Two Women on a TrainBy Matthew Baldwin
May 27, 2010
I spent the first part of the cross-town ride enjoying the legs of the pretty girl in the denim skirt down at the far end of the car. I’m a leg man and they were a fabulous pair, nicely toned and tanned. A guy could rest his hand on one those legs and feel everything was right with the world.
She was completely engrossed in a book and didn’t notice me at all. I figured her for a student, twenty-two or twenty-three, tops, which meant if I was going to strike up a conversation with her, I had to do so before we rolled into the SDSU station and she disembarked.
The truth is, though, that while my body might have been into making a move, my heart and mind weren’t. I was freshly single after a relationship that had chewed up and spat out most of my twenties, and still in that phase of rebound where I fall madly in love for ten minutes with any attractive female who crosses my path. This is an emotional bear trap, one I’ve gotten snared in before, and I knew by now to avoid it.
Still, I probably should have gone to talk to her. Having been out of the singles game for so long my flirtation skills had likely atrophied sharply, and a little practice wouldn’t have hurt. But it was enough to see that something like that existed in the world, and to be able to enjoy it from a distance.
A rush hour crowd waited at the next stop, the glut of bodies filling the car obscuring my view of the girl and her nice legs. With a bit of reluctance I turned back to my own book.
After a few minutes I began to notice the woman who’d taken the seat opposite the aisle from me. There was nothing particularly remarkable about her, just your average American housewife type, but somehow she reminded me of a terrified woodland animal desperately trying to avoid being noticed. Where other passengers flipped the pages in their books or poked at their electronic gizmos she sat as still as possible, her gaze lowered to the floor. When she raised her face enough to give me a good look at it, I saw why.
Her face was a quilt of multi-colored bruises, the worst of them concentrated around the left side. The white of her right eye was stained red in places where the blood vessels had ruptured, and her lips were too unevenly swollen to close completely; through the space between them I glimpsed the surgical wiring holding her jaw together.
I’ve been a student of violence long enough to recognize the effects when I see them, and what I could see was that someone had given her one horrific beating, and very recently. Someone—a husband, maybe, or a boyfriend—who’d felt enough hate towards her to take away her ability to speak.
Her eyes flicked up for a second and met mine, a thin meniscus of tears coating them. I wish I knew what she saw—or thought she saw–in my face in the few seconds before she looked away again. Did she feel self-conscious or ashamed, knowing I’d recognized her injuries for what they were?
I tried to allow her what measure of privacy I could, but it was difficult not to look. I couldn’t escape the fact that everyone else in our immediate vicinity seemed to be concentrating as hard on not noticing her as she was on not being seen. A minor injustice compared to what she had been through, but nevertheless one she shouldn’t have to bear.
I wanted to reach across the aisle, squeeze her hand, and say something nice, to offer some response other than the surrounding apathy, but the words died stillborn on my tongue. Finally I just offered her the handkerchief I keep for cleaning my glasses, feeling like a half-assed caricature of chivalry as I did so. She glanced at it as though I were trying to hand her a live rattlesnake, and shuffled sideways in her seat, away from me.
“It’s clean,” I said. For a moment it looked as though she might take it, but then the train rumbled in to the SDSU stop and she was out the doors before they’d even finished opening. Gone like she’d never even been there.
The train rolled on towards the last few stops before the end of the line, and as it did I felt unsettled by what I’d seen and done. She hadn’t asked for me to draw public attention to whatever private pain she endured; I’d created a narrative around a stranger’s life and written myself in as a character, and in doing so failed to help at all. I might’ve even made it worse.
I tried to read a few pages in my book but quit when I realized I had no idea what they said. I looked towards the far end of the car, hoping the girl with the nice legs might still be there. I wanted the sight of some pretty young skin to distract me from my own sense of futility. To my surprise, she still was.
There was a boy with her now, a skinny kid with a sandy blonde buzz cut who must’ve gotten on at the university stop. They held each other with absolute joy, like those couples you see at airports who’ve been apart for months, even though it’d probably only been hours since they’d walked the campus hand-in-hand. They shared kisses and whispered to each other, unconcerned with any eyes that might be watching.
By herself, she’d been pretty; together they were radiant. It was a celebration to see them. And really, what else could one do but admire them from afar, and hope the tiny sphere of their love kept the bad things of the world at bay, if just for a little while?
This was like a rom-com and a hard-hitting (literally) drama playing at once.
It can be quite jarring to see something like that. Your mind leaps to fill in the narrative…it’s human nature, just as it’s human nature to want to reach out to her and not be able to help.
And I like leggy coeds as framing devices.
I like leggy coeds under pretty much any conditions. But then I guess that’s pretty obvious by now.
Who among us doesn’t?
We’ve just about hit that point in the season where the coed girls start riding their beach cruisers around while wearing bikinis. It’s truly a glorious sight.
So much gravity in this very small moment. The contrast between the two women, heartbreaking. A great piece.
Why, thank you very much, Cynthia.
I love that you actually carry a handkerchief be it for glasses cleaning purposes or otherwise. That’s no half-assed caricature of chivalry, that there’s the real thing. And, hey, all you can judge yourself on is intentions, it could have been just what she needed… or maybe not, but at least you weren’t indifferent. That’s the worst kind of aggression, right?
I suppose so. Even when someone hates you, it still means your actions are affecting them on some level; they “care” enough to do something about it. You, on some level, still matter.
I got in the habit of carrying a handerkerchief in my back pocket when I gave up contact lenses last year and started wearing my glasses full-time, since I have a low tolerance for smudges. Turns out to be a pretty handy thing to have.
The shame of it is that you could have actually helped her.
You could have taught her how to defend herself.
But there was no way to convey that to her in the situation you were in.
I hope the narrative is that she was mugged,
and that home there is a welcoming and loving family
waiting for her.
And maybe one day, you’ll spot her in one of your classes.
I was, in fact on my way to teach a karate class when this happened.
