Being Heroic is Still Never Enough
My mouth was pressed against the boy’s ear when I growled “GET THE FUCK OFF OF HER”, tightening my embrace around his body and separating him from the blonde girl who was trying to exit the bus. This is where the story has to begin because it was a moment where I felt myself wake up to hear the little voice in my head ask “how did you get here?”.
When you know it’s time to do something and you tell yourself “it is now time to take action”, this will usually not accomplish much, unless you have a lot of discipline. When it’s time to move in for your first kiss, and in your head you say now, that’s usually the moment you half-heartedly hug and say goodnight. Even something as simple as sitting in a group dynamic, while an interesting conversation is taking place, and you have your carefully crafted two-cents in mind, but your heart pounds nervously while the word now repeats in your head, over and over again, but you’re still sitting and not getting a word in.
I have never been good at taking action when I knew it was time. Knowing it is time to do something is never enough. When I was twenty years old, on that bus at 2:30 in the morning, pulling a young boy and his bony hands off of the shoulders of the young girl, both of them around my age, I told myself NOW at least six dozen times before I found myself realizing that I actually got involved.
If knowing what is right and when to do the right thing were enough for us, we would all have gym memberships, quit smoking, eat vegetables, ask for a raise, change our majors, go travel, meditate; whatever it is that you know you should be doing. If knowing what is right and what is wrong and when it is time to act were enough, I would not have sat idly by when at sixteen years old, inside a mansion house party, the intoxicated body of a girl my age became a sexual object for several young men to claim.
The girl from the bus and the girl from the party are different people. The situations are about four years apart, and I found myself struggling to be the same old me both times. Now. Now it is time to take action. Right now. Do it already. Whatever it is.
Instead what I did at the house party, was linger around anxiously, trying to think up a solution, and eventually just left because of how confused and uncomfortable I was; never really getting involved. As I write this I am twenty-two years old, and it had only occurred to me a couple of months ago that I should have simply dialled 911, ruining the whole disaster of a party in one swift move. I’m very upset that the concept of 911 only became a viable option when reflecting on everything over six years later.
The girl from the party was not much of a friend, but I did know her. She was a smoking buddy in high school, someone I spent very superficial time with while chain-smoking cigarettes and talking shit about the school administrators. The most intimate moment we ever shared was during mid-terms, when she stumbled into me in the hallway, telling me how wasted she is, how her and some friends had been drinking during lunch, and how she can’t figure out where her math exam is taking place. At the time, it was a funny moment to have in high school; we were just celebrating how destructive us kids could be in spite of some of the most tense times of our early academic careers. All I knew of this girl was that she had a lot of complications at home with a sick mother who would soon die of cancer, and that she really liked to party.
Casting that girl as the “chick who loves to party” was a horrible archetype to hold her accountable to. I did not want to be a party pooper. I wanted to respect that this girl, my age, could make her own decisions, just as I had thought myself to be someone who can make good decisions. Though, the longer the line up of dudes waiting to have a turn with her became, the more anxiety built in my chest as I realized how wrong this all clearly was. The girl was isolated in a room, and young men were standing around exchanging their high five’s and locker-room talk waiting to get a chance with her. Nothing was okay about the situation, and I definitely knew it back then.
Eventually, while standing outside of the house party, it was nearly 4:00 a.m. and the girl stumbled out of the house, tripping over herself the same way she had been that time in the hallway during mid-terms. She had a big goofy smile plastered on her face, she was obviously drunk and high on who-knows-what. I was ready to leave. In this moment, a car pulled up when the party was practically over, and three strange men exited the vehicle stepping towards the girl. I had never seen these men before in my life, and this party was meant for people from high school or known friends of friends.
Someone had obviously called their friends and told them about that chick at the party. These men had no other intentions when they pulled up to the house and began walking towards her. The girl, not in any right mind, responded by staggering towards them. It’s these moments where the anxiety of knowing what you should do is so overwhelming that you haven’t a second to say now in your mind. You just move. I quickly rushed after the girl, sliding my arm around her, and gently rotating her in the complete opposite direction. My heart was pounding as I imagined these three older thug-looking men getting violent with me. Altercations with them would never happen.
