Everyone has known a bully.
It doesn’t even matter if you’re a kid or not. Bullies are everywhere. Think about that obnoxious girl who sneers when you buy a bag of Cheetos at the grocery store. Think about that asshole at the gym who taps his foot so you’ll finish on the weight machine faster. The coworker who demeans your performance in front of others, the barista that gives you a cold, mean look when you ask how her day is, or even the cousin that laughs whenever he remembers what you majored in. Bullies exist anywhere that people exist, and it’s nearly impossible to go through life without being a bully-ee at least once.
I was pretty lucky in that regard growing up. I was a mild kid, and instinctually avoided negative people. I rarely understood when I was being actively insulted (I usually chalked it up to miscommunication) and when bullies realized I didn’t notice their efforts, they usually moved on. That isn’t to say that I didn’t get into occasional fights, but I rarely fought back.
Becky DeSanto was the singular exception.
It was during the dark times, the black hole of adolescence, the wasteland more commonly referred to as Junior High. I was just beginning to find my niche in my English classes (and discovering my limitations in my math classes) and I was satisfied with my small group of friends, a cluster of boys that I had known since the first grade. I had begun to notice that other girls my age spent their time almost exclusively with…well, other girls. I had never really had ‘girlfriends’ before. I had my best friend, Tissa, but she was hardly a girl in that aspect. After school, our time was occupied with tree-climbing and movie-making and exploring the secret, woodsy places on the edges of our suburbs. Her usual uniform consisted of baggy black pants and an oversized camo jacket, and I wore ill-fitting hand-me-downs including gems like my sister’s Nirvana style flannel and a purple velvet turtleneck that came from God knows where. Tissa and I didn’t really fit in with our fellow pre-teens, but we didn’t notice much.
On sunny days, we would take our lunches and go out behind our looming concrete school to ‘the wall’. Everyone who leaned on the wall had their own predecided spot. The pot smokers over here, the goth kids over there, and Tissa and I right on the end, where we could eat our sandwiches and pick grass out of the sidewalk cracks while we talked about the stories we were writing and the futures we were planning.
Those lunches behind the wall would have been the high point of the seventh grade, if it wasn’t for Becky.
Becky was the leader of a ‘girl-tribe’, a mob of lip-gloss packing, shrill-laughing, boy-hounding middle schoolers that flocked through the hallways and decimated whoever lay in their path. When one person in the tribe was angry, they were all angry. They would surround the offender like The Blob and just like that, the poor kid would be reduced to a shivering skeleton. Their cruelty was almost mystical to we outsiders. There was a science to it, and a sort of impressive self-discipline. Becky always knew the meanest thing to say and the most cutting way to say it. It was as though she practiced in the mirror at night.
I was dimly aware that she had been pushing Tissa around for some time. Tissa was more conspicuous than I was (purple velvet just wasn’t enough,I guess) and the popular girls saw her as a convenient target. Tissa was more than capable of taking care of herself, and I never paid much mind when Becky came sniffing around at lunchtime, looking for a fight.
The day of The Incident was mostly cloudy (per Oregon standards) and a little drizzly. Tissa and I were sitting against the wall, discussing the possible creation of a mattress company someday, with mattresses that would be filled with freshly cut grass, because grass was the most comfortable thing to lay in and smelled just great. We weren’t sure why the idea hadn’t been taken already. A little ways down, a kid lit a cigarette and smoked it halfheartedly, finally flicking it against the pavement and wandering away. We were alone.
We heard the tribe before we saw them. A cacophony of shrieks and giggles always echoed around them, wherever they went. Tissa rolled her eyes.
“God dammit,” she said, rolling a couple blades of grass between her fingers.
Their shadows loomed around the corner, and then there they were: five preteen girls with sparkles in their hair and strawberry lip gloss smeared on their lips. One had tucked her shirt up into her bra to better expose her belly-button piercing. Another tossed her sweetly curled blond hair every few minutes, always patting it back down into submission. Becky stood at the forefront, a thin girl my height with thick brown hair pulled into a ponytail at the crown of her head. Her earrings were glittery silver stars.
