Don’t Let Adversity Change Who You Are on the Inside
Sam re-straightened his tie for the eleventh time in as many minutes then glanced at his watch. Diane was still in the bathroom, he could hear her humming leisurely through the open door and he knew that she was going slowly on purpose. He hated the sound of it. It was a shrill nasal sound that rubbed against the grain of his already frayed nerves.
“Do you have to do that?” he asked, aware when he did that his wife’s therapist instincts would kick in at the question.
“What’s the real issue here Sam?” She stuck her head out of the bathroom and raised an eyebrow, prepared and ready, and he realized she’d been waiting in there for just this moment.
He pulled the tie off and went to his section of the walk-in closet.
“Sam?” she followed him in and stood behind him.
“Sorry. I’m just nervous about tonight. I know it’s silly.”
“Don’t feel silly hun.” She reached around him and pulled the same tie he’d just put back off its peg. “It’s a perfectly normal thing to feel anxious about, especially for you. I like this tie on you.”
Sam flipped up his collar and started working on a new knot. “I don’t even want to go though.”
“Come on.” She took over the process for him, gently forcing him to spin around and lowering his hands with hers. “We decided remember? That this is going to do you good.”
“I know,” Sam let her slide the knot up and flip his collar down,” But he probably won’t even be there.”
“Maybe not, but you can’t let the possibility that he might be there keep you from going. You can’t let….” She paused to let him finish the mantra.
“Adversity change who you are inside.”
“Exactly.” She kissed his nose and smiled.
Sam felt himself relax slightly. What should he care what Chad Wexler or anybody else thought of him? He walked back to the mirror and sized up his reflection. Look at his life: A top accountant in his firm. His wife, a psychologist, beautiful and brilliant, and one of the most sought after therapists in the city. They owned their home and had almost finished paying off the cabin in the canyon they’d leased with money he’d made playing the stock market. Not bad for a stuttering introvert who on more than one occasion had been mocked to tears by his high school classmates.
He’d changed physically as well. In the 20 years since high school he’d grown into a decent looking if not actually handsome man in his 30’s. A late growth spurt had put him to an above average six foot one, and all his excess weight had spread up with him, turning what had been a pudgy short kid into a tall lean man. He still had his original hairline and no grey had yet begun to invade as he’d seen it do in other men his age. The glasses which in 1995 had been an object of ridicule were suddenly back in fashion, and he no longer had to deal with outbreaks of violent red zits.
Diane walked past behind him, caught his eyes in the glass and gave him a wink. She grinned, and Sam wondered what she knew that he didn’t.
Once in one of their sessions she had asked him what the worst thing was that Chad had ever done to him. It wasn’t an easy choice. He’d done plenty. There was the time he’d made him, under threat of a beating, piss into his own locker. There was another time where he’d locked him in a janitor’s closet with a severely handicapped boy from the special education class who’d screamed and screamed to be let out and clawed furiously at Sam until finally, twenty minutes later, a teacher heard the noise. Chad was a genius at coming up with original torments, but the worst, Sam decided was the tripping.
It was an ongoing torture, and yet somehow he never saw them coming. He’d be walking with his head down wishing desperately to make it unnoticed from one class to the next. Next thing he knew he’d be tipping forward, pitched face first to the floor and when he’d look up, every time, there had been Chad leering down at him. Every time he’d say the same thing. Walk much? It sounded stupid, but it hurt Sam more than anything else that Chad could take something as simple as walking and turn it against him. The two hateful words still came to mind every time he stumbled on the stairs or caught his shoe on an uneven section of pavement. Walk much?
Sam was nervous again and he scanned the crowd like prey, expecting an attack at any moment. The dim light of the refurbished high school gymnasium seemed to him the perfect place for an ambush. A sign on his back, a shove into the wall, or a wet missile of chewed paper shot from a plastic straw launcher. There were predators everywhere. Some danced with their spouses in the occasional flash of the malfunctioning strobe light. Most of them sat at round tables chatting, heads together, laughing every now and then. They filled red plastic cups with even redder punch and stained the corners of their mouth with it. They exchanged drink tickets for beers and spoke of older times.
Sam stood with Diane on the edge of it all, watching them, their faces familiar despite the years and the distortion from the colored spinning squares of the disco ball. Diane smiled next to him, aware that he was uncomfortable, letting him deal with it on his own. He was here to confront his past, she’d reminded him in the car, something he’d have to do alone.
None of the other alumni had spoken to him, or even recognized him that he could tell, and they’d been there for 40 minutes already. He asked Diane if they could leave and she said no, give it a little longer, maybe he’d show up.
A woman he recognized as Ms. Jensen, his 12th grade English teacher, approached him. She’d been a young woman then, not much older than her students, and pretty. He’d always had a crush on her and the way she stood on her tip-toes to wipe the board clean of grammar exercise examples. She must only be in her early forties he thought, a decade he was fast approaching himself.
“Hello there,” She shook their hands. “I’m afraid I’m having some trouble remembering you.”