I changed my lesson plan for the night.
Instead of sparring we worked self-defense: holds, chokes, and escapes.
I’ll be riding this same line to teach tonight. Wonder what I’ll see?
I hope she was mugged, strange as that is to say. But in my experience with this things, the worse experience is far more likely.
I totally got lost in the story and neglected to tell you how well you wrote this.
Beautifully done, Matt.
Thanks, Irene. I honestly thought this was an awkward, unwieldy piece, and was dubious about posting right until I hit that PUBLISH command in WordPress. I’m glad you liked it.
I don’t know about “half assed . . . chivalry,” Matt. It reads like the real thing to me. Whoops, I see Ryan already said that. I’ll keep it in anyway.
I understand how you worried about writing yourself in. How many times have you — we all — hesitated and not done something we felt was the right thing? Probably more than we’d like to admit.
Maybe when she got home she told somebody, “A guy tried to be nice to me and I was so messed up I couldn’t even accept what he offered.”
It was nicely framed, too.
There was actually a pretty long digression about bystander behavior in here–the psychological tendency to remain uninvolved in the affairs of others–that wound up getting cut. I think we’ve been somewhat culturally conditioned to do so, with all of the “mind your own business” and “it’s not my problem” sentiments that get tossed around all the time.
Too bad. As much as it sucks to feel, ultimately I think I’d rather live with the regret of having tried to help and failed than not having done anything at all.
I completely agree with your observation re: conditioning. As I’ve ranted about in other comments, “leave it to the professionals”, “not my job/business” and “you could get hurt/arrested/sued” have been passing for “wisdom” for decades now. But if enough of us ignore it….
People are becoming too insular, less-community oriented. Too wrapped up in their own little partitioned worlds. Some–including me, at times–blame this on the rise of technology, and the various electronic removes at which people can now interact with each other. But I think it’s really a much, much older problem than that.
Not more than a few weeks ago wasn’t a homeless man killed in NYC after trying to stop a robbery? He laid there dying in the street for hours while people literally walked over him. By the time someone stopped to see if he was okay, he was dead.
I saw on the news perhaps a year or so that some woman collapsed in a hospital emergency room, a hospital emergency room and again people, nurses even, walked around her going about their job. I guess they weren’t assigned to that section.
Pisses me off. I always try to think of things like this and honestly ask myself what I would do in certain situations – “mind my own business” or do what’s right. I sure hope I’m of the latter ilk.
Those types of situations always remind me of studying “diffusion of responsibility” in college social-psychology classes. Awful and sad when this happens.
Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking about when I was composing this essay. There was even a whole digression on diffusion of responsibility/bystander syndrome in the rough draft
I remember reading about that homeless man, but I didn’t think about it until you brought it up. Further down Simon mentions Kitty Genovese, which WAS very much on my mind. That kind of thing just sickens me.
The way you described the injured woman really touched me. Maybe she saw–and felt–your kindness and didn’t know how to handle it? Sometimes when people are hurt, compassion is almost impossible to bear because they’re so wrapped in the pain. There’s a lot of beauty in your gesture, and you have no idea whether this is something that gave her peace or strength later on. I appreciated the sensitivity in this piece, Matt.
So I was still thinking about this piece hours later and realized how insightful (no pun intended) it was for you to notice who wished NOT to be seen and who didn’t mind. The woman in pain wanted to hide….the young couple was comfortable in the open.
We’re drawn to hiding and privatizing our pain, but happiness, by the sheer virtue of what it is, longs to be shared.
I realized when I was putting the final touches on this together last night that so so so many of my posts feature some variation on the word “violence” as a tag. Consensus on some of my other posts is that recognizing & describing violence and it’s effects is one of my strengths; in this case, I only hope it illustrated the true ugliness of whomever hurt her.
I hear you loud and clear when it comes to being unable to bear compassion. There’s an unfortunate cultural trend of stigmatizing victims of violence, especially domestic violence, so that shame comes part & parcel to the physical pain that remains. The scars of that mental anguish linger long after the flash is healed.
I hope I made a difference. I tried.
I don’t ever know what to do in those situations. Offering comfort always seems like an acknowledgment of something that they want to keep hidden, yet ignoring it makes you a dick.
There should be a word in the English language that means “I’m sorry you’re going through this but I have absolutely no idea how to help and am going to just sit here and hope that you’ll accept my silent sympathy.”
I think a smile satisfies the need for that word. A smile can speak volumes and make a huge difference. I know it sounds cheesy. But on days when I’m feeling low, a smile from a stranger is a tremendous gift.
Not cheesy. So true.
Agreed. Sometimes just a smile from the right person can turn the whole day around.
Who can turn the world on with a smile?
Dana, tell me you’ve *really* seen MTM tossing her hat up in the air!!!
Tell me tell me tell me
You’re a hoot!
I agree, Gloria, but what type of smile for what type of situation? If someone just looks grumpy a smile can say, “Cheer the fuck up! It’s a beautiful day” and can actually help sometimes because of and not in spite of its cheesiness. But when someone’s in obvious pain then obviously a huge teethy smile is inappropriate and a smaller, meeker smile could be construed at pity. I don’t know, I’m over-analyzing. Just a tough situation overall I guess.
@Sarah – sure. I totally agree. I definitely wasn’t insinuating that Matt should have smiled, winked, proffered the two-hand-finger-guns, and clicked his tongue all at the same time. I think the right type of smile for every situation is something that we all maybe know instinctively.
I love how you just described me pulling a complete Sam Rockwell move.
I’m sure the Germans have some clever-sounding portmanteau term for it that just hasn’t sunk into American pop culture yet. Schadene–something.
This is my favorite piece of yours. It’s framed nicely, as other have said, but also you captured the moment so perfectly, it was like I was on the train with you. I love vignettes like this. I especially enjoyed the opening line, the way you picked up the scene as if we were already in it.
