It’s impossible to feel like a badass in a turquoise Ford Tempo.
That’s unfortunate, because right now, I need to feel like a badass. I need to feel like a tough guy. I need to feel like the baddest motherfucker in White County, Illinois as I’m driving to do maybe the bravest thing I’ve done in my 16 years: tell a grown man to keep his hands off my girlfriend.
That morning started like most other mornings my junior year of high school. I was sitting in the auditorium reading, let’s say a Quantum Leap novel because that’s where I was at that point in my life, reading and waiting for my girlfriend Angela to get to school.
When she came into the auditorium and sat next to me, I could tell something was wrong. She was pale. Her eyes had an empty stare. My first thought was that someone had died.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“Nothing,” she said.
“You’re shaking. I can tell something’s wrong. What is it?”
“Nothing,” she insisted.
This went back and forth a couple more times and then she said it, looking like she was struggling to hold vomit back as she got out the words:
“Pete kissed me last night.”
“Pete?” I asked. I didn’t know who she was talking about.
“Pete,” she said again, irritated that she had to repeat his name.
Then I figured it out.
Angela’s parents were divorced. Her mom now lived a few miles outside of town with her new husband. Her dad lived in an upstairs efficiency apartment in a converted two-story house on Main Street, a few blocks from the high school. Even though staying there meant sleeping on the couch, she lived with her dad most of the time so we could spend more time together.
Pete was their neighbor in the adjacent efficiency apartment. We had met a few times in passing. He had seemed like a nice, harmless enough guy. He was a thin older man with gray, wispy hair. He looked like he was in his 50s, maybe 60s.
The night before, Angela was coming home, and he opened his door as she reached the top of the stairs. They said hi, and he told her he had made some dinner and had extra. Would she like to come in and have some?
They sat at his kitchen table and chatted as she ate. When she got up to leave, he grabbed her and kissed her. She was able to push him away, and escaped to her apartment.
When she was done telling me what happened, we sat in silence for a few moments as the auditorium grew louder. More students were arriving for the day.
Finally, I spoke. “I’ll take care of it,” I said quietly.
What you have to understand is, I was not one of those high school jocks who always seemed to be looking for a fight. I was a big guy, a varsity football player and wrestler. I could knock someone on his ass if I wanted. On the other hand, I was a dork who carted the aforementioned Quantum Leap novel to school every day, and for a time Hoyle’s Book of Card Tricks. On the field and on the mat, I put on a character. I was consciously intimidating. But elsewhere, I was meek and timid. I was and still am someone who will cross the street and walk a mile out of my way to avoid a confrontation.
But I was protective of Angela. She was my first serious girlfriend. We were each other’s first everything in that regard. Plus, in the six months we had been going out, I had learned she didn’t have anyone else in her life she could count on to protect her. Her dad was an alcoholic who had spent so many years in a bottle, he was pretty much drunk even when he was sober. Her mom was mostly preoccupied being married to her new husband; her primary parenting tactic when she and Angela fought was to threaten to send her off to a children’s home. Her mom’s new husband was a nightmare of a man, fond of telling Angela and her younger sister what sluts they were going to be, how they’d be pregnant by the time they were 15. Short of calling the police, I was the only person who was going to do anything about Pete.
Besides a boyfriend’s innate tendency to protect his girlfriend was my sense of Christian duty – I was raised Southern Baptist. Not to mention, there was the influence of a hero who had had an even bigger impact on me than Jesus.
WWSBD? What would Sam Beckett do?
I had stood up for Angela’s honor before. Back during wrestling season, the team was on the bus headed to an away match. Apropos of nothing, my friend John pointed to a McDonald’s sign and said, “Hey, just like Angela: ‘Millions and millions served.’” I cracked up laughing and leaned in like it was the funniest thing I had heard, then reached out and locked his nose in a vise grip between my first and middle fingers. I didn’t let go for five minutes, leaving him with a purple bruise that lasted a week.
Standing up to your best friend for a crass comment about your girlfriend is one thing; knocking on the door of a grown man who assaulted her is another.
I was nauseated all day. I alternated between working myself up to be the tough guy badass I needed to be to confront Pete, and trying to talk myself out of it. Angela could see how nervous I was, and told me I didn’t have to do anything – but if I didn’t, how I could I look her in the eye ever again?
Angela took the bus out to her mom’s that night. After track and field practice (shot put and discus; I ran, but it was neither fast or pretty), I drove the few blocks over to the apartment building.
