I was in high school and having a very pleasant evening. My girlfriend and I walked through the mall (yes, I know, lame) and enjoyed one another’s company. Life seemed pretty good. I had a girlfriend who didn’t mind being seen in public with me, the night was crisp (but not cold), and she lay her head on my shoulder as we walked in an incredibly comfortable way. I thought it was a perfect night that would stay in my memories forever. It did, but not for the reason I thought it would. A violent situation was about to chase after my half of that young couple.
Though I didn’t realize until later, it started while we were still in the mall. As we wandered we heard a voice in the distance yelling. We walked on a while, but sensed a commotion behind us. It was not unheard of for fights to break out in the mall so I wasn’t surprised when she turned so me and said, “Maybe we should get out of here, just in case.”
“Good idea,” I agreed, “Besides, this has been a good night and I want it to stay that way.”
“It has been good. I like just walking with you.” She held my arm tightly and we exited through the back of the mall near where I parked my car. Unfortunately, the commotion followed us. Soon after we came through the doors, the crashed open again and a brute of a teenager yelled at us. At me.
“Hey! Yeah, I’m talking to you! Where do you think you’re going?”
“We’re going home,” I replied as calmly as possible. The boys with him spread out and loosely encircled us. I knew it was a bad situation, but I also knew we couldn’t possibly have anything to do with it. I hoped I we could get out of this safely and without a real fight.
“You’re not leaving until I get some answers! I saw you looking at my girlfriend! Why were you looking at here?”
“Dude, I don’t even know you,” I replied.
“I didn’t ask if you know me. I asked why you looked at my girlfriend!”
“What girlfriend? I notice she’s not here now.” He quickly closed the space between us, his face red with anger. He let loose a vile diatribe the likes I wouldn’t hear again until I watched my first Quentin Tarantino movie. He repeatedly jabbed one finger in my chest and I noticed he clenched his other in to a fist. I knew it was bad. I also knew he was larger and a more adept fighter than I. If fists flew, I would lose no question. There was no way I could physically stand up to this guy, so I fought back with the only skill at my disposal.
“I’m sorry, are you talking to me?” I asked it in a voice that sounded way more serene than I was. My voice was even, but my heart hammered and I was terrified. It was a gamble, but it was all I had.
His face changed from red to a raging purple and a vein stood out in his forehead. My strategy suddenly seemed rather ill-advised. “Yes I’m talking to you, you . . .” What followed were many, many inventive variations of the “F” word while questioning the legitimacy of my parentage and postulating what I may or may not enjoy doing with farm animals. The important thing, of course, was that he didn’t hit me.
He finished his invective and stood snarling, his breath rapid, and his body tensed like an animal coiled to strike.
“Are you finished?” I asked.
“I’m just getting started and -”
“Actually, you started a few minutes ago. I’d say you were to the middle at least by now, though I doubt you have the mental capacity to grasp that. ”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand you!”
“I can use smaller words if it helps.”
“Are you trying to make me look stupid?”
No, I’m succeeding.” He cocked his fist and I spoke more quickly, “Go ahead, show your friends here how big and bad you are. Hit the scrawny kid with glasses. It’ll probably only take one punch. Will that satisfy you? Will you be happy? IS that your deal, picking on weaker people?” I kept my arms at my sides.
The moment stretched out. His lackeys seemed unsure of this development. I didn’t know which way he would jump. I kept silent and for once wished the utterly useless mall security would show up.
Finally he blinked. “Aw, you’re not worth it,” he spat as he stormed off. One of his friends looked at me, clearly not knowing what to make of things, and said, “You’re lucky, I figured he was gonna pound you. I can’t believe I saw him walk away.
“No, you saw a Neanderthal get bested by Homo Sapiens.” I tugged on my girlfriend’s arm and said, “Let’s get out of here.” I didn’t want to push my luck and farther. We walked toward my car as they laughed. “Hey, that guy just called himself a homo!” Idiots.
I opened the door for her and she looked at me with something akin to awe as she got in my car. I got in the driver’s side and let out a long breath.
“You were so brave, ” she said, “What made you do that?”
“I wanted a perfect night. I didn’t want them to ruin it.”
There must have been something in my voice because she asked, “What’s the real reason?”
I looked at her for a moment and decided on the truth. “Because the bullies shouldn’t always win. Guys like that need to be stood up to. Someone has got to do it and tonight I decided to be that someone.”
“You could have gotten killed.”
“I didn’t say it was a good decision.”
“My hero,” she sighed.
In that moment, I was her hero. More importantly, I was mine.