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Location: Midwest, United States

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Living With Shame

I have experienced great joy and happiness in life. Sublime memories bubble into my consciousness often. I hope to relive and share these moments, all of them, with my friends in the days still left me. But they are best left for warm summer evenings when fireflies dance beneath a canopy of stars, when laughter and sighs are free to echo in the peaceful night.

I went for a long walk last night. The wind was fierce and whipped my legs and face mercilessly. I felt winter’s icy grip on my throat while my lips and fingers froze. I walked on. I felt the need to do penance. It was time, once again, to confront my curse.

* * *

I was nineteen. It was a Saturday night, and my friends and I were looking for something to do. A friend of a friend of a friend had mentioned that some girl, unknown to any of us, was throwing a party. We found her house and came sauntering in, trying to appear as insouciant and insolent as possible. You see, we were college men, and the house was filled with high schoolers.

It was obvious that our entrance caused a stir. We were engulfed by giggles and hushed whispers. Elbows nudged ribs. Girls excitedly ran off to other rooms, only to return with fresh make-up and fresh drinks for all of us.

We knew we would make an impression on the impressionable. Our hair was long, our faces gaunt, our jeans hung low on protruding hipbones. There was something vaguely menacing about us. We rode motorcycles; we had been in bloody fights. As stupid as all that seems today, in those days…in the eyes of certain girls…we were alluring. We sprawled out on the living room floor. We felt like roosters in a hen house and we were going to rule the roost. We eyed the girls and ignored the boys. We laughed at private jokes, exhaled pure testosterone, and set about to amuse ourselves.

I saw her sitting on the couch across from me. Between us stood a coffee table. She was not beautiful, but she was thin and somewhat pretty, and I admired her long legs. She was trapped in that awkward stage…no longer a girl…not yet a woman. She stared at me with obvious curiosity, a vague smile dancing on her lips. I can’t say I was all that attracted to her, but I enjoyed the thought of making her heart flutter. It was sport.

Close beside her sat a boy. He looked to be about fourteen, perhaps younger. He seemed shy and uncomfortable. He looked about aimlessly with a vacuously goofy grin. I muttered something to my friends about the “retard.” We laughed. I looked up at the girl and noticed (with a certain dark glee) that she had taken a keen interest in me. I mocked the boy again, and several of my friends joined in.

I had turned away to share another quip or two when I heard an anguished animal cry. I swiveled back and saw that the girl had risen to her feet. She was doubled over in pain and fury. Her fists were tightly clenched. With crazed eyes open wide and face distorted with rage she screamed: “DAMN YOU! DAMN YOU TO HELL!”

She was staring directly into my eyes.

She ran wailing from the room, her friends rushing to her side. I stood up dazed and confused. I could hear her plaintive sobs from some distant room. Our young hostess rushed to me and said “Don’t worry…she’s a bit crazy. Her brother is retarded and she is really sensitive. Please stay.” I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. I mumbled some inadequate apology. My friends and I left the house with heads hung low. We weren’t laughing any more. I went home alone. I didn’t eat or sleep for days.

* * *

This may come as a shock to those who know the particulars of my life’s story, but this “incident” represents my greatest, deepest shame. Without a doubt, I’ve done much worse since…with far greater consequences. But this remains my most painful memory, a source of never-ending personal anguish.

Although I’ve failed often, there was always some attendant moral ambiguity …a tug-of-war between my angels and my demons. I have failed myself, and others, in many ways and for many reasons. I have been weak at times. I may have been moved by pain, fear, stupidity or cowardice, deep need, or love, or human frailty…and, as a result, I have hurt others. But the hurts were the inadvertent, sometimes unforeseen, consequences of my all-too-human heart. I can draw at least a bit of solace from the fact that I had never intended to hurt another.

There is no moral ambiguity about what I did that Saturday night. I mocked another human being for no reason other than to indulge my own ego, my own loathsome narcissism. To my undying shame, I hurt an innocent boy and girl.

* * *

I wrote earlier that I hear voices. I hear this girl’s voice often. She has haunted me for thirty-five years. Her anguished scream rips through my conscious mind unexpectedly and often. A few years ago, I was driving in heavy traffic when her ghost appeared again. I was filled with abject sorrow and, for the first time, I cried. The tears came in torrents. I wish she could know how sorry I am. I wish she could draw comfort from knowing that my Promethean heart has been forever chained to a mountain of shame.

* * *

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