I had a strange memory the other day, which prompted me to tell this entire long story to a friend. It’s complicated, and a bit sad (not a bit beautiful or funny, but at least it’s true), but it’s important enough that I feel it bears repeating here.
The incident in question happened when I was twelve years old, in seventh grade. I was a band geek even back then, and I’m happy to report that that hasn’t changed one bit. I was an extremely shy person, and on the rare occasions that anyone noticed me, it was usually to make fun of me, so I learned very quickly how to fly low, under everyone’s radar. That’s not a skill one tends to forget, and I still find myself using it to this day. I’m extremely good at not being seen.
Seventh grade is when a lot of changes occur at the same time, the most notable of which is puberty. Suddenly, things that used to be no big deal become overburdened with melodrama. As it happens, there was a girl who had a bit of a crush on me, and she made her intentions known on a band trip. This is not a “one time, at band camp” story, as you’ll see soon enough, but the fact that it happened on a trip is significant, since when people travel, the usual social rules are loosened a bit, and we’re more open to new experiences, which is what makes traveling so much fun. We’re freed of other peoples’ notions and stigmas, and we’re free to reinvent ourselves or try out new personas, if only temporarily. It can be very liberating.
So anyway, back to the girl, who I’ll call ‘Z’ for the purposes of this story. She invited me to sit next to her on the bus, which is the middle-school equivalent of someone sidling up and buying you a drink at a bar when you’re an adult. I’m not stupid; I jumped at the chance and plopped myself down next to her. If memory serves (and occasionally it does), the trip was between Yakima and Seattle, which is three hours if done by normal modes of transportation, but it’s more like four if it’s done by school bus. We settled in and started talking.
My friend Dave, a trumpet player, sat in the seat ahead of ours and turned around the entire time to talk to me and keep an eye on the situation he thought might develop in front of him. He wasn’t going to miss an opportunity for juicy gossip. Since it was early evening when we left Yakima, it was getting a bit late, and Z started to get a bit sleepy, so she nodded off. It was probably around ten o’clock at this point, and we were still a fair distance from Seattle. The fact that Z fell asleep with her head on my shoulder did not go unnoticed by Dave.
The next day, we all piled into the bus to drive from our hotel to downtown Seattle. I seem to recall riding on one of the ferries, but I can’t remember why we would have done that (since all of Seattle’s ferries go between the surrounding islands, and I seem to recall that our destination was Seattle itself) or what the circumstances for that would have been. I also recall going to Pike Place Market on the trip, but that’s right near where the ferry terminal is, so that’s not a surprise, but the fact that we were on the bus again is important. I decided to sit next to Dave this time, but we sat in front of Z and both turned around to talk to her. At some point, she said something to me like, “Sorry I fell asleep, but I was SO tired. Did I have my head on your shoulder?”
Dave couldn’t help but interject, very loudly, so that everyone on the bus could hear him. “Yeah, you did, and as soon as you fell asleep, he had his hands running all up and down your body!” That didn’t happen; Dave said it as a joke to tease me. I was mortified, and gave him a look that I thought signified my shock and disbelief, but I also was so shy that I was unable to say that it was untrue, so everyone started clapping and cheering. I was stunned, and Z laughed nervously, but I had no idea how big the consequences of that one little statement would be. It seemed to take the wind out of Z’s sails a bit, and she kept her distance from me for the rest of the trip. I was too young and clueless to realize how much Dave’s comment had spooked her.
Fast forward five or six years, to when we were all juniors in high school. Dave and I weren’t close friends anymore, not because of the incident with Z, but because sometimes school friendships wax and wane, and ours had only lasted about a year before it waned. Each of us had gone our separate ways. I still considered Z a friend, though. We never dated or flirted or anything after the Seattle trip, but I still considered her a friend. I had no idea what she thought until one day when she pulled me aside.
“Hey, remember that trip to Seattle?”
“Did that really happen? What Dave said?”
I knew it didn’t happen, and I was still too young to take a conversation like that seriously, so I kinda blew her off. “What do you think? Of course not.”
She wasn’t convinced. “Really?”
I kinda laughed. “Yeah, really. I mean, you and I are friends.”
Z still seemed unconvinced but didn’t know what else to say, so she dropped the subject. That was the last time I heard of it, or even thought about it, for six or seven years. Fast forward again. I was working at a video store in Yakima, when suddenly one of my college friends walked in, and Z was with her. It was a pleasant surprise, since I hadn’t seen her since we graduated from high school. We hugged each other and caught up on the intervening years, and then she said, “Hey, can you come outside for a second?”
“Remember that time on the Seattle trip, on the bus?”
Here we go again, I thought. I can’t believe this is still coming up after all these years. “Yes, of course.”
“Did that happen?”
I was still, at the age of twenty-five, so clueless about these matters that I again blew her off. “No,” I smiled. “We’re friends.” I made a gesture with my hands, as if that was all the explanation that was necessary. “Did it happen?”
She was a bit dumbstruck by this turn of the conversation. “Uh. . .no—?”
“Okay, then,” I said, and we walked back into the video store.
To my eternal discredit, I didn’t have the ability to just say that it didn’t happen, that I would never do that (particularly to someone I considered a friend), and that I was twelve years old, so A) running my hands all over someone’s body while they slept wasn’t something that would have occurred—either then or now—to me, and B) I didn’t have the courage or the perspicacity at the time to refute Dave’s ridiculous comment. I just wanted the uncomfortable conversations with Z to be over, and I had no way of appreciating just how brave she was for stepping up and confronting me about it all. I responded dismissively to her, both times, in exactly the same ways that an actual abuser would have done. I didn’t intentionally do that, of course, but it must have seemed to her that I did. It’s a shame that she had to go through so many years thinking that such a horrible event really happened.
Why am I telling this story now?
I’m not sure, exactly. What I can say is that I remembered all of this the other day and shared it with my friend, who was saddened by it, which made me feel compelled to set the record straight with Z. I don’t know how to get in touch with her (or if I even should), or if we have any SocialNetwork friends in common or anything like that, but I want to apologize to her for my part in what amounts to a practical joke that Dave played on both of us. I want to tell Z that this incident REALLY never happened, and all the various reasons WHY it never happened, and that I wish I could give her back all of the time she’s had to spend thinking about it.
She handled all of it remarkably well. I did not, and there’s a part of me that will never quite be able to forgive myself for that.