Meet Cute: Nemesis

I told this story on Twitter recently, and doing so in just 3 tweets reminded me how much fun it is. 

First! Definitions.

Meet Cute. The moment in a film or book (or real life) when love interests meet for the first time, usually in a cute or slightly unrealistic way. The terms can be used more broadly for any two significant characters meeting for the first time.

Examples: 

  • Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are introduced at a ball and he insults her (Pride & Prejudice)
  • Rapunzel hits Flynn Rider over the head with a frying pan, knocking him out (Tangled)
  • Jane Foster hits Thor with her van, then must take him to the hospital (Thor) 

Nemesis. They don’t necessarily hate each other, but they are rivals in all things. 

Examples: 

  • Thor and Loki (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
  • Harry Potter and Cedric Diggory (Goblet of Fire)
  • Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes)

Now, to the story of the meet cute with my first nemesis.

On my first day of kindergarten, I and the rest of my class were lined up alphabetically by first name. Directly before me was a boy named Jeremy. This line determined our seats and line order for the rest of the year (and, because our teachers were a little unimaginative, the next two years as well). Jeremy and I sat down next to each other and said hi. He seemed quiet and nice. He liked dinosaurs, but not as much as Bran, who really loved dinosaurs. I liked dinosaurs okay, but I wanted some girls to be friends with. I thought Jeremy and I would be friends. 

I soon learned that Jeremy and I made the top grades in the class. In true Ravenclaw fashion, I’d already decided that good grades would be my thing. I could not be outdone. Not long after, Jeremy broke the rules and talked during class to whisper-ask me how to spell giraffe, which to be honest I still struggle with. I hissed back that he should sound it out. And then I caught him looked at my paper, probably because it was a really confusing lesson and we were both on the wrong page.

That was it! Getting good grades, breaking the rules, and trying to cheat? Three strikes. This kid was now my nemesis.

And I kind of liked him. He had dark hair and he was nice and I liked that he was quiet too. I was painfully shy, but I didn’t feel like I was fading away or being eclipsed when I was around him. Plus, dinosaurs are pretty cool. I liked science. His favorite TV show was Kratt’s Creatures, which was my second favorite show after Wishbone. And yes, I remember how cosmically important I found this information when I learned it due to a class project in second grade. 

The one day in first grade when Jeremy and Bran invited me to play with them on the playground, a bee flew up my pants leg on the swings and stung me twice on the underside of my knee. I had to go to the office and get an ice pack while trying not to cry in front of everyone. They didn’t ask me to play with them again, and I didn’t ask. The universe had already decided: we were nemeses. No crossing of the streams.

Jeremy and I competed against each other from seats directly beside or in front of one another for two and a half years, until I transferred to another school. I went on to have many more nemeses, but Jeremy was my first. 

Fast forward to the summer after my freshman year of college when a bunch of my friends and a bunch of their friends all met up at the drive-in (yes, really) to see Toy Story 3. We’d grown up with the first two movies, so this would be great! So fun! Not heartbreaking at all.

We hung out at the concession stand and amidst everyone’s cars, seeing people we hadn’t seen all year and meeting their friends whom we didn’t know. When the movie started, we mostly ended up crowded on sleeping bags in the backs of the 2 pick-up trucks with the tailgates down. I hit it off with this one guy with dark hair. We sat next to each other, chatted, ugly cried at the end of the movie and tried to hide it—it was great. My friend kept giving me a thumbs up when his back was turned, and discretely distracted people who also wanted to talk to us.

That night after we all went home to tend out mosquito bites and cuddle our childhood toys, the guy found me on Facebook and sent me a message. When I saw his last name, my excitement was immediately replaced with stone-cold dread. I knew that name. 

“Uh oh,” he wrote, “I think we were elementary school rivals.”

It was him. Jeremy. Nemesis #1. He’d found me.

Except, there was no reason to be nemeses now.

“It’s YOU,” I messaged back. “You were my first nemesis! I thought you looked familiar.”

“Yup. We were the original Pepsi and Coke. So how have you been?”

He had a girlfriend. 

So close, universe. So close. 

Oh God, I am sorry

My childhood nemesis was murdered.

I don’t mean that exactly how it sounds. For one, I had several childhood nemeses, our relationships growing progressively hostile as we grew older. But this was an early one, my second. And for another, he wasn’t murdered when we were children. It was many years later, when we were adults and living in different cities—from our hometown and from one another—and hadn’t seen or spoken to each another in over 8 years.

So why did I care so much when he died?

Maybe because I always had, or try to have, compassion. Even for my enemies. Not that we were really enemies.

Maybe it’s because he was alive, and now he’s dead.

Maybe it’s because murder is terrible.

We had a lot of fun times together, actually. But only when it was just the two of us, waiting for our moms to pick us up or working on a project together or sitting at the same art table.

