All my phone said was “Unknown Caller.” I picked up, said hello, and listened to the voice at the other end. “Rabby?”
No one had called me “Rabby” since high school. Short for Rabinowitz. That was 34 years ago.
The voice was vaguely familiar and for some reason a bit unsettling. I asked who was calling.
I hate that. But on the chance that this was an old high school friend re-connecting with me, I didn’t want to be a total asshole. “Sorry, no idea. Who’s calling, please?”
“Rabby, it’s Marshall. The Marsh-Man. I can’t believe you didn’t recognize my voice.”
Very possibly, Marshall Pointere was the world’s most unappealing living human. He always called himself “the Marsh Man,” frequently using the third person, as when he informed you that “you don’t want to know what grade the Marsh Man got on the history test, but believe me, it was like off the charts” or “the Marsh Man’s gonna have a good time tonight,” drawing out the word “good” for several seconds while leering at you. No one else called him “the Marsh Man.” Everyone called him either “Marshall” or “douchebag.”
It wasn’t just his personality, or even his unattractive looks, that made him so off-putting. It was also his habits. He was constantly pressing his lips against his pale white pimply forearm and sliding them back and forth to moisten his skin. I’ll spare you the details about the unique way he would blow his nose. I had to sit next to him every morning in home room and watch his creepy grooming routine.
Predictably, most of the other kids were merciless. When he walked down the hall in between classes, he had to continually glance backward and off to each side to fend off wedgies. He was practically asking for them. Ask and ye shall receive.
Self-serving as I know it is to say this, I was actually one of the very few kids who tried to be kind to him. Unfortunately, he misinterpreted my lack of cruelty as a sign that I liked him. He would frequently refer to me as his best friend, both in conversations with me and when talking with innocent third parties. I was forever making excuses as to why I couldn’t get together with him. “Too much homework” or “I have to babysit for Tricia tonight;” etc. I felt bad – and extremely guilty -- because I suspected that deep down he knew perfectly well that even I really didn’t want to be his friend. But I also knew that the nicer I was, the clingier he would get. It was a thin line to walk.
After high school we went off to different colleges, and I never heard from him again – until this phone call. When he identified himself on the phone I tensed up, fearful that he would try to worm his way back into my life. But I tried to sound cheerful and pretended to be happy to hear from him.
“Marshall, it’s great to hear your voice. How did you ever track me down?”
“I stay in touch with Phoenix and Leslie. They told me you were married to Alice Choi and living in Boston. I thought ‘wow, an interracial marriage.’ But she’s totally hot. I’m envious. Anyway, they gave me your phone number.”
Holding my breath, I asked “So where are you now?”
“I’m in Boston too. Just moved here a week ago. Medford, actually. And believe it or not, my wife’s name is also Alice. She’s not Chinese like your Alice, she’s Anglo, I guess that’s the word we’re supposed to use now, but she’s super-hot too. We both did all right, didn’t we?”
“I’m glad to hear things have gone well for you.”
“Yeah, but listen. What are you doing Friday night?”
There was no point making up an excuse. He would just have offered a series of alternative dates until I had no excuses left. So I admitted we had no plans for Friday night.
“Fantastic. How about you and Alice coming over to our place for dinner? I can’t believe we’re reconnecting after all these years!”
“Thanks, that’ll be nice. Can I bring something?”
“Just your little hottie.”
My cringe wasn’t audible. In retrospect, I kind of wish it had been.
When Alice got home, I told her the whole story, except the part about his having twice called her a “hottie.” Had I included that part, she probably wouldn’t have offered her reassurance that “He can’t be that bad. I’m sure he’s matured a lot since high school.”
“Actually, I don’t think so.”
“Come on, give the guy a chance.” Alice was smiling now. “Remember how uncool you were in high school?”
Until Alice said that, I had long thought of myself as one of the cooler kids in high school, so her comment sucked out what little air had remained in my balloon. When she saw my reaction, she quickly added “But look at you now! And look at who you landed!”
I couldn’t help correcting her. “It’s ‘whom’ you landed. Not ‘who.’”
She shot back “I think you just proved my point, nerdbomb” as she laughed and planted a big kiss on my lips.
Friday evening came, and Alice and I talked each other into a more positive frame of mind. When we arrived, Marshall gave each of us an enthusiastic hug, as did his wife. “Marshall has been talking about you for years,” she told me. “I know you two were inseparable in high school.” With her hand over her heart and her eyes fixed directly on mine, she said “I can’t tell you how much joy it brings me to see you guys reuniting after so many years.”
“Yeah, it was quite a surprise hearing from Marshall, and very kind of you both to have us over.”
“Well, of course,” Alice replied. “I know we’ll be spending a lot of time together, and I’m really excited about that. In the meantime, let us show you around the house. We’re still unpacking, so excuse the boxes.”
