In high school I got my ass kicked by a guy named Joey. Yesterday I found out he passed away. It made feel sad and old. It’s been 18 years since he kicked the shit out of me. It started because of a misunderstanding. We were at a party. I was sixteen and drunk, trying to make the girls laugh. I slammed a shot of whiskey and felt the puke rising. I stumbled up the stairs, found a toilet, then passed out on some girl’s bed.
The door flew open and suddenly Joey’s yelling at me. Apparently, someone had told him I’d grabbed his girlfriend’s boob. I told him I’ve been throwing up and that he didn’t want to keep shaking me.
Two girls ran in and forced him to leave.
Joey was Italian and tough. I was a scrawny Polack challenging his manhood.
He stood out on the lawn with a bunch of guys demanding I come out. I didn’t want to go, but a “good” friend of mine said, “You either go out there now and face this or go through the next year looking over your shoulder.”
So like a dumbfuck I walked out and found thirty guys in tracksuits standing in a circle. Joey stepped out from the pack. I threw up my hands. “Everyone, look, I want to apologize. I want to say I’m sorry to Joey and to everyone. I meant no offense. I’m just drunk and if someone thinks I touched a boob, then I apologize. Really. But I would never touch Joey’s girlfriend’s boob.” I knew I should stop saying boob, but it was like I had Tourette’s. “I’m not a boob toucher. I’m not. I’m just sorry.”
I offered my hand, and surprisingly, Joey shook it. I put my other hand on top to, you know apparently, “seal the deal.” It was mistake #2, because Joey grabbed both of my hands, reared back, and cracked me in the eye. He hit me with his ring. It should have knocked me cold, but I was so drunk I didn’t really feel it. The booze was delaying the pain just long enough for me to slur, “Isss that all you got?”
This was mistake #3.
Joey threw a hook to my temple, then a jab to my throat, and another to my jaw. I fell hard. The yard was on a slope so I just rolled and rolled and curled into a ball as he kicked me in the gut. Why didn’t I just shut my stupid mouth?
Finally, some guys pulled him off and helped me back into the house. A girl got me a bag of ice. Two others consoled me. I felt my eye swelling.
I could barely see as the two girls helped me to a bed. My head was pounding, but I still tried to rub their vaginas through their jeans. One girl patted my head and I stopped trying.
The next morning I saw my face and tried to come up with an excuse to tell my dad.
I told him, “I was dancing, and some girl tripped, knocked into me, and I hit the table.”
He didn’t even blink. “Who beat the shit out of you?”
I admitted the truth and he took me to the emergency room. I had a small fracture on my cheek and a nasty black eye, but the real pain was emotional; it was mental. I hated this guy, hated how he’d humiliated me for something I didn’t even do. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted him dead. And I carried this anger with me, even when I moved to California years later. I felt it every time I saw a fight in a movie or someone picking on someone smaller. I’d wake up in sweats remembering Joey kicking me in the chest. I’d clench my fists, grit my teeth, and savor the fantasies of revenge.
If I ever saw him again, I told myself, I’d make him regret everything.
Six years later I got my chance. I was back in Kansas City for a visit, and I saw Joey at a bar. He was with a group of guys wearing newer tracksuits. He called me over. I’d envisioned this moment a thousand times. I told myself I’d punch him before he could say a word, but now that it was reality, I was scared shitless. I walked over in these tiny steps remembering how I’d said, “Is that all you got?” after he jacked me in the eye. He’d probably been holding onto that, letting it burn and fester. I saw the beer bottles on the table, pictured Joey smashing one into my throat, the blood spraying the table, the windows.
He put out his hand. I didn’t know what to do. I shook it. I remembered how he’d held my hands while he drove his ring into my skull.
Joey said, “I just wanted to apologize, Anthony.”
“For what happened in high school. I’m sorry. I don’t even know how it started. I just remember feeling like I had to be a tough guy. And it was wrong. And I want you to know I felt bad. I was just a dumb kid, you know? It was stupid.”
“Oh…that?” I laughed. “I’d forgotten about it. It’s nothing.”
“Well, I’m still sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s water under the bridge. I’m sure I deserved it.”
“Well, still, for what it’s worth…”
I walked off feeling like an asshole. Here I was thinking I was the better person, but I was just the jerk who couldn’t let go of the pain, couldn’t forgive.
So this morning as I scrolled through Facebook and read the grief of his friends, saw the smiling pictures, I understood why they loved him. He was a standup guy, strong enough to admit to his mistakes, and willing to apologize face-to-face to the people he’d hurt.
He was a bigger man than I.
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