I hope the woman finds a better place soon. I never know what to do in situations like that, either. I know when I was a kid there were many times when I was terribly ashamed and wanted to go unnoticed, and yet would have really welcomed the kindness of a stranger.
Also, on a somewhat unrelated note, you mentioned in a comment sometime recently that you stopped driving for whatever reason, and it made me think of the film The Last Word. Have you seen it? If not, check it out. I have a feeling you’ll like it.
I actually gutted about 800 words out of this while revising it Monday and Tuesday. If I cut up a human being as much as I did this story they’d lock me away for life. It originally opened with a scene-setting paragraph about how much I enjoy rail travel, the behavior of passengers on it, etc. etc. Your basic literary wheel-spinning. I think it works better en media res.
Yes, I don’t drive anymore, which will be the subject of a post somewhere down the line. I’ve not yet seen The Last Word, but it’s been sitting in my Netflix cue for a while now. Might just have to bump it a little closer up to the top.
Damn you, Matthew! I did not WANT to cry on this glorious summer morning debuting a big holiday weekend. I didn’t WANT to weep for that viciously assaulted woman. I didn’t WANT to follow her, get her address and stalk her brutaliser or tell her to get the hell out of town bcuz he’d continue his brutality.
And, not the least, I didn’t WANT to remember the old brutal beast in myself.
You write in clear glass, Matthew. You don’t allow anyone to escape. You won’t let us forget. Thank God.
Why, oh why did I wear eyeliner this morning?
…because it brings out your eyes?
But at least I put this up Wednesday night instead of on Friday. Think about how the coming weekend would have seemed then! This was you have Friday as a buffer zone before that glorious, glorious Sunday starts.
Yeah, something about witnessing this kind of injustice really provokes my atavistic side. It always seems like it would be so fulfilling–heroic, even–to victimize the victimizers. But that’s a Pyrrhic victory at best, because they’ll just wind up taking their humiliation out on others once again. Possibly, even worse.
Matt, love your “I wonder what TNB Hell looks like. Zero comments, I guess.”
Now that you’ve torn my guts out with that post, you think a flimsy apology and a hooty comeback will give me back my guts? Oh no! I had to take a nap, argue with some squirrels, trim my toenails, and contemplate revising some poems—–and now you remind me of your post by commenting on my comment!
If you weren’t so DAMNED good at writing (oh, and thank goodness you cut that horrid stuff out which sounds v e r y boring)—-and hilarious, as well, I’d just never read your gut-wrenching posts and comments again.
oh crap, fact is, as you well know, you MUST wrench guts. you MUST.
What is the answer, then, to such brutality, terrorising, bullying?
Writing: the only way to finger the entrails of the people around you other than being a psychotic mass-murderer.
The answer is simple…just don’t leave the fuckers alive.
Well put, Matt. Stark, simple, true—–and in itself terrifying to contemplate.
If a person becomes acquainted with someone who’s being brutalised, what are some ways the person could help? And if, as you’ve said, the victim often stands up for the brutaliser, what could a person do to help?
Show the victim how to stand up for themselves or get themselves out the situation they’re in.
Or, you know, take the Anon route: plant a bunch of kiddie porn and crystal meth in the victimizer’s car, then phone in an anonymous tip. That works too.
Thanks, Matt. Often, the victimised person isn’t in a mindset receptive to standing up for themselves. They’re terrified!
At other times they might be more receptive, in which case they might choose to “model” their behaviour on that of someone whose actions they admire.
Re Anon’s creative suggestion: We TNBers are fortunate to have you two as agents for “Deter Or Destroy”.
Lucky for you two you’re hellishly hilarious most of the time. Otherwise we’d have to take Anon’s suggestion and apply it to you both.
You think I would announce that tactic publicly if I didn’t already have a triple-redundant plan for dealing with it if it came down to that?
A nice ploy and sense of bravado, Matt, but I betcha Stephie’s several steps ahead of you. She’s The Bomb. If North Korea ever decides to sink TNB, I’m gonna follow her wherever she goes. The Bomb.
Heh. Judy, evidence is only as good as the prosecutor willing to present it. And, given that prosecutors tend to be mostly human and that humans tend to have both secrets and families, I’m not going to lose too much sleep. >:)
Ah, Anon, so jaded and at such a young age. 😉
Also, I do believe this is the first time I have been damned on the TNB boards. I wonder what TNB Hell looks like.
Zero comments, I guess.
This reminds me a time when we were traveling home and had stopped at a convenience store to refuel. In the parking lot there was a husband verbally abusing and threatening violence upon his wife. She just stood there and took it. Everyone was staring and shaking their heads, but not one of us knew what to do to help her. I know for me it was difficult to get in my car and leave not knowing how to help the wife. At least you made some attempt with this lady. You may never know if it made an impact on her or not, but I’m guessing it probably did.
I’m just dumb enough to intrude in situations like that. Woe is the parent who smacks their child in front of me.
But you know what? Besides all the the cries of “mind your own business” etc., a lot of the time the victim (usually the woman, but not always) sticks up for the abuser. Victim pathology and all that. It’s just sad.
This is really heartbreaking, Matt. It was sweet of you to offer the handkerchief. Like Ryan said, I love that you carry a handkerchief. I’ll bet you’re a throw-a-coat-over-a-puddle kind of guy. In some ways, yes, it seems anachronistic and cartoonish. But it’s also a sign of chivalry and, more important, basic human kindness.
You’re a leg guy, huh? Strange, I always pictured you as a hand guy. I don’t know why.
Honestly? Not that chivalrous, at least not as a rule. I mean, I know how to treat a date, but I don’t stand up or remove my hat every time a woman walks into a room. And no to the jacket-over-the-puddle thing. I’ve always seen the idea of chivalry as a benign form of sexism, an extension of the male patriarchical system. I’d prefer my urge to stick up for someone not be gender-specific.
Oh, yeah. Total leg guy. Have been for years. Never even heard of a “hand guy” before.