With the possible exceptions of clothes-shopping, dental visits, the Yankees beating the Red Sox, beet borscht, and interminable Seders where my parents would yell at me for drinking Elijah’s wine and then doubling down by claiming indignantly that Elijah had drunk it, there is nothing I enjoy less than being shown around someone’s house.
Alice Pointere seemed very nice. She was one of the most average-looking people I’d seen in a long time – not unattractive by any means, but certainly not the “hottie” that Marshall had bragged about. She was medium height and on the thin side. Her face was plain and pale, though her expression was animated and she had a pleasant smile. She had light brown, thin, shoulder-length hair.
We quickly found ourselves separated by gender, as the two Alices walked off in one direction while Marshall steered me along a different route.
“So, this of course is our living room.”
“See this armchair? How much do you think I paid for it?”
“Oh, honestly, I have no idea. I don’t know anything about furniture.”
“Take a wild guess.”
“Really, Marshall, I have no idea.”
“Come on, just a ballpark estimate.”
“$100!!!!! Are you kidding? Do you know how much this would normally go for?”
“No, that’s what I’ve been telling you. I don’t know a thing about furniture.”
“600 if you’re lucky, more likely 700. I got it for 250.”
“That’s great. You got a good deal.”
“It was an amazing deal. But that’s nothing. How much do you think I paid for this love seat?”
“Marshall, really, I just don’t know about these things.”
“Just guess. You’ll be astounded.”
I figured that a love seat would cost more than an armchair, and he had said he’d bought the armchair for $250. So I guessed 400.
“Seriously? $400? Do you have any idea what this would normally cost?”
“Look at it carefully. This is the highest quality love seat you’ll ever see, and it’s in mint condition. New, it would go for at least $1800. I got it at an estate sale. They were asking 1000, which would already have been a bargain. But I negotiated with them. Want to know how much I ending up paying?”
“No, that’s OK.”
“That’s great, Marshall.”
He wasn’t finished describing the amazing bargains he’d been able to get. By the time we reached the dining room, I realized I’d been disappointing him by guessing so low. So when he asked me to guess how much the dining room table had cost, I knew enough to guess high this time. “$3,000?”
“Well, not quite that much. Retail, this table would go for 2 grand. I got it for 800.”
With my mouth wide open in mock astonishment, I shouted “No—you’re joking!”
And on and on it went. The tour lasted almost an hour. I had missed lunch and was getting tired, hungry, and cranky. Halfway through our tour, I tried to convey as diplomatically as possible that I really wasn’t into houses and furniture and that perhaps we should finish up so that we can join the Alices. Not having to discuss the bargain prices of the various furniture items, they had long since completed their tour. I was apparently too subtle, though, because Marshall said “good point” but nonetheless led me through the remaining rooms at a snail’s pace.
When we all finally met up downstairs, both Pointeres repaired to the kitchen and brought some hors d’oeuvres out to the living room. “Just a few nibbles,” Alice Pointere said. “Dinner will be ready shortly. While we’re waiting, want to see our wedding pictures?”
There’s only one socially acceptable answer to that question, so while we munched on raw vegetables and hummus, the Pointeres guided us through their wedding album.
“You were a beautiful bride,” Alice Choi said, “and what a gorgeous wedding gown!”
Alice Pointere thanked her for the compliment and followed up with an elaborate description of the dress and the efforts her seamstress had had to exert to get it just the way she (Alice) wanted it. I held my breath, waiting for Marshall to make us guess how much the gown had cost. Thankfully, he didn’t comment. I inferred from his silence that it must not have been a bargain, or at least not one he could claim credit for negotiating.
As we progressed through the album, we were treated to detailed descriptions of the various wedding guests, their occupations, and in some cases other critical details like their ages or whether they had kids or what some of the especially nice furnishings they had in their homes were. I was rapidly losing patience. My watch said 9:00, we were still barely halfway through the album, and my stomach was growling, on one occasion loud enough for the group to hear. I seized the opportunity to inject “Oh, excuse me. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, so my stomach is barking at me.” I thought that would signal our hosts to speed things up, but it had zero effect.
At one point they came to a photo that included Marshall’s nephew, Maurice, a National Merit semi-finalist who had just been accepted at Cornell. Marshall painstakingly related everything he felt we needed to know about the young man. I interrupted and asked “What’s his sign?”
Alice Choi shot me a dirty look. For his part, Marshall seemed puzzled by my question. But, undeterred, he acknowledged he didn’t know Maurice’s sign and resumed his recitation of Maurice’s many accomplishments.
I interrupted again. “Well, do you know his birthday? Because with that, we’d be able to figure out what his sign is.”
