Shame (Or: That Time I Literally got Punched in the Face)

As an eighth grader, I had accepted (through a kind of osmosis) the idea that good kids get A’s on report cards, live at home with two parents, attend church regularly, and probably star on the local sports team. That’s who I was trying to be. I’d never been in a fight before, unless you count scraps in the yard with my older brother.

To the contrary, bad kids lived with single parents, struggled to read out loud in school, and didn’t play sports because they were too busy doing drugs. That description fit Steve, or at least that’s the way I saw him. He was one grade ahead of me in school.

Perhaps I chose Steve as the object of my shit-talking because I suspected he would be easy to incite. My friends would giggle at me when I stared at him across the hall, found his eyes, and called him names like “pussy.” The more I did it, the angrier Steve got.

“You don’t know who you’re messing with!” he shouted at me one day.

Right, right. I just knew I was invincible.

This little game lasted about a week. That Friday night, my posse and I walked out of our town’s little one-screen movie theater and there he was, his back to me, talking to his girlfriend. The audience was in tow, and I couldn’t resist.

“Watch this, guys,” I said.

I strutted toward Steve, and as I approached him, I leaned in just far enough to bump his shoulder. After the initial contact, I kept walking without saying a thing.

I heard footsteps coming behind me. I turned my head just in time to catch a fist in my jaw. My neck rotated, exposing the other side of my face. Bam, another punch. I staggered backwards. My friends stood back, the situation no longer funny.

Steve kept coming. His third strike split his previous ones, landing right on my mouth. A ringing sound pierced my ears. I couldn’t stop my eyes from blinking. Through the fog, I heard the ultimate humiliation: Steve’s girlfriend screaming at him to stop. As she pulled him away, I tried to get the last word, although I cannot imagine what there was left to say.

My friends and I knew better than to stick around, so we scattered in multiple directions. As I got the heck out of there, I berated myself. Why hadn’t I protected my face? Why hadn’t I swung back? Why hadn’t my friends protected me? Everything but remorse.

At home, I snuck in a side door and headed to the bathroom, where I looked in the mirror and scanned for blood. I wiped my face. Then I went out to the living room and told my parents about the movie.

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