Once, I promised you a post of Great Meaning. This was a long time ago.
I promised a story involving personal growth and epic realizations and redemption.
Well, maybe without so much loftiness.
Okay, what I did promise was that I’d tell you what happened when three things finally conspired to shake my wallflower status to its very foundation. We’ve come to the culmination of those Three Things.
Up until now, my entire high school career has consisted of me sitting patiently in one corner or another (thanks to always being the very last person on the roll sheet), watching the world lumber by, and documenting pretty much everything.
What happens next is not on my hypothetical agenda. I could not have predicted it. What I’m saying is, it is so unexpected that it should be fake. It should be an after-school special. It is that thing I didn’t know ever actually happened.
Pugsly is short, loud and wildly good at extreme sports. Later, he’ll go on to compete in the X Games. He is the personal hero of one of my friend’s little brothers and is featured in real-live skate videos. I’ve never actually had a class with him, but we have PE in the same gym and he spends most of the period throwing the volleyball at his teacher. He is out of control. He is—how can I put this?
Pugsly makes Pierre look like a model citizen.
How this relates to me:
In delicate terms, I am what’s known as a late bloomer. More frankly-put, I don’t have a lot going on back there. Or up top. Or anywhere, really. I am diminutive in the sense that I might as well be a twelve-year-old boy. Sometimes, I feel vaguely self-conscious about this, but for the most part, I just go with it. I’m not really in the market for male attention, and there are benefits to being shaped like a very short flagpole—the main one being that I tend to wander through life unmolested. I assume that I am safe.
On this fateful day, I’m standing in the lunch line, waiting to pay the cafeteria lady for my sad gray cheeseburger. Cheeseburger obtained, I plan to meet Catherine by the trophy cases, go out to the courtyard, and spend the next fifty minutes trying to ignore the fact that the day is only half-over. I’m not crazy about this plan, but I’m content. At ease. Metaphorically, speaking, there is circus music playing in my head, and a tiny car, and some trained seals, and a bear on a unicycle. It’s a good place to be.
And then, the thing is . . . Pugsly grabs my ass.*
I didn’t know what to do. It was like something so unexpected it was imaginary. I felt like I should react somehow, but I couldn’t even think [. . .]
So. The moment of truth. Until this instant, I’ve kind of been wondering what it will take to wrench me out of my torpor. A natural disaster or an airstrike? Something on fire? As it turns out, Pugsly’s hand on my butt is the galvanizing force. It is the impetus that jumpstarts my budding sense of outrage. It is the cherry on top of the whole notebook-mangling, face-licking, watch-theft sundae.
A quick review of my social education as it stands:
In the past month, I have learned that getting yelled at is essentially harmless, that sometimes it’s better to risk ridicule and disciplinary action than it is to sit quietly and let people put trash under your chair, and perhaps the most vital revelation of all, I do not want anyone—ever, under any circumstance—to feel sorry for me. It is basically the perfect storm. I am a triple threat of valuable life-lessons.
Ordinarily, I prefer to let my sixteen-year-old alter-ego speak for herself, but the journal entry that came out of this is pretty much useless. High-school me tries to downplay the incident. She tries to minimize it. Why? Because even in the privacy of her own colossal sheaf of notebook paper, she is tragically embarrassed. And I sympathize, I really do, but tiptoeing around the facts does not make a particularly good narrative, so I will just tell you what happens next.
1) Puglsy starts laughing like a loon on crack. For real. He throws his head back and dances around in a circle, singing, “I touched your butt!” Did I mention he is five?
2) The boy** who’s in line with him starts making monkey sounds and high-fiving people. I realize with the kind of lighting-quick insight that really only manifests in situations of extreme emotional turmoil that he’s been egging Pugsly on this whole time and is at least partially responsible for the grabbing.
3) The lunch lady is watching me with the kind of uncomfortable pity usually reserved for commercials about homeless animals.
4) I am standing at the cafeteria counter, clutching my lunch money, and all I can think is, Please, I don’t want to do this. Why are making me do this? I just want to pay for my sad, sad cheeseburger and get the hell out of here. But no—now I have to figure out the appropriate response and then execute it, because if I don’t, you’ll feel free to paw me whenever you want and I will have lost, I will have lost, Iwillhavelost.