I remember once asking my mom why he and I couldn’t get along except when we were alone. She told me that when we were older, maybe in high school, things would be different and maybe we could be friends. I moved to a different school a couple years later and we never got that chance, but the optimism of what our future relationship could have been colored my memories until I saw him through the lens of that never-realized friendship. I don’t know if I still harbored any bitterness toward him when I left that school at age twelve, but I know I’d long-since lost it when I got the email from my mother, his name as the subject line.

It might have been something innocuous. Mom had bumped into old friends and even other nemeses of mine at the grocery store, and spoken with their parents in the store where she works. I expected a fun update from him or his mom about how he was doing, all the more welcome because it’d been so long.

I had to read the article’s opening paragraph four or five times before I began to understand.

It was October. I’d been for a walk at some trails and was catching up on emails in my car before driving to Bible study. I felt closed up, insulated and alone but exposed, realizing how terrible a thing had been done to him.

And my next thought was of his mother. His kind, loving, hardworking mother. His mother who had already lost her husband in another act of violence.

If you think about famous nemeses, you might think about Joker to Batman or Moriarty to Sherlock. You’ll think about dastardly villains on the wrong side, foils in specific ways to the protagonist, but also compliments in vital ways. The Joker and Batman live their lives by similar but polar principles. Joker believes that anyone could become what he is—the worst of villains—if their circumstances were bad enough. And Batman believes that no matter how bad your circumstances, you too can become a hero. (Or, at least choose not to be a villain.) They work so well as nemeses because they are determined to prove themselves right to the other, but neither can destroy the other without abandoning their defining principles.

Moriarty and Sherlock are fantastic nemeses because they are so well-matched in intelligence and skill, and have similar enough vices that you can see how they very easily could be the same person or even best friends. But their moralities are just different enough that they have chosen to use their intelligence and vices and needs in entirely opposing ways.

Where Joker and Batman cannot destroy each other because of the nature of their ideological battle, Sherlock and Moriarty fear how they will cope if one should kill the other. We admire Sherlock not for the murder he commits, or believes he commits, but for his willingness to finally end this dangerous feud. He does so for everyone else’s sake, since doing so poses a real risk to his happiness and well-being.

Alex and I were good nemeses in part because we were so similar. We were both smart, analytical, logical, sassy. We enjoyed arguing and bantering. And we were both proud. When no one else was around, the pride wasn’t much of an issue so we very rarely fought. Our similarities aligned and we had a great time. But allow even one other person into our proximity and we begin to compete, to spar, and to wound. I don’t think we really meant to hurt each other, just to avoid being on the receiving end. But I remember feeling hurt, so I know I hurt him. And that, I regret almost the most.

I probably should regret inflicting pain the most, and yet children are cruel. That was the duel and the deal until I bowed out and went to another school.

I didn’t reach out to him after his father died. I regret that the most.

He didn’t need me, but I wish I hadn’t withheld my offer of support and comfort. We were similar, had history, and had been connected. I told myself I didn’t know how to reach him but I did. I just didn’t try. I repeated, “He doesn’t need you” and didn’t dwell on “But what if it could help him?”

And, oh God, I am sorry. I am sorry for inflicting pain. I am sorry for withhold support. I am sorry for his fear and his death. I am sorry for his mother, his friends.

After Bible study the night I learned of his murder and the finding of his body, I stayed up for hours in the dark writing every memory I had of him. Most I hadn’t revisited in years, but they were still there, once I let my brain sift through its back rooms. My personal pain from those years of the bullying was gone in the echo of his taken life. Late, late, late, sifting and writing and sitting and grieving. The next night, I wrote more, wrote them all out, and now I have them. And I will keep those memories on paper, a back-up for my mind.

A year and a half later, the week my aunt passed suddenly of a heart attack, I wrote to the judge so he would know the man who’d been taken before passing sentence on the murderers. I sat in the dark of a Dallas hotel, my coworker/roommate asleep behind me, too far to comfort my family or be comforted by them. But I could speak for my childhood nemesis. I could advocate for his memory. And I could pray, for the thousandth time, for his mother.

His name was Alex. He was aware, so he must have been afraid when he died. I hate fear.

I tried and tried to find a way to reach his mother, to tell her how sorry I am and to share my memories of her son and husband, but she retreated and I respect her boundaries. I’m sharing about this now because, with one gunshot, October was smeared with gunpowder. Even though Alex’s birthday was in summer and I first met him in January, I think of him in October. I remember him in October.

Not only in October. Also in sunlit pools and when I see a figure through the rain and when I feel spattered paint under my fingers and when I see a pale blue polo over broad shoulders and when I hear a football being caught.

Oh God, I am sorry. I am sorry for Alex. Please comfort his mother.