01 November 2009


Ever wish you could rewrite the past? At a friend’s urging I tried this re-righting exercise: “Recall a painful life episode and retell it with an alternate, positive outcome. Include the presence of a supportive, powerful character.” I chose to examine my real-life memories of a high school bully I’ll call Mack.

* * *

I riffle through the tumble of books, notes and papers and pull out what I need for the next three classes: advanced biology, college math and English. Almost there now, almost there. I’ll breathe easy once I reach Mrs. Bush’s classroom. I swing the locker door shut. A hand lands on my shoulder, a piece of lead in my gut.

Mack shoves me against the beige lockers. A silver handle stabs at my back. “Where you going in such a hurry.”

It is not a question.

He jabs a hand under my chin, jerks my head up and back against cold steel.

Mack is not the biggest boy in our class, nor the meanest. But for four years he has loomed large in my school life; for nine months out of every twelve I have let him make my weekdays hell. He seeks me out, baits me, calls me names, teases me, pushes me around, gets in my face. And I let him. I play the good boy, turn the other cheek, pray for his soul to burn in hell.

What does Mack see in my countenance that gives him license to treat me with such disdain? What do I see in his that stops me from standing up for myself? These are questions I won’t ask until years later.

“Where do you get your clothes.” Again, it is not a question. “Fetla’s.” Mack spits out the name of the discount surplus store in Valparaiso, our county seat. “I bet your mom bought that shirt at Fetla’s.” He fingers my shirt collar. “Why do you wear clothes like that anyway. If I had clothes like that, I wouldn’t wear them to school.”

I keep my mouth shut. Long ago I learned there’s no reasoning with him. He steps in close, pushes my chin up again, my head back, presses his chest to mine. “I asked you a question, pud.”

“Mack, please. I have to get to class.”

It’s the wrong thing to say. Anything is the wrong thing to say. His chest swells. “Didn’t you hear me, faggot? I asked you a question. You’re not smart enough to—”

“Oh, no you don’t!”

Everything happens at once. One second Mack is on me, over me, the next he’s not even touching me. A loud shout. An “oof.” His body slams into the lockers to my right.

“I’ve had enough of you, Mack.”

It’s Frank Stassek who last year, even as a sophomore, played varsity basketball. Next year he’ll help our school capture the conference triple crown and whup big city Valparaiso—a first-ever feat. In this corner of basketball-crazed Indiana, in this small school where grades K through 12 gather under one roof, jocks are gods.

Blinking, Mack looks up into the face of an angry god.

“You leave this guy alone, hear me? Keep your paws to yourself. I don’t want to see you touching him again.”

Curly ringlets of dark hair frame Frank’s deep brown eyes and gorgeous face. Although I hate sports, I attend every home basketball game I can to watch Frank’s thighs pound the length of the court, his muscled arms pull down yet another rebound, his chest heave under the blue and white jersey marked with a large number 20.

It’s my chest that’s heaving at the moment. Frank takes my arm, pulls me forward. He slips an arm around my shoulder. “C’mon. Mrs. Bush will be looking for us. You don’t want to be late for class, do you?”

It is not a question. It is an answer to prayer.

* * *

In “real life,” neither Frank nor I ever came to my rescue. But in retelling this story, I catch a glimpse of the Frank who lives inside me. Maybe I will call on his power next time I need his protection.

This essay appeared in the November issue of The Letter.

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