There Is No Violence Here
“It wasn’t fair, that his brute force dominated everything.”
It happened on a Thursday after school. Each afternoon that fall, I suited up for my daily submission to brutality, otherwise known as freshman football. I was fifteen years old. I lived in Farmington, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I’d never smoked a cigarette or gotten drunk or had sex.
I possessed neither speed nor strength, neither catching nor tackling ability. Practice was my chance to shine. That Thursday, in the middle of a light-contact scrimmage, a routine running play broke open and Brian B. bore down on me. Brian B. was a hulking behemoth of a kid, a head taller and seventy-five pounds heavier than me. Brian, who once punched a hole through a cinder-block column in a fit of anger, mauled opposing players as a blocker and a runner. Once he got into your sights, it was probably best to get out of the way.
I tried to tackle him low.
Brian barreled into my head, the helmet colliding with my jaw, chin strap slicing against my neck. I collapsed flat on my back, staring through the bars of my facemask at the cloudy mid-afternoon sky. I hopped right up and tried to block out the cheering from my teammates. Brian jogged back to the huddle.
The next play it happened again. His large powerful thigh crashed into my skull; I stayed put. I wanted to lie on the ground all day, as the afternoon turned into evening above my head, my sweat and shame drying in the cool autumn wind. Brian looked down at me, smiling through his own helmet, a grin that told me everything I needed to know. He was bigger than me—faster, stronger.
“You alright?” Brian asked, holding out his hand.
“I think so,” I said.
“I really fucked you up,” he said, pulling me up from the ground. “Twice!” He gave me a hard pat on the shoulder pads. “Don’t try going low on me again,” he warned playfully, backpedaling to the line of scrimmage.
I’d fallen in love with the game of football as a child, watching Barry Sanders slice and spin through defenders’ arms, and Deion Sanders leap in front of errant passes and high-step into the end zone. When I suited up for eighth grade football, the year before, I felt like I belonged. I loved that we huddled before every play, put our arms around each other, planned our next move together. We won every single game that year and looked poised to continue our local dominance.
But in high school, something shifted. It became clear what we’d need to do for success: lift weights, bulk up, get tough, stop having fun, and start getting serious. All the boys around me changed too. They all wanted the same thing, the same quest for greatness through physical will and toughness, through brutalizing themselves and their opponents. I knew at once I’d never last.
I gravitated towards the theater. On stage, I opened my arms to the world. High school became marked for me in those moments, on stage basking under the lights, off stage talking shit with the cast and crew. There was purity in it, I thought at the time, in that space where the hyper-aggressiveness of the football field would never encroach.
Brian B. and I remained on friendly terms, and for years after that hit, whenever I saw him at a party, or shared a joint with him in someone’s car, he always reminded me. “Remember when I lit you up that one time?” A gleeful smile spread across his face.
I nodded, slightly ashamed, wondering if I’d always feel guilty I couldn’t take a hit. “Yeah,” I said, “I remember.”
I attended college at a mid-sized public university in southern Ohio. I didn’t know what to call it back then, but the whole town seethed with masculine energy. On weekend nights uptown, at the strip of bars along the main drag, kids poured out of every crevice, waiting in line to binge drink, making out in alleys, screaming the cries of the newly adult. I too was intoxicated by the freedom to get blasted and act reckless in public. But I never took to the main culture of the place, dense with fraternities and sororities, business majors and conservatives, all wearing the popped collars of the J. Crew catalogued.
The theatre kids became my people, or the interdisciplinary studies majors—those who made and liked art, who wanted something more from the world than the mindless crunch towards money and stability. But the town was too small. Sooner or later, one always ran into what they were fleeing.
It happened on a Friday night during my sophomore year. I’d been spending a lot of time that fall at Lesley, Sara, and Josie’s apartment. They were the first people I knew to live off-campus, where they could smoke and drink without getting busted. I was twenty years old. I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, copious amounts of marijuana. I drank cheap beer when I could find it. I’d had sex on a few occasions—okay, twice.
I crushed on Lesley. Tiny and funky, she was a laid-back West Virginia girl with long brown hair and a frequent desire to get high. I didn’t know how to make a move, couldn’t bridge the friendship gap between us.
That Friday night started off great. It was my friend Andrew and me, Lesley, Josie and her boyfriend, and Sara. We sat on the cement pavement outside their apartment. Early 2000s neo-soul played from a boom box. We’d rolled a few joints, downed a couple beers. It was everything I wanted: friendship, a little medicine, good vibes.
A pulse invaded our space. Nat M. strode over the grassy lawn in front of their apartment. We watched him stumble as he approached, swaying on the uneven ground. I’d met Nat briefly at orientation the year before. He was tall and cut, muscles rippling over his hockey-player arms. I felt tiny in his presence.