Reno is a hand guy.
Also, I should point out that I meant the jacket over the puddle thing as a metaphor, albeit a bad one. My point was that you’re actively kind. Or, at least, you appear to be. I don’t know.
“Reno is a hand guy” seems to be saying something other than what it’s intended to, I think.
I can dig with being actively kind.
Seriously. He says as much in response to my comment here:
Still makes me giggle.
Very sweet piece Matt. And since I feel like I’ve spent half my week reading stuff here, I appreciate the brevity too. (Not a nudge to anyone else – honestly.) But I love when writers are able to convey so much with so few words. It was a beautiful little two minute short film in my head.
Is your memory that great or do you keep a notebook of story ideas?
Thanks, Dana. As I mentioned to Rich, I cut 800 words–or about half the total length–out of this in the revison process. Short and bittersweet seemed the way to go.
I do have a notebook, yes, but rely on memory a great deal. For more info on that, go to: http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/mbaldwin/2010/05/the-pteranodons-of-memory/
Don’t worry, it’s also short. And with pictures!
I smiled at “it was enough to see that something like that existed in the world, and to be able to enjoy it from a distance.” Amen, brother. Granted, my perspective is permanently fixed from that location, given my marital status but I’d agree regardless. And “By herself, she’d been pretty; together they were radiant.” made me laugh out loud at the memory of generating that particular public radiance with my wife. Personally, I think “all you need is love” is simplistic and unrealistic nonsense unless you plan on being homeless until you die from starvation or exposure. It undoubtedly makes surviving worth the effort, though.
But my heart ached for that second woman. As others have noted, you feel that embarrassment for them whether they fell, were in a car wreck or were the victim of an assault. You can stare in the mirror and tell yourself a million ways that “no one will notice” but you know full well that everyone will so it’s best to not try to disguise it and just move on. To have a stranger offer an act of kindness, acknowledging the breach but saying, in effect, “It doesn’t matter – you’re still a person.” was something that added to the healing, even if it went seemingly rejected at the time. You didn’t make things worse, friend. You made them better.
Bravo on your actions and your writing from a fellow handkerchief-carrier.
Damn, do I love a nice set of women’s legs.
My most recent ex, who I refer to in this piece, had a standing agreement: looking was fine, touching not so much. They way I always put it is, just because I go to a museum and admire the paintings doesn’t mean I need to take them home and hang them on my wall. My life is improved enough just for having seen them.
And yes, “all you need is love” is deeply simplistic. But love, when it works, sure as shit helps make everything else all the more bearable. It’s like whiskey in that way, but without the killer hangover.
See, Zara, Anon’s a romantic, too! He said: “Personally, I think “all you need is love” is simplistic and unrealistic nonsense unless you plan on being homeless until you die from starvation or exposure. It undoubtedly makes surviving worth the effort, though.”
Of course, I’m a romantic but thank you for calling it out. I wouldn’t be as bitter and jaded if I didn’t have a romantic core… somewhere… over there, to the left, I think. Under that box, maybe – it’s been awhile since I packed it away.
Ah go ahead, Anon. Act like you’ve lost the romantic side of you, but it’s been evident ever since you said you love your wife.
I never get this: Men think that showing their romantic side is unmanly or some such; yet they wanna attract women—-and women love romantic men. Go figure.
Oh, your romantic counterpart on the TNB list, Zara, has a new hairstyle—-now THAT’s a way romantic look!
What’s the name of that worldfamous woman who was absolutely fresh-faced gorjus and had those same smooth curved bangs? Bettie Page! Yes, Zara’s new hairstyle resembles Bettie Page.
Okay, now, Judy. I was planning on a bit of a TNB hiaitus – I’ve got some things I need to attend to – but I can’t go out leaving this unanswered. I was not in any way denying the existence of my romantic side, I was simply saying it’s been, um, “underutilized” for some time. I have no claim to perfection and don’t fault my wife for much but… she suffers from an affliction I’ve noticed strikes a certain percentage of women after starting a family. Sort of a nesting instinct gone too far. She has become excessively practical to the point where romantic notions, gestures and actions were either unnoticed or actually a source of confusion (I befuddled her greatly earlier this month with a card and white rose for our 24th dating anniversary). Even simple, updated gestures like absconding with the kids to let her sleep in seem to be taken for granted. Sigh.
Frankly, I just gave up after awhile and, given that it’s not appropriate to lavish such attention on someone other than her… it’s been hermetically sealed and boxed up. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make use of it again once her world has room for more than kids’ birthday parties, school functions, potty training and such.
Heh. On our sixth dating anniversary, I filled her bedroom with six dozen reds and a single white on her pillow – taking public transportation to sneak them in while she was at work. I looked like a delivery man. I have a mental resume of notions that would make Don Juan mutter, “Now why didn’t I think of that?” You may call me many things, Madam, but never lacking or ashamed of romance. 😀
Anon, I’m gobsmacked! (That means shock-stunned with delighted near-incredulity; “gob”=head)
But the signs were there, one must admit. Your Mr Gruff wasn’t holding well, you see, given that your debut post was you with your heart on your sleeve for Mr Fedora’s generous spirit.
I’ll make a broad generalisation now with the usual caveat that yes yes there’ll be exceptions: Males fall in love harder than females and have a harder time than females getting over breaking up.
Lotsa folks will point out lotsa reasons that the generalisation applies; others will think it silly or sexist.
I’ll just leave you with this before you move on to awesome weekend activities: Celebrating love with words or surprises or symbols takes hold of the loved-one’s psyche and endures for generations. Kids and grandkids, relatives, friends, neighbours and coworkers see, hear and understand what it means.
Now to email dear Rodent.
Now, now – one can be gruff, crude, incorrigible, relentless, brutal, insensitive, selfish, offensive and still be romantic. It’s all about the intended audience.
