On this particular trip to the hardware store, I dressed for the occasion.
Dirt-covered clothes. Unshaven. The body odour of a man who just spent two hours battling a leaky reticulation system.
So naturally, today is the day I bump into someone from my past.
I can’t remember the last time I saw Derek*. We were never particularly close but we spent a lot of time together during our younger years. He wasn’t well-liked in the group, due to a few irritating traits, but he eventually grew on you, much like an ingrown hair.
Whenever you reconnect with an old friend or schoolmate, there are always questions. Will you recognise them? Have they changed? Will they try to sell you a pyramid scheme?
Of course, the thing you really want to know is, are they more successful than you?
It’s a competitive sport we all partake in, comparing ourselves with our peers. We measure our achievements against those of our friends, family members and people we don’t even care for.
Why do we do it exactly? To validate our own existence? For a brief feeling of superiority? The drive to compare is probably as old as humanity itself, but there seems to be very little upside, with plenty to lose. Our time. Our focus. Our self-esteem.
Perhaps the real battle is with ourselves. It’s a struggle with our own insecurities. The realisation we’ve failed to meet our own high expectations of success.
The reunion with Derek was unexpected, but the greeting was awkward. Should we shake hands? Was a hug more appropriate? Or should we try one of those elaborate hand-slapping routines we practiced as kids? Nothing says maturity like two grown-men playing pat-a-cake.
We settle on a manly thumb-grab, which feels about right. Then I open the conversation with the classic: “So, how long has it been?”
“Fifteen years I reckon,” he replies.
I notice he’s better dressed than I am, but that isn’t saying much today.
“You look great,” I remark, instantly regretting it. This is turning into a bad sitcom.
“So what are you doing with yourself?” I quickly ask, trying to erase my earlier comment.
He gives me a bit of background but I can tell he’s being vague. I discover he isn’t married and when I ask about kids he jokingly says “Not that I know of.” The image sends a shiver up my spine.
He says nothing about where he lives and gives few details about his profession—something involving computers or clouds. Overall, he doesn’t seem confident about his situation, which makes me a little sad.
He asks about my life and I give him the basics. Kids. Business. How I’ve recently started a blog that is read by more than thirty people. And I make sure to explain why I’m dressed like I should be pushing a trolley full of aluminium cans.
There’s a break in the conversation and we take the opportunity to say our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch but not really meaning it. Then, to my surprise he heads directly for an immaculately-presented luxury car parked on the other side of the street and I can’t help but rethink our encounter.
Did he not tell me the whole story? Was meteorology more lucrative than I anticipated? Clearly, he is more successful than he made out. I now understand his vagueness was actually modesty, which makes me admire him more than I ever have.
As he reaches his car, I expect to see a Miss Universe contestant in the passenger seat waiting for him—but, unexpectedly, he gets into the passenger seat.
I squint, trying to get a better look at who is driving this fine automobile. It’s a woman, an older woman—a woman I recognise.
The penny finally drops and, before he has the chance to close the door, I yell out to him, with all the enthusiasm of a talk-show host:
“Say hi to your mum for me!”
*Name changed for obvious reasons.