I knew what the text said before I had even read it. I had known it was coming for a long time. But my anticipation failed to alleviate the pain that the cold simplicity of her text inflicted upon me: “This isn’t working. We should see other people. Sorry.” It felt as if I had been punched in the throat as I struggled to push air through my larynx. I remember wishing that I had been punched in the throat for two reasons: being punched in the throat would promise a foreseeable end to the pain; and provide me with someone who would relieve my anger and vulnerability by becoming very familiar with my fists. My pain quickly became anger, and I vowed that I would somehow hurt her as she had hurt me. This decision eventually ensured the permanent end of the relationship that we had had before the break-up. Soon after she sent her text, she expressed a sincere willingness to remain friends. I knew that this was my opportunity, and I took it. For the next two weeks, I succeeded in being as rude and indifferent towards her as possible. As I became meaner, she became more distant, until she finally decided to cut me out of her life entirely.
Four months had passed without seeing or talking to her, and that time had been more than enough to completely quell any feelings I once had for her. That said, I still tried to make excuses when I was invited one Friday night to a party that I was almost certain she would attend. With much cajoling and name-calling, Jim and Tom, two of my friends, tried to convince me to go. I knew that this argument would cease only when I agreed to go, so I did. As we were leaving Tom’s house, however, I got cold feet. I could not face her again, not yet at least; I needed more time. My shaky hands and restless behavior said what my mouth could not. My best friend Jim leaned over and assured me that if “she” were there, they would make sure I was okay and even leave with me if it came to that. Tom followed up by saying, “Yeah, I got your back.” I use the word “friend” to describe Tom in the broadest possible sense. Among my close friends, Tom was by far the least liked due to his cruel behavior and his overwhelmingly self-centered agenda. Never in my life had I met someone as blind to his own disposition and to what others thought of him as Tom. His judgment was extremely faulty, and his moral code was questionable at best. However, Tom was intensely loyal. Unfortunately, the combination of his loyalty and his nonexistent social skills often did more harm than good.
Within the hour, my friends and I were near the party, going from brownstone to brownstone, looking for the building. I began feeling more confident as we neared the entrance, until Jim muttered, “don’t look left,” which of course, prompted me to look left. “Crap! Maybe she didn’t see me,” I thought as we began to walk faster.
“Seth? … Seth!” her friend repeatedly called. So much for not seeing me. I drained my face of all emotion and turned to meet the oncoming group. The fusion of my two friends and me and my ex-girlfriend and her group of friends put our number at seven. The initial contact was surprisingly uneventful, and I was relieved. The polite and lighthearted conversation gave me high hopes for the evening. I did my best to pay less attention to the meaningless conversation I was engaged in with one of “her” friends and started to focus on my ex-girlfriend’s increasingly odd behavior. She had isolated herself entirely from our group and had been standing alone; however, her body language and facial expression conveyed no sign of resentment or discomfort. Her eyes were glazed over, and it seemed as if she might lose her balance at any moment. It was clear that she was in a different place at a different time. (This last detail increases the pain and confusion I feel whenever I recount this story.)
As I reengaged in the conversation, I was interrupted mid-sentence by a loud and aggressive outburst from my ex-girlfriend. I turned towards the source of commotion, only to be blind-sided by a poorly aimed right-cross that collided with my ear. Strangely, the detail that surprised me most about my ex-girlfriend’s first boxing experience was the fact that she had clubbed me with her fist rather than employing the traditional slap that we are taught the majority of women prefer. Any physical pain I may have felt was completely overwhelmed by confusion and surprise. Before I could compose myself enough to determine an appropriate response, I watched, paralyzed with horror as Tom took the initiative himself: Tom punched her in the stomach. The resulting quiet from the sheer disbelief of what had just happened was counterbalanced by the chaos that erupted as the magnitude of the situation dawned on us. Tom had punched a girl in the stomach. Just thinking the words “punched” and “girl” in the same sentence was taboo. Tom had, in that moment, violated a fundamental principle that had been passed down for generations in our society. There was no grey area about this rule. Never had I been exposed to a book, movie, or story that had the good guy hit a girl and save the day.
All I could do was grab my two friends and leave. I figured that if I could neither explain nor rationalize Tom’s transgression to myself, let alone forgive him, then I had no right to try to make anyone do what I could not. All of the insults, exclamations, and arguments with which Jim and I later assaulted Tom failed to make him see the evil in his crime. My anger was exacerbated by my self-loathing, for I had discovered that I was secretly grateful for Tom’s loyalty. My gratitude was one of the clearest and strongest emotions I felt that night. The appreciation I felt for Tom’s twisted devotion made me feel as guilty for his crime as he was, and I hated him for it.
The pain I felt in that moment, the pain I continue to feel, is rooted in my guilt. I had been unacceptably rude to my ex-girlfriend in the weeks that followed our break-up, which prompted and probably even justified her hitting me. And poor Tom had simply (albeit misguidedly) tried to defend his friend, and now he was going to be publicly crucified for it. I am ashamed to admit that in the moments and days that followed, I covered my own ass by joining the masses in condemning him for what he had done. Tom was there for me in my time of distress, no matter the consequences, and I had left him to fend for himself against the overwhelming number of people who demanded vengeance. I had never asked Tom to protect me in any sort of fashion, let alone violate one of our culture’s fundamental rules, but maybe that is part of what friendship is. A friend does not ask what he should do; he does what he believes he has to do. The savage reaction Tom had that night created a plethora of intense and contradictory emotions in me, ones I have yet to untangle.
George (“geb”) Bushnell, Age 17, Grade 11, Collegiate School, Silver Key