There were no windows. Pitch black. I laughed, knowing Jeff would have to feel his way out… sink, sink, wall, light switch, door.
I was laughing in the hall when he finally found his way out, and he cursed me between his laughs.
Then, just as we began to settle down, the door of the men’s room exploded open.
He stormed out like a hurricane.
With two hands, he pushed Jeff, who stumbled backwards but did not speak.
I had no idea there was someone else in there… left in the dark… I never would have…
“Did you think that was funny?” he said.
Jeff said nothing.
Then the hurricane turned to me. Fear and terror gripped me, paralyzed me.
“Did YOU do it?”
I said nothing. My heart raced, threatening to beat out of my chest.
We both took two steps back.
He was big. Football player big. Confident. Strong. Everything we were not. Not geeky, not awkward, not uncomfortable in his skin.
He swung at Jeff. I took two more steps back and eyed the distance to the door.
Jeff held his ground but would not swing back, would not push back.
He punched Jeff in the stomach.
“Which one of you did it?” Neither of us answered, but we both knew it was me.
“I should beat both your asses right now.” And we both knew he could.
He focused in on Jeff again, and I was relieved it wasn’t me. I was terrified that Jeff would say I had done it, and horrified that he refused to.
Jeff’s refusal to fight back, the passive defense, confused him, like a possum that lies still. After some more glancing blows, the football player stormed off and left us alone.
Confused, terrified, and victimized, with adrenaline racing through our veins, we bolted through the door out into the open.
Jeff went left. I went right.
I didn’t see or speak to Jeff again for 15 years.
In the years that passed, we both got married, had children, grew up, and that terrifying 5 minutes drifted into our past, a part of our youth, forgotten in time.
The problem was, I didn’t forget. I couldn’t forget. I saw it in every quiet moment. I saw it when I reflected on my life. I saw it in my dreams.
It wasn’t the terror, although I can still feel it as if it just happened. It was how I let him take the blame and the beating for something I did.
It was how I could have said, “it was ME,” but didn’t.
It was how Jeff never admitted what he KNEW to be the truth in order to save himself from a beating.
WHY did he do that?
WHY couldn’t I say 3 words, “I did it” and then run like hell?
WHY couldn’t I be for Jeff, who Jeff was for me?
Years went by, and time softened things. I forgave myself for youthful arrogance.
But in spite of the softening forgiveness of time, that singular moment continued to haunt me.
Years later, I reconnected with Jeff. I would never have recognized him on the street. His biceps were the size of my thighs. He had reshaped himself from a skinny kid into a powerhouse of an amateur body builder. I, on the other hand, was an older version of the scrawny kid that we both still were inside.
I apologized for my horrific cowardice all those years before, and he forgave me as easily as he had saved me back then.
That single act, the flip of a switch – to prank my friend and leave him for a moment in the dark, had changed the course of events across two lives. One determined to own up to and be responsible for his actions. One determined to never be victimized again.