Recess at Cedar Ridge Elementary was a special kind of hell. Halfway through my fifth grade year, the groundskeeper for the school laid down new sod that surrounded the playground on all sides and teachers took to keeping us trapped on the asphalt with what was quickly becoming my most-hated phrase…
“Off the sod!” they’d scream as if those three words contained some kind of magic that could bring the yellow patches of stitched-together grass back from the dead. This was a nightmare for me, since I tend to panic when I’m stuck in a place I want to leave but feel I can’t escape. Put me in the center of a church pew at mass and my sweat’ll fill up the Red Sea. In fifth grade, the church pew was the playground, and nothing made me sweat more than Garrett Barker.
Garrett Barker became a cult-like figure the moment he barged through the doors of Cedar Ridge Elementary the first semester of fifth grade decked out in tattered jeans and a No Fear tee. The more savvy students knew it was better to be on the same side as the kid who wasn’t afraid to cuss in front of teachers rather than against him. I was one of the last holdouts. I’d like to say it was because I recognized him for what he was and had decided to hold my friends and myself to a higher standard, but the truth is it was because he had decided to pick on me.
Fat kids make easy targets, and, at 10 years old, I was a bus-sized bullseye. Imagine the porkbellied two-year-old stuffing his face with deep fried chicken wings backstage at Maury’s Morbid Babies show. Now picture him eight years later, roaming the blacktop in grey sweats like a baby elephant with a butt cut.
My parents had all sorts of tricks to sugarcoat it, but, unlike most sugarcoated things, I hated these terms because deep down I knew what they really meant:
- Stocky = Fat.
- Stout = Fat
- Heavy set = Fat
- Big-boned = Super duper fat.
I’d been “big-boned” since birth, but this afternoon, imprisoned on the blacktop by four walls of sod and the wrath of my fiery fifth-grade teacher, Miss Vega, I was about to given me a new nickname.
“Hey thunder thighs!”
I didn’t need to turn around to know he was talking to me. I stared at the ground hoping that if I stood still enough I’d disappear. The pavement rattled beneath my feet as a giant shadow engulfed me. Garrett’s hot breath made the hair on the back on my neck stand up straight.
“I’m talking to you, thunder thighs!”
My body thrummed with a charge of energy as if it were tangled up in an electric coil. “Please leave me alone,” I said, trying to unravel it the best way I could.
“What’d you say, thunder thighs?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Call you what?”
I hesitated, my legs shaking from the shock.
“Oh,” he said, and from the inflection I could tell a sinister smile had spread across his face. “Thunder thighs?”
I watched as Garrett’s shadow converged with my classmates and knew what would happen next…
“Thunder thighs! Thunder thighs! Thunder thighs!” the chant began.
Garrett cackled as another classmate joined in. And then the laughing began. One, maybe two people, but when you’ve been rubbed raw every scratch feels like a chainsaw. I looked for a way out, but the sod surrounding the playground had grown into a 10-foot high fortress imprisoning me on all sides.
The coil contracted with each new assault, every word sucking out a little bit more of my breath until I could no longer breathe.
I have no friends.
Why am I even alive?
The tremor in my feet reverberated through my body until it reached my face shaking loose the first tear from my eye. I felt so ashamed. I didn’t want to be crying, but I didn’t know how not to. Salty tears streamed down my swollen cheeks. One by one they fell to the pavement, and as they did, the walls surrounding me came down.
I inched my way across the sodded patches of dead grass, no longer afraid of Miss Vega’s wrath. The voices faded away as I rounded the corner of our building and pushed my way through a set of double doors. All I wanted was to be left alone, but when I finally was, I was still left with me, and Garrett’s insults could never hold a candle to the flames that burned in my own mind.
Fat, worthless, friendless, and better off dead. An endless repeat of all the things I’d come to know about myself. The more I tried to stop the frenzied voices, the louder they echoed. Crippled by exhaustion, I collapsed under the weight of it all, motionless except for my heaving chest, gasping for breath as I cried like an infant ripped from its mother’s arms.
“I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone… It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.” Charlie Kaufman in his BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture
At 10-years-old, my deepest wound was my weight, and Garrett knew the best way to hurt me was to take shots at it every chance he got. More than twenty years later I still have that wound. It didn’t heal so much as calcify. But being hard makes you brittle, more likely to explode into a thousand little pieces when the pressure is applied just right.
I feel as if I’m breaking now.
Somewhere along the way we decided to elect Garrett into our nation’s highest office. We have a president who preys on the meek and disenfranchised, calling them names and spreading false information from the biggest online playground in the world. I’ve become addicted to the rage I feel at daily twitter tirades and every attempt from his administration to deflect scrutiny and place blame. Some people think he’s funny, although, like Garrett, I suspect it’s far fewer than it seems. Many more remain silent, willing to put up with his bullying as long as it isn’t directed at them.