When I was still a late teen, I worked in a mailroom after business school. I was, um, less refined and subtle than I am now and worked with a very ditzy young lady who often bore the brunt of my grumpiness. My girlfriend – now my wife – called and my tone changed utterly. I forget the topic but I was apparently quite loving and tender in my conversation. When I hung up, “Jenny” was just staring at me, misty-eyed. She said, “I never would’ve guessed you were so sweet inside!”
So I bodily picked her up, carried her across the room and stuffed her in a tower of mail bins. She looked a turtle. Another coworker had to extract her. Heh.
To the refined and subtle Anon: You did *not* stuff the young lady into a tower of mail bins! 😉
I completely agree with you about how a person can be a romantic *as well as* all those seemingly incompatible qualities. Fundamentally, we’re all imperfect weirdly singular humans who have limitless capacity for romance as well as the other less attractive sides of us. Thankfully, we have the power to choose the ways we want to be.
I was gonna say that I love wild surprising romantic things, but then remember reading that Joe Di Maggio sent a single rose every day to Marilyn Monroe. Makes you stop and think.
Oh, indeed I did. In fact, I’m smirking at the memory. She was only about five feet tall and so was the tower. HA! There was no way she was getting out without help.
Ah, good times….
You just swept her off her feet, Anon! You might have the makings of an awesome author of bodice-rippers.
You could write under a female psyeudonym—-oh wait—-you’re Anon, after all. heh.
Ah, the good old days — — like today. Enjoy your wife and kiddies and the planting and pruning stuff on your back 40.
matt, i love this piece.
i think your small gesture probably did help in some way, even if not at that moment. i’ve been in situations where i’m wrapped up in my own sadness, completely isolated – someone offers the smallest bit of sympathy, and i totally fall apart.
i think she’ll remember that small bit of sympathy you offered her.
I’ve been there myself a few times. It’s amazing to me how even the smallest, most banal-seeming form of compassion can turn the whole world upside down at times like that.
Oh, Matt, this was heartbreaking. But I thought the juxtaposition was brilliant, as was the writing.
Thanks, Marni. I’m afraid I can only take credit for the writing, as the universe does not arrange itself according to my every wish and whim.
Wow, dude, the juxtaposition of the two images was fantastic. Loved the way they paid off.
And I like to think you did help that bruised woman. If your observation of her was correct, if she was battered–and given your martial arts training I’m willing to bet you do–you showed her kindness.
I think, sometimes, when we encounter something like the ugliness of domestic abuse, that fear, that self-consciousness, we forget about beautiful things like kindness. We might not recognize them when they occur because it’s been so long since we’ve seen them. So you showed her kindness. Maybe she’ll recognize it next time she sees it.
We don’t recognize it, or we’ve been conditioned not to trust it by our abusers.
I would’ve bet $$$ she’d been beaten. I’ve seen the effects of that sort of lashing out up close and personal more than once. It’s pretty distinctive.
I hope I was able to help her.
hmm. i like this. but i’ve always been a fan of snapshots, the daily stuff. so here we go:
1. yes, you should have ask miss legs for a date. or at the very least to give you permission to gawk at her legs w/o feeling, uh, weird. why not?
2. the bruised one. no bueno. i hope nobody beat her. i’m not a fan of that shit–don’t know many that are. too bad you couldn’t help her out. but in her condition i don’t anybody but herself could help her out. well, that’s if, we conclude that some a-hole delivered the mess she wore.
once i was in mccarren airport and saw this couple take their hands to each other. it was ugly. the wife/girlfriend slapped the man and he IMMEDIATELY slapped her back. it was automatic.
“mind your own fucking business,” the dude told the bartender.
anyhow, matt, enjoy your singledom. i know i am. but that’s probably because i have a great book collection, guitars, tons of shoes to wear, and hobbies. what a life, eh?
1.) As Will said recently, I refuse to feel guilty about anything that gives me pleasure. And anyways, it’s not like I was just outright ogling. I know how to be subtle about these things. I’m not a total lech.
OKAY FINE, I WAS OGLING! THERE! I ADMIT IT.
The hell with it. Years of martial arts have left me with some nice-looking legs, and now that summer’s almost here I’ll be wearing shorts all the time. GO AHEAD AND STARE, LADIES! I don’t mind.
2.) My instincts, and my experience, lead me to conclude she’s recieved that treatment at someone else’s hand. It was the sense of shame more than anything else. Poor gal. I swear, sometimes the world seems like it’s just full of absolute shit.
Hobbies, books, and guitars. Got ’em. Tell you the truth, I haven’t been in the last year and a half I’ve been single. But it would be nice to have someone to help keep the bed warm from time to time.
Whoah man. Just whoah. That was sharp, poignant, sad. What you did for this woman reminded me of this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zI4D1QOLGuM. Listen to the chorus: beautiful message.
Alas, no speakers on my work computer! But thanks for the link. And for reading.
What an excellent first paragraph.
You would think it would be easy
to arrange a few words in a compelling
but its not.
I love when a writer
can take a very small moment
& make it into something
Almost all chivalrous efforts
seem half-assed & awkward in their
You gotta try though.
Also: I think most of us
have that moment before
when we sort of freak out a little.
I cut the first paragraph
off like Marie Antoinette’s head
Then set about eviscerating the rest
so only the bones were left
And without all of that it stood
better then ever. So small, so big
Glad you enjoyed.
This is beautiful, Matthew. Heartbreaking story. I hope the woman gets away from the right-handed person who beat her. You were so sweet to offer her your handkerchief. She probably got off the train suddenly because when one is so close to the raw edge of emotional and physical pain, even the tiniest display of kindness or understanding can break the fragile threads of strength holding everything together. Do you know what I mean? Like when you’re really upset and someone is nice to you, how it can make you cry, even though you don’t want to break down? I bet she appreciated your kind gesture once she regained her composure. I’m glad you reminded her that there are kind, caring people in the world. She probably really needs that right now.
I really liked the way you sandwiched the sad part of this writing with examples of happiness. Great balance. Just like real life. xoxo.