Yes, my inner voice sounds sort of hysterical. Yes, she is caught in a vicious panic-spiral, but at the center of it exists a relevant fear, which can be summed up thusly: If you let a fifteen-year-old boy grab your butt or destroy your notebook or lick your face (or whatever) and you don’t react, he might do it again. If you show him that it bothers you, show him exactly how passionately you object, he might think it’s hilarious that you got upset, and do it again. There’s a name for this kind of situation. It’s called being totally screwed.***
Unbridled honesty: in this moment, I am petrified. Not really in a fear-for-my-safety way, although I really don’t like strangers touching me. I’m frightened in a tactical way. I am convinced that Pugsly’s grabbing of me will be my undoing. In the social chess game that is high school, I’m on the cusp of being conquered. Vanquished. Broken.
So I do the only thing I can think of. It’s not at all what I would have expected from myself.
With a small, patient sigh—with my heart jackhammering in my chest—I turn and face Puglsy. I inform him in blisteringly profane terms that in the future, he will be keeping his hands to himself. I do it with a Botticelli smile. I do it with the grace and facility of a girl raised by men who spend a lot of time working on cars, but not with any real heat, not as though I actually care—although I do care. Kind of a lot.
Then I flip him off with one hand while handing my money to the cafeteria lady with the other and giving her a patient, indulgent look. My face feels like a mask, because that’s what it is. Underneath it, I am profoundly terrified that one of two things is about to happen: Either Pugsly will be completely undeterred and grab me again, or I will be punished for saying three of the seven words you’re not supposed to say on television. The fears do not necessarily manifest in that order.
Here is what actually happened next, as described by a girl who’s emerged from combat utterly victorious, and yet somehow still obsessed with the nonexistent consequences:
I could have gotten in trouble right then, I could have gotten reprimanded for my language, or for my obscene hand gesture, but the cafeteria ladies all hate Pugsly and the one at the counter was looking like she might even be glad I acted how I did. She didn’t say anything.
I looked back at Puglsy again and raised my eyebrows, waiting to sound bored and irritated at whatever he said next. But he wasn’t laughing anymore.
He just looked me very steadily, shaking his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It wasn’t funny.”
I took my change and my disappointing food over to where Catherine was waiting. I told her, with an indifference that was only half-fake, “Pugsly just grabbed my ass.”
She was sympathetic. I think her exact words were, “Did you break his nose?”
“No,” I said, but I didn’t know how to say what I had done, because the answer wasn’t really in how I’d looked, or what I’d said to him. Instead, it was all in the freeze-out, the way I’d made the whole thing seem both totally unacceptable and totally unimportant. The way he’d apologized. The way I was perfectly capable of hiding behind my own indecipherable stare.
At the end of the lunch period, when Puglsy walked by with a bunch of the other skater boys, Catherine told him he was a pervert. One of his friends called Catherine a bitch, but Pugsly didn’t say anything. As they passed, he glanced back over his shoulder and the look he gave me can only be characterized as remorseful.
I acted like his expression didn’t matter, but that wasn’t true, because I felt satisfied. Not brave or triumphant, but relieved. I felt like something had been settled.
In the short-term, this day is important because I leave the cafeteria with a sense that I will never again sit quietly while someone runs roughshod over me. That I’ve just proved to myself and everyone else that I don’t have to submit to things. That when you get right down to it, I know a lot of words and more importantly, I’m capable of arranging them in effective combinations.
For the rest of my high school career, this new field of knowledge will prove absolutely priceless. It will change my life. It will make me untouchable and kind of brutal.
It will take me another year and a half to figure out that being meticulously carved from ice has a downside.
*I know you already know this, but I just want to say it here, on the record, for what it’s worth. People putting their hands on you when you don’t want them to is Not Okay.
You aren’t obligated to do what I did. It’s not for everybody and I don’t even think it’s the best approach for all situations. Still, it is my personal position that if someone makes unwanted advances toward you, you get to say whatever you want. If someone puts their hands on you without your permission—if they feel compelled to amuse themselves by making you feel scared or small—you are allowed to tell them exactly where they can go and what they can do there.
**Tall. Popular. Baseball team. Will probably grow up to be either an amateur bodybuilder or a real douchebag. Possibly both.
***You thought I was going to say a Catch-22, didn’t you? No, no, it’s called being totally screwed.