In college he was known as “Aruba.”
Freshman year, he was always telling us he was “off to Aruba” or “just back from Aruba,” so if you were describing him to someone, you’d say “you know, that guy who’s always in Aruba” and they would know exactly who you meant. Eventually you’d just say “Aruba’s coming to dinner” or “I saw Aruba in the Quad.”
But I never called him “Aruba” to his face. Somehow I could tell from the beginning that he was not the sort of person who could gracefully wear an effacing nickname, so I’d make a point of addressing him by his real name. Others were not so sensitive. As the years went by, I noticed his circle of friends constricted to the point where he hung out with just a few of us, none of whom uttered the forbidden nickname in his presence.
I’m not sure exactly why I hung out with him. We had little in common. He was rich -- I later learned his Aruba place actually belonged to his uncle, who was very rich -- while I was poor. He jetted about the world, while I’d never left the country. He never seemed to study, while my head was always buried in a book (though, come to think of it, I wasn’t studying either, as those were usually not the books assigned in my classes). He dressed like a peacock while I wore the same tired uniform of jeans and t-shirt everyday.
I’m pretty sure I hung out with him only because he wanted to hang out with me. He was very good at hunting me down -- this was in the days before cell phones, text messages and even email, and I didn’t have a landline, so finding me required effort. That he exerted the effort was very gratifying, coming at a time in my life when no one else bothered.
One oddity: I couldn’t hunt him down. I tried, sometimes, but he never answered his phone or, when I later got a phone, returned my calls, if I dropped by unexpectedly he'd ignore my knocks and never responded when I left messages on his door's white board, and he was even cold to me when I saw him walking on campus. It was as if our friendship was exclusively one-way; only he could control it.
He was a great talker. He’d spin these stories that went on for hours. He’d swear they were true, but I wondered. Could anyone’s life possibly be this entertaining? Could he possibly be such an infallible superhero? Could others truly be responsible for all his problems? Of course not, but I held my tongue, never expressed any doubts, and truth be told I did find his stories entertaining. I was, in short, a good listener, just what he needed.
He was also a great source of information. He had strong opinions, and was often right. He knew which shoes were the best, what time of year you needed to visit Paris, what haircut looked best on your head, which tie worked with that shirt, which girl was right for you, how to achieve that particular slide guitar sound, all sorts of stuff. I was a sponge for his information, but never an acolyte, as I couldn’t afford to implement most of his advice ($200 for shoes?!), but he didn’t seem to care. The advice just kept flowing.
He did have an unpleasant habit of inserting little digs against me into his stories, and advice, but given my own low self-esteem I didn’t disagree with a lot of them and shrugged off the others.
So even though I found him strange and off-putting, and even though I could never really develop a real friendship with him, given the one-way artificially stilted nature of our interactions, I continued to respond when he called.
After college we went our separate ways but I never completely lost touch with him. Every so often, out of the blue, I’d get a call from him, and after his perfunctory “how are you doing?” he’d ignore my response and spend an hour or so spinning another story, just like in college. Occasionally he’d leave me room to say something, which he then usually treated as an open invitation to deliver more advice. By this point he knew so little of my life that his advice was often ridiculously wide-of-the-mark, but his certainty never wavered.
Then a few years ago another friend emailed me a news story with a note: “Check this out: Aruba’s going to jail!” Aruba had gone into business for himself, probably seeded by his rich uncle, and ran into hard times during the financial crisis. To stay afloat, he allegedly spun a story for some new investors, enticing money out of them before they realized he’d allegedly misrepresented the true state of his business.
I called Aruba, and sent an email. True to form, he never responded.
He hasn’t gone to jail but, from the limited news I’ve seen, he lost at least one investor case and must be spending a lot of his time hunkered down with lawyers.
I’m sure he will rise again, if only in his own mind, but until he does I am equally sure I will not hear from him. For he must always be the infallible superhero and, at this time in his life, not even he can pull that off. And if he falls far enough below me, I am sure I will never hear from him again, for I am now convinced that the real reason he sought me out so assiduously in college was that I was the ultimate loser and, therefore, the perfect backdrop for him to display his relative greatness.
Aruba is but a minor footnote in my life, or so I thought, for recently I have realized that my life is filled with Arubas. I am drawn to these charismatic narcissists, just as they are drawn to me. They offer me an enticing vision of a fully-realized self while I offer them the unquestioning affirmation they so desperately crave. In the process I make them worse, and they make me worse, thereby increasing our respective needs for each other.
Sick, but there it is. At least now I know.
But I also have to admit that if my phone rings and caller ID tells me it is Aruba, I’m still going to answer. And listen.
Sick, but there it is.