One last guiding question came to mind that night, to make it all worse for me. “What would my mother do?”, and immediately I began visualizing a very empowered, no-bullshit woman, solving the entire situation. This thought became more debilitating, because my imagination drew blanks on exactly whatever it was that still had to be done. One last idea came from the thought of my mom, and I said to the girl and her friend, another smoking buddy, “please come home with me”.
I think that, maybe, it is time to go. Would you be willing to, maybe, walk the short fifteen minutes to my house? You both can sleep over. Do you think, maybe, it’s getting late, and we should all go now? Please come home with me. Let’s leave. I live really close, and we can make breakfast in the morning.
The drunk girl’s friend assured me that they would leave soon, but no thanks, they’re sleeping at her house. I tried a little harder, I insisted a little more, but overall it was a sheepish attempt at saying “let’s cut this shit out. This was all a mistake”. Now six years later, I can’t even confirm if those girls did make it home safe, if safety wasn’t even still an option at that point.
I would make it home that night. Arriving to my house, alone, while the rising sun began lighting up the early morning sky. I walked the stairs up to my bedroom, each step feeling impossible, slouched over in disappointment and self-loathing. Thinking about someone like my own mother, how disappointed she would be that I didn’t do more, that those girls didn’t come home with me. Disappointed that it took me six years to consider dialling 911. Or maybe, I really should have just called my mom for help. Instead, I did nothing, and my night ended laying in bed with warped thoughts about how I no longer deserved to live.
Four years later, back on that bus at 2:30 a.m., I kept telling myself to intervene when a drunk boy was bothering a very dismissive female friend of his. I noticed them as soon as I got on the bus, and I just happened to take the only available seat across from them and whatever was going on. He stood towering above her, steadying himself with his hands on the bar, talking down at her while she sat. I knew she was uncomfortable, because she kept pretending like he wasn’t there.
This time I believed myself to be a better person. No longer a teenager, now a young adult, who can tell myself “it is now time to act”, and have enough discipline to actually do so. I was wrong. I had enough courage to lock eyes with the beautiful blonde haired girl, and gently mouth “are you okay?”. She nodded softly, reassuring me that maybe nothing is wrong. Maybe I am misunderstanding the situation. I couldn’t be sure, the bus had every seat full, and no one but me seemed to acknowledge the way this young dude was bothering the girl. Until a few minutes later, a woman walking past them to get off the bus says with a lot of attitude “leave her alone, you’re bothering her”. That woman was gone a second later, and the boy shrugged off her comment saying under his breath “fucking bitch”.
I soothed my anxiety and urge to get involved by noticing that the young girl was seated in between two massive men, and when taking into account the size of their biceps, I was positive these would be the type of men to tell the twerp off. Any second now.
I must have missed something, because all of a sudden the young guy’s tone became increasingly more aggressive, calling his friend a slut and a bitch. A whole slew of insults, that the young girl received while still sitting, still looking so very zen, and pretending nothing was happening.
When I was sixteen years old at the party, I encountered a similar confusion when I felt like I was the only one noticing that something really horrible was happening behind closed doors to a very intoxicated girl. At one point in the party, the topic of the girl was brought up, but all anyone had to say was that she must be a real slut to allow any of this to be happening. Even that drunk girl gave me no indication that anything was happening, but I take that more as a reflection of her state and inability to have consented to a handful of young men. It was a feeling of being surrounded by so many other bystanders, like myself, and wondering if I am completely insane for considering that what I thought was happening had actually been happening.
During the situation on the bus, I didn’t understand why no one paid her and the guy any attention. Why the big beefy men next to her averted their eyes in the opposite direction. Why my heart was pounding furiously, my mind repeating over and over “now, stop it now”, and no one, including myself, did anything.
