“You're a hero, Hal, well done.”
I was addressing my 14-year-old son, who had just finished recounting to me what he described as his “black ops maneuver” of the day before.
Hal is an improbably handsome 8th grader with keenly honed senses of both loyalty and chivalry, which on that day came into conflict. Or perhaps the conflict was only superficial.
For some weeks, Hal has been worried about his friend, Ian, who lacks both Hal’s beauty and his mountain-goat nimbleness on the craggy ledges of middle-school society. Months earlier, Ian had attempted to ingratiate himself with Hal’s girlfriend by feeding her a false tale of disloyalty on Hal’s part. His gambit succeeded only partially: Sara believed him, and broke with Hal, but she also spurned the disloyal drudge who had brought her the information. His action also cost him a friend … at least for the few weeks that it took Hal to forgive him. Soon after they were back to riding their bikes through Rock Creek Park and fishing in the stream behind Hal’s mother’s cabin in Pennsylvania. Hal could afford to be generous: He had many other friends; Ian did not.
More recently, Hal was worried about Ian’s proto-suicidal postings on Facebook and wondered if he should try to alert Ian’s mom, just back from rehab, and grandmother, also recently sober. “Talk to him first,” I said. “Tell him how much you’ve gotten out of your visits to Jason” (Hal’s counselor). Tell him you think he should try talking to Jason, too.”
Then he found some pictures on Ian’s phone, pictures of their friend Billy’s mom naked, pictures that Billy’s mom had sent from her own phone to her faraway boyfriend. Ian captured the images by photographing Billy’s mom’s phone. “I didn’t take them!” Ian protested, when Hal and their friend James confronted him about it. “Dude,” Hal said, “I can see your reflection in the pictures.” Busted. Hal deleted them.
“Don’t be too hard on Ian,” I said, “It’s not unusual for boys to be attracted to older women.”
“Dad!” he broke in, “she’s not older, she’s old. She’s almost 50 and wrinkled! No offense.”
“How did Billy react to all this?” I asked.
“Strangely, he was OK with it.”
That was a few weeks ago. In the interim, although the suicide warnings had abated, Ian’s behavior had become more erratic and provocative. He inserted himself into conversations. He snuck up behind a girl in their circle and grabbed her breasts. He made a show of farting on his hand and shoving that hand into people’s faces. He harassed an older woman (this one in her 20s) at the swimming pool on the roof of James’s apartment building until she had to hit him with her magazine and tell him to fuck off. He started fights that Hal had to finish.
“You can’t fight his fights for him,” I said.
“Yeah, but I don’t like people picking on my friends.” This had long been a topic of conversation between us.
“But when he provokes people,” I said, “they’re not picking on him. And if he can get your attention by taunting people into attacking him, he’ll do it over and over again until you stop rescuing him. He’s doing it to get close to you. He’s living a kind of one-sided bromance.”
Hal had to think about this one.
So what happened yesterday? Well, Hal told me that Ian had tried to blackmail a girl into giving him a blowjob.
“Good lord, Hal, that’s a terrible way to try to find love.”
“I know, right? But she didn’t fall for it.”
“Good for her. What did he do, exactly?”
“He threatened to say stuff on Facebook about her that would embarrass her.”
“And she called his bluff?”
“She told on him? Or she said, go ahead, say what you want, I’m not not doing it?”
“Well, not exactly. It started when he sent her a picture, uh, well, I can’t really tell you …”
“He sent her a picture of his dick?”
“Yeah. And he said that he would start saying bad things about her unless she sent him back a picture of her.”
“Of her naked?”
“A picture of her boobs. Which she did.”
“So then he says that he’ll post that picture of her unless she gives him a BJ.”
“That manipulative little shit.”
“I know, right?”
“But by then she was compromised,” I lectured, “and telling on him was no longer an option.” I paused to let my wisdom sink in. “So what did she do?”
“She told me about the whole thing and I waited until he walked away from his backpack for a few minutes and I deleted the picture of her from his phone.”
“Wow, that was bold! What was the bad thing that he had threatened to divulge about her?”
“I didn’t ask her. That wasn’t my business.”
“Quite right,” I said. “Does he know that it was you who deleted the picture?”
“Not yet. He’s going to look for it later but won’t find it. I guess he’ll suspect me, but there’s not much he can do about it.”
That’s when I told him he was a hero and when he told me that it had felt like black ops.
“Anyway,” he continued, “her dad found the picture of Ian’s dick on her phone ‘cause she didn’t know how to delete it, so now he’s in deep shit.”
“Well, you can’t fight that battle for him.”