People can change, for the better. Even bullies.
I know what you're thinking…gawd, she's going off on that bullies topic again! I know…I know. But after writing an entry about bullies in July, I got to thinking (I've been told I'm too analytical…okay fine, I am and I accept that). Being my husband, Sam is my sounding board; it was his response to that entry after I read it to him that got me thinking. When I finished reading it, I asked him what he thought. His reply, "It's really negative," struck a chord in me. Well, yeah, the topic of bullies isn't exactly positive. One can't write about bullies in a positive way…or can they?
Being negative is not my thing, or at least I'm working on not making it my thing. I don't want to be known as a negative person, I don't want my writing to be thought of as negative but one can't live without some negativity in life. It surfaces somewhere, every day. For each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That's the law of the universe.
Bullies can change. Even the worse of the worse. I'm talking the meanest, nastiest, chauvinistic slime ball. Even they possess the capacity in their heart.
It's just a matter of choice.
Let me set the background. During the summer of my 20th year I spent a lot of time playing pool with a friend, Diane. The opportunity to play always presented itself as there were about a dozen places in town to play pool. But our favorite hang out was the local bowling center, Lancer Lanes. The owner was a family friend. Diane and I both worked as night shift waitresses at The Red Shield, a 'fine' dining restaurant attached to the bowling center. You could say we were Lancer Lanes regulars. Everybody knew us there (..fade into 'where everybody knows your name'…).
It's early afternoon on a warmish August week day at Lancer Lanes. I'm baby sitting my two young sisters, Chris and Jayme, aged 12 and 10 respectively. Diane and I are immersed in fine tuning our pool skills, laughing and joking around with several male friends…just enjoying some light-hearted fun. Diane and I were buds, as pool partners we became unbeatable at the table. She taught me everything I know about the game. Pity math teachers don't use pool as a geometry teaching tool; applied in this way, geometry would have made so much more sense to me in high school. I'm a tactile learner and it's the application of theory that accelerates my ability to learn and retain.
But I digress. Back to Lancer Lanes and the pool game.
There are people who can walk into a room and immediately change the environment 180 degrees. John was one of those people. I always felt his presence, in an unsettling way, when he showed up. You know what I mean? The second he crossed the threshold into the building, the mood changed. Everyone present stopped talking and watched him walk past the pool table section of the building. Those who knew John, exchanged glances and silent words of caution between one another. He always showed up and brought his erratic, hostile, aggressive behavior. I often felt the man just had a black cloud hanging over his head.
We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when his steps took him farther away as he made his way to the restaurant and bar. The game resumed. All was well and good, until I looked from the table and saw him standing next to Diane.
Crap. He's back. He's here. And he stopped. Now what? Just go away.
Of average height, John carried most of his weight around his middle, and wore the weight of bitterness on his sleeve. His short medium brown hair framed his dark brown eyes set deep above his pudgy cheeks; I always felt the weight of those eyes on me. He made for a commanding figure, with a loud, thunderous voice that carried his words far. Around town, his reputation as a bully preceded him. Everyone knew John. And we all knew you don't mess around with John. Big, bad John.
True to his nature, John started to harass us. Women playing pool was a joke to him. Women, to John, were good for only one thing. He said that to me, more than once. And I loathed him for it.
Being summer, Diane and I were dressed in light weight summer tops and cut offs (jeans made into shorts by cutting off the legs). Being young with a healthy metabolism kicked into high gear by working 8 hours a day in the busiest restaurant in town kept both of us slender and in shape. Didn't take long for John to zero in on me every time I got up for my turn. He had taken a seat near Diane at one end of the pool table. I was seated by the opposite end, as far away from him as possible. It made my skin crawl. Why did he always single me out?
He knew how to push my buttons. And did just that when I stepped in front of him to line up a nice easy shot into the far corner pocket. My competitive nature overruled my good sense and I wanted this shot. I had set up the perfect 'leave' to sink at least two more shots. I wanted this shot. I could feel his eyes on me, undressing me. Imagining. But I pushed it all aside, got into the zone, and bent down to take the shot. Up to that point, I'd kept my interaction with him to a minimum. No need stirring the kettle. But then, he went too far.
"Nice ass," he crudely observed. It was that tinge of enjoyment in his voice that set me off.
I straightened up, closed my eyes and counted to three. Then I whirled around, stepped up to his face and looked him square in the eyes. "Speaking of asses. You know, there's a saying, he walks around like he's got a stick up his ass," I said, stepping away as I hoisted up the cue stick in my hand. "Only this one's coming down your throat."
He didn't miss a beat. With a smirk of delight, he replied, "God your beautiful when you're mad."
My blood was boiling. I hated this type of treatment, especially in the presence of my two younger sisters. I wanted to protect them. To model the behavior of a strong minded young woman. Someone to be respected, not treated like an object. Everything about him angered me. They did not need to see this.
