"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
One sad autumn a couple of years ago, I wrote two pieces, similar in tone, about being absolutely friendless in middle school and high school. They were written weeks apart but published within hours of each other. That week, everyone felt bad for me.
“I’m sorry it was so hard for you,” said my friend Lisa.
“Can you believe what we survive?” my sister asked with a sigh.
There was one dissenting voice. “That’s not true,” said Veronica, when she read it. “You had plenty of friends in high school. Well, maybe not plenty. But you had me.”
Did I? Veronica may be one of my closest friends now, and we may have gone to high school together, but that’s not the same as the presumption that I had had her during that time. I responded with a passive aggressiveness that is uncharacteristic (aggressive aggression is more my speed). It was all the more jarring, because I said it with a laugh: “If I’d had you, I would have asked you to protect me from you.”
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The unspoken history, at least my version of it, is this: Veronica bullied me on the bus every day of high school. Then, in class, she would call out anything I said, trying to find holes in my stories, calling me annoying and a liar. It seemed like she lived to make me cry, as if it were a much-sought-after extracurricular that made your college application extra competitive.
Despite the trauma, the details are fuzzy and return to me only in flashes. On my first day of school, Veronica offered to help me with stuff I was behind on because I was a transfer. She was nice, but just a couple of months later, our relationship turned.
The locus of tension was on the school van. Because our school was in Queens and I lived in far-flung Canarsie, Brooklyn, I was the last one on to a grumpy party already in progress. According to Veronica, I wanted to sit in a certain seat. But the other people on the van didn’t want to wait for me to get to that seat, or move because of me — as I said, it’s fuzzy — and Veronica, the loudest, would yell at me. This was a betrayal to me. We were the oldest on the van as juniors. Shouldn’t seniority (juniority?) have bonded us? Instead, the younger students would swirl around the eddy of her anger at me and turn the van into the worst hour of my day.
Veronica wasn’t what you’d call popular. But she had that rare quality of genuinely not caring if she had friends — and so she did. I cared very much if I had friends — and so I didn’t. We were in all the same classes, and I would return to her throughout the day. When I sat with her for lunch, she would make fun of how much I ate. She would call me names. I was a kiss-ass. I was an idiot. I ruined everything. And–
And here is where I’m confused. It doesn’t make sense. Why was I following her around if she was bullying me? That’s where bullying gets a little tricky. See, there are the terrible bullies: The ones we hear about now who spur teenagers toward suicide, that meathead on “Glee” who deep down is also gay, the kind that made Ricky Vasquez pretend he brought a gun to school on “My So-Called Life.” That’s the kind of bullying that is black-and-white, of which we cannot say anything except that it’s horrible.
But bullying exists in the gray areas as well. It has become convenient to use the term to refer to all forms of high school ugliness. At some point, though, I have to ask myself: Was I the victim of bullying if I kept coming back for it? If the bus was so harrowing, why did I seek out Veronica at lunch? What the media’s conversation about bullying often doesn’t acknowledge is that it exists on a spectrum. There is a kind of bullying we opt into — and that was what happened with Veronica and me.
This has troubled me all these years, particularly because Veronica is one of my dearest friends now. Did she finally realize how much I had to offer? Did we clear up some colossal misunderstanding? Did we work things out with the aid of our completely clueless guidance counselor? It’s far more banal than that. About a month into senior year, my stepfather gave me his old car to take to school. He was very nice to me. He was also sick of listening to me cry about having to ride the van.
That day, when I arrived at school, Veronica took one look at my car and looped her arm in mine. “Can you drive me home?” she asked. “I can’t stand the van anymore.”
Finally: A friend. I drove Veronica home every day, and she got nicer. Eventually, the drive home turned into stopping at a diner on the way home. Then it turned into shopping. Then it turned into buying cigarettes. In the car we played music. We played Elvis Costello off a mix tape a boyfriend had made. We still think of “Veronica” as a song just for us, so much so that she chose the name as her pseudonym for this article (and would agree to speak only if I granted it). We grew closer in college and still talk fairly often for women who work and have two kids each. Ours has ended up being one of my more enduring relationships.
Every once in a while, I make light mention of the van. For instance, if Veronica says, “I hate that guy,” I might respond, “Put him on a van with you. He’ll live to regret it.”
“This again with the van,” she’d say, which I always thought was her embarrassed backpedaling. I imagined Veronica lived with a lot of shame for bullying someone who ended up being so important in her life.
I was wrong. Veronica didn’t feel any shame. And when my editor asked me if I was interested in confronting a bully from my past for this column, and I forwarded the email to Veronica, this is what I got back: “I don’t think I really actually bullied you, but you keep saying it so maybe it’s time for me to listen,” she wrote. “But it does make me have some questions of my own.”