It is impossible to feel like a badass in a turquoise Ford Tempo.
That’s unfortunate, because this is the moment I really need to feel like a badass. If I were driving a black Trans Am and listening to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, I would totally feel like a badass. But instead, here I am in my mom’s turquoise Ford Tempo listening to let’s say Huey Lewis and The News, because that’s where I am at this point in my life. (Spoiler alert: I am still at that point in my life.)
I sit in the parking lot outside the building for at least 10 minutes.
When I get angry or scared, when I’m preparing myself for some sort of inevitable confrontation, I withdraw into myself. I zone the rest of the world out. Anyone happening to go past the apartment building right now just sees a terrified-looking teenager staring off into space, white-knuckling the steering wheel. But in my head, I’m trying to figure what to say to Pete. It has to be badass. It has to be tough.
“Keep your hands off my girlfriend.”
Not tough enough.
“Listen, asshole, keep your hands off my girlfriend.”
“Listen, asshole, you keep your goddamn hands off my girlfriend.”
That sounds right. Being a devout Christian, I was pulling out the big guns playing the GD card.
I try to anticipate how Pete will react. Will he deny it? Will he start shouting back at me that it was none of my business? Will he take a swing at me? His apartment door is right at the top of the steep staircase that leads to the second floor. I imagine us getting into a fight, and one or both of us toppling down the stairs.
I had to be ready for any of this.
Or I didn’t. I could still start the engine and drive away.
Instead, I pull myself out of the car. This unassuming white house on the corner of 5th and Main, a house I have passed by countless times growing up in this town, suddenly seems like the most ominous house I’ve ever seen.
I practice my line one more time.
“Listen, asshole, you keep your goddamned hands off my girlfriend.”
I am not Sam Beckett. I am George McFly confronting Biff at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
I make my way into the building- it’s not locked, small towns and all that -and begin walking up the staircase. Again, I envision myself rolling down these stairs in the eventual physical confrontation bound to happen in a few moments.
As I ascend, I have one last, fleeting hope: maybe Pete won’t even be home. I eventually would have to confront him, but it would at least be a temporary reprieve. But as I get closer, I can hear his television. I’m standing right outside his door, and can hear him moving around in the apartment.
Pete’s home, and he’s watching Wheel of Fortune.
I stand in front of his apartment door for at least two minutes. Trying to find the courage to knock. Then I do. Five steady raps.
knock knock knock knock knock
I can hear him moving to the door. I fight the urge to run.
Then the door opens, and I am standing face to face with Pete. In that moment, I realize that all day long I had been building myself up to be the tough guy, badass version of myself I needed to be to stand up for my girlfriend. At the same time I had been building Pete up too, into this grotesque, larger-than-life monster, but standing before me was this pathetic-looking, slight old man in old jeans and a ratty V-neck t-shirt.
Pete looks at me expectantly, trying to place me. The line I had rehearsed so many times is gone. It’s nowhere to be found.
Pete and I are just staring at each other now. A contestant on TV tells Pat Sajak he would like to solve the puzzle.
When I finally speak, my voice is shaking.
“Angela told me what you did. Leave her alone. Please.”
Pete doesn’t deny it. He doesn’t yell, and he certainly doesn’t take a swing at me. A look of incredible shame washes over his face, tears forming in the corners of his eyes, which now dart to the floor. He gives two slow, deliberate nods then shuts the door, the sound of the latch catching echoing in the hall.
I stand in the hallway shaking, adrenaline coursing through my body, not sure what to do. Tears and silent acquiescence weren’t what I had planned. Is that enough? It feels too easy, like I should do something more. But what? Knowing he is scared of me, I can pound on his door and really tear into him. Make sure he got the message. But that seems cruel, and cowardly. At least that’s what I tell myself, so this can be finished.
I walk back down the stairs. I get in my mom’s turquoise Ford Tempo, drive home, and call Angela. I don’t feel like a tough guy or a badass or a hero. I’m just relieved it is over.
Dennis Frymire is a Chicago-based writer, actor, and performer. He has performed with various storytelling and reading series in Chicago, including, of course, the wonderful folks at Story Club. He is also a three-time Moth Story Slam winner, and has been featured (anonymously) on NPR’s Snap Judgment. His first collection of flash fiction stories, Before We Destroy Each Other, is available for electronic download on Amazon. You can visit his website atdennisfrymire.com