Well, that’s exactly how I like my sad served up: firmly crammed between two doses of very hot girl. Yummy.
I think you’re right, with the fragile threads. Sort of what I felt at the time, though I wasn’t able to articulate it. Because she just fled from me. I do hope, in the long run, she got something out it.
And kudos to you for picking up the right-handedness. I didn’t want to just out and out say it. The reader has to do SOME work, you know?
I knew instantly as I read that part, from personal experience, why the left side was more damaged. There are some violent bastards out there, and unfortunately I am closely related to one, and dated a few others.
But anyhow. Enough of that. Now how about some happy HOT GIRL LEGS? Woo hoo! (:
Seriously. For me, there are few things sexier than a woman wearing a man’s button-up shirt with her bare legs sticking out of it. Just kills me.
Very nice piece. The juxtaposition of the two images: love and violence; a strange and poignant vignette, combined. I feel terrible for the housewife.
For some reason, I suppose because of the public transit connection, I am reminded of the time I saw a woman with elephantitis on the bus in the Bronx. I was tutoring high school students while getting my graduate degree at NYU, and it took me a twenty-minute bus ride from the subway station to get to the school. There were always strange characters, but this day, the woman with elephantitis. I couldn’t not look at her, but I tried not to. She had put on lip gloss, and she was going about her daily business very nonchalantly. I admired her.
Yes, good for her! Especially given how cruel and nasty people can be, especially towards something like elephantitis. Ignorance, and the rudeness it generates, is like a damned cockroach, and the only way to stamp on it is to keep your head held high.
Glad you liked the set-up of this; I was afraid it wouldn’t work, and can only thank whatever sense of synchronicity keeps the universe rolling along that these two events happened together.
Sorry, train, I meant, not bus. I always rode the bus in L.A. so I think my mental picture automatically went there as I read this.
You might want to have a second look. I certainly don’t see any error 😉
Magic!!! I love magic tricks!! 🙂
Nicely done. Thanks for the read.
Thank you, Sheree. Nice to see you back around these parts!
I feel similarly about the awkward and ugly collision of worlds outside my office. I work on one of the upper stories of a building with a mall downstairs. After locking my bicycle, I was about a block past window displays that feature showy frocks, cute kicky shoes and neat patio stuff. Awesome perfume advertisements and a wine boutique…
…my office provides a service to people who are no longer capable of managing their own affairs, which means we have a large congregation of homeless, nearly homeless and otherwise at-risk clients crowding the doors before we open each morning, and lingering on the sidewalk through the day. I often catch myself strolling along going, “la la la hey cute shoes mmmmm adorable purse whoa niiiiiiiice fancy chardonnay…oh…homeless dude to step around…”
The tension between feeling drawn to material goods and beauty, repelled by a stinky pee-smelling guy, but also knowing his name and what his drop-in schedule happens to be. And, the awkward moment caught admiring something materially beyond my needs or means, and then realising that likewise, the lunch in my satchel is beyond the means but definitely within the needs of the man at my feet.
Like your gorgeous pair of legs on the subway, the romance-ravaged heart in your own chest at that point in time, and the woman who maybe had fallen down the stairs, maybe been hit on her bike, maybe been mugged from behind, or maybe pummelled by someone she loved(loves).
That sounds like a primo recipe for a massive case of cognitave dissonance. It’s sad that most people just manage to Photoshop the homeless out of their perspective wherever they might encounter them.
I have a rule when it comes to dealing with them: if they ask me for money because they’re hungry, I offer to by them a meal. If they turn that down, well then….
Hmmm…I think I must’ve done a cruddy job reading my own comment for “understandability”…that’s not really how I meant it at all…but…that’s how comments go sometimes, right?
Lovely piece, Matt. Very vivid and evocative writing.
You did the right thing. You are very kind and your heart shines through in this piece, just as radiant as the young couple at the front of the train.
Life can be ugly sometimes, but people make it beautiful. Compassion and kindness such as yours shine the light in dark places.
Thank you, darlin’.
I guess I’m the kindest, shiny-heartedest bastard who ever put three men in the hospital.
I just wish more people put a tad more effort into trying to make life a little more beautiful. It really isn’t that hard.
Amazing what one observes on a single train ride.
I think I write myself into situations all the time. Probably much more than I should. However, I think that sometimes it’s a good idea to write yourself into a situation, even if you don’t interact with the situation; one gains self-awareness rather well if done with careful consideration.
“Leg men” seem rare. Hmpf! Maybe I should get back into ice hockey and nab the eyes of a “leg man”…
I think I told you this, but I must now make sure I don’t miss any of your writing ever again.
Thank for coming by, Jen.
People-watching can certainly be an interesting past time, for sure. And I love rail travel just for it’s own sake.
I’m sure there are plenty of closet leg men out there who simply don’t own up to it.
If you click on my name below the title, it’ll take you to my archive. There might be a thing or two in there you like.
I don’t think you should feel bad for offering a handkerchief. I think it shows that there’s still some humanity out there, and I doubt that she left more injured because of it. I saw a woman like that on the train here a couple of weeks ago and I just felt awful for her. I couldn’t help but be thankful that that wasn’t my life. For all the complaining I do about my state of affairs, there are so many people out there in worse condition than me.
Also, glad you could see that young couple and be happy for them. Me, I’m always bitter when I see other people looking so goddam happy with a sig-o…especially when it’s my ex and his new gf. I REALLY hope that changes soon though. It’s been far too long for me to be this bitter.
It’s not that I feel bad, per se…it’s that I fear I might have crossed some particular social boundary. More than once I’ve done something I thought was a nice gesture, only to inadvertantly make myself look like a huge asshole in the process. I’ve never been entirely sure how those wires get crossed so badly. At what point is altruism really about the ego?