And as much as I’ve tried to convince myself the people I’ve chosen to associate myself with politically aren’t at fault, it’s easy to see there are bullies on both sides. One of the biggest donors to the democratic party, a strong-arm producer and highly influential figure in Hollywood whose movies I’ve come to love and respect, has been revealed as a serial sexual predator, to my mind, the worst type of bully you can be.
So now I’m left to wonder, where do I stand? I’ve always considered myself a champion of the underdog and highly empathetic to the plight of the outcasts, weirdos, and exiled. But I’m sure I’ve been perceived as a bully too. Instead of discounting that as a misunderstanding I think it behooves me to uncover the hidden motives that drive my shameful behavior.
My motive is my wound. Always has been. Whether it was turning my weight into an asset by becoming the best football player I could be, or using a caustic whit to cut others down in order to make myself feel tall. It’s been my greatest strength and biggest downfall. I fight against it every day. And because I see it in me, I have to believe it lives in everyone.
I remember the day I first saw the wound in Garrett.
Months after the thunder thighs incident Garrett and I found ourselves on opposing sides of a two-hand touch football game at recess. Big-boned as I was, I was also swift on my feet, so instead of joining my fellow fatties on the offensive line, the team put me at receiver.
Down by just one touchdown and with recess running out, this was our last chance. We hustled to the line, no time to huddle up and call a play. I settled into a two-point stance and eyed the field in front of me, just thirty more yards to score a touchdown.
“Blue thirty-two,” our quarterback said. “Blue thirty-two. Set. Hike!”
I jolted forward out of my stance. At ten yards I cut to the inside passing through the defenders on a post pattern. The quarterback hit me in stride about twenty yards down the field. With all the defenders except for the safety playing press coverage, there was only one man to beat.
Garrett hunkered down at the ten-yard-line like a hungry troll guarding the entrance of a bridge. Blades of grass shot out from beneath my spinning feet. We caught eyes, each of us instinctively knowing that two-hand touch had just turned into tackle football.
Ten yards from contact, we set our course by squaring our shoulders.
Five yards. I protected the ball by cradling it with my forearms.
Two yards. Garrett lunged forward, arms spread wide, ready to take me down.
One yard. I bowed my shoulder preparing for a collision.
But it never came.
When I looked up I was crossing the goal line. I couldn’t believe it. The school’s biggest bully, a kid who could crush me with two simple words, and I’d run over him like a 747 flying through a sprinkle of rain. My teammates rushed toward me with their hands in the air. We jumped and high-fived and celebrated the score. Seconds later, a whistle blew signaling the end of recess. As my classmates jogged off the field. I stood in the end zone trying to make sense of what I felt. The electricity was still there flowing through my veins, but the coil seemed to loosen. I felt alive.
A laugh escaped my lips, and for a brief moment, I felt relief. That feeling was replaced by concern when I heard the muffled cries of an injured animal. I spun around, instantly spotting the poor beast; Garrett, ass dug in the dirt, his shoulders bouncing up and down in between gasps for air.
A few of my classmates surrounded him like pedestrians pausing to view the scene of a crash. He shrugged them off, one by one, until he was left to cry alone. Wanting a closer look, I advanced toward Garrett with the caution of a bomb disposal robot approaching an IED. He was fragile, sitting there with his head held in his hands, and I knew that any moment he could explode.
“You okay?” I said.
He looked up, one hand covering his right eye while tears streamed down the left side of his face. I could tell that he was afraid of me, a wounded deer staring down the barrel of a hunter’s shotgun. I would have preferred respect, but I guessed with Garrett fear was as close as I’d get.
“Let me see,” I said motioning for him to uncover his eye. He winced as he moved his hand, his dirt-stained palm replaced by a knot the size of a golf ball.
I wanted to feel happy. God knows I had been all the times I’d pictured this in my head. In that fantasy I was a wrecking ball, looming above Garrett’s broken body ready to deal the final blow. “You see what happens when you mess with me?!” I’d scream before crushing him completely. It would be easy, this insignificant thing. But standing there above him I didn’t feel happy. I felt pity. Garrett had a wound too.
As a fat kid, my wound was easy to see. I walked around wearing it 24 hours a day, and no amount of sucking in or sizing up could conceal the fact that I didn’t belong. But maybe that’s how everyone feels. I could see it so clearly in Garrett that afternoon.
Our wounds might not have been the same, but fat or not, we both knew what it was like to feel small. The way I dealt with it was to try to shrink myself down to where I couldn’t be seen. Garrett’s way was to try to bring everyone else down to his size. It seems now like neither way was all that healthy. I guess the best us wounded can hope for is a safe place to bleed.
I held out my hand and waited for Garrett’s fear to subside enough for him to trust me. Eventually, he grasped it, and we lifted each other off the ground.