The asshole in the room
I often find myself sitting in a room with an asshole.
What’s striking is that he looks like me, sounds like me, acts like me—even thinks like me. And you should hear the shit he says to me, particularly when we’re alone together.
When there are other people in the room, it’s relatively easy to ignore him. Friends, family, coworkers, even grocery store clerks—when they’re around, he doesn’t say much. I can go through the motions, have pleasant conversations, help people out, smile and tell jokes, and for the most part, he sits quietly and watches.
But as soon as we’re alone together, he sidles up next to me to whisper something in my ear. He usually starts by casually pointing out that I’m alone with him again. That everyone else is gone, and it’s just me and him.
Then he begins to go to work.
“Y’know,” he says, flicking a speck of something off his shirt, “you’re turning 30 next week. 30 years old. The big 3-0. Tell me, what exactly have you accomplished?”
“Well—” I say, but he quickly cuts me off with a list of his own.
“I’ll tell you what: You’re almost 30, you’re unemployed, you’re essentially homeless, and you’re so broke that you’ve had to borrow money from your parents AGAIN.”
My shoulders sag. These are all true facts.
But he’s just getting warmed up.
“The really pitiful part is that you’ve been given so many opportunities—so much more than other people… let’s see… you’re a white American male, born to an upper-middle class doctor and lawyer, two people who still love each other and you. They’ve supported and paid for all of your education, supporting you through all of your academic follies. You’ve got a golden fucking safety net.”
Like me, he’s keenly aware of modern socioeconomic privilege.
“On top of that, you’re smart, funny, outgoing, creative, versatile, and adaptable. Privilege, brains, charm, and skill. You‘re practically Tony Fucking Stark.’”
I lift my head to look at him. These may sound like compliments, but we’ve had this conversation so many times that I know they’re just the lead-up to the punchline.
“You know what that means, don’t you?”
“Yes.” I say, dejectedly. “It means I’m—”
“It means you’re a waste of fucking resources, and you’re so far off course that you don’t even deserve to live the kind of life you want. Y’know what we could have done? We could have spent all that time and money putting your brains and charm through business or medical school, and then you could be sitting in a fancy office, wearing nice clothes, with a nice car, and taking home six or seven figures to your supermodel wife. But what have you accomplished instead? You’re—”
“—broke, unemployed, homeless, and useless,” I say as he says it to me, repeating the mantra he’s drilled into my head.
Sometimes, when he’s feeling particularly bold, he likes to sneak up behind me, tackle me, and sit on my chest. I struggle to breathe as he easily lets his weight pin me to the ground. I try to get up, but he just leans over to my face and sneers “You’re weak. If you can’t get me off of you, you have only yourself to blame.”
Sometimes we’ll sit there for hours, until someone walks into the room.
The other day as I was washing dishes, he fidgeted in his seat.
“Do you remember that time in seventh grade when you fucked up that thing on the soccer field?”
“Seriously?” I say. “That was what, 17 years ago?”
“Hah, yeah it was… I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s really sad that you’re still sensitive about it. Some trivial slip-up in a middle school soccer game, and you still feel embarrassed about it, don’t you?”
“You brought it up, dick.”
He chuckles and goes back to cutting his fingernails, but now he’s got me thinking about it again. Fuck.
I wake up one morning to sunlight streaming through the blinds. I think I fell asleep around 2, but here it is now 7:15 and I’m groggily but irrevocably awake. He kept me up late last night, going on and on about a big decision I need to make soon, and how I’m probably going to make the wrong one.
“Morning, useless. What’s your unemployed ass going to do today?”
I try to ignore him as I reach for my phone.
No new emails. No texts. No calls.
“No-body loves you,” he says in a sing-song voice.
I sigh, and hesitate as my thumb hovers over the blue and white [f] button.
I hate this, but I have to. It’s superficial, a farce of a proxy for real friendship, but I need a fix.
Facebook pops open, and after a second, a little red (4) appears over the Notifications globe. My heart skips a beat as I tap it. He reads over my shoulder.
“A couple random people like your rather uninspired photo, and two strangers also commented on that conversation you really shouldn’t have participated in.”
