A Parable for Our Times
Even if you’d used the Weird Science computer to design a bespoke outcast you couldn’t have created a child better suited to being bullied. I didn’t just get bullied, I excelled at being bullied. Fat, effeminate, the kind of kid who panicked when a ball came in his direction and just stood there paralyzed in fear while it ricocheted off his person, I couldn’t have fit in more poorly if I’d made it my life’s goal. In a sea of knockabout hellions, I was a tender-hearted weirdo obsessed with Ramona Quimby, who couldn’t understand why other children seemed incapable of discussing the character arcs on The Facts of Life with at least a passing level of erudition.
For Chrissakes I was afraid of butterflies — sincerely, screamingly, existentially afraid of butterflies. (It’s the flapping. It’s uncanny, and off-putting.)
It didn’t help that I was raised by a broke, hardscrabble, fresh-out-of-patience-for-your-bullshit single mother — a more modestly dressed Erin Brockovich in a sea of Elyse Keatons — in the part of our affluent Detroit suburb that abutted a slum full of what would soon come to be known as crack houses. We stuck out like sore thumbs, and even if nobody ever had the gall to call me trash or my mother an abandoned woman on the make, they implied it.
The bullying began early in elementary school, and the first leader of my band of oppressors was an older boy named Louis. He started with the most obvious points of weakness, but quickly sussed out, as bullies do, my true Achilles heel: my mother, to whom I clung with the kind of grip only children of adversity seem to muster. The one slur of Louis’s that still sticks in my memory is incredibly stupid: a school bus roundtable on the widely reported eyewitness testimony of my mother doffing her sensible Fashion Bug business separates in the streets of Bloomfield Township to squat and urinate on the neighborhood shade trees. The hilarity of this malformed juvenile slander was lost on me, but not my mother: her split-second quake of a held-back guffaw when I hiccup-sobbed, “They — said that — you go — PEEEEEE ON TREEEEEEEEES!!!” baffled me for my entire childhood.
Eventually, Louis’s bullying reached a fever pitch and my parents intervened. My father’s approach was to teach the limbs I most often used for re-enacting Madonna videos how to throw punches, an endeavor it may surprise you to hear failed to the fullest extent of the word. (But I SLAYED that “Open Your Heart” striptease, fam.)
My mother, however, for all her fed-upness with humanity’s nonsense, was fervently dedicated to instilling the idea of always doing the right thing, even by the one that wronged ya. A bullied child herself turned bullied wife turned bullied single mother, this goodwill was tempered by a certain hard-won “can’t fight city hall” passivity. “Always treat people the way you want to be treated,” she’d tell me. “And if they pick on you? Well, you just ignore them and they’ll get bored with trying.”
As I’m sure you are aware, dear reader, this advice has never worked in the entire history of advice, bullying, humanity, carbon-based matter, or the universe, ever, even once, and Louis’s torment continued unabated.
Ifyou weren’t a totally lame gaywad in the South Bloomfield Highlands subdivision of the mid-to-late-80s, you hung out in the lawless fringe of overgrown bracken and what we now call “mature trees” that separated the neighborhood from the hulking beige monstrosity of the GM Pontiac East Assembly, known colloquially as “the truck and bus.” It was a magical world between worlds, obscured from view from the nearby streets and hence the locus of clandestine neighborhood goings-on, from underage drinking to illegal dumping and, for reasons we kids could never figure out at the time, stashing of Playboys and Penthouses, their lurid photos faded by rain. Barely visible through all this chaos was an old two-track farm road that ran seemingly forever, to the then-slum of Pontiac in one direction and the I-75 overpass in the other. Occasionally you’d look up from whatever treasure you’d found and be struck with terrified wonder as the legendary hobos Indian Joe and The Bloomfield Bum grappled over the verge of the deep ravine that sloped from the two-track’s edge, down to the train tracks that clamored into the Truck & Bus day and night.
It was a place of mystery, subterfuge and outright danger (parents would be jailed for letting their kids play there nowadays), a magical no-man’s-land where risk-taking seemed as natural as breathing, which is why when Louis one day appeared, inveighing against my zaftig frame from down the two-track, it took virtually no effort for me to screw up my courage, look him dead in the eyes and triumphantly bellow “SHUT UP, LOUIS POO-ISS.”
I’d expected Louis to fall dead on the spot, slain by the power of retributive cruelty, but to my shock he instead began running toward me full-force. I fled to my red Huffy and began pedaling away with all my might, but it was only mere seconds until I turned back to see Louis’s BMX flying out of the bracken, hot on my tail. By the time we turned onto my freshly grated gravel street, I knew I had no choice but to lead him to his demise: the precise approach to our driveway through the loose dirt and stones that, without the sort of cultivated navigational skill mastered through years of trial and error, would make even the steadiest of cyclists spill out into catastrophe. I gripped my handlebars and plowed through the rocks, safely alighting the driveway at the precise moment I heard the whoosh of stones, the crash of a bicycle and a sharp yowl of pain in Louis’s stupid voice (like Kurt’s in The Sound of Music, but stupider). I looked back to see Louis sprawled in the gravel face-down like he’d been shot in the back, crying his head off like a little fucking bitch.
Victorious schadenfreude coursed through me like heroin until I saw the blood pouring out of his skinned knee. Uttering my first-ever gay gasp at the carnage (loljk my first gay gasp was like five years prior while watching Wonderwoman) and remembering my mother’s insistent golden rule training, I decided the only right thing, the only just thing, was to summon her succor.
When I burst through the door like my hair was on fire yelling “Mom mom mom!” I found her in the bathroom, ramming the toilet brush around the bowl with the accumulated fury of a woman scorned, like you do. She looked over at me with the kind of exasperated, screw-faced expression that says “MOTHERHOOD IS A MISTAKE” and spat, “hhWHAT.”
“Louis chased me home on my bike? Because I called him Louis Poo-iss? And he fell in the gravel? And he’s bleeding bad! He needs help!”
My mother straightened up from her crouch, flung the toilet brush into the bowl and set her face into an angry blank.
“Take me to him,” she intoned, like Queen Boudica in housecleaning garb.
I led her down the driveway, ping-ponging between a sense of moral rectitude and the impending doom of Louis’s inevitable revenge. We arrived where he still lay facedown in the rocks, whining in pain. My mother surveyed the pitiful scene with its tears and blood, and her demeanor shifted to a more benevolent version of aggravated.
“What happened here?” she said, in that resigned way that mothers have.
“I was riding my bike,” Louis (Poo-Iss) whimpered. “And my wheel spun out in the rocks.” He sniffed his weep-snot into his nose. “And I fell and cut my kneeeee,” he said, beginning to cry again.
My mother watched him.
And something in her crossed over.
She looked down at a few errant stones Louis’s bike had strewn on the driveway near her feet, as if they were runes guiding her.
“Yep,” she said definitively, flicking the stones with pinpoint accuracy just shy of Louis’s face with the toe of her Dr. Scholl’s. “War is hell.”
She took my hand, about-faced, and left Louis to whimper in the dirt, punctuating her abandonment by slamming the metal garage door down behind her.
And that’s the day I learned the limitations of the golden rule. That sometimes we must do unto others not as we’d have them do unto us, but rather as they have done unto us, lest we invite more of the same. People treat you how you teach them to treat you, after all. Eventually, you have to draw a line.
Louis never bothered me again.
Sometimes people go so low, you can only win by refusing to go high.