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Words Left Unsaid

Posted by Didi Gorman on

By Didi Gorman

The discrepancy between his words and his demeanor left me uncomfortable. He was trying too hard to sound glamorous, yet he looked dispirited.

Rick was a childhood friend of ours, of my brother Patrick’s and mine. He was gifted with a keen entrepreneurial mind and no small amount of charisma. Later, after we both graduated business school with top grades, albeit in different programs, he started a brilliant and promising sales and marketing career in a brilliant and promising startup, while I, the less adventurous of the two, settled for something less audacious and found a job as a financial analyst in the bank, even though I had briefly entertained the idea of starting up my own market research firm or partnering with an online-courses channel as a lead financial analysis tutor. I moved out of Boston to be closer to my new work but still visited Boston from time to time, on which occasions Rick, Patrick, and I would meet up for coffee at a nearby mall. Florence, Rick’s wife, and their twin toddler boys would sometimes join us, staying for the first couple of minutes, and then retiring to the ice cream parlor or strolling to the toy store, leaving us, old friends, to catch up on our latest news.

Rick would then fill me in on the latest developments in his astounding career, his eyes glistening with exhilaration, his voice assured: How he dazzled a bigger-than-life client into signing a lucrative contract or how he scored some kind of a once-in-a-lifetime deal. I was very proud of him at first and deeply impressed with his achievements. But as time went by and the same spectacular stories invariably repeated themselves, I started questioning their plausibility. How come everything he did was always a success? How come he was so faultless? There was something too over-the-top in the way he narrated his triumphs; something I couldn’t quite pin down.

“I’ve made tons of money this year!” he announced one time, referring to his own income rather than the capital his company had raised, and it seemed to me that he was searching my eyes for a response. He then launched into a soliloquy about his latest accomplishments. In addition to his regular work, he explained, he had been offered the opportunity to run a series of webinars, where he would bequeath his financial wisdom to the young and inexperienced. There would be a fee, it went without saying, for private consultations with him, and if all went well, a column in the newspaper would follow.

He was talking at me, not to me, I realized halfway through his monolog. Pangs of jealousy unsettled me from within. He was singing his own praise. I didn’t measure up.

The same scenario was replicated at our following get-together, several months later. The short chat about my job in the bank, in which, admittedly, there was not much excitement, was followed by a lengthy speech about how well his webinars had done, the loads of money he had made, the many customers who were wooing him and were smitten by him, the column he had been writing for the newspaper. “Thousands of readers are interested in my column,” he said, a little too emphatically, as if performing for an invisible audience. He then sermonized about an interview he had given on the radio. Or perhaps those were two separate interviews that he lectured me about, or maybe fifteen. I found it hard to keep up. I was exhausted. Despite my better judgment, stabs of envy were clawing at me again and my heart was pounding with gusto. How I hated to feel lacking. Just. Stop. Please. Just. Stop. He was barraging me.

My support for him had been tarnished by envy. I sat there, saying little, listening to his unrelenting self-glorification, and felt flustered and small.

“I’ll send you a link to my webinars, Maggie,” he exclaimed, a tad too cheerfully. “You should subscribe. I promise I won’t charge you anything for consultations,” he said, patting my shoulder. “I can teach you how to start up your own firm, how to bring in investment, you know, all the good stuff. I mean, if you ever get bored with the bank and want to branch out into something more stimulating.”

I swallowed. He wasn’t really trying to encourage me to start up my own business, my intuition told me. There was something else looming in the way he spoke to me. It felt like a put-down.

“I’m not bored with working in the bank, Rick,” I said, my tone stiffer than I had intended. “Besides, we did our MBAs together, remember? I don’t think I need any tutoring.”

“Oh, right, sorry,” he replied, looking at me with an expression I couldn’t read.

*   *

On the way home Patrick noticed I was brooding. “He got to you again, Mags? Why don’t you just stop going to these meetups?” he asked.

It was a good question, but Rick was a childhood friend, one of the few I still had in Boston and who reminded me of our childhood, and by extension, of home. I was not willing to dispose of a childhood friend as if he were a pair of old shoes, even though I had not enjoyed our recent get-togethers. I still felt obliged by our old friendship.

“He’s telling you a lot of stories,” said Pat, emphasizing the word ‘stories’ as if it held some kind of a special significance.

“What do you mean? You mean he’s playing me?” I asked defensively. “Why would he be telling me stories? You make it sound like he’s lying to me, for some reason.”

“I didn’t say that he was lying, but he might be embellishing his stories a little, you know? To make an impression. Take what you’re being told with a few grains of salt. Think of his stories as tales.” Pat emphasized this last word.

I looked at Pat. His words were still echoing in my head when snapshots from our childhood floated to my memory. Rick had been somewhat full of himself even as a child. It was almost comical sometimes. I had always thought of it as part of his upbeat charm. Or was it charm indeed? I had a flashback from when we were ten, of Rick placing a cooking pot on his head, pretending it was a crown. He had appointed himself king of a castle, the castle being the couch in his living room, on which he had piled up a few cushions. He charged me and Pat a cent to tour his castle. A couple of minutes later he raised his price to two cents, and declared jubilantly, “I have doubled my sales! I have made two hundred percent profit in only two minutes!” He was right, of course, but the total was still only three cents.