I turned away with a frustrated, "Arrrgh!" eyeing the table for another shot to take and found one on the side. Given the lay of the cue ball it would have to be a bank shot, but I didn't care.
"Aw, you'll never make that bank shot," John harassed. "Why don't you come back and take this easy shot?"
I snatched up the cue chalk, staring at the table and chalking the cue stick, perhaps with a little too much energy. Setting the chalk down with a resounding 'tunk', I narrowed my eyes and glanced at him. "Because I thought it was a cheap shot," I flatly replied.
I don't recall whether I made or missed the next shot. Doesn't matter. John stayed and watched for a short time but everyone kept their interaction with him to a minimum. When he finally realized he couldn't engage in any more fun at our expense, he stood up and started to leave. But not before he and I had another exchange after he made some threatening comments that resulted in me responding with the observation that, "I was so scared I was shaking in my skivvies." With narrowed eyes, and a hateful glare he walked out the door.
Our paths didn't cross again, until four years later. At a local beach. And me dressed only in my bikini.
Bet you all think you know where this is going, don't you?
It was on my way to the restroom, walking on the asphalt path that I saw him walking toward me. Drat! There was no escape. I had to relieve myself. There was only one restroom and he was the only thing between me and my destination. Filled with dread at the prospect of what would happen next I mustered up all the courage I had and kept walking toward the restroom. My mind was going a million miles a hour. He's looking at the river and not in my direction. Good. I'm getting closer to the building. Maybe he hasn't seen me. Then he turns his head and our eyes meet. Here we go, I thought.
And then something magical happened.
A dozen steps bring us within a few feet of each other. I've not taken my eyes off his the whole time. Yet, I notice at no time do I see his glance move down below my eyes. John stops and says hello to me. Being who I am, I return his hello. We exchange how are you's and how have you been and all the while I'm noticing the absence of the uneasiness I used to feel in his presence. For some reason I feel like I'm chatting with any other friend of mine.
Who sees me not as an object, but as a friend.
And I'm struck by this.
Something about him is different. All my attention is on his eyes, watching and waiting for them to travel down and size me up. When is he going to do it? Steeling myself for the anticipated barrage of sexual harassment I've learned to expect from him. But he doesn't go there. Now, I'm curious. And I ask him, "What happened? Here you are having a normal conversation with me and treating me like a human being. You used to be so--"
"Unhappy," he finished.
So that was it. It never occurred me to that John's negative outward expressions toward people was rooted in a state of unhappiness. He had a reputation of being mean. I always believed he was just plain mean.
"I guess I finally woke up," he said with a shrug. His eyes never left mine. "I didn't have any friends." I could hear the sadness in his voice. Then he paused looking first up to the left, and then back to me. "I'm sorry for the things I said to you. I shouldn't have said things like that. It was wrong."
And I found myself in the company of a man I once loathed, feeling the weight of his words absorb into me. Not sting. Not smack. No reeling slap of bitterness. Rather, a sense of release and the comfort that follows such a release.
He must have seen the confusion in my eyes. So he further explained. "I joined AA. I stopped drinking. I knew people hated me. I heard what people said. I didn't like that. So I decided to do something about it." His enthusiasm shined as he spoke and I saw him in a different light.
I was stunned, but grateful. "I have to tell you how nice it is to see you this way," I said with a nod and a smile. "I'm glad for it, and for you." I wanted to reach out and touch his arm, so I did, briefly for reassurance. "It's nice to talk to you this way."
We exchanged somewhat awkward smiles. "Well, it was good seeing you again," he said as he glanced out at the parking lot. I just nodded my head, up and down. "I have to get to work. So, maybe I'll see you around."
"Maybe," I replied. "Bye, John."
"Bye," he said hurriedly. He waved a thick fingered hand, turned and off he walked, whistling a light-hearted happy tune.
I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. Wait a minute…what just happened?
Mouth agape, I turned and watched him, thinking oh, he'll turn around expecting me to be walking away and I'll catch him staring at me like he always does. But he didn't. I still had to go, but the internal urge for me to stay and see what happened outweighed any other urge. With measured balance between shock and relief, I watched him walk to his pick-up, get in, then drive away. He never looked back. Not once.
Well, I'll be…
Just before I turned around to continue my journey, I heard my mother's voice in my head. She'd been gone for almost three years and at times I still felt her presence. That day was one of those times. "Close your mouth, Dona. Before a fly buzzes into it."
And with that, I shut it, shaking my head. Delighted. Amazed. Impressed! John, being kind, thoughtful, gentlemanly. Wow! Making steps in the right direction.
People can, and do change. Sometimes the last person you ever expected to teach you a lesson, becomes the instrument of change. Within yourself. From this lesson I learned to give people the benefit of the doubt. Everyone has the capacity to change; to be the better part of who they were yesterday. Another way to look at it, is this. Maybe John didn't change; maybe that day on the beach he revealed who he really was to me. And rather than 'playing the same old tapes' in my head, I stopped, noticed something different, and chose to see him differently.
And that's when the magic happens.