She spoke to Diane, and Sam felt annoyed and a little bit hurt that she hadn’t recognized him.
“I’d be surprised if you did,” Diane smiled, “My husband went to school here, not me.”
“Oh.” Ms. Jensen turned to Sam and squinted at his face, trying to fake like she remembered him. “Oh of course. Now remind me of your name. I had you in English class.”
You had everyone in English class, Sam thought. He told her his name, and saw recognition flash in her eyes. No doubt she was recalling the time when he had stammered out a tearful confession in her classroom after hours. That he had only cut class because his clothes got stolen while he was showering after PE. He’d been dressed in a pair of shorts and a double XL basketball jersey, the only one he’d found in the hamper of sweaty, used gym clothes.
She’d excused the absence, but Sam never forgot the look of disgust mixed with the pity in her expression as she watched this scrawny sniffling pathetic kid dribble snot onto her carpet. He didn’t blame her for it, and he hadn’t blamed her then. Thinking back to the experience now, he felt the same disgust, the same frustration for allowing himself to be treated that way. He was embarrassed, ashamed of who he had been. Ashamed of letting adversity change who he was on the inside.
“What’s wrong Sam?” Diane asked after Ms. Jensen excused herself. The encounter had left him rattled, and he hadn’t even talked to Chad yet. The idea of confronting his old bully was now even more intimidating.
“Nothing,” he forced himself to smile, “You want a drink?”
“Yes. You know Sam,” She continued, reading his mind, “Chad probably needs to be forgiven just as much as you need to forgive him.”
He was filling her cup from the punch bowl when he saw him walk in. At first he didn’t recognize the slowly shuffling figure that entered through the locker room door. Chad looked like he had slowly gained thirty pounds over the past two decades and then lost 20 of them very quickly. His eyes were hollow and his cheeks sagged, discolored, yellowish. His hair was thinning and dirty, and it was combed sloppily over his receding hairline.
If this had been the extent of the changes time had wrought on Chad’s body, Sam would have been glad, convinced that karma had finally exacted payment for the years of torment he’d been put through at the hands of this bully. But there was more, and despite his previous fears, Sam only felt pity for Chad Wexler as he stumbled into the midst of his adolescent peers on a pair of forearm crutches.
Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Sam wondered what it was that afflicted him. In addition to pity, silly as it seemed, he felt relieved, knowing that he wouldn’t receive a 20 year anniversary swirly at the hands of his old nemesis. Not with those crutches. He watched as Chad made his way to the table nearest the door. A few heads turned and then swept back into a huddle of shocked whispers. Was that Chad Wexler? The three sport all American? The two-time Prom King? The student body president? The walking cliché of a high school hunk?
He lowered himself awkwardly into a chair, leaned his crutches against the table and looked out over the gym where dancers were conspicuously stealing curious glances in his direction, or looking pointedly away. He seemed not to mind, he stared steadily out over them all as if it were still twenty years ago and they all danced at his mercy just as they had then.
Sam, never quite taking his eyes off of Chad, made his way with the punch back to Diane.
“He’s here… I don’t… He’s sick or something, look.”
Diane’s eyes lit up when she saw him. No doubt she was chomping at the bit to delve into how this new development made Sam feel.
“I don’t know if I should bring up how he treated me, you know? It looks like he’s been through a lot and I don’t want to make him feel any worse.”
“Oh, so his illness excuses him of accountability?”
“No, but, I’m sure he’s grown, I mean I can put it behind me now.”
“Now that he’s being punished?”
“Not punished, but I’m sure he’s had a lot to think about during his, you know…”
“Sam, this doesn’t change anything. You need to go confront him. This is just one more obstacle.”
“Do I have to?”
“Only if you want closure.”
She was right. Just because Chad had gotten sick didn’t take away or make right all the things he’d put him through. He needed to know what he’d done, and needed to know that he was forgiven. It was selfish of Sam to deny him that, and foolish of him to deny it for himself. He started walking towards his old bully.
“Say it one more time.”
Sam nodded, taking a moment to fully gather himself, “I won’t let adversity change who I am on the inside.”
“That’s my man.”
Nobody else had approached him yet. As Sam drew close, Chad pulled a bottle of beer from inside of his jacket and with unsteady hands he twisted at the cap. Sam gently took the bottle from him.
“Here,” he popped the top off against the edge of the table.
“Thanks.” Chad’s voice hadn’t changed a bit. It was strong and confident with a casual insincerity to it. If he recognized Sam he gave no sign of it. He took a sip of his beer and promptly ignored him, gazing out again over the dancing crowd. Sam sat down next to him, watching him watch. It was funny, back in the day the entire school had followed his lead, taken their cues from him. Now they danced with their backs carefully angled towards him, taking care to avoid eye contact. If their behavior bothered him, he didn’t show it. If anything he seemed pleased by it, as if nothing had changed.
Sam took a breath, “Chad.”
“It’s Sam Ratner.”
Chad paused for a second, then he smiled, his eyes widening. “Holy shit” he said laughing, “Rat-Nerd! I didn’t think you’d be here! Shit, I forgot all about you! What the hell are you doing here?”