And so, we made an appointment to talk on the phone. We approached it as a funny stunt for a story. When I started talking, I used a trumped-up reporter voice to lighten the mood. But Veronica wanted to talk.
When I told her my side—everything I’ve told you here—she responded, “I have a very hard time feeling like what you’re saying is real. It obviously affected you, and I’m not saying we got along. But bullied?”
Her version: I was annoying; I told lies. She understands now I was leaving out personal details that would betray a hard home life. But, she says, “I didn’t let things slide with you. I called you out on them.”
And it wasn’t just what I said, it was also how I said it. “There was a lot of drama around you,” she says. “You had a dramatic family. You had a dramatic way of telling a story. I mean, you ended up being a writer. I hated how dramatic you were. We all had drama, and some of us didn’t need to air it.”
Fine, but the way she did it. Her prosecutorial way of attacking me for holes in my anecdotes scared me. She seemed sharper than I was, and she wouldn’t let me control my own stories. When I smelled her attacks, I would hide, afraid to proceed. This, to her, proved that my stories weren’t true. Once, I told her my father was taking us skiing on a Friday. When he canceled, as he often did, I showed up on Friday, and I could almost feel Veronica’s satisfaction. “Some ski trip,” she’d say.
“It wouldn’t have mattered to me whether or not you went on a ski trip,” she says now. “But you were always in my face.” But it’s more than that, Veronica admits. As adults, we’re both keenly aware that we suffer from anxiety, and we certainly did back then. We have since sought help for these problems, on and off, throughout the years. “I didn’t like what I saw in you,” she says now. “We had the same issues, and that annoyed me. I just wanted you to go away.”
I was troubled and emotional — and I wore those qualities on the outside. She wanted them kept inside, and she didn’t want to be reminded by the likes of me that they existed. Still, Veronica believes she was merely responding in kind to the stimulus I provided. Had I been quieter, or faded into the background, she never would have even thought about me, she says. And that brings up another interesting question: Can bullying take place without intent? Veronica thinks that if she didn’t intend to bully me or intimidate me, well, then she can’t be a bully. Is she right? I maintain that it is the feeling of being bullied rather than intent. Does Veronica have a point when she says, “I can’t control how you feel. I wouldn’t have minded if you’d yelled back at me.”
At an impasse, we do the only thing we ever learned to do in that godforsaken school: look up the definition of “bullying” in the dictionary. We came up with this:
bully (n) A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.
See?!” Veronica says to me.
“See?!” I say to Veronica.
“You were so smart,” she says. “You didn’t need me to tell you that or make you feel good.”
“But you were stronger,” I say. “You had allies.”
“So I’m not supposed to react to you like that because I had friends and you didn’t?”
My answer: “I … don’t know.”
And I don’t. I was weaker. But at what age do we expect self-control from people, restraint? Was there some part of me that drew out her ire, because it was better than being ignored? Or did I understand that underneath her cruelty was a rare bond?
I sometimes wonder whether I was wrong to make peace with Veronica when she caught sight of my car. Maybe I was just pathetic and desperate. But if I hadn’t, I would have missed out on one of the most honest and loving relationships in my life. I can start a story in the middle with her, and she will know its origins from the beginning, because she knew me so well. She didn’t handle the recognition of her own faults in me very well. For that, she is sorry. I did not handle my neediness so well. For that, I am sorry. But here is how we have changed: In this conversation, neither of us terribly invested in being right.
“I’m sorry I made things difficult for you in high school,” she emailed me after our conversation. “I’m glad we managed to stick it all out.”
It wasn’t quite a full apology, but I hadn’t asked for one, either. Then, two days later, a phone call. “I thought about it some more,” she said. “I’m sorry I bullied you.”
Still, it’s me who isn’t sure anymore that I was bullied, or if I’ve been applying a trendy word to the simple fact that I wanted her to like me, and she didn’t, and it was humiliating. We probably won’t talk about it like this again. I think I might retire off-the-cuff mentions of the van. Our similarities no longer inspire competition or hatred. They are how we reach for each other, a language we know. The phone rings, I see her number on the caller ID, I pick up, and it’s been so long that we are friends, I can hear my own voice in hers.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Self, Redbook, and other publications.More Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
Some adolescent scars linger well into adulthood. Interview With My Bully, our new essay series, hopes to provide some closure, and maybe even build some understanding and common ground between the picked-on and their young tormentors. Ever wonder what happened to the person who pushed you around in junior high?
Why not track him or her down -- and post your essay on Open Salon.