Yeah, I’m not bitter. A tad jealous, maybe, but not bitter. And there is little chance I’ll come across my ex, as she moved back to Louisiana not long after we split. Kind of enjoying being single, actually…it’d just be nice to have someone to help keep the bed warm from time-to-time.
I hope this doesn’t come off as painting your actions in any sort of negative light but I have two kids running around screaming so I’m not choosing my phrasing as carefully as I’d like.
I think your experience with the beaten woman speaks to the belief that there are truly no selfless acts. Further, that we all from time to time reach out to commit these (what we believe are) selfless acts for some reason, i.e. want for the feeling of doing good, feeling of redemption, etc. I believe in acts of kindness, which you displayed and I’m sure do often throughout your days, but I don’t believe in selfless acts. The problem comes when we want to display kindness but in order to do so must create ourselves as characters in stories that we have no business being in.
Whatever the circumstance, be it mugging, domestic violence, even construction crane collapse, had been through hell. The physical damage being done, the emotional was obviously still taking its toll on her.
You recognized her pain, filled in the narrative around her, then your thoughts immediately turned to what you should do, what you could do to help her. I have no doubt that your intentions were of pure heart in wanting to help her, not in wanting to distinguish yourself from the masses who were trying their damnedest to pretend nothing was wrong.
I guess I’ve always just been fascinated that I’m me, you’re you, he’s him, etc. and that I can only ever know my life, my experiences, and my thoughts. Therefore, with most situations I witness or people I encounter, in some ways it does become all about me. It’s all I know. Kind of like how I just made your experience all about me. See how easy that is? (Sorry, just lost my train of thought after having to take a ten-minute coloring break.)
Having to make yourself a character in this poor woman’s story in order to reach out and offer her kindness in no way lessens what you did. I certainly understand why it unsettled you and made you feel that perhaps you had perhaps even made things worse but, as was said above, perhaps later she realized the kindness you showed her and it did help her. Perhaps if more people throughout her day showed her the kindness you did, well assuming the worst that she was in fact the victim of domestic violence, she could finally feel the strength and support to change her situation.
Oh, and any act chivalry these days is no half-assed act, as the bar has become so much lower in recent years.
I guess if you’re buddhist, there is, by definition, one selfless act. The pratyekabuddha, who refuses the grace of nirvana in order to help others along that path, of which Shakyamuni was the first.
No offense taken, and I think we’re pretty much in agreement. Being someone who doesn’t believe in absolute evil or absolute good, I’ve never been of the mind that there i such a thing as pure selflessness. So I’m left to wonder about what part of acts of compassion is really about the individual performing them–in this case, me.
There’s all sorts of research popping up these days about biological and instinctual determinantes for altruism in the various apes, including Homo Sapiens, on they way the body rewards such behavior with dopamine and how it’s then reinforced by the group dynamic. The group benefits, thus I benefit. Chimps, for example, will ostracize a member of the troop who behaves too selfishly.
Not that this makes it a bad impulse to follow; I’m pretty sure an act of kindness, even one whole or partially generated from a selfish impulse, is better than apathy.
But either way, it’s certainly worth thinking about.
Man. This was altogether joyous and heartbreaking. Wonderful work, Matt.
High praise indeed.
Thank you, Rich.
I loved everything about this piece, Matt. So beautifully written.
My favorite part, “Her eyes flicked up for a second and met mine, a thin meniscus of tears coating them. I wish I knew what she saw—or thought she saw–in my face in the few seconds before she looked away again. Did she feel self-conscious or ashamed, knowing I’d recognized her injuries for what they were?”
I love that you wondered what she saw in you at that moment. Did she see you as kind or as a shallow ass-hole? I think she saw you as kind and her pulling away from you had nothing to do with you at all. She will probably cringe at every man. Can you blame her?
PS- Despite my curvy, womanly shape, I’m very much a t-shirt and jeans kind of girl. Everyday, I put a fresh, clean bandana in the back, right pocket of my jeans. I like it when a man carries one, as well. You never know when you might need one for something.
They’re so handy to have. So many uses: use as an impromptu kleenex or napkin, a makeshift bandage, hair accessory, cleaning item….
I actually got in the habit of carrying one while I was living in N.O. Perfect for wiping the sweat off with in summer when the weather takes a turn towards being muggy. And when I was working in nightclubs, I’d use it to tie my then-long hair back with.
It’s a really difficult line to walk: are you being a concerned citizen? Or an intrusive busibody?
I like to think it was the former more than the latter. But I’ll never really know, will I?
I was walking through Melbourne once, after a work party. It was about three in the morning, I was walking towards the CBD, and suddenly, a cab pulled up out of nowhere and into the curb. The driver got out, ran around, opened the passenger door, and demanded the woman sitting there get out. He grabbed her bag and threw it after her, jumped back in the cab, and drove off.
She sat on the side of the street and started collecting everything from her bag, the contents scattered on the pavement. I went over and started to help, trying to talk to her about what the hell had just happened. I kept asking ‘Are you OK’, while she loudly talked over me in a twisted kind of voice, and then she stopped and started staring at my face.
With some experience in these things – or rather, being young and stupid and thinking I knew more about the world than I did – I said ‘OK. What are you on? I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what it is you’ve taken?’
‘Nothing,’ she finally said. I shook my head. The garbled speech, the blank stare, getting thrown out of a taxi… all hallmarks of being higher than a kite. ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘I don’t care. What have you taken?’
As it turned out, she was telling the truth. She was deaf. She’d had a few drinks and lost her hearing aid and the taxi driver had subsequently lost his patience.
This was a well-written piece, Matt. Well set up, well-worded, and perfect in length and construction for what it was. And you may be exactly right in your hypothesis of what happened to the woman, and that’s a crying shame. That kind of violence can never be sanctioned or condoned in a free society. It just can’t.
But why an abusive husband or boyfriend? Why not a mugger? A barfight between her and another woman? A brutal beating at the hands of her lesbian partner? The woman herself could have tried to mug someone and suffered the consequences – all that shit can, and does happen. Why not a car accident, and her sense of shame left by her knowledge that, alone among the passengers, she stood out like a sore thumb due to her injuries?
