“Get out of the lake right now, or I will fucking shoot you,” he hollers, staring down an invisible sight and into my eyes, his finger threatening to pull the trigger — a notched branch on the stick rifle he has cocked and rested on his shoulder.
None of us respond, but if heart rates were words, we’d be babbling.
Our silence exasperates him. “I am not fucking kidding. You get out of the lake right now” – he sweeps a dictatorial finger from the lake where seven of us are circled in the water and toward the pebbled beach where he’s tantruming – “…or I will fucking shoot you.”
A few of us turn our backs to him, attempting to pick up the conversation we’d been having before this agitated teen and his friend, high on unaccustomed warmth in the air and whatever’s in that vape pen tucked into that pocket, stumbled into our orbit. The gun-pointer, initially aided by his sidekick, has been yelling at us for five minutes now, a genuinely unnerving bundle of aggression in green shorts. But if there’s one thing this group of grown-ups – parents, partners, queers, professionals, grieving, recovering, regulating, growing – knows how to do, it’s ignore the todderlistic foot stamping of a heckler.
Our refusal to engage infuriates him; it’s been a few years since his voice changed, but his throat remembers how to go high, and he shrieks: “You. Get. Out. Of. That. Lake. Right. Now. Get out of the lake. Get out of the lake. You. YOU. You. Get out. Of. The lake. RIGHT NOW. Or I will…” Again, he mimes shooting our circle of cold-water dippers, the spray of invisible bullets plucking us off one by one.
Playfully, loopily, the friend, every bit a six-year-old at seventeen, drops to the ground and pants at his friend’s feet.
Oh, good, I think to myself. Maybe that will disrupt the spiral of this irritating attack. The friend is tired of it, too, and is trying to shift the vibe. As a teacher and someone who hates to see people in distress, I have been biting my tongue sore. Even when the dipping group uncomfortably resumes chatting, murmured words always stronger than shouts, my brain continues to race. Is there a way to defuse this situation? Is there any response that could de-escalate this altered rager, particularly if the words come from someone he’s wanting to control?
The answer is no. Whatever’s happening within his body – that turmoil of psychoactive substance, testosterone, new patches of hair growth on a still-slight frame – has intersected with whatever’s happening with our culture – misogyny, whiteness, fear-driven gun love, class inequality – and created a perfect little monster.
If I call to him from the water with “Hey, what we’re doing is okay. You can move on,” the audacity of my speech will feed the monster. Mentally, even as I exchange alarmed glances with my fellow cold-water dippers and carefully participate in the overly casual chat, I envision a reaction in which the kid comes closer to the edge of the water, wielding his “gun” with even more intention, perhaps wading in and grabbing someone’s arm. He seems ready to drag a bitch.
Even though I know there’s no talking him down, even though I know the only thing he’d respond to is the threat of a larger, more-aggressive male or someone in uniform, even though it is dawning on me that the specific demographics of our group play a role in his choice to harass, I can’t stop gaming out ways to approach him, not only to release those of us in the water, but to release him, too. Because, of course, although the monster would explode if I told it, this boy is in distress, and it’s breaking my heart.
I’m aware from years in the classroom that de-escalation is tricky business, but one thing always seems true: the person causing the problem is more apt to hear a voice if it comes from a place of compassion. What if I walk out of the water, up to the monster and his lapdog, give them the requisite three seconds to scorn “What do you want, you fat bitch?”, and then offer, “Hey, are you guys hungry? There’s a good pizza place across the street” while handing them $20? What if I divert them with unexpected kindness?
I don’t have any money, though, so the option is moot. Anyhow, they’d probably just take the money and continue to harangue.
“I’m actually ready to get out,” says one of the dippers in our circle, “but I’m scared.” The wild boys are on the edge of our laid-out towels, so there’s no avoiding them.
A couple other folks agree that they are ready to get out, as well, so they band together and walk slowly out of the gorgeous, therapeutic water, carefully avoiding the firebrand.
Their sacrifice isn’t enough. He needs complete control. With fewer of us in the lake, ignoring the friend playing dead at his feet, he tightens focus. “I SAID GET OUT OF THE LAKE. ALL OF YOU. NOW. GET OUT!”
Turning her back to him, a seasoned dipper – mother of a teen boy – wryly comments, “Every time he yells at us, it makes me want to stay in longer.”