At that, both Pointeres got the point that perhaps they were supplying more information than necessary. Alice Pointere said “Oh, sorry, we’re probably going a bit overboard here with all this detail. Honey, let’s speed things up a bit.”
I wimped out and said, disingenuously, “Oh, no, I didn’t mean to imply that. It’s very nice seeing your wedding photos.”
Alice Pointere graciously pretended to believe me but said to Marshall, “We should finish up, though. Dinner’s just about ready.”
Marshall had just finished describing one of the men in the next-to-last photo and had begun to turn to the last page. I could smell the finish line. To my horror, Alice Choi made the unforgivable mistake of saying “Wait, who was the woman on the left?” I glared at my wife. I don’t mean I gave her a slightly disapproving look. I mean I glared at her.
Marshall said, “That’s Amy, one of Alice’s college friends. She and her husband live in Alaska and came all that way for the wedding.”
Alice Pointere began telling us all about Amy. We learned about her interesting life after college, her marriage to Derek that everyone else had thought would never happen but that she had never given up on, and her three children and one grandchild and what each of them was involved in. It turns out that her grandson was by far the best player on his elementary school soccer team, though his clueless coach didn’t fully recognize the child’s talents.
Alice Choi hadn’t noticed my angry glare. She asked, “Speaking of children, I never thought to ask you guys whether you have kids.” The house contained no photos or other visible signs of young children, but she must have figured you never know.
With that question, the Pointeres exchanged brief glances. Alice Pointere quietly and with what looked like a forced smile said “No, no kids. But gosh, I’m looking at my watch. You guys must be starved. Why don’t you all adjourn to the dining room and we’ll bring out the dinner.”
Alice Choi volunteered to help. Alice Pointere thanked her politely but said that everything was ready to go and that we should just take our seats at the table.
Alice Pointere soon appeared at the table with the first course, a delicious-smelling creamy squash soup. Trailing behind her, Marshall brought out a wonderful warm brown bread and heaps of butter. At the sight of the bread my hunger was now careening out of control, but I waited silently as Marshall poured wine for each of us, rose, raised his glass, and said simply “To friendship.” The rest of us responded with the obligatory “hear, hear” and a sip of wine.
I complimented our hosts on the wine. I was sorely tempted to ask Marshall how much he had paid for it, but with uncharacteristic restraint I squelched that impulse. Unfortunately I started to laugh out loud as soon as I thought of it. It wasn’t just a muted, respectable expression of mild amusement. More like a crazed, thunderous guffaw. Marshall and both Alices stared at me, bewildered.
“Sorry, I just remembered a funny joke someone told me earlier today. I wasn’t laughing at the wine. It’s really terrific.” But the more inappropriate it is to laugh, the harder it becomes to suppress it. And I couldn’t. My second laugh sounded almost demonic.
By this point my wife had become thoroughly disgusted with my rudeness, but the Pointeres seemed to react only with curiosity. Marshall encouraged me to share the joke. That so reminded me of high school, where my teachers were continually catching me screwing around in the classroom and saying things like “If you have a joke, Mr. Rabinowitz, perhaps you’d like to share it with all of us.” My three dinner companions just continued to stare at me, waiting for my joke.
I couldn’t think of a joke quickly enough, so I begged off, claiming it was too off-color for the present occasion. “Maybe another time. Sorry.”
To be fair, the rest of the dinner was very nice. As I began to fill my stomach with bread and soup and then the delicious veggie lasagna that Alice Pointere had lovingly prepared, and as the second glass of wine began to take effect, my mood softened and I found myself semi-enjoying the conversation. There was no getting around the fact that Marshall hadn’t changed much in the 34 years since our high school days. He was still as unappealing and as irritating as ever. But he was also still just as pathetic and, seemingly, friendless. So, at least after a couple glasses of wine, my irritation had started to morph into a kind of sympathy that bordered on, but didn’t quite reach the level of, full-blown pity.
I found myself struggling to reconcile my strong desire never to see him again with my clear awareness of how hurtful it would be to reject him. I’m certainly capable of selfishness at times, but in this case complete rejection would cross the line from mere selfishness to cruelty. In his mind I was his best friend, and our deep friendship – his only friendship – would now, finally, be rekindled. I also understood that rejection would humiliate him before his wife, who from all accounts had been receiving a steady dose of propaganda about our closeness.
I wouldn’t have minded future get-togethers with Marshall as long they were infrequent. Unpleasant as those would be, I could meet with him briefly from time to time and feel good about the mitzvah I was doing. I know that sounds patronizing, but that was how I felt. And then I would have got the meeting out of the way and freed myself to enjoy my life again, unencumbered, for some reasonable period of time.
