I don't remember much of what she said after she whirled around and shouted at the three or four of us, a few paces behind her and her two siblings.
"WHY DON'T YOU JUST LEAVE HIM ALONE?!" is all I really remember her saying verbatim.
Seared into my memory, though, is the expression on her face--rattling fury mixed with broken-glass-sharp contempt. I remember how pale her blond eyebrows looked against the crimson of her complexion and how the breeze caught some of the strands of her long, straight hair, sending them swirling around her head, as if she was electrified.
I am and have always been known to be a Fuck-With. A Ball-Buster. Cage-Rattler. Whatever you want to call it. I'll give you an example. One day, when I was in high school, a popular kid wore a pink tie. A Pink Tie. It was the absolute height of Preppy TragiComedy and I rode his ass so hard about it, that he took it off in World History class and walked up the aisle to throw it at me. He was laughing, though, and I put it on and wore it for the rest of the day (with my black nail polish and my braided side-tail. TFS!)
Sometimes I would tease a little and sometimes a lot. It was humorous. It was a way of relating. It was my natural inclination. I learned through the years that it was also a defense mechanism. It allowed me to connect without feeling too emotionally vulnerable. To make others laugh was (and still is) one of the things that I do best and teasing others, picking up and playing with the little stuff that irked them a bit was one way to do that.
My teasing was never, ever, meant to hurt anyone. My aim was never to humiliate or embarrass someone in public or to demean them or make them feel less than.
The funny thing about aim, though, is that even if you're really true most of the time, you can still totally miss.
After my third grade year, the public school which I attended was closed. My fourth grade year dawned with me clad in a plaid jumper with navy blue knee socks. I remember being optimistic about the prospect of attending the Catholic school but my hopes were cast aside like so many kidney beans out of the school lunch chili. The kids there had been together since the first grade and they weren't taking any new customers.
I was awkward, a horrible combination of deep, scratchy voice, false bravado, questionable hygiene and bad, bad hair. I cried every single day before school, manifesting stomach aches and headaches that sent me complaining to the nurse. There was one other girl from former school and when I reached out to her--a continuation of the congenial relationship that we'd had only a few months back and a few blocks away, she turned on me and pretended we didn't know each other.
I was excluded but I was never picked on. I imagine that my acerbic wit and my speedy-if-somewhat-caustic comebacks may have been a part of what made me immune from the grisly treatment that two of my classmates received for the four years I attended that school. I still had my neighborhood friends, who also attended the Catholic school. They were all older than me and so even though we didn't see each other during the school day, we walked home together.
It was during this same year that we would walk home behind the redheaded boy. I don't recall his name. I had a vague idea of where he lived but to this day I can't say I knew him. I don't remember what we used to say to him. I only remember that we used to walk behind him and tease him. And tease him. And tease him. I don't remember him crying or yelling or doing anything in particular. In fact, I don't remember any real response at all until that day his sister whirled around and opened up a can of whoop-ass on us all.
We stopped short, all of us, when she spun around, dirt and small stones crunching under her heels.
"WHY DON'T YOU JUST LEAVE HIM ALONE?!" she screamed.
There was more but the details are lost to me all these years later. The gist was basically, 'Who do you think you are?' and it was only a matter of seconds before she spun again and stalked away, siblings in tow.
It was as if she'd doused me with a giant bucket of ice water, that's how shocked I was. I stood, stunned silent. I was surprised by the intensity of her emotion on his behalf and that what I experienced as a little post-school fun, he must have experienced as long-suffered torment. To have my perception changed so rapidly like that--it caused a kind of emotional vertigo.
We resumed walking and my friends were whispering, keeping voices low in that Oh-Holy-Shit-What-Was-THAT? tone. The boiling hot shame flooded me--filled me right up past my vocal chords--and threatened to spill over and out. I was overcome with emotion and I had nothing to add to their conversation because even then I knew. I knew she was right.
A few days later, I approached the redheaded boy and his sister. I apologized for the teasing and told him that I would stop. And I did. Was I a bully? I don't know. I don't think so, not in the classic sense. But I was definitely a Fuck-With in a bit of an emotional crisis, blowing off steam in an inappropriate way.
There was relief in giving a sincere apology and having it accepted. And in doing better. There was a giant lesson in the experience for me--an opportunity to reflect on my own behavior. An opportunity to gauge the effect that my behavior had on others, regardless of my benign intent.
I don't know if an adult's intervention would have had the same effect on me. It may have.
But I still remember her face. Clearly.
The fury, the broken glass contempt.
The electrified, swirling, platinum strands of silk.