“Hey, Nat!” Lesley said as he walked into the house, slamming the door without saying anything. His entrance, like he owned the place, confirmed something: He was hooking up with Lesley. I felt my face go hot with shame, like I’d been wasting my time trying to get her to like me.
When Nat walked inside, eyes straight ahead, muttering under his breath, we all looked at each other, a nervous giggle breaking our chill.
“You okay there, buddy?” Lesley called inside.
I don’t know what set him off, what drugs—if any—he’d been using, but Nat blasted out of the apartment in a rage. He picked up a lawn chair and tossed it into the grass, kicked beer bottles and shattered them against the side of the house. The girls screamed, “Nat! What are you doing?”
Josie’s boyfriend, high as a kite, started laughing at the exchange. Nat stalked over to him, pushing him roughly into a car. “You wanna go!?!?! Say somethin’!”
“Nat! Stop it!” Lesley yelled.
Slowed by pot and alcohol, I couldn’t really understand what was happening. I felt like I was supposed to get involved, to protect my friends, to subdue Nat in some way. Andrew was so drunk he was giggling. I was scared and quiet. Nat grabbed each of us by the back of the head––at the same time––and slammed us into the pavement. Andrew used his arms to cushion the blow, but I took the brunt of it with my forehead bouncing off the cement.
“Nat!” Lesley yelled, with more force than I ever thought to give her credit for, “Stop. It.”
He softened then, her words getting to him. Lesley pulled him to the grass where they conversed quietly.
Sara kneeled down next to me. “Are you okay?” she asked.
I wasn’t. I knew I could never protect myself or anyone else if a guy that strong wanted us punished. It wasn’t fair, that his brute force dominated everything, that we were all powerless to stop it. Later, after Nat had gone home, after I’d cleaned up the little bit of blood on my forehead, after I applied an ice pack to my whiplashed shoulder, I stood in the kitchen and cried. I knew how I must’ve looked to the girl I still crushed on but I couldn’t help myself. “I don’t do anything to harm anybody,” I said, “and I just don’t understand why this would happen. Why he would do something like that.”
“I know,” Sara said. “I don’t understand either.”
The next day I went to the health clinic. They gave me muscle relaxers for my neck, but didn’t ask me about what happened. I spent that night playing video games at my friend Aaron’s apartment with some buddies and another guy named Mol, a dude from Aaron’s hometown.
When I told them about the night, how a hockey player slammed my forehead onto the pavement, Mol interjected.
“What was his name?”
“Nat M—,” I said.
“Nat M— did that to you?” Mol asked, eyes narrowing. He paused the video game and stood up, shaking his head back and forth. “That is unacceptable. I can’t have my guys acting like that. It’s not how we do things.”
“Mol’s the captain of the hockey team,” Aaron said.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” Mol said to me. “The violence on the ice stays on the ice. There will be retribution.”
Nat M. was kicked off the team. He’d a reputation as a loose cannon and it came back to haunt him. I remember gloating about it, like I’d won a victory for the little guys. I spent most of college avoiding guys like him. But perhaps that wasn’t the best tactic. I know now that I too carried a power in my body. Even if I wasn’t as big and strong as Nat and his ilk, I’m athletic in my own way. I share a love of sports and beer. I speak the same language of the masculine. Maybe I could have confronted them. Maybe I could have done something. Instead, I fled.
Ten years and change later, I found myself in Europe. I’d just turned thirty-three years old. In the years after college, I’d made a life and career in professional theatre and then quit with no plans for my future. I’d run to Europe after making a rubble of my life, funded by my life savings. Improbably, before I left Chicago, I met and started dating a woman I couldn’t wait to see again. But I still felt lost. A decade plus into adulthood, I was unsure of who I was and where I was supposed to be.
It happened on the last Saturday night of my ninety-day trip. Budapest was alive that night, wedding processions and party buses and exalted cheering rising from the streets. I splurged on a three-course meal at a bistro near my hostel, which sat on a main road—like a miniature Michigan Avenue—while the restaurant was off a side street near the National Opera House. There were bars and clubs aplenty in the vicinity. After a few glasses of wine, I felt good. Comfortable. A little tipsy. It was my last weekend night in Europe for the foreseeable future. Anything could happen.
I paid my tab and started walking. It was a typical side street pockets of light on either end, but dark in the middle. My mind swirled with the possibilities. I was excited to stay out late, meet people, sleep off a hangover, and spend the last of my money in a hazy flourish. I was so caught up that I barely noticed the encroaching footsteps at my back or the unfamiliar language getting louder in my ears. Suddenly, he was in my face.
