This one took me years to reconcile. Still haven’t fully. Others like it still hang in the balance. Bureaucrats in positions of power supplant the relentless bullies of my youth, whose redirected sexual and emotional ineptitudes, like tiny grenades — lopping off a finger here, an earlobe there — would grow in size to heat-seeking missiles, the stimulus for years of therapy and unfulfilled measures of revenge. A ping of trigger remains in reaction to disregard, complacency or insolence, against myself and others. Fortunately, I’ve been able to channel all of this turmoil into a successful career helping others with similar trauma. Otherwise, I may have fucking mutilated somebody.
In my reserves of memory, the portion of my life typically allotted for adolescent milestones like frigid football championships, clumsy first kisses and nocturnal joyrides is usually eclipsed by incidents like this.
I am sitting nervously in 10th grade study hall next to a dumpy low achiever named Charles, whose stout stance makes my wiry frame appear sickly and malnourished. Today’s “class” — an opportunity to study, review, do actual work (which nobody does) — is particularly quiet. Normally, the cinder-block walls of my private school echo loud and proud of adolescent boys “letting it rip” and the ensuing ten minutes of young boy giggles, the tone of disquietude ultimately set by the repressed Franciscan Brothers who loom large over the proceedings. But none of that is present today so far, which, of course, provides fertile ground for something monumental to occur.
Charles is looking uncharacteristically dapper today, wearing a plush beige corduroy blazer, the type that Elvis Presley might have worn had he survived the disco fad of the late 1970’s. Having few friends, I figured it might be advantageous to let him know that I existed, maybe even try and befriend him, despite my alarming introversion, unpopularity and awkwardness. To this futile end, I turn and compliment him on his fine choice of haberdashery.
“Nice jacket,” I offer in a self-effacing manner that leaves my lips like the last gasp of air from a siphoned balloon. Sensing the anguish of my efforts, he pauses and shoots me a beguiling half-smile, then asks, “Wanna try it on?”
At this point, it might be helpful to highlight that Charles is at least 3 sizes larger than me, so the idea of “trying on” his jacket is less about learning if the thing actually fit and more about having fun with the non ambiguous nature of the situation. Or so I thought. With a hint of reservation, I agree.
The garment is saturated with an odor that’s a cross between Old Spice Cologne and arid post-gym class sweat, its sleeves drape past my slender fingers by a good six inches. I dutifully illustrate this by animating my arm movements in an exaggerated fashion, flailing them about like landlocked fish or a sparrow fledgling attempting flight, which in hindsight, might have been a smart move. As it turns out, the flapping creates a mild breeze, capturing the attention of everyone within a two-desk radius, including a few particularly disruptive classmates.
“Hey, check out Chapman!” one of them half-whispers, half-chuckles. This prompts the attention of much of the class and incites the stomach rumblings of ill-digested breakfast foods, erupting in an audible and malodorous cluster of nasal snorts, chair squeaks and passed gas.
At this moment, Mr. D’Arby, the study hall moderator, snaps his head from a flood of papers and fixes his gaze on me. His features are pointed and angular, like a missile braced for attack, a dubious glare directing me to the front of the class. Had I half the gumption I now possess — the fortitude that’s allowed me to advocate on behalf of those lacking the resources to do so — I might have adamantly refused to placate his demand; I now see this as a covert trap to humiliate me.
“Go, it’ll be funny!” a classmate turns and encourages. It seems like an ideal opportunity to redeem myself worthy of attention, even if it means surrendering some dignity to do so.
Arriving at the top of the class, I consider the sea of both familiar and strange faces, my arms mimicking the cascading movements that got me into this mess. As seconds pass, I’m settling comfortably into this new role of class clown. I continue my bid to entertain; after all, I was accustomed to delighting local audiences from years, singing lead in elementary school productions of Frosty the Snowman, Fiddler on the Roof and Oliver. The ear to ear grin on my face, the now-uproarious laughter from classmates, even the smirk of approval on D’Arby’s face — whose head shifted from side to side in cheery disbelief — indicate that I’m a hit.
Of course, it is precisely at this moment of total surrender that a beefy jock named Doug bellows, “Hey, Chapman, we’re not laughing with you, we’re laughing at you!”
In the ensuing fifteen seconds or so, I feel every ounce of blood drain from my face. Course through my entire body. Seems to last a short lifetime. Billows of sweat drench my pleated brow. Swamp my chest. Pool in my crotch. My body hunches to a standing fetal position. Mouth droops. Eyes fixate on the linoleum beneath my feet. I’m frozen, not knowing whether to storm out of the classroom or try and regain some dignity by retorting in anger.
In the end, I cower back to my seat, like so many personal retreats over the years. Defeated, alongside the rumbling of shifting books, desks, perceptions. The obscure chatter. Eyes consider me, some empathize, others relish the moment they successfully knocked a fellow classmate from his pedestal.