Because tomorrow is Hallowe’en, I’d like to talk about fear. Not vampires or zombies or Republicans. Real fear.
When I was 16 and 17, I lived in Cambridge, England for a year. It was a great year for me, very formative in many ways, but it’s also when I faced one of my greatest fears and lost.
There wasn’t much to do in Cambridge for 16- and 17-year-olds at the time. We weren’t old enough to hang out in pubs or discos, and precious little else was open after sundown on weekend nights, so my friends and I would often just stroll around downtown Cambridge, talking, joking and being obnoxious in the way teenage boys frequently are. One weekend night, my friends and I were out and about when we ran into a group of older boys. These boys were clearly on something, booze or other drugs, and they decided–for no real reason except they were asshole boys who had chanced upon younger, smaller boys–to pick a fight with us. Most of us look too nerdy to really be much of a challenge, but my friend Jon was wearing a leather jacket, so they focused on him. Now, Jon wasn’t really much of a fighter. He wore the leather jacket because he was really into metal. But Jon was actually incredibly kind and gentle. And here he was, being thrust into a one-on-one fight with a boy who was much bigger than he was.
As Jon did his best to punch and not get punched, I found myself standing in the doorway of a shop that was closed for the night. One of my other friends, Tim, stood next to me. Tim confessed to me that he was shit scared, but he also admitted that we should help Jon. I really wanted to help, but I couldn’t make myself move. I was paralyzed with fear. I’d never actually been in a fight before. I’d read about fights in comics and novels, but I’d never found myself in a situation where I needed to throw a punch or avoid (or take) someone else’s punch. I’d imagined myself in fights, and in my imagination, I always performed heroically. But now that I was actually in the situation, I was frozen with fear. Until a moment came when an opportunity to flee arose. We grabbed Jon and ran off into the night, scared out of our wits.
That night has haunted me ever since. I wanted to think of myself as a hero, only to discover I was a coward. I recognize now that I was just a kid, and I’m not as harsh on my younger self as used to be. We all screw up sometimes. But the feeling of fear, the inability to move and help my friend, still comes back to me at times. I remember how it felt to be terrified and frozen, desperately wanting to do something, but unable to make my body do it. It was a terrible feeling, and I hope if I ever find myself in a similar situation, I act differently. But the ghost of that night will always be with me.