Dan’s obituary was simple and lovely: a tiny photo accompanied by a mention of the job he held for over two decades, a wife who he’d been married to for almost as many years, his love of sports, his active involvement in the local church, a young son.
There was no mention of the kid he used to traumatize. Me.
He’s holding some sort of award in the photo (yet another accomplishment in a list that started in elementary school), and, like so many of the popular, athletic kids I grew up with, was now paunchy and overweight. If I’d not known it was him from the caption, I would have only recognized the eyes, those twinkling brown pupils that captured the hearts of girls and filled me with terror every time they stared me down.
I met Dan in kindergarten, and he came to either my first or second grade birthday party. We started out as friends and I still remember laughing with him. He was kind of a dork like me. His family lived two blocks away in our suburban, northern California town, and they were known to be strict and conservative. They had one of the few two-story houses in the neighborhood, which loomed over all the others.
By the time we reached seventh grade, our worlds had changed. We both started junior high together, but, while Dan had prematurely transformed into a muscular jock, I was overweight and unpopular, devoid of athletic skills, and teased for being feminine. Our differences came to head in the one class we had together: P.E.
I was terrorized daily in junior high, and Dan was the worst offender. Our P.E. instructor made fun of me every class because I didn’t know how to throw a football—he never offered to help me learn—and the other kids joined in the relentless teasing.
Dan didn’t stop when the bell rang. Free from any school reprimands, he upped the bullying outside campus grounds. Starting at 8 am every morning, he waited for me at the corridors’ entrance, pushed me, invited friends to do the same, threatened to hurt me if I didn’t give him money, took my bike or twisted the handlebars, tried to fight, and made me insist I say I was a faggot before he’d leave me alone. I obeyed.
Dan waited for me on my street corner after school and repeated the pattern. My fear was his addiction. The specific spots where he taunted me were like mine fields—I did my best to avoid them and would make ridiculous detours whenever possible. He would ask me if not having a father was the reason I liked boys, and always made threats involving the entire school hurting or killing me. If he saw me anywhere in the neighborhood he would pull me off my bike and restart the ritual. I spent those two years living in perpetual fear.
I never fought back because I didn’t know how, nor did I want to, and I never told a teacher or family member, or the one or two kids who were my friends. In the time and place where I grew up, there was only shame in being bullied. We didn’t have social media, thank God, but we also didn’t have zero tolerance policies, coming out days, or any gay visibility. We had straight guys and faggots and if you were the latter and didn’t hide it well enough, you were at the bottom of the food chain.
When my mother told me of Dan’s death, I felt a pang of unexpected sadness, but for different reasons than his loved ones. I mourned the loss of the conversation we never had.
In all the times I’ve gone home since leaving for college, I have traveled over those roads where he bullied me, never forgetting the experience, and I usually make a point of visiting ground zero—the schoolyard—to remind myself of how lucky I am to have escaped relatively unharmed, physically and emotionally. I came out in high school, and have always been a proud gay man with family and friends who support me. But I see the kids coming and going in that schoolyard and wonder how many of them are living in a new kind of hell.
On every visit I have imagined seeing Dan somewhere—the store, the street, in his parents’ front yard—reintroducing myself, and asking him why he treated me the way he did. I have no idea how that encounter would have played out, good or bad, but I needed the closure. I needed to tell him how much it hurt, and how I survived. I wanted him to see that I was healthy.
More than anything, I wanted to ask him if he would teach his children to be kind to other kids, to tell them that bullying can destroy lives. And I wanted to ask Dan what the pleasure was in hurting me. I felt I earned this conversation, but now I’ll never have it.
I don’t remember seeing Dan after junior high, and we had no mutual friends. Just a few years back, my mother laughed when I recounted the terror I felt as a kid. “That was such a long time ago,” she said, before returning to her story about lunch with Dan’s mom. Neighbors forever, the two mothers became good friends over the years. Even that felt unjust.
I never wanted to hurt Dan or to act out some Heathers-like revenge fantasy. That would only exacerbate the cycle of hate. But wouldn’t it have been great if, after more than 40 years, we could have talked, shaken hands, and behaved like adults? We might have even liked each other again.
Last year I was home for a week and I walked by Dan’s house several times, knowing he no longer lived there but secretly hoping I’d see him stop by to pay his mother a visit. One morning I saw a man in the driveway and started to shake. It wasn’t Dan, but for a brief moment I thought fate might have finally intervened.
Disappointed, I continued down the street, and all the others that once defined my universe, with the freedom of knowing that the monsters from my childhood had vanished. Oddly enough, I missed one of them.