The problem with that solution was that it simply wasn’t possible. Realistically, he and his wife were new in town and he was not likely to form new friendships. He would be calling me constantly, and I knew that my patience would wear thin and then suddenly reach a breaking point. I would likely blurt out something unkind. It was like being back in high school again. Any display of kindness toward Marshall would just raise his expectations and embolden him to seek out more and more of my time. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to be uncaring about a person whose entire life story has been the relentless cruelty of others.
The moment Alice and I got into the car and closed the doors for the ride home, she let me have it with both barrels. “I can’t believe how mean you were. That was so obnoxious of you to ask that sarcastic question about his nephew’s sign.”
“I wasn’t being sarcastic. I genuinely wanted to know the young man’s sign.”
“It’s not funny. You were just plain rude. And then the mocking laughter about the wine? They opened their home to us and treated us to a dinner that it must have taken Alice ages to prepare. And it’s obvious that Marshall so looks up to you, though I don’t know why. He thinks of you as his only friend. And Alice was desperately hoping you would be the friend he’d been telling her you were. You’ve really disappointed me.”
“OK, I admit my little comment about his nephew’s sign might have been a bit rude. But I don’t think that comment was a big deal. They probably saw it as just good-natured kidding. And as far as my laughing at dinner, it wasn’t about the wine. I thought the wine was very good.”
I related to Alice what his house tour had been like and explained that the only reason I had started to laugh at dinner was that I was bursting with desire to ask him how much he’d paid for the wine, knowing I couldn’t do that. “You can’t imagine how much restraint I was showing this whole, very long evening. The one and only time that I gave in to my own urges was the thing about the nephew’s sign. I don’t think that was so bad.”
Alice just frowned. “Well, regardless of your actions tonight, we have to reciprocate. I think we should invite them over for dinner next weekend.”
“Well, what’s your plan? We never communicate with them again?”
“No, you’re right. But let’s make it two weekends from now. I don’t want them to think these get-togethers are going to happen weekly.”
“OK. I’ll call them tomorrow and invite them for two weeks from tomorrow, a Saturday evening.”
That conversation left me with at least four unresolved questions: Had I really been as kind to Marshall in high school as I want to remember myself being? Should I apologize to both of them for my rudeness? What should I do about my long-term relationship with Marshall going forward? And, now that I think about it, how much did we pay for our sofa?
The next evening, as we had agreed, Alice called the Pointeres to tell them what a nice time we had had and to invite them over for dinner two weeks later. Alice Pointere thanked her for the invitation but had to decline. It turns out that Marshall’s friend from work had two tickets to the Red Sox game that evening and had already invited Marshall to join him. Alice Choi said that sounded very nice and “in that case, how about Friday, same weekend?”
After a few moments of silence, Alice Pointere replied. “Um, I’m not sure. I seem to remember that we have something else going on that evening. Let me check with Marshall and get back to you.”
When Alice Choi filled me in on her conversation, we were both a bit mystified, though I for one felt some temporary relief. “It sounds like Marshall has a friend from work. That could work out well for all of us.” At the same time, strangely, I felt somewhat annoyed that he no longer thought of me as his only friend in the world. On balance, though, this was a good thing.
Alice Pointere called back the next evening. “Alice, we’re not going to be able to make it for dinner, sorry. But we appreciate your inviting us.”
Alice Choi wasn’t deterred. “I’m happy that you’re making new friends so quickly. It’s always hard to do that when you move to a new place. Why don’t we shoot for next weekend instead?”
Now there was an unusually long, uncomfortable pause. Alice Pointere asked “Alice, can I be completely honest with you?”
“Of course. What is it?”
“Well, you seem very nice, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings. But the truth is that Marshall and I both found Rabby to be arrogant and condescending, especially toward Marshall. Marshall sensed that he was being mocked, and he feels quite hurt. He’s asked me to tell you that he would prefer not to continue this relationship. I’m sorry.”
As my wife was reporting the conversation to me, she knew I would feel some mixture of relief and guilt. But it was more than that. Somehow I found myself mourning the loss of my old friend. My list of unresolved questions has now boiled down to just one: Should I call him?
Steve Legomsky is a former mathematician, Washington University law professor specializing in immigration, refugees, and human rights, and Chief Counsel of the immigration services agency in the Obama Administration. He has had visiting research or teaching appointments in twelve countries and has published three scholarly books (Oxford University Press and West Academic), numerous academic journal articles (the full list appears at https://law.wustl.edu/faculty-staff-directory/profile/stephen-h-legomsky/), and a novel, “The Picobe Dilemma” (Booklocker.com, 2017). His other short stories appear in Fewer than 500, the Broadkill Review (forthcoming), and the Ravens Nest. His odd jobs have included shoveling horse manure (literally), caddying, and selling shoes. Steve lives in St. Louis and loves his family, children, animals, and the Red Sox. He hates the Yankees.