Four boys bullied me in middle school. By far the worst of them was a scrawny, green-eyed boy with dirty blond hair and three first names who rode the neighborhood school bus. He lived on the golf course that I lived across from. Not long after we had first met, he invited me over to his large, cavernous house on a warm, golden afternoon.

The high-ceilinged house was quiet and dark, and it smelled of oak and leather. I met his stoic mother who showed me little more than indifference. His younger sister was rambunctious and bubbly, until he shoved her onto the lush carpet and she ran into her room crying. The family picture showed the two family members that weren’t present: his coiffed, handsome father and his older sister with down syndrome. Upstairs, we listened to his new Matchbox 20 album. We made plans to hang out again, and I made it home before dark.

That was as nice as he would ever be. For most of 6th and 7th grades, he would taunt me, push and punch me, humiliate me whenever he could. When I told my mother, she said I shouldn’t fight to stay out of trouble. She told me to use my words to defend myself. I tried these on him, but they failed me. Instead, one day, he punched me over and over in the stomach, telling me to hit him after each strike, taunting my gathering tears and face stiff with anger.

I hit a growth spurt in 8th grade, and he had moved on as one of the cool kids as I did with the nerdy kids. He played soccer and golf, eventually becoming a state champion golfer—he would later be awarded a college scholarship for golf. Somewhere along the way, he began doing drugs. For a time, I forgot he existed.

Last year of high school, I went to watch our school’s soccer team. As I was leaving with some friends, we passed several shadowed figures perched in the unlit bleachers adjacent to the stadium. Someone called my name, and a long-forgotten fear pricked my mind. There he sat, his face darkened by a baseball cap and his hand raised in a tentative greeting. He smiled at me and said my full name, excitement in his voice. I greeted him in turn, said goodbye, and continued to leave.

That was the last time I’d see him. Less than a decade later, he died from a drug overdose. Pain pills. So many he stopped breathing. When I heard the news, I had expected—wanted—a somber set of emotions. But all I felt was a raw vengeance, retribution for what he had inflicted on me; the long game had been won.

For years, I’ve sifted through those ugly, petty feelings searching for the truth. Now, many years later, I’ve found it. The truth is that I didn’t really know him or his family. The truth is that I knew a scrawny kid who saw kindness in me and mistook it for weakness. The truth is that I didn’t know his struggles as he grew up, didn’t know the man he wanted to become. The truth is that he died too young in a world as cruel as he was when he was a boy. The truth is that I wish we could have been friends.

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