The fleeting moment of validity is over.
“Back to being alone!” he chimes, “but hey, look at how many people are hiking in beautiful places! It’s really too bad you’re wasting your life staring at your phone instead of being outdoors!”
I’m not sure when this guy first showed up. In retrospect, it seems like he’s always been around. He’s been such a persistent part of my life that I didn’t really notice something was off… in fact, until recently I didn’t even realize that he and I are actually different people. With his voice that sounds just like mine, the way he analyzes the world just like I do, the way he finishes my sentences…
A little over a year ago, he made me prematurely leave a good job, break up with a girlfriend I loved deeply, and leave the home and life we were building. I was sadder than I’d ever been, and he threw so much of his weight into holding me down that I couldn’t get out of bed for three days. But I didn’t see him yet.
I started spending all my time with another smart, capable, accomplished woman, and I could see that she had her own bitch roommate following her around. But I still didn’t see him standing next to me. He was plenty loud, telling me regularly that I wasn’t doing anything right, but since his logic seemed sound and he sounded just like me, I just assumed it was me talking.
She went her own way, and he and I moved into a big empty house together, on a shitty street in a ghetto part of Oakland. I thought I’d be excited to fix up a house, but by the first night, his voice echoed through the bare rooms, amplified in the dark, filling my ears with an ear-splitting, heart-crushing howl. I tried to hatch plans to get out: I’d text a friend, call someone, send an email. But every time I picked up my phone, he punched me in the stomach and yelled in my face that nobody cared, so there’s really no point.
One day I went to the store to get a bandage for my dog’s paw. I was at the corner liquor store, searching on my phone to find out if I could put Neosporin on a dog, when a young woman moseyed up to me. It was the first time someone had talked to me all day.
She muttered something about being late for a party and the mean cashier being too strict, and asked if I would buy her some beer and give it to her outside.
A voice inside my gut said no. A louder voice, in my hollow, crushed tin can of a heart, reminded me how good it would feel to do a favor for someone else. In my fix-starved-junkie haze, dying to feel that wash of love that comes from little acts of empathetic altruism, I reasoned that life is incredibly hard for a teenage girl, and that maybe the favor of a stranger could help her keep face in the harsh social world of her young adult life.
Too bad she was working a sting operation for the Oakland P.D.
As the cop was issuing me a citation, she said “get up off your knees, you’re making it look like we’re doing a felony stop.” But it was too late: on the outside, I had collapsed onto the sidewalk in grief, but on the inside, he was beating the living fucking shit out of me, his malicious laughter reverberating infinitely through the cavern of my soul.
That was the worst night of my life.
Fumbling in the dark at the bottom of the cave, I found a trap door. In the dim light, I carried my toothbrush and my tattered self-esteem to a safe spot in the home of some caring friends. With them in the room, he quieted down, but he still sat in the corner wearing a triumphant grin.
But while he was still in control, I could see him now. And I could see that I needed to do something about him, and our clearly unsustainable relationship.
I went and saw a doctor. She asked me some questions, checked some boxes, and told me he had a name:
She gave me some pills.
I called my mother.
It took every ounce of my energy to tell her his name, because, even though he was clearly a separate person, with his heavy arm weighing smugly on my shoulders as I sat on the phone, I was still so ashamed. I cried, for the first time in more than a decade.
I moved home later that summer, and since then I’ve been spending my time with as many other people around as I can muster. I’ve got a lovely girlfriend who is familiar with this kind of asshole, and does her best to point out when he’s whispering bullshit in my ear.
I’ve spent some of my free time training myself to be mindful of his tricks, and I’ve started talking to a woman who deals with this kind of asshole on a professional basis. More importantly, I’m on track to take care of those homeless/unemployed/broke/directionless problems in one fell swoop.
But it’s just the beginning. I see him, I recognize when he’s talking, and I try not to listen. Some days, though, he still gets the best of me. He talks shit about me, talks shit about my girlfriend, talks shit about my life. He sucks the air out of the room, and I still find myself gasping.
But I’ve got my eye on you, asshole.