The Ugly Girl
It isn't that I hate Ryan Martin. It's just that he stirs within me a mix of emotions so volatile that I can hardly control myself when I think of him. I first noticed this on a night a little over six months ago, when I happened to run into him in a nearby video store. I had been glancing over some of the horror films, hoping to find one that would stave off the impending boredom of a lonely Saturday night, when I heard a voice from the opposite end of the row.
"Laurence, is that you? Hey, Laurence!"
I turned; realizing with a shock that I already knew who it was that had addressed me. That nasally voice, annoying and all too memorable, alerted me instantly that it was Ryan Martin, and yet had he not spoken up, I doubt I would have recognized him on appearance alone. Dressed in a black polo shirt and blue jeans, with stylish shoes and a marked lack of the glasses that once marred his face, he did not at all resemble the nerdy and unfashionable man that he had once been.
"Laurence, fancy meeting you here! I've wanted to give you a call for a while now, but I never could find your number. How have you been?"
"I've been okay, I guess," I managed to say, still surprised to see him. But his appearance was not the only thing distracting me. Standing next to Laurence, hand in hand with him, was a girl. For a moment, I thought that hell must have frozen over. In the three years that I had known him, I had never even seen Ryan start a conversation with a girl. And now, one was holding his hand? I couldn't wrap my head around it, and stood there rather foolishly, not sure what to say.
Ryan showed no signs of bewilderment as I did though, and continued on in a cheery tone. "I can't believe it's been five whole years since I've seen you, man. It feels like just yesterday that we graduated. Hey, you remember-"
"So who's your friend?" I blurted out, unable to handle the uncertainty any longer. I had to know the story behind this girl, had to know why she was with a guy like Ryan Martin of all people.
"Oh, sorry about that. I can't believe I forgot to introduce you!" He threw the girl an affectionate sidelong glance, a faint smile playing on his lips. "Laurence, I'd like you to meet my girlfriend, Cynthia Burdon."
At that moment, I had a strong urge to pinch myself, or even throw myself into one of the display racks. Anything to wake me up from this dream I was having. "Nice to meet you," I finally got around to saying, acknowledging her with a small nod of my head.
"Laurence and I were friends back in high school, darling," Ryan said to his girlfriend, who was staring off into space. She had not said anything or made any sign of acknowledgment to me at all, instead just glancing me over and then tilting her head to the side. Ryan did not seem to notice her lack of interest in me though, carrying on enthusiastically. "Me and him, man did we have some good times! Like when we had that history test in eleventh grade, and neither of us studied, so I copied off of the kid next to me, and then Laurence copied the answers I got off of him, and then…" Ryan was lost in his story, but I was too busy studying his girlfriend to pay any mind to it.
I had been too stunned by the fact that she was even there at all to notice it at first, but taking a closer look at her, she seemed to be incredibly bored. Not just bored at the story of Ryan and I's former exploits, no, she just seemed like she didn't want to be there at all. She tapped her foot rhythmically, and drummed her fingers on her crossed arms, rolling her eyes as Ryan droned on.
This all interested me greatly. I had originally thought that this girl had somehow, through some sort of miracle, or more likely a grave mistake in judgment, grown a romantic interest for Ryan. A guy who was undoubtedly the most unromantic person I knew. But now I saw the truth. Whatever she had been thinking when she agreed to date him, whatever her initial impression of him had been, she had changed her mind. This was not a girl who was passionate about her partner, a girl who was happy just to be in his presence. This was a girl who would clearly rather have been anywhere else but with him.
"…so in the end, all three of us wound up failing the test, but hey, at least we didn't get caught!" Ryan started laughing to himself, and I snapped out of my reverie, newly intrigued. Now I knew that this little "relationship" of his was founded on thin ice, at best.
"So hey, how did you and Ms. Burdon here meet? How long has all this been going on?" I said it as nonchalantly as I could; trying to make it seem as if I was just idly curious, when in truth I had a burning desire to know.
"Oh, I can't believe I was off reminiscing when you hadn't even heard the story!" Ryan crossed his arms and started chuckling to himself again; prompting his girlfriend to roll her eyes. "Cynthia and I met almost three months ago at an event hosted by a company that we both happen to work for. I noticed that she was wearing the same kind of necklace that my Mother used to wear, so I went up to mention that."
It was typical, I thought to myself, for Ryan to start a conversation like that; over something so stupid.
"Anyway, I was carrying a drink at the time, and right when I was about to talk to her I tripped, and wound up getting it all over her sweater."
