to-be-or-not

Pain Compliance

Misty rain filled the cold night air. My breath came out in a fog under the street lights. I looked up at the cross street sign. I didn’t recognize the name.

I’d started the night out in Belltown. Crowds were thin, and I was pacing myself. I’d made fast friends with the bartender, who had recently made the jump back from the East Coast. He closed out his shift and asked if I had any plans.

He drove us to a bar across town where some local metal bands were playing. His girlfriend met us there, and I was treated to free admission and shots that tasted like citrus battery acid.

We moved to a nearby dive after the show. There were checkered floors and vintage things, but my head swam and I decided to switch to water. Last call came and I bid the couple a good night. I headed back toward my hotel on foot.

Twenty minutes into the walk my head had cleared. I realized that I didn’t recognize any of the cross streets. I pulled out my phone for an azimuth check.

Dead.

I passed a late-night restaurant bar, but the wait staff had long since pulled the plug. The side streets were all dark and residential; not a gas station or a payphone in sight. I oriented myself on the only landmark I could see – the Needle – and headed for it.

My hands were shoved in my pockets. I pulled my shoulders up against the cold. If I could get to the Needle, I would be able to navigate back to my hotel.

I stepped off the curb and spied another pedestrian loitering up the block. I squinted down the distance to see if it was cause for concern.

Just some kid, I realized. Early 20’s. Shorter than me.

He thumbed furiously on his phone. I had no idea the content of the conversation, but he wasn’t wearing it well. He looked up at me as I approached.

“Yo . . . you got a cigarette?”

I wrinkled my brow at him. The particular emphasis in his voice irritated me. I stepped to the left to pass him where he stood.

“Sorry. I quit.”

“Well, help me out wit’ a dollar, then . . . “

” . . . No cash.” I replied, without looking.

I made it a few more steps before I heard him mutter:

“Faggot ass bitch . . . 

I stopped walking.

“Excuse me . . . ?”

I half turned to look at him. A spark of anger ignited in my chest.

I hadn’t been home two months yet. For a while it was as if the volume had been turned down. I had no reason to be bothered by anything. The raw amplitude of the previous year made dealing with first-world problems trivial.

 “The fuck you looking at?” he sneered.

My reaction was instantaneous.

I turned and strode toward him. I wasted no time on words. He barely had time to shift his weight when I cracked him in the mouth. He let out a muffled yelp and stumbled back a step. I stepped toward him and seized him by his puffy North Face jacket. He struck his hands out, waving them at my face.

Not punching. Desperate. Feeble.

I hit him again. He turned his head and caught it on the cheek. I lost my grip on his jacket and he fell flat on his ass. He was huffing through a painful, swollen lip that was already bleeding down his chin.

“You muvver-fuffer!” he sputtered, a sob creeping into his voice.

“What did you say!?” I growled.

I hit him again. I reached down and twisted, catching him squarely on the temple with my right hand. He laid out on his side.

He curled his head down and buried his face in his palms. I could hear him breathing, heaving and sighing through his fingers. Not sobbing. Not crying. Forced wet breaths.

I lingered for a moment, looking down, saying nothing. I took a step back, turned, and strode purposefully in the direction I had been heading. I cut around a corner and began to jog.

I ran a few more blocks. I passed a Whole Foods and cut through a park before finding myself at the city center. I paused to catch my breath. The rush was gone. I was freezing.

My hand felt stiff. I extended and flexed my fingers, but nothing was injured. I composed myself, shoved my hands in my pockets, and moved on.

I wandered down 2nd, head hung low. I paused at a cross street and looked up. A police cruiser was idling at the curb on an opposite corner. His headlights snapped on and a jolt of panic ran through my body.

I froze.

The cruiser pulled up to the intersection, lingered briefly, and passed me, without a second look.

I heaved a sigh and pulled a battered pack of Lucky Strikes from my jacket.

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