The man was shorter than me but nasty-looking, with a shaved head and gigantic eyes that looked like they would burst from their sockets. He was speaking roughly, Hungarian I assumed, the words exploding from his lips. I don’t know what he yelled or why he was screaming at me. I’d crossed some line I didn’t know existed. With no one else on the street, I froze, unsure what to do and how to act.
He continued to berate me and I watched him slip a hand into the pocket of his jeans. I don’t know what he was going for, a knife or a gun. I backpedaled, putting my hand out to ward him off. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, on my heels, walking back towards the restaurant, where people were still eating. If I got there in time, someone would come to my defense.
After a few paces, the man stopped. “I go this way, you go that way,” he said in English, confusing me further because the way he pointed me to go was the exact way I’d been walking.
“Do you want to come in here?” a voice asked over my shoulder.
I spun to see a girl with the door to her building half-open.
“No, thanks,” I said. The man continued on without looking back. “I don’t know what happened. He just got in my face.”
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, not wanting to appear flustered to a stranger. “Just a little freaked out.”
It was the weekend of Sziget, a music and arts festival that brings a half-million tourists to the Hungarian capital each year. There were people everywhere in the plaza by my hostel. They lounged on the grass, sat at cafe tables, dipped their toes in the plaza’s pool, drank openly from bottles of wine and cans of beer. I watched from the balcony of my empty hostel, quiet on a Saturday night.
I feared my would-be attacker was off in the crowd somewhere, prowling the streets, looking for someone else to harass, or looking for me. Intellectually, I knew this was probably a random occurrence, that he was fed up with tourists in his hometown, or even mistook me for someone I wasn’t. Emotionally, I thought it might be a reckoning.
I wondered if it was even possible to walk through the world in my body, with all the power and privilege contained therein, and not be infected by unchecked masculinity. It was a sickness. A disease. I worried it possessed us all: Brian. Nat. Me.
It happened one year earlier. I was thirty-two years old. I lived with my girlfriend, Dina, in a beautiful apartment in Chicago. I’d poured everything into that relationship and it just wasn’t working. It was my third long-term relationship, the second time I’d lived with someone. I was so scared of another failed romance. I didn’t want to end up alone. We’d been dancing around so many issues, Dina and I: our careers, our time spent together and apart, our lives. We both knew we needed to confront each other.
One September night, drunk on wine on our back porch, we finally came to a point.
Dina, curly hair piled dramatically atop her head, was considering pursuing a job opening in a faraway city.
“If you get the job, would you want me to move with you?” I asked. If she said Yes, I told myself, we could figure out all the messy details of our life together.
She took a breath and replied, “I don’t know.”
From somewhere deep and dark inside me, I lifted a biting remark that I knew would crush her. Imagine the worst thing you can say to someone you love, a partner or parent or child. Imagine you can excavate the darkest place of that person, where they feel most insecure and vulnerable. Imagine saying this directly to their face.
Dina sobbed and ran inside.
“Come on!” I shouted and followed her all the way to the front of our apartment, where we kept a spare room for house guests. She tried to shut the door but I pushed it open and she pushed back, but I forced the door open again, something vengeful coursing through me and I don’t know what I meant to do, just that I was devastated and terrified and angry.
“Get away from me!” she wailed, sloppy tears streaming down her face. I backed away, slamming the door and leaving her to cry alone.
I faced our living room, spotting a stack of binders—archives of projects she’d worked on the past few years—painstakingly assembled. I picked up those binders and chucked them, kicking them all over the house, throwing them onto the couch, scattering the pages as far and wide as I could, until I crumpled on the floor, afraid that I’d become the one thing I hated and feared most in the world.
Violence had followed me everywhere. Masculinity seeped into my DNA and the bones of our culture: sports, college, traveling, the stage. I wanted to purge this disease from the earth. But I knew that the only way to rename masculinity, to face down the violence it bestowed, was to fight it first from within.
Instead, in the aftermath of my fight with Dina, when I was forced to confront myself for the first time, I ran away to Europe. It seemed like the only solution. Truthfully, I worried I was incapable of reckoning with my own self.
I watched the streets of Budapest from my hostel balcony by myself that night, afraid that I would always run away.
The flirtation and the festival, the community and laughter, the revelry and adventure: it all left me empty. Out there in the crowd someone, some man, would commit violence against someone else, out of anger or fear or lust or sickness. It may have looked carefree but it was a facade. Once the layers are peeled back, underneath the clinking glasses and arms slung over shoulders, everyone was just pretending. No one wants to imagine violence lurking around every corner, especially from those closest to them, but it does. It’s always there, whether we want to admit it or not.
Nicholas Ward's writing has appeared previously on The Billfold, Bird's Thumb, Midwestern Gothic, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and others. He is a company member with 2nd Story, a Chicago-based storytelling collective, and the founder of NCW Booking, a boutique entertainment booking agency. He lives in Chicago, with Amadeus the cat.