“Hey guys,” she said, smirking. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Go away,” Tissa said.
“Ohmygod, you’re so meeaaan,” Becky whined. “Tell me what you’re doing.”
“Nothing,” I said again. “Just talking.”
“Eee, ohmygod, I bet they were kissing,” cried Bellybutton Piercing. “Ohmygod, they so were.”
“Are you lesbians?” Becky grinned. “Ohmygod, I bet you are.”
“Shut up,” Tissa said coldly. We stared out across the soccer fields, willing the tribe to go away. Sometimes ignoring them worked. Sometimes it didn’t.
Today it didn’t.
“Hey, girl. Girl,” Becky said. “Why your coat so ugly?”
“You get it from like, the army?” asked Curly Blonde. “You gonna go into the army?”
“Yeah, she gonna go be a lesbian in the army,” Becky crowed. She had a peculiar way of speaking. Being half-Hispanic, Becky had sought to make herself a stereotypical Sexy Latina, and to her this meant speaking slightly fragmented English on purpose. “Why you wanna be in the army, girl?” She continued with a sneer. “Is it the best place to meet a girlfriend?”
Tissa was livid. I was getting peeved, less so about the lesbian comments (it was the worst insult that middle-school girls could come up with in 2000) and more that they didn’t seem to care what Tissa’s name was. The ‘girl’ thing annoyed me. It was so…third grade. It was infuriatingly immature. Wait it out, I told myself. They’ll get bored soon, and find something else to do.
“Shut the hell up, Becky,” Tissa spat. “You better leave.”
“You gonna make me, girl?” Becky said, sticking her hands on her hips. The rest of the tribe followed suit. “Gonna use your army training? Just ’cause you got an army coat don’t make you in the army.”
Tissa took a deep breath and turned away, staring into space. Becky laughed. The rest of the tribe followed suit.
“Hey, girl,” she said. Neither of us answered. The tribe laughed. “Hey, girl,” she repeated. “Girl. Girl. Girl. Hey, girl. Hey. Girl. Girl. Girl. Girl. Girl.”
Tissa and I sat still as stones, willing her to stop. I hated her. I realized it with a sudden jolt. I had never really hated anybody in my life, but at that moment I realized that I hated Becky DeSanto more than anything, and I wanted to punch her straight in the mouth.
“Girl. Girl. Giiiirl. Girl. Hey. Why ain’t you talking, huh? You sad, girl? You sad? You sad? Girl. Girl. You gonna cry? I’m talking to you, girl.”
I wanted to shut my eyes. A little needle of fury had dug itself into my chest, and I could feel it boring a hole there. I was sure my insides would burst out any second. I wanted to hit her. I really wanted to hit her.
“GIRL. HEY, GIRL.”
With a sudden burst of energy I stood and glared straight into Becky DeSanto’s beady little eyes. My hands were coiled into trembling fists. My knees were locked. Adrenaline pumped through my brain, and my ears were buzzing. I hated her. I absolutely, completely hated her.
Becky’s lips curled into a horrible little smile and she leaned in, inches from my nose.
“Girl. Girl. Girl. Hey, girl. Hey. Hey. Hey. Girl.”
My fists were begging to swing.
“What are you staring at, girl?” Becky spat.
“The biggest bitch I’ve ever seen,” I said coldly.
The tribe drew back with a gasp. Becky’s mouth opened, but no sound came out.
“Ohhh, Becky,” Belly-Button said. “Did you hear what she called you?”
“Shut up,” Becky said, backing away. Her cheeks were bright pink. Tissa laughed behind me.
“Go on, bitch,” she said, standing. “Leave us alone. Bitch.”
Becky made a noise like a cat getting run over by a tractor. She looked at me. She looked at Tissa, and she looked at her friends, and then she turned tail and flounced away.
The tribe followed suit.
Tissa and I burst out laughing and slid down the wall back into our usual sitting spots. He smiled at each other. We were victors. For the first real time, we had battled, and won.
“Hey, girl,” I said to Tissa. “Girl. Girl. I think that was really the best she could come up with.”
