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Bully

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

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Bully by Clifford Chase


Rick Warren favored striped Penney’s T’s and Lee jeans — uncool brands. The stripes traced the contours of his pectorals and his nipples; the shirt’s too-short sleeves revealed his veined, nugget-like biceps. The curved-not-square back pocket of his Lees was sadly unfashionable yet harmonious with the curve of his small behind.

    

Even in generic PE drag, Warren appeared unfashionable, since he tucked the standard white-blue reversible T into his gold shorts, which he wore not low on the hips like the stoners and jocks, but too high, at the narrowest point, like a forties strong man. His striped tube socks, too, were pulled way up. His shorts were shorter than whatever shorts or surfer jams he wore on his evidently sunny, outdoor-activity weekends, and they revealed a band of remarkably white thigh above his darkly tanned quads and knees.

    

Even today, these images from high school float near the top of my hierarchy of erotic images: Warren’s stone-white hips and upper thighs just as he strips off those gold, elastic shorts to go shower. The line between white and walnut-bronze skin seems to be drawn with a ruler across his quadriceps. His lean belly, too, is dark above the white. Looking at these thighs, I could imagine both his longer weekend shorts and the many shirtless hours in sunshine, a leisure-time glamour surprising for this back-of-the-cafeteria figure.

    

Sailing? Deep-sea fishing? Power-boating?

    

Of course there’s another dividing line in this memory photo, the one within myself, between the side that wanted to look and the side that had to turn away. My beady, always-looking eye must have met his once too often: a switch in him was tripped, and every day for five or six months Rick Warren shoved me in PE and pulled my hair. His voice, always from behind: “I’m gonna cut off that fag ponytail.”

    

The notion comes to me now in italics, dreamlike and over-determined. “I’m gonna bring a pair of scissors tomorrow,” he continued, grinning and snipping at my head with two fingers. The hair in question — my hair — was honey-blond, fine and absolutely straight, running halfway down my back; its various meanings to me at sixteen are lost in the tangle of supposed and actual identities: rebellious hippie; sensitive young intellectual; secret homo who prayed not to be a fag and sang folk songs about Jesus at the local Young Life meetings. So it was that once a day in PE my inscrutable teen dream intersected with Rick Warren’s own. I know perhaps no more of what my ponytail meant to him than I do about what a dog sees or feels when his closed eyes twitch at the foot of the bed. I know only that I was, for several months, the Fag in his diagram. About four months in, I turned and said, “Why do you keep bothering me?” I was so ashamed of the fearful mincing of my own voice that the memory, or rather the dream moment, ends here, before he can reply.

    

Rick Warren: If I try to visualize his face, I draw a knot above a bared-teeth grimace — a sort of Cheshire Bully, who never fully appears.

    

That strained, compressed grin may have been intended as one of malicious pleasure but, actually, it signaled only desperation. This made me no less afraid of him. The thought of Rick Warren and his aggrieved bullying, a mess of boy-pain and boy-desire, excites me, as does the thought of my own pain and desire, so churningly unrealized, spaced out yet ruling me. The fantasy plays out against the generic backdrop of chipped beige lockers, varnished and peeling wooden benches, a rough concrete floor combed into overlapping scallops, and that generic locker-room smell combined with the more specific odor that all buildings have in California, because the windows are always open — a sort of dank freshness.

    

I think of his face, and I think: baffled, angry, desire-drenched and therefore hopeful, yet unaware of any of it. It’s the purity of what’s now referred to as “acting out,” the male purity of acting without knowing why. I see this same dull expression in the eyes of certain porn stars, and it’s this expression that particularly excites me.

    

“He looks so dumb,” I say to myself, with drugged gusto.

    

A friend once told me of discovering that a bully he knew from school now worked as a bartender in a leather bar, and so I like to imagine the same for Rick Warren. It would be a kind of salvation, and then my adult awakening would more or less intersect with his. One of the many unanswered questions is why his threats were never carried out — why they had to remain threats.

    

In May these, too, stopped. Ignoring him had finally worked, I thought, or almost thought, because I didn’t want to think about it. Then, near the end of the term, Rick Warren approached me in PE once again and instead of shoving me apologized for his actions that year. His doing so made no more sense to me than anything else he did. “That’s okay,” I answered, in order to make him go away again. But he kept talking. He needed to make amends, he explained, because that spring, at a Young Life meeting, he had received Jesus into his heart.

©2001
Clifford Chase and Nerve.com