Spontaneous hoots crack the tension. We witches of the lake nod in communion. The monster boy has loud, hot energy that feels to him like power; it could take a lifetime before he comprehends the muscular brawn of an angry woman’s endurance.
“Absolutely,” I agree. “I get ornery in situations like this. If he keeps it up, I will still be standing in this 37-degree lake when the sun sets tonight. He has no idea how much fuel I draw from a feeling of ‘Fuck you, you fucker.’”
We’re really laughing now. All around us on the beach, there are clusters of happy people soaking up the first warm day after an extraordinary winter. In the manner of bystanders throughout history, they’ve all kept their distance, frozen, pretending they aren’t intently clocking the wrong thing happening next to them. Perhaps, like me, they can’t land on an idea of how to soothe the situation. Perhaps, like all of us at some point in our lives, they’re just relieved they aren’t the prey.
But as soon as our circle emits that gut laugh, gravity releases its hold: the big, bearded man one group over, just behind the raging American Boy, takes off his shirt. Stands up. Walks into the lake.
He’s wearing swim trunks — has come to the lake with the intention of wading in. I’ve been watching him watch the scene unfolding to his right, fifteen feet down the beach. I’ve been watching him try not to engage at the same time he has been preparing to engage, should the monster conflagrate completely.
Bolstered by the sound of female voices cackling at the sky, he risks becoming prey.
Even if the shooter saw this guy, though – and he doesn’t, as he’s bending down to pick up rocks to hurl into the water, just outside the perimeter of our circle – the bearded man would be dismissed as a target. As my frantic brain parses and re-arranges the pieces of this unexpected attack, one truth keeps emerging.
If the altered boy had wandered across a group of male jocks in the lake, a crew of wide-shouldered high school hockey players having a few minutes of whooping horseplay together after practice, he wouldn’t have stopped.
If the angry white boy had come upon a circle of Black men decompressing in the lake after a long day of conference sessions, he would have kept walking.
Even if the agitated yeller – a slight figure smacking of “I grew up in a dark house near the highway” – had encountered a cluster of Black women relaxing and chatting in the lake, his subconscious would have kept his body in motion.
Indeed, his spirit got riled when it stumbled into a contented group of “we are not cheerleaders” white women and one gentle white man, and that’s important. Intuitively, as he towers above us shouting threats, he knows we’ll be slow to react, and if we do, it will be with words. Without thinking, he understands that the soft white bodies bobbing in the lake belong to people who are educated, privileged, with heavy doors that lock. Hypothetically, what we have is attainable for him. Realistically, the cinderblocks outside his dad’s house, the peel-‘n-stick linoleum that attaches to his bare feet when he walks through the kitchen at his mom’s rental, and the zeroes next to his name in the math grade book all predict a future not far removed from his present.
When he aims the stick at us and bellows orders, he is the embodiment of a dysfunctional nation, a broken culture, a system of ruinous inequity, an ethos that a self-righteous man with a gun is the pinnacle of power.
Somebody did this to him. We all did this to him.
I’m so, so sad as I stand in the world’s largest freshwater lake, as I laugh defiantly with friends in the heart of a city touted as a climate refuge in upcoming decades, as I marvel at sun diamonds quickstepping across the ripples.
Our teeth are starting to clack, but we’ve still got a few minutes of obduracy in us before we concede to the bully. I might not know how to make the problem stop, but this fat bitch is an expert at staying buoyant in hostile waters.
Bored, the friend revives from the corpse pose he’s struck at the instigator’s feet, leaps up, and runs away from the lake, hollering as he pulls the vape pen an inch or two out of his pocket – flashing it — taunting our tormentor to chase the hit.
Just like that, it’s over, the boy-men tumbling down the beach, pebbles churning underfoot, driftwood flying as they heedlessly blunder toward the next opportunity to announce, in every way except directly, “We’re not okay.”
In the lake, we take a beat. Around us, water pushes to shore, depositing sand, sea glass, coveted agates. Quicker than a trigger pull, it retreats, heaping upon itself, creating an energy that snakes to the Atlantic. Lapping, an eternal loop, the water pushes to shore, pulls back, in, out, depositing, removing, writing, erasing, indifferent to the fracas.
Exhaling, shoulder to shoulder, we walk out.