Flight. Feel danger or pain approaching and retreat.
Unless you’re evolutionary defective. Then you just lean right on into that pain.
It’s a compulsion. Nearly out of my control. I feel it in my gut, a force tugging me from my center, off my feet and into the sharp end of whatever bad situation points at me. Especially if that sharp end is hidden. I must rip off the camouflage of civility and society and blind what lies beneath with the light of day.
I was happy my Junior year, finally. I’d found my place at my boarding school, and my friends. I got to be my goobery self half the time and that was a reward hard won. One particular day, I’d been screechingly excited about answering a question the teacher posed; the first correct answer being awarded the right to wear a coonskin cap for the duration of the class. That is who I am. And that year was the first one in which it occurred to me I need not apologize over it.
Jeremy was a new boy, but he’d found his feet well enough. He had that nebulous coolness, bland but effective to the right people. Wherever he had come from, girls like me must have known to stay invisible. He muttered under my hooting of triumph something utterly witless, delivered like a punchline, something like, “The stupid pig gets to wear the hat so I guess that’s you.”
My freshly constructed self, safe and familiar, blew out the crevices of the room like smoke, through the window cracks and under the doors. 13 again. Where every day was just me waiting for the next blow, head hung over, no retort and no right to give one. My cap was itchy and hot and now I hated it and me and everything. I saw how I looked to him. Disgusting retard cow. The antithesis of everything a teenage girl is supposed to be. A fun house mirror reflection of all those magazine photos I relentlessly taped to my dorm room walls: 90lb Drew Barrymore in cutoffs that must have once been Guess Jeans, smiling silent and dreamily from a dirty lawn chair.
But as the class wore on, I started shaking. My hands moving in time with the speed my heart pumped, injected with all the brain chemicals that come with shame and anger.
I didn’t think out the words but if I had, they would have been, “No. Not fair. I’ve earned my spot here. No one here hates me. They think I’m funny and peculiar and they’re fine with it. He doesn’t get to talk like that to me.”
In the next class I was shaking terribly, but the decision had been made and I can’t stop decisions that I’ve made. I’m pulled, I’m caught. I shut off all the parts of my brain that could stop me. If I didn’t do this I’d be too afraid to ever do anything.
I walked to the desk in front of Jeremy. My voice was shivering and I spoke so fast there was no chance of mistaking me for confident. But I pushed all the same.
“Hey Jeremy, so…. do you have a problem with me?”
Jeremy had, to my mind even today, no distinguishing characteristics. No quirk, humor, habits. Just the slight aura of privilege and the arrogance that comes with finding just about everything stupid and dumb. But I was still scared shitless of him. I have been scared of teenage boys almost my entire life. Because they like to break the rules of society but are usually only brave enough to do it on people like me.
He looked up with surprise and affected confusion, “What? No.”
My words ran together in a shaking mess, but they were said. “Okay because you called me a stupid pig? And so, if you have a problem with me, we should talk about it.”
“No. No problem.” he said, close to polite. The confrontation threw him and he wanted it to end. He was deciding that moment to dislike me quietly, and not make me his punching bag for the next two years.
We didn’t talk to each other ever again, but he never bothered me again, either. The only thing he ever referred to me in was in his “Senior Will,” where he willed me “a dose of reality for a change.” I don’t know what that means. But fuck all if I ever needed it.
What I learned that day I’ve used many times since. Say something I find mean, unfair, or demanding of debate, and I’ll ask you to repeat it louder so I can be sure what was said. I don’t want to fight. I won’t yell back. I’m just leaning into it. That’s the only fair thing, seems to me. Let’s see if this little spore of misery we’re growing won’t shrivel and die once we pull it out and hold it up to the sun.
Just recently I tried applying this philosophy to a new situation, one modern grown ups are all faced with at one time or another. I got confused by a friend’s Facebook posts; his indignant, pitch-black-with-no-gray political stance. I live swimming in a perpetual nickle-colored fog, so the absence of gray shocks and disturbs me.
I was desperate to bring counterpoints to light so he could explain his. But it’s bad to do that too much on Facebook…the shield of the keyboard dehumanizes even friends, and soon it becomes two angry ideologies barking at each other while trying to seem like they aren’t angry.
He had, let me be clear, in no way been purposefully rude or cruel to me. But he had declared an opinion publicly. One that I thought implied that I was, by virtue of my birth alone, selfish, thoughtless, and mean.
I had occasion to be at his house, and I jokingly opened the subject. Online he had applauded me for my honest attempt at dialog. In his kitchen, instead of the teasing or passion or debate I expected, he shut me down with one sentence, “I have no desire to talk about that,” and left the room. I felt terrible, a bucket of icy embarrassment and confusion poured over my head. I peddled my bit about face to face keeping kindness in a debate, but it was mostly spoken to an empty room. So I left, politely as I could. Don’t know what happened.
Perhaps he felt ambushed in his own home. Perhaps he was so much more upset about the issue than I’d realized that he couldn’t bare to talk about it. Or perhaps he was tired, or had a stomach ache, or was writing a story in his head, or just didn’t feel like talking. Any reason is legitimate.
But what I thought was a door that he’d opened turned out to be a window he wished to remain closed, and I smacked my head into the glass like a bat with no radar. I’ve spent 20 years learning that I don’t have to stay in the cave just because my radar is wonky, but it has resulted in headaches.
So it all ends in a sigh. My method can’t always work. It’s good for shutting down mean little boys, but it can’t always clear misunderstandings or further debate. As long isn’t hurting me directly, and hell, even if it is, really, people have a right to ignore me.
Or try to.
Sometimes, like in the latter situation, the right thing to do is to shrug, walk away and accept that I’m leaving more confused than when I walked in. Friendship and civility is more important there than me getting to have my say.
But sometimes, I still have the right to defend joy in a coonskin cap. The right, if I need to, to stand directly in front and uncomfortably close to fear and awkwardness and the threats they mutter, shaking all the while, and ask to hear them again, louder, to my face. Sometimes that’s the best way to silence them for good.