“Well,” Sam shrugged and forced himself to not look away or down at the table as every instinct he had screamed for him to do. “Twenty years. It’s been a while.”
Chad grinned and took another sip of his beer, “What, you come here to get laid or something?”
“Um, no. I’m here with my wife actually,” Sam turned and pointed towards Diane.
“Daaaaaamn Rat-Nerd, she’s not that fugly. She’s pretty hot. What is she, retarded or something?”
“No,” Sam suppressed his annoyance. Chad was just embarrassed, trying to put up a brave front. “Look Chad, I have something I wanted to say to you. It’s sort of why I came here tonight.”
Chad gave a snort that turned into a burp halfway out of his mouth, “What is it faggot? You in love with me or something?”
“No,” Sam bit down on his lip for a second. This wasn’t going well, “I just wanted to let you know. You really messed me up back in high school, everything you did to me. It really affected my self-esteem and… I struggled with it for a long time, but I’ve worked through those issues. It took a while, and it wasn’t easy, but I need you to know that I’ve put it behind me and… I forgive you.”
Chad’s face had become a hard mask and he glared at Sam, taking a long drink from his beer. He emptied it and threw it down to the floor. It shattered loudly and everyone nearby froze, no longer able to keep from staring.
“You fucking what?” he growled.
“I forgive you Chad,” Sam repeated, and his voice cracked despite his efforts to appear calm.
Chad pulled another beer from his jacket and, putting the top between his molars, ripped it open. He spat the cap out and it clattered onto the table where it rolled slowly before spiraling to a stop. He drank it all in one go, never taking his eyes off of Sam while he did.
“I realize… I know…” Sam stuttered as Chad drank, “It seems like you’ve been through a lot, and… I thought… I just thought you’d like to know… that… there’re not any hard feelings.”
Chad slammed the bottle down on the table top and grabbing a crutch in each fist he labored to his feet. Sam stood too. Summoning every ounce of courage he could muster, he offered his hand.
Chad lunged forward, swung a crutch, striking him painfully on his outstretched wrist. Sam pulled his arm back and clutched it to his chest.
“Ow, Chad what the…” he couldn’t finish before Chad had taken another lunging swipe at him. The crutch clipped his shoulder on its way to the floor and Chad immediately put his weight on it, using it to propel himself forward.
Sam jumped back a step, narrowly avoiding a third strike.
“You fucking what?!” Chad was screaming now. His eyes were tinted red and gazing with a hatred that cut Sam even sharper than the fresh pain in his wrist and shoulder.
“I forgive you Chad! I’m sorry, I’m sorry this happened, just stop ok? Please stop!”
Chad threw his head back and laughed then swiveled on one crutch to face the silent crowd. The rubber tip squeaked loudly on the wood. The music had stopped. The only sound was his terrible laugh. “Anybody else got anything to forgive me for?”
Nobody moved. They all watched grimly, silent, embarrassed but unwilling to intervene. Nothing had changed.
Chad turned back to Sam, started swaying towards him, an aggressive rhythm-less gait. “You don’t forgive me, you know why Rat-Nerd?” He spoke quietly, but the loathing in his voice amplified it for the whole gym to hear. “Because I never stopped hating you. I still hate you. You know why I hate you Rat-Nerd? Because you’re pathetic, because you let me hate you, because there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Because that’s the way the world works. I’m still a winner Rat-Nerd, and you’re a fucking dork.”
Sam froze, watching him approach like a crippled nightmare. Every punch, every insult, every sweaty jock strap shoved into his mouth, it was all there, clattering steadily towards him, carried by this avatar of evil adolescent vengeance. Chad grinned, his mouth full of ragged freshly chipped teeth. Sam felt his fear vanish, replaced by cold steady anger.
Chad raised his crutch high and brought it sweeping down towards Sam’s skull. But Sam stepped smoothly to one side and stuck out his foot. Chad fell with a loud crack as his chin connected with the floor, and Sam heard his teeth click together, hard.
“Walk much?” he said.
Chad glared up at him, and angry tears fell from his bloodshot eyes. He was a tangled pile of crutches and limbs wrestling with itself on the floor, the terror of Sam’s past finally vanquished, twitching at his feet. He felt like if this moment lasted forever he would never get sick of it. He’d done it, defeated adversity, taken a stand against evil. He felt like putting a foot on the fallen bully’s chest and raising a victorious fist into the light that shone down on him from the lofty gymnasium rafters like a beam of triumphant sunlight.
“Jesus Christ Rat-nerd….”
He looked up. Everybody was staring at him, unanimously horrified. He saw Ms. Jensen in the crowd, covering her open mouth like she’d just witnessed murder. She actually took a step back when he caught her eye. He looked away, found Diane. She was staring at him like a stranger, shaking her head in shocked disbelief.
Below him, still struggling to get on his feet, Chad Wexler cursed him viciously and lashed out with one of his crutches striking him hard on the shin, refusing to let adversity change who he was on the inside.