Joey rolls his eyes and hands me the whiskey bottle. We’ve been at it for almost three hours now and the time has never been more appropriate for clumsy confessions or what-appear-at-the-time-to-be smart things to say (but will cease seeming so in the morning).
„If you do something you know is wrong, but don’t feel bad about it afterward, does that qualify you as a bad person?“
„It depends. Have you finally killed someone?“
I thrust my foot between his ribs and he squirms.
„No,“ I answer indignantly. „Nothing like that. I was just wondering… what does it mean if you don’t feel guilt at all?“
„That you were socialized outside of the Western, Judeo-Christian circle of influence? Either that, or you’re a sociopath.“
I aim for his ribs again, but he sees it coming and grabs hold of my leg, cradling it under his arm.
„It was a serious question!“
„No, it was self-indulgent. You only want me to tell you you’re a good person, and that no matter what you do or have done, you’ll always be a good person. Isn’t that the point?“
He’s so right it’s physically painful. My cheeks reach boiling point within seconds. The body can’t lie.
„Well, maybe. A bit. I do want to hear what you think, though. Between my diploma in self-deception and the self-absorbed way I’ve been acting recently, I need you to set me straight.“
„No, you don’t. You don’t want to be set straight. All of this… it’s just you looking for my approval. Looking for me to condone whatever this new shit-storm you’ve thrown yourself in the middle of is. And I won’t do it.“
Am I really in the same place I was five years ago, when I sought out that kind of shallow pat-on-the-back approval children need from their parents? Perhaps this is another kind of test, not for myself, but for Joey.
An unsettling thought pushes through the whiskey-soaked barrier of my denial, and I glimpse a pattern that’s been unfolding over the last couple of weeks – I see a tentative causal relationship between my seemingly random, temperamental actions, and I squeal. Loudly.
„Jesus Christ, you’re gonna bleed my brain out! What the…?“
This is not about Joey, or Mister Y (I feel the X has been overused as a letter by now). As always, it’s about me. I’m testing myself on how deep one’s narcissism can reach, checking to see whether the love I hold for myself is unconditional. This is so much worse than approval, I realize, it’s regressing to the stage of an infant who pisses and shits where it sleeps, over the people who love it, and then looks up doe-eyed as if challenging them not to smile at its mess. It’s not even a question of whether or not I’m a good person, it’s a question of being able to live with myself realizing I’m not.
A friend of mine said in a conversation recently, it’s not what you think that matters, it’s what you do. As cliched and empty as it is, it so perfectly fits as the answer to my question that I can’t help but think if she somehow telepathically foresaw this evening. But this, again, leads me to the fact that I can only ever think of myself, even with regard to other people, and so I do the only thing I still can to stop digging myself in deeper into this not-all-that-hypothetical grave. I continue squealing.
Joey grabs my leg and pulls me on top of him, rocking and shushing me like the baby I am. When I settle down and grow quiet, he kisses the top of my head and rests his cheek upon it.
„Are you done?“
I nod into his shoulder.
„Good. Now, to answer your question…“
Childish as it is, I shut my eyes really tightly while preparing to hear the verdict. It won’t really help, I know, my ears are not magically synched with my eyes, but I don’t want to remember the moment when I lose my best friend. Not having any visual cues to tie to this particular scene, I hope, will help me forget later on.
„You’re not all white, and you know it. We’ve had this conversation a billion times before, only you keep forgetting because that’s what the booze is for, right? The very fact that we’ve been having these little talks though, that’s what matters most to me. Because it means you’re trying. Sure, you can be really annoying with your self-analysis, and yes, I feel like you keep running in a circle around some of these issues you’ve created artificially, and even more to the point I think you’re often reckless with others… But all that said, it’s nothing compared to what you do to yourself. “
„Say you do a good thing. You’ll feel bad because you don’t do good things too often and it will make you sad. When you do a bad thing, it’s better, because it reinforces the image you have of yourself as a horrible person. No, not the superficial nice-girl act you’ve got going on, but your most fundamental, basic belief about yourself. Because, like in every aspect of your life, you’ve set your standards far too high in terms of morality, too. You’re not perfect, you never will be. But that doesn’t mean you’re all black, either.“
Halfway through his monologue, I relax. Waves of sanity slowly wash over the crazy, drunken neurons and I listen to what Joey is saying. I’m not sure it gets through to the innermost parts, but rational, fact-based understanding is the first step toward acceptance. Or so I hope.
„What you mean to say is I’m gray. How unexciting.“
„What I mean to say, silly, is you’re all colors of the fucking rainbow. As you should be.“
Supposing Joey is right, I have my work cut out for me in terms of coming-to-terms with this multitude of colors and moods that make up the fabric of who I am. It’s a new experience for me, not thinking in absolutes. Making peace with the uncertainty of being a twenty-something , emotionally volatile girl with a penchant for theatrics (which, truth be told, comes with the territory of being twenty-something, or being a girl). As I’m lying in his arms drifting off to sleep, I think of this being a test again, only there are no right or wrong answers, nobody to correct your mistakes in fiery red marker. You do what you can, your best or your best of the moment, and in the end, you try to love yourself for trying.
It’s not easy. More often than not, I know it’s going to hurt. This is not the last conversation we’ll have on the subject, not by a long shot. There will be times when I wake up with the urge to squeal again, or cry, or punch myself in the gut. But I’ll call Joey, and he’ll appear at my door like a knight, or maybe more of an on-call bartender – bottle in hand, trademark sly smirk, ready to hear me out and take my hand as moral support while I battle my imaginary demons. Because that’s what you do when you love someone unconditionally. You lean, you squeal into their shoulder, you tell them about the black bottom bits of yourself when whiskey gives you the courage to recognize they exist. When you love someone unconditionally, you listen as they squeal. You don’t cringe away from their mistakes. You dilute the darkness you find and draw a hypothetical rainbow over their body instead.