"A very nice sweater, I might add…"the girl remarked, speaking for the first time. Her first words of the night, and they were ones of admonishment towards Ryan.
"I knew the drink would leave a stain, and I felt so bad about it that I went out and bought her a new sweater that very same night!"
"Okay, so…" I began, "you spilled a drink on her, bought her a new sweater, and that makes you two a couple…how, exactly?" The whole story was typical Ryan fare, but I still didn't get how it could lead to a relationship, even if it was a lackluster one.
Ryan snapped his fingers, pointing at me. "I was just getting to that, Laurence my boy. The thing is, while we were out shopping for a suitable replacement for the sweater I ruined, it gave us a chance to talk, and we realized that we actually have a lot in common. From there we kept talking at work, and after a few weeks…well, you can see. The two of us are giving it a shot together." Ryan's hand left his girlfriend's, and travelled up to wrap around her shoulder, pulling her in closer. I thought I saw a faint look of revulsion pass across her face when he did this.
"Can we go now? I told you I don't like this place. It's too crowded, there's no room to breathe. I'm ready to leave." The girl said this in a harsh voice, emphasizing her distaste at being in this place.
Or maybe, I thought to myself, she's showing her disdain for spending time with Ryan.
If Ryan noticed this harsh undertone, he made no mention of it. He simply slipped his arm off her shoulder and smiled. "Yeah, we should probably get going. We may have a long night ahead of us." Ryan winked at me discreetly as he said it. This guy was just too much sometimes. "Anyway, it was great to see you again Laurence. We ought to stay in touch, you know? Mind if I get your number?"
I decided to humor him, and we exchanged cell phone numbers. I had no particular desire to see him again or anything, but I figured what the hell, it couldn't hurt to have him available. Besides, I was extremely interested in finding out how his "relationship" would turn out, so I figured it would be worth staying in touch. Looking forward to hearing the news, I parted ways with him there, and returned home. It wasn't until I had already sat down and gotten comfortable that I realized I had completely forgotten to rent a movie.
For the next couple of days, I just couldn't get Ryan out of my mind. No matter what I was doing, no matter where I was, thoughts of him just kept popping into my head. The way he had changed since high school was mystifying. Ever since meeting him in the Tenth grade, Ryan had always been a loner. He had very few friends (and those he did have were mere acquaintances at best) and he just drifted about the school, trying to stay inconspicuous and out of trouble.
Ironically, it was probably this lack of attention he drew to himself that caused me to notice him in the first place. The thing is, I couldn't stand the people at my school. If they weren't delinquent scumbags just looking for a chance to cause trouble, then they were know-it-all, condescending assholes who thought they were so much better than you. They made me sick, every last one of them. Even the few people who weren't so insufferable tried their hardest to emulate their behavior, in a stupid hope of "fitting in", so for a guy like me, who saw past all the bullshit these people exhumed, there weren't many people to get along with.
But Ryan was different, and he knew it. He knew he wasn't like the other kids, knew he never really could be, and didn't really seem to care that much. So that made him okay in my book. Not that I really considered him a "friend", but he was tolerable. If I had to talk to someone, I figured I could do a lot worse than him. Maybe I also pitied him a bit, in a way. Whereas I could have fit in with the others had I really wanted to, Ryan couldn't. He was doomed to be excluded from all of the usual cliques and relationships that go on during high school, so maybe I figured it was my job, as someone who was unwilling to sell my soul and conform like my contemporaries, to look after him a bit. At the very least, I could talk to him once in a while.
Back then, I had been one of the only friends he'd had. I couldn't figure out what had caused him to change. He never talked to women, yet now he had a girlfriend. A girlfriend that showed no real affection towards him, but a girlfriend nonetheless. He always dressed goofy, either in clothes that were way to tight or way to big, (his family may have been too poor to provide better clothes, although I never got to know him well enough to say for certain) but now he was dressed, if not stylishly, at least ordinarily. And he just seemed…happy. Happy, content, as if he didn't have a care in the world. That wasn't the Ryan I had known in high school.
I couldn't fathom why I was so upset, and so I resolved to get Ryan out of my mind completely, to just forget our meeting had ever taken place. After a while, I finally managed to do just that. After all, these were meaningless thoughts. Ryan had been a decent guy, but I had never truly cared about him that much, and his life was none of my business. There was no reason for me to get so worked up about him.
