The Boy on the Bubble
Just what is it that defines a man? What makes him what and who he is? And even more, what is it that we perceive in a man? I suppose body language, quirks and traits can be quite revealing. Some people purport to be human lie detectors, able to discern the essence of a person at most any time. I know I don’t have that ability. When it comes to sensory perception, I definitely fall within the bell curve of normalcy, nothing extra here. But yet even I can sense things about certain people. And one case in particular is Steven Whiting. When Steven walked down the street, you just inherently wanted to edge slightly away. One didn’t sense anything tangible, just that little something, that little je ne sais quoi.
Me, I’ve known Steven since elementary school. And no nicer friend could I have had but him. It was in third grade that Steven’s life started on the wrong tack, and such being the unfairness of life, not because of him.
“Hey Stevie-wevie, gimme some money, I’m hungry.” Charlie Mangrove said. Charlie was a fine young boy of twelve in the fourth grade. I suppose Charlie wanted to get his money’s worth out of his free public education. Steven noticeably shrank, hoping to become as invisible as possible, but it was too late. This drama had already begun, and as with any good drama would have to play to its inevitable end. Charlie wouldn’t debate, Charlie wouldn’t negotiate. Charlie wanted. And if you were smaller than Charlie, as every student in school was, you simply gave in. Steven dug his lunch money out of his pocket and silently handed it over. “Yeah that’s right Stevie-wevie, you’d better act fast. You know what you are Stevie-wevie? You’re just a damn booger eater!” Charlie sneered. But then everything Charlie said came out as a sneer. As the curtain came down on this particular drama all of Charlie’s cronies laughed; a standing, pointing, humiliating ovation. Gathered with faces defiant, yet slightly behind their benefactor, boys with vulture-like faces staring gloatingly at any and all that Charlie deemed deserve it. Charlie had his cronies, not for physical protection as there were very few people in the school, including teachers, who offered Charlie a viable threat. Whatever it was Charlie lacked, some hormone in his brain, or lack of oxygen at birth, he needed his audience to uplift him as much as he needed to breathe. Charlie and his entourage played their Oscar worthy parts to a tee. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Steven also played his appointed part in this drama, and even sans screenplay, Steven instinctively knew to humbly hand over his parent’s cash with no remarks or questions. On this day, a cloudless day with Windex-blue skies, a precedent had been set, and two lives had been set on a trajectory into the future; into oblivion.
On a day like so many others in our wind-swept landscape, a spring day brought Steven and me out to the playground. I had pinched some magazines from my Dad’s closet, and I wanted to show them to Steven. Steven instinctively veered me away from the unofficial smoking area, and we wound up sitting on the bar that the see-saw’s balanced on. Two of the see-saws had rotted away, one breaking under Theresa Hine’s pre-pubescent weight. We all laughed, save Steven. His disconnection had already started. But sitting on the cold steel bar with the warm spring sun shining on our backs, I pulled the magazines out of my pants leg, no backpacks in that era. Steven and I both ogled the girls with their Sasquatch crotches puzzled at how it all worked, of course not letting the other know that. I felt the stirring that every young man would get, and I’m sure Steven did too. We were just starting to read the forum letters when a hulking shadow brought our attention around. Another sort of Sasquatch had appeared behind us. I could smell the reek of cigarette smoke on his yellowed teeth as Charlie opened his mouth. The curtain was now rising. Steven’s face dropped as everyone else’s turned to watch the excitement. “Whatcha got there Stevie-wevie?” Charlie spoke in his taunting sing-song voice. “Ooooooo a girlie mag huh?! I thought you like boys Stevie-wevie”
“Why don’t you guys just take these magazines” I said to Charlie, hoping a subtle intervention would draw him away from Steven.
“Why don’t you shut your face, you stupid puke” Charlie said with barely a glance. Fixated on Steven, Charlie continued “Is your boyfriend trying to protect you Stevie-wevie? Well it’s not going to help!”
“Where do you think you’re going girlie boy” Blake Monroe, the bravest of Charlie’s cronies, spat at me as I edged away to get a teacher. “You just stay right here and enjoy the show. I think your girlfriend might just get what he deserves here.”
