had to be coaxed by the teachers to play with other children during recess. Usually, their games were created to humiliate me.

One day, something that seemed miraculous to my still-developing mind occurred. The other children invited me to play a game of dodge ball with them, and I was treated as an equal. Smiling, laughing, throwing the red rubber balls back and forth; it was the first day in years that I felt truly happy with the other kids. It didn’t occur to me that anything could ruin this game.

Then, one of the balls soared past me, and into the playground area. Without a thought, without a care, I called out, “I’ll get it!” and ran in the direction of the ball. As I leaned down to pick it up, I felt something wet on my neck, and touched my neck with my hand.

My fingers were coated by a gooey strand of saliva.

I turned round and saw, standing on the top of one of the four wooden play structures in that playground, a fourth grader named Keith. Smiling at me, with a smug, satisfied look. He wiped his mouth, and flipped me the bird.

Keith came from a wealthy family whose parents were not divorced. He wore nice clothes. He was athletic. He wasn’t red-headed. He was considered good looking by the girls at the school, and was already dating. He was on the fourth grade basketball team. He had everything I didn’t. And he spat on me. That was the first interaction I’d ever had with him in my life. I’m sure he didn’t know who I was.

I never forgot that. I didn’t obsess on it, either. But I never forgot. The next year I was transferred to another school, as part of the “Academic Challenge” program (lucky me, I was so smart), so I had no occasion to see him again until high school.

My girlfriend in high school was the friend of a woman who had dated him. My gf told me about something rotten that he had done to her friend, a couple of years before. I mentioned that I'd known he was rotten ever since grade school, and related the story of his spitting on me. My gf told me to let it go, that it was silly to hold a grudge about something he'd done when he was in fourth grade.

Anyway, I forgot about it again, even if I didn't quite "let it go".

After college, my friend Brian and I rented a house in the middle of the woods in Brown County, Indiana. Brian planned a party for one weekend, and invited dozens of people, who in turn invited people themselves. A few days before the party, he told me, “Hey, I just heard from Jeff that Keith, from our high school, might be coming to the party.”

I started to tell Brian about the spitting incident, but I decided against it. I didn’t want him telling me that I should "let it go." “How about that?” I said. I decided to quietly prepare.

I got a 5-gallon plastic bucket, and started spitting. Any time I thought of it, I would hock a loogie, and spit. When Brian wasn’t around, I’d carry it with me, spitting all day. When Brian was at home, I would leave it in my room, and make surreptitious trips to help increase the load.

By the day of the party, the 5-gallon bucket was about three quarters full of a sloshing mixture of water, electrolytes, mucus, antibacterial compounds and various enzymes. It was an impressive amount of oozing liquid, and I was looking forward to throwing the contents of the bucket on the big stupid head of that big stupid jerk Keith.

The party started around seven o’clock, when the first arrivals showed up. Friends of Brian’s I’d never met before. The house started filling with revelers, who spilled out into the back patio and a fire was started at the edge of the woods. A substantial crowd stood out there, drinking, singing and dancing, talking excitedly. Some people attempted to engage me in conversation, but I was too distracted. Where was Keith? I had all that spit sitting in my room, ready to go. It wasn’t fair!

Then, a VW Bus rumbled up the driveway. I bolted around to the front of the house and saw the door slide open, and a group of Patchouli heads climbed out, smiling dopishly.

“Hey, man,” one of them said, seeing me. “Heard there wassa party…”

“Around back,” I asserted.

They filed past me, smiling and nodding. One of them was Keith. Like the others, his head was covered by a colorful bag, in which was knotted hair, and herbs. They lived in the bus, traveling from one part of Indiana to another, so bathing was a luxury they were rarely able to indulge. The herbs helped with the smell.

It helped some, but not a whole lot.

I followed them around to the back, to the fire, where they each took beers, and easily joined the crowd. I marveled at how nonchalant they were, how casual. There was something admirable about the way they conducted themselves at the party; and I admit I saw something seductive about their dropout lifestyle.

There was a crowd around Keith, and he held forth with stories about life on the road; of bus breakdowns, of run-ins with the law, of casual sex in apple orchards while Bob Marley songs played in the background.

He smiled sheepishly, crookedly, honestly. I tried to see the face of the boy who’d spit on me, those years before. I tried to superimpose that face over the face I was seeing at that moment, and I just couldn’t do it. The person who was here now, before me, was not the same person who’d spit on me back then. Throwing that bucket of spit on him now would be completely meaningless. No, worse than that, it would be a vindictive, petty act, on my part.

I couldn’t do it, I thought. I went into the house and took the bucket into the bathroom, where I emptied the contents into the toilet and flushed them down. It took a few tries to get it all down, and as I was flushing it occurred to me that this was truly disgusting, and that I’d been living with that, in my bedroom, for days. Gross.

I went back to the party and for the most part had a fine time. Around two am I decided I needed to go to sleep, so I left the few people who were still awake at the fire and headed toward the house. As I was walking I turned to my right and saw Keith, passed out drunk, laying face down on the ground, all by himself. At that moment I cursed myself for flushing away all that spit. His prone body was the perfect target for a three-quarters-full five gallon bucket of spit. I could have poured it on his head and he probably wouldn’t have even awakened.

Son of a bitch! And after I’d gone to all that work collecting the spit! I couldn’t believe that I’d let the opportunity get away. An opportunity I was sure would never return.

I don’t think about it every day, but occasionally I think back on that missed opportunity to get my hard-earned revenge, and I regret dumping the spitbucket.

Bitter, if you have an opportunity to get revenge on someone who has wronged you, then for your own sake, you need to take it. If you don’t, you will regret it for the rest of your life.

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