Villains - TJ Acena


One of my brother’s friends leans across the table and points towards a stocky man with squinty eyes a few feet away, “Didn’t you go to high school with John?” 

John has been at the BBQ for an hour but we have not acknowledged each other yet. He used to play hockey with my brother but the knee brace coming out from under his long shorts tells me that his hockey days are behind him. I somehow forget that they were friends, so when he showed up for my brother’s wedding I was surprised. My memories of John are fuzzy but I know that none of them were pleasant.

“Yeah, he was kind of a jerk to me back then,” Is all I can think of to say.

My teenage years were full of villains, senselessly cruel boys who would hunt for me in the open hallways of schools. I use the term ‘villain’ because I think of people’s lives as stories, a series of narrative arcs which make them who they are. You won’t always understand the motives of villains or why they show up in your story, but you don’t have to, you just have to survive them.  

I turn to my brother and say in front of our family and his friends, “You’ve come such a long way since we were kids who seemed begrudgingly stuck together.” 

My brother smiles and I go on with the ceremony.

If you had told me in high school that I would end up officiating my brother’s wedding I would have scoffed at the idea, he had thrown his lot in with the villains of my life, he was not to be trusted.

My mother is trying to convince me that officiating wedding ceremonies should be my new career when John walks by. She calls him over and begins to pry about his life, his job, his girlfriend, his trip here, his future plans. To her he is just another one of her children’s friends, harmless.

“I’m considering going for a teaching certificate,” he answers to one of her questions. I nod. He is wearing a button up shirt and a tie, it’s not hard to imagine him as a gruff high school teacher back in Alaska. This is the first interaction I’ve had with him in over ten years. It did not occur to me that he would grow up and need a job one day. It also did not occur to me that he would have interests that were not hockey, alcohol, or making me miserable.

I’ve played the villain in a few stories myself, always the mundane kind: The coworker who never warms up to you, the lover who goes to bed with you even though he’s sure he’s going to break your heart, the neglectful boyfriend, the anonymous voice at the end of the line that tells you that your application has been denied. Right before I showed up for my brother’s wedding this weekend someone cast me as the villain in their life and now I am uninvited from their wedding.

I’m standing in the hotel bar, holding a glass of whiskey, watching my brother and his wife dance among family and friends to live covers of classic rock songs. This is the first time I’ve ever seen my family dance. I look to my right and see John standing next to me. He begins to stumble through a hastily prepared speech.

“Hey man, I just wanted to let you know that I feel bad about how I was in high school. It was just… it was just kids having fun. Well obviously not to you. But I didn’t… Anyway, I think you’re a cool guy.”

“It’s fine,” I say, “We were just kids.” 

I do not let him squirm, I let the moment end. He leaves to find his girlfriend, I turn back to watch my brother and his wife as the band starts a new song.