And then that next Friday, one week after our meeting in the video store, he gave me a call. At first I was somewhat surprised when he said that he wanted to go somewhere and catch up, but then I remembered why I had given him my number in the first place and eagerly agreed to go bowling with him the following night. Putting the phone down, I nearly swore aloud, for I had forgotten to ask him to bring Ms. Burdon along. It would have been the perfect opportunity to ascertain the state of their relationship, but I decided it was no great loss. Either way, I knew I'd get my answer when I saw him the next day. And in the back of my mind, I realized that I was once again getting far to invested in Ryan's affairs.
The following evening, I drove down to the bowling alley, with a peculiar feeling of uneasiness in my stomach. I knew I had no reason to be worried, but I felt strangely anxious at the prospect of meeting with Ryan and, even more so, his girlfriend. This anxiousness continued to well up within me as I parked my car, exited it, and walked into the bowling alley, only to find Ryan standing alone, waiting for me. His girlfriend was nowhere in sight. "Ryan!" I called out, hoping to get his attention. He turned in my direction and smiled widely, making his way over to me.
"Laurence, glad to see you could come!" Ryan said, reaching out for a handshake. "I've been looking forward to meeting up with you. We didn't get to talk much last time."
"Yeah, I figured it would be good to catch up," I said, shaking his hand, all the while glancing about for any sign of his girlfriend. I didn't see her anywhere, so decided to bring it up as casually as possible. "Speaking of last time, that's when I met your girlfriend. Ms. Burdon, was it? I thought you might bring her along tonight." Despite myself, I was holding my breath waiting for his answer. I knew I shouldn't care. But I did.
"Ah yes, about her…" Ryan's voice trailed off, and he looked away, his face registering what appeared to me to be a rueful smile. "Sadly, not long after that day, things between us started to go south. Just a few differences in priorities, I suppose…" Ryan swatted his hand to the side, as if brushing the whole matter away. "Anyway, I'm sure you don't care to hear all about that. Long story short, we broke up a few days ago, and I haven't been in touch with her since. So I'm afraid it will just be the two of us tonight."
A strange, almost giddy feeling settled over me as I heard the news, but I knew I couldn't let it show. I needed to appear sympathetic. "Ryan," I said, reaching out my hand, contemplating whether or not I should place it on his shoulder. "Man, that's just-that's awful. I'm sorry things didn't work out, I thought you two looked really good together." That was a lie of course, I'd had my suspicions that things would fall apart between them from the beginning. But now wasn't the time to say things like that, now was the time to support him and let him vent his frustrations. I didn't particularly want to be the one to fulfill this task, but I supposed that it was my duty. After all, would Ryan have anyone else to turn to?
But to my surprise, Ryan just shrugged. "Well, I suppose it wasn't meant to be," he said, and then he smiled mischievously. "Besides, I've already got my eyes set on another girl, believe it or not."
"Another girl?" I asked incredulously.
"Well, a few of my coworkers and I went "out on the town" if you will on the night Cynthia and I broke up, and I happened to meet a certain lady…" Ryan's voice trailed off, and he got a glazed look in his eyes. This lasted only a second though, and he quickly regained his former demeanor. "Anyway, I happened to get her number, and well…I think I might give it a shot. I'm nervous, and I'll admit I might need a little more time after the recent breakup…but I might go for it." At that Ryan turned, and beckoned to me. "Anyway, I've reserved a lane for us. Wanna get started?"
"Hey, hold on a second!" I called after him, confused. "Is that…is that all you have to say? I mean, about your girlfriend? Don't you…" I struggled to find words for what I wanted to express. What had I expected? Anger, sorrow, things like that. Feelings of disappointment and inadequacy, but he didn't really seem that shaken up by all this. In fact, it seemed like he was handling things quite well.
Ryan just shrugged again. "Well, I gave it a shot, and it didn't work out. It's a shame, I really did think we had a connection, but…well, I see now I was wrong." Ryan gave me a wide grin, probably trying to reassure me that he was fine. He probably thought that I was genuinely concerned for his wellbeing. "If nothing else, I can think back on it as a learning experience. And besides, first relationships very rarely work out. Hopefully, the next one will turn out better."
I felt so incredibly agitated. Ryan's nonchalant attitude about all this, why did it bother me so? What was it that compelled me to keep talking, keep questioning him like some sort of fool? "And if the next one doesn't work?"