Pat interrupted my reverie. “Do you know the tune ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’?” he asked, leaning his head towards me, smirking mischievously, eyes open wide. It was a rhetorical question.

“Okay, smarthead, I get it!” I blurted peevishly. I wasn’t in the mood for his witty humor. “Rick has always had this ego thingy about him, what’s the word again? ‘Egotistical’? And now that his company is doing so well, he bathes in self-importance. Like, he’s better than everybody else, or something. Right?”

“Yes and no. He bathes in self-importance alright, but this is a self-declared superiority. He’s much less successful than you think, and he mostly has this neediness to prove that he’s better than you, that’s all.”

“Better than me? Specifically me?” I asked incredulously. “I thought he acted like that with everybody.”

“No, Mags, he’s not like that with everybody, only with people he finds intimidating.”

My raised eyebrows were a cue for Pat to continue.

“You both excelled in business school, remember?” Pat continued. “Frankly, I don’t think he had ever forgiven you for that. He wanted to be the only star, you know? He was thrilled when you chose banking over something more entrepreneurial, and he’ll keep rubbing his so-called victories in your face until you admit defeat.”

Was Pat holding back a chuckle? This sounded utterly ridiculous. Or maybe not that ridiculous on second thought.

“You gotta be kidding, Pat! Geez! This is a parody!” I cried out. But the more I thought about it, the more I connected the dots.

“Does he blabber to you about how grand he is, too?” I asked.

“No, not really. He reserves those spiels for you. He doesn’t need all this BS with me. I guess he’s more comfortable with me,” Pat explained.  “My job as an animal-shelter attendant does not intimidate his ego. He’s not in competition with me. Whereas with you –” Pat let his sentence trail off.

I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing came out. It must have looked like I was gaping. Did Pat just refer to me as ‘intimidating’? Did he just imply Rick was competing with me over which one of us was more prestigious?

“With me he talks about the real stuff,” Pat went on. “How the first webinar was a flop, how he lost sleep over it, how an investor pulled out at the last minute, how Florence and him have been drifting apart recently, how she accused him of being self-absorbed, how he was worried sick he might lose her, how he had to cough up a hefty sum to get his column to the paper. I’m pretty sure to you he said he was offered to write a column. Right? Anyway, you get the point. He’s now on antidepressants. And you’re not supposed to know any of this, by the way.”

I stared at Pat in disbelief, my thoughts in disarray. It was like there were two Ricks. The show-off one with me, with his ego completely out of check, and the real one, the kind, tender, and insecure one with Pat. I didn’t know what to make of this. I hadn’t been prepared for this. I had always thought we were good friends. Were we really? This thought was painful.

How come he talked to Pat about these things, but not to me? I felt my cheeks flushing. I had already known the answer.

“I think behind his mask he’s kinda insecure, Mags,” said Pat, reading my thoughts.

*   *

My following meeting with Rick was not an easy one. The discrepancy between his words and his demeanor left me uncomfortable. There was the usual deluge of glamorous claims, but he looked dispirited.

I now knew that his self-proclaimed greatness was wishful thinking; more imaginary than real, as if hearing his own voice uttering those words would somehow project them into reality or perhaps provide a shield against it.

But now that I knew the truth and had a fuller picture, I wanted to tell him to snap out of it. I also wanted to hug him, my old buddy Rick, in the name of our childhood friendship, and I also wanted to slap him.

I didn’t.

I was swamped by contradicting emotions. I felt sorry for him, I cared about him as I’d always had, but I was also ticked off.

“How’s Florence and the kiddos?” I asked before we parted.

“Florence’s fine,” he said flatly, nodding slightly, as if to validate his own words. “And Eugene and Caleb are doing great in kindergarten.” He nodded again.

He won’t tell me, I thought to myself. He’s too embarrassed. I searched his eyes for clues. They told me without words what I had already known.

*   *

I had always wanted to believe in the simplicity of words: that if someone told you something, you could take their words at face value. I wanted to believe in a person’s transparency. It wasn’t for nothing that I was comfortable in a banking job. I much preferred the straightforwardness and predictability of numbers over the complexities of the human psyche.

When a few weeks later Pat filled me in about the breakup, it did not come as a surprise. Nor was it a surprise that Rick had confided in Pat but hadn’t mentioned it to me. Was it Florence who had had enough of Rick’s delusional stardom, I wondered. I had the impression she hadn’t made as much fuss about it as Rick would have probably liked her to. Was it her lack of enthusiasm that had propelled Rick to try even harder to impress her, perpetuating the cycle of cause and effect until both found it unbearable?

I regretted that Rick hadn’t shared with me what had truly been on his mind, wasted our precious meetings chattering away about his fake grandeur. There were too many words left unsaid between us: the meaningful ones, the ones reserved for true friends. It pained me that his ego had hijacked our friendship. But whether it was only his ego to blame, or mine had a part in it too, I now couldn’t tell.