Eventually, the person who took action was the actual girl. She got up, very calmly, approached the bus driver, and asked him to please stop the bus and let her off wherever we were. This is a service that she is entitled to at night on public transportation. Before the bus driver could do anything, the guy had chased after the girl, placing his hands on her and leaning past her as if she wasn’t even there, and said “sir, do not let her off the bus.”
I don’t actually remember the steps I had to take in order to find myself entirely wrapped around the boy and then prying him away from the girl. I do sort of recall hearing the bus driver ask the girl, “is this your boyfriend?”, as if he may actually obey the boy’s pleading to keep her on the bus if she said yes. No one really had a chance to answer the driver because now the words “GET THE FUCK OFF OF HER” ripped through the bus, and I realized it was me and that I was now placing myself in between the boy and the girl.
I must have startled everyone, even I was shocked to realize where I then stood, but somehow the girl maintained very graceful composure throughout the entire incident. The bus driver pulled over, and the girl turned to me to say “thank you”, then walked off into some random location on the night bus route. She was still so peaceful about everything.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you say “now it is time”, and you actually act upon it, you truly conquered that resistance and went forward, I’m sure deep down you’ve expected some form of applause and props. Some acknowledgement of your courage and ability to take action. You might even think finally moving into that first kiss would merit similar applause, until you realize how awkward the initial teeth-bumping is, and becoming accustomed to the taste of strange saliva on your mouth.
There were no rational thoughts in my mind. I lost any ability to reason. The boy became angry with me and said “you’re a girl! Don’t you know it’s not safe out there?”, every comment he said I was only able to respond with “I don’t care!”. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care that you somehow believe she’s safer with you than she is out there. I don’t care that it’s not her stop. I don’t care that you think you know what’s best for her. All of this just coming out as “I don’t care!”. I felt confident that if this boy did decide to be physical with me, he was tipsy, and I was stone cold sober, on my way to work my 4:00 a.m. shift at the airport, knowing I could easily push him over in the moving bus. I definitely had no confidence in anyone else on that bus to come to my rescue.
There would be no applause. There should be no applause. I would sit back down in my seat with adrenaline coursing through my body, keeping a sharp eye on the boy. Knowing that if it weren’t for that situation of being a coward when I was sixteen, I may have not had enough instinct to act in this moment on the bus. Knowing that the pain of inaction far out-weighted any potential consequences of taking action. There should be no applause, because both situations were still about me and how I would feel about myself as I moved on with life after whatever decision I chose to make. What my mother might think of me.
What I didn’t factor in was that the boy also got off the bus about five minutes later. We had definitely travelled away from where the girl got off, but I’ve still no idea what could have happened. That they could run into each other. That she was still in danger, maybe even more now. I watched him as he got off the bus, and in my head I said, “now, go after him, now”. However, I knew I also had to go to work. Somehow, the little bit of action I did take was enough for me to feel like I was off the hook. It’s someone else’s turn.
This isn’t necessarily a happy story recounting a heroic act, some sort of redemption for not fixing things when I was sixteen. This is a story of feeling vulnerable and powerless, wishing someone else, someone with more physical authority, or someone more tenacious, like my mom, would do something so that it wouldn’t have to be me. So that I wouldn’t have to live with the consequences of wondering “what if?”.
I remained on that bus for another forty five minutes, and not a single person acknowledged me or what had happened. No one to validate that that had been the right move to make, or even the worse thing they had ever witnessed. Everyone still averting their gaze. The equivalent of bumping teeth during your first kiss, or fumbling over your um’s and uh’s when finally speaking up to get your carefully crafted two-cents into whatever intellectual conversation. The lingering thoughts of suicide that a sixteen year old might have when sinking into the guilt of not having done enough, and knowing it. For years, I’ve struggled with comparing and contrasting these events and other situations like them. I continue to wonder when I will be good enough despite everything I have or have not done.
I haven’t figured out any answers to these questions, I don’t expect I ever will, but I have decided that now it is time to share this story, and confess what to me is likely a burden I do not carry alone. Now is the right time to share my guilt and regret for being too much of a coward to act when I knew better than not to. Now, I’m still just sitting idly by, wondering about everything that has happened, and everything that will happen.