“Hey Stevie tell you what, I’ll let you and your boyfriend get back to lickin’ each other’s butts if you’ll just do one little thing.” Charlie said with sadistic glee. “You’ve been looking at these girl’s cootchies, why I think you need to be fair and show all the girls here your cootchie.”
“Ohhhhhhh” a low moan escaped Steven’s slack mouth. “Please Charlie, no.” Steven begged.
“Well Stevie, that’s the way it is. Maybe you can get one of the girls to kiss it too. Or… maybe your boyfriend will” Charlie said as his demeanor somehow got darker. Blake Monroe and the rest of Charlie’s cronies held Steven down and were proceeding to pull his pants off when, thank God, a teacher came out to the playground.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Simpkins said.
“This little pervert Steven here was trying to show his dirty book to all the girls Mr. Simpkins.”One thing about Charlie, he was quick on his feet. “He was even taking his pants down, but me and the boys put him on the ground before he could show them his wiener.”
“Thank you for the graphic description Charlie. Now let Steven up.” Pointing at Steven and I, Mr. Simpkins added “You two in my office now. And bring those magazines too; both of them Charlie.” You could see Charlie’s little win-win plan in hoping to keep one of the magazines and getting Steven in trouble had not completely worked. Deflated Charlie gave Mr. Simpkins both of the magazines, but I could tell that Blake had torn out a few of the more savory pages. Charlie made ‘throat cutting’ gestures to Steven as we walked away. I wonder how it is that everyone in this damned world just went along with the darkness brooding in people like Charlie.
As soon as we got in the office, I spilled it all. I told Mr. Simpkins that the magazines were mine, and how I had stolen them from my Dad’s closet, and had taken them to the playground to show Steven. I let him know that none of this was Steven’s fault, and that Charlie Mangrove started all the fighting. I told him how it was Charlie and his friends that pushed Steven to the ground and I even told him what they were going to make Steven do. Mr. Simpkins took his glasses off and rubbed his forehead sighing. “I know how Charlie is, and his friends too. I just hope that they’ll someday grow out of this foolish behavior.” Mr. Simpkins said. “But you know stuff like this,” gesturing to the magazines, “only incites and provokes them.” Mr. Johnson would probably want me to paddle you two, but I’m not going to do that. What we are going to do is take these magazines and put them in the incinerator.” Pointing at me Mr. Simpkins added. “And you young man will have to explain to your Dad where his missing magazines went.” Turning to Steven Mr. Simpkins features softened a bit, “Steven, don’t be discouraged. This kind of behavior happens all over. Charlie doesn’t really want to hurt you; he’s just trying to make himself look better.” In one of the best pieces of advice, unheeded as it would be, Mr. Simpkins added. “Just don’t let this get to you. You’re a good kid, and everything will turn out alright. Eventually.”
But it didn’t turn out alright. Not then, not later, not eventually. Steven’s face would drop every time we went into the schoolyard. His eyes would dart looking for the predators he knew were there, lurking, and waiting for an opportune moment to pull his pants down in front of the girls, or tie him to the monkey bars with his belt. This predator-prey relationship fed Charlie, but drained the life from Steven. For some unknown reason, Steven had become a marked boy. Like the lioness focuses on the small and weak in the herd, I suppose it might be for the same reason that Charlie, and all the Charlies of the world focused on all the Stevens. For the gazelle that was brought down to feed the pride, it was over, and over quickly. But with Steven, the torment went on and on.
In human history wars haven’t gotten more civilized, just more technical, with more sophisticated toys to deal the death with. And so it was with Charlie. As we all grew older, two things happened: First, Charlie failed yet another grade, so now we’d get to enjoy him forever it seemed like; and Second, the weapons and techniques at Charlie’s disposal grew more various and more hurtful. And as Charlie flourished in his part, so Steven retreated into his part. I saw Steven become more separated from the rest of the class. His ability to become invisible had dwindled to just becoming pathetic. I really hated what had happened to him. I was at a loss as to what to say or do. I still am really. My only hope was that Steven would go to a university somewhere and maybe his life could finally start. But I had underestimated Fraternities.