"If the next one doesn't work out, then I move on, and find someone else. I'll just keep looking, and try to find a girl that I can appreciate and who appreciates me, and someday, if I'm lucky, I'll find "the one". Really, I suppose that's all I can do, right?" Ryan gave me a hard look. "You know, you haven't told me anything about your romantic life since leaving high school!" He gave me a sly grin, and he was back in his jovial mood. "Come on, let's spill it. I bet you've been getting up to all sorts of mischief!"
"Are you kidding me?" I started saying without thinking, and before I knew it I was off, my voice growing louder and louder. "You think I'm going to get involved with all that crap? So I get a girlfriend, great. Now I've got less time, less money, and one more person that I need to please. I lose the freedom to live my life how I want because I've got some woman to constantly attend to, and then she'll just get mad at me one day and leave me behind, and I'll have wasted all that time and effort on someone I didn't even love". And, I mentally added, finally managing to hold myself back, that if I did somehow grow affection towards her, it would be even worse. Then I would be all alone, and even more miserable. "So no, I haven't gotten involved in any relationships since high school. I've just…" Come to think of it, what had I been doing all this time?
"Hey, Laurence, calm down man, it's alright. I was just curious is all. No need to get defensive."
"I'm not getting defensive!" I nearly yelled, and I realized that my raised voice had started to attract the attention of others, and there were now people watching us. Ryan looked around good-naturedly, acting as if nothing was wrong, but I couldn't do the same. I was too worked up now, to pissed off. If I stayed any longer, I knew I'd say more things that I didn't mean, things I'd regret saying later. So I clenched my fists and tried to hide my frustration, speaking in the calmest voice possible. "Sorry, Ryan. I don't think tonight is going to work for me after all. A lot's been going on, and I've been a little on edge recently. Another time, perhaps. And sorry about that outburst."
With that I quickly turned and started walking away. I heard Ryan say something behind me, but I wasn't really paying attention. I just wanted to get home where I could be alone to think. Because I had finally figured it out. I finally knew why I was so worked up about Ryan.
Ryan had taken charge of his life, pushing it forward even if the odds were stacked against him. Me, I had backed out before even checking odds, given up on everything before I had even started anything.
Figuring this out allowed me to put a name to what I was feeling: jealousy. For the first time in my life, I was jealous of Ryan Martin. This guy that I had looked down on for years was inspiring jealousy within me. I almost chuckled at the thought of it, but it was true. All those years in school, no matter how few friends I had, not matter how lonely I felt, no matter how much I hated everything around me, I could always say: "At least I'm not that guy. At least I'm not Ryan Martin."
But I couldn't praise myself for not being Ryan Martin anymore, because I had finally awoken to the ugly truth that he was better than me. It made me angry, frustrated me to no end. How dare he better himself so much, while I was still stuck back here, the same as always? How dare he act as if nothing had changed between us, when it was clear so much had? And yet all the time I cursed him out, I knew deep down that I was truly angry at myself.
For all my life, I had been content being a nobody, so long as I wasn't the only one. I didn't mind fading into obscurity, so long as I wasn't the first. So I gathered up the loneliest, saddest people I could find, people like Ryan Martin, and surrounded myself with them. I didn't talk to them because I felt bad for or pitied them; nor was it because I genuinely thought they were good people that I could get along with. It just made me feel better to think that compared to these people, I wasn't so bad. I was just like a pretty girl who keeps an ugly one around to make herself look better.
But what if all those nobodies had the same thoughts as me? What if all this time, I had unknowingly been playing the role of their "ugly girl"? What if they had always thought to themselves: "At least I'm not that guy. At least I'm not Laurence Cuit."?
If it turned out that I was just being used all this time, then where did that leave me? I had no close friends or relatives, no ambition, no talents, nothing to show for the twenty-three years that I'd been alive. All this time I had survived, living my life day to day and taking things as they came, but never once did I think that maybe there was more out there, that maybe if I tried a little harder, thought a little longer, took a few more risks…
Ryan figured it out though. And I was jealous of Ryan for not only figuring it out, but for acting on it. His life was moving forward, while mine was stuck in an eternal stasis, drifting about aimlessly but never moving on from where it was comfortable. Was there still time for me to change? Still time for me to catch up to Ryan? I didn't know, but I hoped so. I hoped that I could, because otherwise I knew that I would never get over the dreadful feeling of worthlessness and loneliness that consumed me on that night.
So it's not that I hate Ryan Martin. It's just that I get angry when I realize that he's everything that I'm not, everything that I should have been. But this anger is quickly replaced by respect and hope, because deep down I know: If Ryan can change, then so can I. And I never would have realized my potential if it weren't for him.