I was a poor excuse for a 15-year-old boy. While others my age were shouting at their parents about the unreasonableness of having to be home by 10 on school nights — during which they smoked cigarettes and made a big display of combing their hair a lot, or even, uh, petted with girls (in the vast majority of cases) — there was Johnny watching Mr. Novak with my parents and little sister, perishing of loneliness and self-loathing. (My own hair was too short to comb. At my parents’, uh, urging, I wore it in the manner of the television children's show personality Soupy Sales, whom not a few of my classmates at Westchester High School had made no secret of thinking I resembled. Lucky me!) I had never tasted beer. I felt as likely even to talk to a pretty girl as to be picked to be an astronaut. Some months before, I’d been the smallest member of my junior high school class’s all-star touch football team (membership on which was guaranteed to anyone who participated sufficiently conscientiously in after-school sports). I was shorter than my mother, and my mother wasn’t 5-2, and apparently exuded meekness, which of course is the bully’s catnip.
In my PE class, taught by a gruff old asshole who openly resented having to “teach” PE when all he wanted to do was coach the goddamn varsity football team and be recruited to do the same for one of the major colleges. He made no bones about identifying with the badasses, the boys who stank of the cigarettes they sneaked in the lavatory between classes.
The first day of my second week at Santa Monica High School, at which I knew no one, and was pretty sure I never would, one of the badasses in PE smelled my testosterone deficiency, virginity, and never having tasted beer, and decided, just for the fun of it, to try to make me (more) miserable, tossing a handful of turf at me.
The 2015 version of myself would have acted as though the whole thing was a joke we were both in on. I might, for instance, have chuckled, offered him my fist to touch his own against, and said something streety. “What up, dawg?” That sort of thing. But it was a much less shrewd and forward-thinking version of myself that had to respond to his affront. If I hadn’t been 5-1 and testosterone-deficient, I might have tried to punch him, but that seemed suicidal, so I contented myself with responding in kind, throwing a handful of turf back at him.
Foolish boy! His expression was that of a child who’s come downstairs on Xmas morning to find a pony-shaped package with his name on it under the tree. He let out a little whoop of delight and came for me with brandished fists. I fled. I was approximately as good at eluding predators as at going up to pretty 12th-grade girls and saying, “How about we meet up at lunch for some petting behind the Languages building?”
He tried to feed me turf. I resisted, to the extent of keeping my mouth shut (a skill I would almost immediately forget). A couple of our mutual classmates arched their eyes in disdain, but then Coach Asshole waddled out, reeking of his own cigarettes and seething with resentment, class began formally, and my ordeal was over almost before it had begun.
It’s literally only a couple of months ago that I realized what I should have done — taken a lovely huge bite out of his fucking hand. In one fell swoop, I’d have gotten a reputation as someone not to be messed with. Not, mind you, that anyone ever messed with me like that again. I had a little growth spurt, ceased to be conspicuously tiny, and became invisible to all — badasses and prospective petting partners alike — until halfway through my senior year, whereupon I became the object of univeral admiration that I have ever remained.