I never did see Charlie again. And I honestly don’t know what has happened to him. As a grown man, I know that Charlie’s childhood home left a lot to be desired I’m sure, and in that time, child abuse was most assuredly heard of, and often promoted. Hell as I mentioned earlier, we had paddling in school! The old spare the rod and spoil the child ideology was quite prevalent. I have stayed over at Steven’s house several times, and while not perfect, Steven’ home life was nurturing and loving. A few times Steven’s Mom asked me if things were alright with Steven. I knew that nothing good would come of telling them about what was happening. Am I the one that caused all this then? That thought still quickens me at times.
Steven and I drifted apart after high school. I saw him only a handful of times when I’d come home to visit. He only lasted two semesters, and he had dropped out and was working at a local electronics boutique. He would barely speak to me, and I saw that though the light was slowly flickering out in his eyes, there was still a heat coming from his gaze that frightened me. It was seven years ago today that I saw Steven last, we sat in the food court at the mall where he worked. In between bites of greasy chili cheese fries, he opened up to me in a way that I don’t think he ever had. “Vic, I just don’t know what to do. I can’t get into anything.” Still focusing on his pressed meat burger, Steven added. “Nothing works for me. Never really has. I feel so detached from my life; from everything.” An exasperating sigh worked its way past the con carne. “I feel like I’m floating on a bubble, the world and my entire life are running their course beneath me. Close enough to smell but an eternity away. Inaccessible. Unreachable. “
“When did this start?” I asked, instantly realizing the foolishness of the question.
Steven just rolled his eyes. “Do you know what it feels like to be a stranger even in your own mind? No you don’t. I wish you knew me Vic, But I know that just like I can’t know you, you can never really know me. I hate everything. I hate this damned burger, I hate my life. I hate it all.”
“Steven, it can be alright.” I managed to eke out the words. “You know you can always make up your mind today to make the rest of your life work.”
“Yeah. You’re right.” Steven said dejectedly. I knew I’d just reiterated the same useless advice that so many people had. His parents I know had tried to help him. But Steven was right. We just couldn’t know what was happening with him; In him. I hated it. I hated the existence that Steven had come to know. Like a well worn coat that he wrapped around himself so tightly that it wouldn’t come off yet yielded no comfort at all, so his life was. And so it was. “You know Vic, you’ve always been a good friend to me. Through it all you never left me or let me down. And the one thing that I wish in this entire damned world is that I could feel the comfort of that. That I could shake your hand and feel the warmth creep up into my heart. I just can’t fucking do it. I do appreciate you Vic, and I’ll never forget you.” As we parted I knew I’d never see him again. He knew it too. He looked me in the eyes and said goodbye as we shook hands. Tears choked me as we parted. But I was due to report to flight school in the Navy in two days, and my girlfriend was very jealous of my time.
I had just returned from a sortie in northern Afghanistan when my CO told me I had an urgent call. One benefit of being a squadron leader was having private quarter with a phone. My wife Michelle was on the other end, and told me the whole story. It appears that Steven had finally cracked. While talking to her, I went on the internet and looked at the breaking news, and there it was. Local man kills 7 then turns gun on self. Oh God how I hated that. Raw information that completely stripped the life and essence from what Steven was, his thirty-two years of existence on this spinning orb reduced down to a few terse words. My gut wrenched as I said goodbye to my wife. Our unit still had another month before our scheduled R&R, but I was able to pull a few strings and get a quick trip back. Steven’s mother asked me to speak at his funeral. But what the hell do I say? How can tell all these people what Steven was, or what Steven could have been?! How can I tell them that he was probably just trying to pop that damned bubble. To get inside and be a part of what he so dearly wanted but could never have. Yet he did, he popped that bubble and fell into the abyss, leaving a void in so few of us. Was Steven what he was with or without Charlie? I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. A part of me would love to wring Charlie’s neck, but that won’t bring Steven back. For all I know it would start a new trajectory of lives leading to oblivion. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Nothing.