“She’s probably a lesbian,” Tissa said. “She thinks so much about it. I bet they all are.”
We sat in self-satisfied silence.
“She’s totally going to tell on you,” Tissa said, giggling.
The bottom dropped out of my stomach.
“…what?” I said.
“She’ll tell. She’s a tattletale. She always starts crying and then she goes to the principal’s office.”
“Do you…think I’ll get detention?” I asked. I had never had detention. My record was spotless, except for an incident with the principal’s office in the third grade. Detention meant I might be a…hooligan. My parents would be disappointed. My mother would probably weep.
“Yeah,” Tissa said, “I bet you will.”
I stood suddenly.
“I’ve gotta apologize,” I said. Tissa gaped at me.
“What? We won, though! If you apologize, then she wins!”
“I gotta apologize,” I repeated. “I…she’ll tell on me. I’m going to get in so much trouble. I called her…Tissa, I called her a…” I looked around and whispered. “A bitch.”
“I know,” Tissa said. “It was great.”
“I gotta apologize.”
The bell suddenly rang, signaling the end of lunch. Tissa jumped to her feet and grabbed her bag. I shouldered my backpack. My stomach was full of rocks. My heart was jumping rapidly into my throat, through my lungs, and back again. This was it. If I didn’t catch Becky and apologize, I was going to have to explain to the principal why I used the b-word, that inexcusable, awful, awful word, against another student.
Suddenly, lesbian jokes and ‘girl girl girl’ didn’t seem that maddening. What was I thinking?
I burrowed through the throng of students in the hallways as quickly as I could, listening for that crow of laughter, looking for the flash of silver, glittery earrings. Maybe she was crying. Maybe I made her cry. She might be crying in the bathroom. I checked. She wasn’t. Maybe she was already in the principal’s office. If that was right, I was too late. The hallways emptied slowly, and I, utterly resigned, dragged my feet to social studies.
I walked in and sat next to my friend Alice. Mrs. Porter walked in the room and began taking roll.
I was dead.
I blushed when I heard her call Becky DeSanto’s name, and dared only look up for a second when I heard Becky answer. Becky’s eyes met mine with a sharp, hateful stare that made me feel sick.
She told. I knew she told.
During that period, the intercom buzzed twice and the phone rang once. Each time, I knew it was the principal calling for me.
“Send her down,” he’d say. “We’ve got the guillotine all greased up. The thumb-screws are ready. The oil should finish boiling by the time she gets here.”
“Sounds a little drastic,” Mrs. Porter would say.
“Madame, you don’t understand,” the principal would reply darkly. “She used…the b-word.”
I shuddered in my seat, waiting for the death knell. I hardly heard a word about Alexander the Great, and when Alice asked me to pass the hand-outs down, I just gave her a long, numb look and she did it herself.
When the bell rang again, the students collected their belongings and sped to the door. I hadn’t been called to the principal’s office yet. It was possible, just barely possible, that there was still time. Becky was ahead of me, prancing towards the lockers.
I fought through the crowd, and with a final lunge, seized Becky’s wrist.
“Becky,” I gasped. “Hang on, I wanna talk to you.”
Becky turned, pressing her lips together in a hard, evil line.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I-I-I-I-I…did you tell?”
She looked at me quizzically.
“Did you tell on me?” I asked. Becky shrugged.
“Not yet,” she said. “I might later. I probably will.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Really. I’m s-s-sorry. You didn’t deserve to be called a…b-word.”
Becky’s eyebrows raised slowly. Her lipgloss created sticky threads between her lips as her mouth opened in surprise.
“You’re sorry?” she repeated.
“Yeah. I lost my temper. I just got really mad at the stuff you were saying.”
Suddenly, Becky threw herself at me in a bone-crushing hug. She patted me on the head like a little dog.
“Ohhh, chica, I’m sorry too,” she said. “I didn’t mean to make you so mad, you know? I weren’t going to tell anyways.”
She drew back, gripping my arms, and appraised me.
“I’m glad we friends now,” she said. “Don’t worry. It’s okay. I forgive you.”
And with that, she disappeared down the hallway.
I hated her with the burning fire of a thousand suns.