I am a young child of indeterminate age showing off with a neighborhood girl, Melissa, in the parking lot outside of her apartment. We’re cracking each other up by goofing on Bill Murray’s “Lean, mean, fighting machine” pep talk to John Candy from the movie Stripes. We keep subbing in various words that rhyme with “lean, mean, machine” and assigning them to the other kids we know from the neighborhood. My little brothers, for instance, become “mean, marine, and never-clean.” Nonsensical hilarity ensues.
Melissa says, “Let’s do April,” and without pause, I say, “She’s a mean, green, not-very-lean, machine!” and we giggle. We don’t notice April’s mom walking back from the laundry room, who overhears what we have just said about her daughter. She marches me by the arm upstairs to my own apartment and bangs on the door. As we wait for my own mother to answer the door, I can see April’s mom’s jowls quivering she’s so filled with rage. My own mother doesn’t show rage, nor does she possess wiggly jowls. This is uncharted territory for me.
My stomach surges with queasy, bilious terror.
April’s mom makes me tell my own mother what I have said, which I do in a small voice that I do not recognize, and I am sent to my room. I burrow deep beneath my covers with all of my clothes on and allow the gushing pangs of regret to spill over me. I wasn’t trying to be hurtful; I was not a bully. Naively, out of frivolity, I caused someone to feel pain. I know my mother will be coming in soon to question me about how, why, what reason could I possibly have for being a mean kid? I rush through possible responses in my head:
I didn’t say what she thought I said, I was kidding, it was just a joke, Melissa said it — not me, we weren’t saying it to hurt anyone, I’m sorry, so sorry, unbelievably-crazy-sorry.
I am an inadvertent bully and I am, quite literally, sick about it.
I am in middle school in a southern state. There is a distinctive hierarchy of power among the girls in my grade, and I — marked by thrift store clothing, straight A’s, and weird homemade lunch foods — teeter precariously on the precipice of the inner circle. Any wrong move will shove me into popularity-oblivion, so I am wildly cautious. I do not even know how I got this close to the popular kids in the first place. I laugh too much at jokes that are not funny to me; I feign French-kissing experience with a boy from a different school and wear bras I do not yet need. I exist with the same painful ache of anxiety awake and alive in my guts at every given moment.
And the bullying begins.
I had been trying so hard to do it all correctly. And though there is no one specific preceding incident, I am abruptly subject to psychological warfare in the form of the peroxide-blonde, obnoxiously athletic, already physically developed prepubescent girls telling my few friends that I am a freak. Subsequently, once this edict is handed down, I am left without anyone to commiserate. Pre-adolescents struggle to associate with those deemed “freak” by the popular kids. My newly pimpled face is aflame when the top girl loudly mocks my too-short secondhand pants in Biology class by asking if I’m ready for the flood, and again during World History that year when the same girl passes notes to my friends that say, “Let’s all not talk to Devon. Isn’t she weird?” One of my now-former “friends” is kind enough to let me know that no one will be talking to me anymore, due to my inherent weirdness.
I am weird.
It is not okay to be weird in the south, in middle school, in the mid-1990s. The deck is stacked so grossly against me that some days I think I will just quit trying altogether. Give up.
I am one of the shortest kids in class, desperately quiet and shy. I am in accelerated classes and read huge novels on my hour-long bus rides to and from school. I have healthy food like granola and carrot sticks in my bagged lunches–not candy bars and potato chips. Is this my penance for mocking April years before? Am I experiencing a sort of bully-karma?
I start trying to pray to the Christian god — the Southern Baptist god — who all the girls at school seem to know quite intimately, but who eludes me in my atheist household. I was never taught to pray, so I improvise:
Please god, please make them stop being mean to me. I swear I will never, ever, ever be mean to anyone else ever again if you just make them stop. Please let me have friends again. Even just one or two friends would be okay. Please — I’ll do anything. Please.
As if perfunctory politeness is going to get god on my side.
I am trying too hard to be stoic and mature during sophomore year in high school, and instead come across as a “bitch” — at least, that’s what my classmate calls me outside of drama class just before slapping me, hard, across the face. The red prickle lingers on my cheek for the remainder of the school day.
I am besieged by depression/cutting/killing-myself-quicker-than-I-should the year in college when I find my roommate’s “List of things to write about in my diary” which includes “How much I love to hate [insert my name here].” I never confront her because I can scarcely find the words to express how much this hurts.
I am old enough to know better and sitting alone, sober, in the bedroom of the apartment we share but that is really occupied by two people who no longer know one another. I sit on the mattress, on the floor, in the dark and think to myself: We don’t even have sex anymore.
It’s nearly comical how bad things have gotten. Like, maybe laughing would make this all just a dark comedy. But not quite.
When I was a kid, “cocktail” was a romantic word dripping of promise, sophistication, lust. It is something adults are permitted, in slight, slippery glasses, and makes everyone laugh and laugh. It is not a failed concept flung casually into someone’s unblinking face, or an ill-placed coping device. A “cocktail” is not what you drink until your insides are screaming and fling back out of your mouth and all over the porcelain, or the linoleum, or the new down comforter.
I tell myself these things, I proclaim a new mantra in writing because typing out letters on a blank page demands attention; it calls for reason:
Never give up drinking for someone else. Especially when someone else is an alcoholic and will leave you wishing you knew better wondering how much is too much stuck in feigned ambivalence sucking your teeth because you are no longer allowed to suck the hard glass of the legal “time out” you were promised on your 21st birthday.
I am not sure which hurts more: the waiting, or that cool and unblinking malt liquor gaze he’ll have plastered across his face like a cheap rubber mask at Halloween. It isn’t even a holiday; it’s a Tuesday night in August and I am blasting the air conditioning because the chill makes more sense to me right now than being warm. He’s missing, again, and I am locked out of my own existence. We’ve been flailing for what seems like all of history. When were things okay? Why are we still here?
The option to numb myself with liquor is off the table, so I dabble in yoga, jogging, meditation, reading, pot, cooking — anything to sidetrack my mind from reality. There are periods of days where we pretend everything is right on track — we go for long walks, attend concerts, order pizza and eat it in bed. Yet the lurking awareness of our miserable fiasco bubbles just beneath the skim-milk surface of routine, threatening to spew forth at any second and scald us with foul-scented truth.
And the truth is that it’s my life. Everything hurts, all of the time. More than realizing I am a bully, more than being bullied, more than being abandoned, cheated on, lied to, deceived, and thrown aside. Existing in limbo is tortuous. I have both hurt and been hurt, and now, staying, I injure myself, over and over again. Day after day. Week after week — which are beginning now to span into full months of time. And I do not even know how to escape this current state of being because the most impossible thing to hear may be ever tougher to say:
“I can’t do this anymore. I just don’t love you enough.”
D. E. Fulford is a writer who composes (mostly) verse on love, overcoming adversity, and pain — among other topics. If you’d like to read more, please visit and follow her blog. Thank you for reading!