"Why are you so fake all the time?"
It was a question I had expected for a long time, but I couldn't believe that it was coming from Ian, of all people.
I said, "Like you aren't? You lie to get your way all the time."
"Not like you, though. I mean, you lie about your own name."
Ian knew that my name was a major issue for me, although the answer to why was a secret I didn't dare trust him with. "I've never lied about my name."
Ian smiled. I had taken the bait. "Call it what you want, man, but 'Michael' isn't your name. Don't you know that we choose our names before we're born? You chose to be named 'Joseph.' That's your name. You don't get to change it. You're lying, and you're making everyone else lie with you when you have them call you 'Michael'."
The smile left his face as I stared at him. I can only imagine what expression must have been on mine. "Ian, I will say this one time: shut the fuck up because you have no idea what you're talking about."
"What do you know? Michael does have balls." Ian tried to play it off as a joke. Then he tried to convince me that he was just trying to help me to finally stand up for myself.
There was something in his smile. Something in the way he had been speaking. He seemed to like causing me pain: I couldn't think of something I had done to him to deserve it, and he wasn't in an uncontrollable rage. It was calculated; it was with purpose. If he was bigger, stronger maybe he would be a bully.
No, he was a bully. Just a different kind.
I started looking for ways to avoid spending time with Ian without him realizing what was going on. (After all, I couldn't have him sabotage my social standing at school.) My go-to solution only worked when he called:
- Take the phone wherever my mom was.
- Ask her for permission to do whatever it was that Ian wanted to do.
- Shake my head wildly while mouthing, "No!" to her from across the room.
- Wait for Ian to hear her give an excuse for why I wasn't allowed, at least that time.
- Express disappointment at not being able to go.
If Ian just turned up at my door, it was a lot harder to get out of his social impositions. One evening, he showed up with one of our classmates.
"Can't come out. No one's home." I curled the left corner of my mouth and shrugged. "If someone calls and I don't answer, I'll be caught."
"We'll come in, then." Ian knew my family's rule: visitors weren't allowed in the apartment unless my mom was home. I knew that reminding him of this would just lead to him insulting me. That would lead to me probably backing down and letting him in, anyway. Adding a witness just made it all the more likely because I wouldn't want him to see Ian call me out. It worked.
We went into my sisters' room and loaded up Warcraft II on the family computer. About a half hour later, I heard the front door begin to open. "Crap." I looked at the interlopers. "Stay here."
If it was just my sisters, I could bargain with them not to tell our mom. If it was my mom, I could at least try to mitigate the damage. Unfortunately for me, it was all three of them. My sisters rushed past me to their room, destroying my ability to think of a way to explain away the situation. I expected some kind of surprised reaction to come any second; instead, both came back out to the living room soon after without a word about any intruders.
I had no idea what to do. My heart was beating faster by the second. I couldn't gather any sort of coherent thought as panic set in. Then one of my sisters went back to their room and screamed. Instead of turning and fessing up, I ran as if to see what had surprised her. Ian was crawling out from under my sisters' bunk bed, and my other classmate was inching his way out of their closet.
"What the hell are you doing under my bed?"
Ian said, "Michael told us to hide."
"No, I didn't."
"Why bother trying to lie now?" Ian smirked.
My sisters were staring at me, their faces scrunched up with understandable anger.
"Go home, now," my mother said to the other two boys.
As I wished for the ability to disappear, teleport, or otherwise escape the death glares of my family, I saw Ian smile and wave as he closed our front door behind him.
A few minutes later, I was staring at the carpet in my mother's room. She was waiting for an answer I didn't have. Why? I had a vague understanding that something wasn't right in my friendship with Ian, but I couldn't explain it to myself, let alone anyone else.
"I guess I didn't think it would be a big deal." I had to repeat it because I had mumbled it so softly.
"It wouldn't have been a big deal if you had asked. Instead, you let them in without permission. Then you told them to hide when we came home?"
"I didn't tell them to hide."
"Why would Ian lie about that?"
"I don't know."
"You've never done something like this before, Michael." When she said that, everything I had done that was so much worse went rushing through my mind. I had never been caught before. "This isn't like you, and it's not like you to lie to my face. If you're telling me that Ian was lying when he had no reason to, I don't know how I feel about you being his friend."
I dreaded what I thought she might say next. If she forbade me from being his friend, he would be mad. He would take it out on me in some way. He would think of something.
"I want you to look me in the eyes," my mom said. When I did, she continued, "Who should I believe?"
"Me. Please believe me."
"I think you need to spend some time away from Ian. You're grounded for two weeks. No going to the playground or anyone's house. You come straight home from school."
It was my first time being grounded, which didn't feel great. Otherwise, the idea of having a built-in excuse to not be around Ian was glorious. I could even throw it back in his face that he was the one who caused it: "I got punished worse because of your lie. It's your own fault we can't hang out."
My disciplinary meeting came to a close with my mom saying, "Go to your room."
As I began to close her door behind me, I turned and said, "I love you."
My mom closed her eyes for a moment, let out a sigh, then said, "Saying, 'I love you,' doesn't fix this. You broke my trust, and it's going to take a while to earn it back."
I went to my room, laid on my bed. I didn't say it to manipulate her, like I now know she thought. There wasn't any point in trying. Her disappointment was plain on her face and in her voice. But I needed to know that she still loved me even though I had messed up. I said, "I love you," because she always said it back when I did. But not that time.
My mask had chipped, and she had seen just a little of the ugliness underneath. If that was all it took, I knew I could never let her see the rest of who I had become.