I wasn’t there, and I don’t know your expertise in these things. You may be right in every note. But I think it’s dangerous to make assumptions based on such little evidence. Just as I think it’s dangerous to say ‘Don’t leave the fuckers alive.’ I have to disagree with a comment like that.
But I do think it’s incumbent on us to help others. Because at the far end of the spectrum, you end up with Kitty Genovese all over again.
And whatever the cause, if I was in pain, I’d wouldn’t mind someone trying to help me. You did a good thing.
Again. A good piece.
(Also: yes. Legs are awesome).
Simon, sure enough the woman Matt saw may’ve been the victimiser who got caught out or involved in other scenarios. It is good you pointed that out. We need to expand our reservoir of reactions to such scenarios.
Further thinking leads me to some reasons why we *do* react as we do.
We’re all victims, in a sense, bcuz in such situations we’re predisposed to assumptions based upon our own experiences. Further, when faced with the evident effects of physical violence, we understandably react with strong emotions which we grapple with. It can lead sometimes, as in Matt’s case, to an active response (which, BTW, I thought was wonderful).
P’raps, in after-moments of recollection and reflection, our reactions might change, but in the few moments of initial shock, the cards are stacked against thorough thinking.
An example. Waiting for a physical therapist, I noted a p’raps 30 yr old man with a gouge a couple inches wide and deep down his leg. It was strikingly grotesque and upsetting to see; I couldn’t come up with how it might have happened. There were only the two of us in the waiting room, so I said: “What happened to your leg?” He said he’d been shot by a burglar as he tried to arrest him in the parking lot outside the burgled shop, and he’d had surgery to fix the damage to his leg. I was so close to crying, and said: “Oh God I’m so sorry! All of your efforts to do the right thing—for us, really—and this is what happens to you! Thank you for your courage.” His wonderfully upbeat response calmed me down, and we chatted until I went into the p.t.’s room. I never considered that he might have lied, or even that he himself might have been a burglar shot by a police officer. I considered that my life may often have been spared by police officers such as him trying to stop people run amok. I still think that way about that situation, but your suggestion has opened me to free myself from stereotypic assumptions.
An example underlining that: I recently fell down several irregularly-worn stone stairs in a castle, landing on my side and the side of my face. With a purply-black eye and bruises, for weeks I looked like the victim of an abuser, and I got used to people’s wide-eyed stares. No one ever asked me anything, even though I sometimes wished they would so that I could assure them I hadn’t been abused! Having read Matt’s post, I think that if I’d been abused I’d have behaved just like the woman he saw.
There was a joke I heard from time-to-time when I was living in New Orleans: How do you spell ‘cabdriver’ in Creole(or Cajun or Yat, depending on who was telling the joke)?
That really sucks. My stepsister’s deaf, and was prone to losing her hearing aids, so I have an idea of what that woman was going through. Good for you for trying to help her, despite being a bit of a naive jackass–goodness knows, I’ve been there myself. Plenty of times.
You’re absolutely correct that I may have been completely in the wrong, despite what my instincts or training might have told me; hence my own internal discord over what I’d tried to do. How much was I just creating a scenario in which I got to play the hero?
Same too with the young couple. For all I know they weren’t a happy couple at all, just a pair of cheaters escaping off for some illicit frisky business while their significant others were in class.
It’s dangerous to make assumptions. And sometimes very difficult not to.
(Seriously, they rule. There needs to be an International Leg Appreciation Day. United Nations, get on it!)
Every person that the injured woman saw that day, saw her for her injuries.
And the leg-men saw the leg-woman for her legs.
Hey hey hey!
To quote Will Entrekin, I refuse to feel guilty about anything that gives me pleasure! I know Greg’s got my back on this!
Just making an observation.
No need for guilt – not my point at all.
Oh, I know. It was a bit late for me, too, and I was goofing around.
Not crickets; chainsaws, as in, the sound of me snoring. Your comment was left after bedtime.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoyment, and you shouldn’t feel guilty, but Steph’s point is a good one. I’ll add that the difference between the two women is that the leggy coed most likely didn’t mind displaying her gams, while the injured woman, whatever the nature of her injury (as per Simon’s comment), I’m sure did not want anyone to see her in that condition.
Sarah is right — this is like one of those New Yorker cartoons where you fill in the captions. Or an inkblot at a psychology test. What do you see here? So the piece has to be about you, as the filler-in of the captions, the interpreter of inkblots. (This is hinted at in the piece, as your prediction that Legs will get off at the school is dead wrong; it’s the other way around.)
What if it were a woman writing the story.
She’s on a bus and sees a hot guy with hot biceps or what have you, and she’s
a bicep woman. She ponders hitting on him. Then seated next to her is a very injured man, who
looks like he’s been beat up. She wants to help him but feels awkward about it. It just doesn’t hold the same weight, does it? Just something to ponder.
@Steph – no, it doesn’t. Not one bit. But I have to say I am curious as to how exactly that scenario would play out.
@Greg – One of the narrative digressions I cut out was a condsideration of just that point. How much is genuine altruism, and how much is the creation of a story in which I (or whomever) gets to play the hero. How much is selflessness and how much is intrusive narcissism? Tough question to answer.
Excellently written, Matt. Very delicately handled with the injured woman, and you attempt to comfort her i some way was noble.
It’s interesting, the conclusion you drew from the woman’s injuries, and I would have most likely come to the same one, as many others would have. And I have to wonder why.
I think Simon makes an excellent point because it illustrates that we, as people, sometimes assume things automatically.
Why have we been conditioned to perceive certain scenarios based on what we see? Is it because of the stereotypical victim roles on popular TV shows like CSI, Coldcase or Law & Order? Is it because of growing up on movies like The Accused, The Burning Bed and Extremities?
Is it because we, as men, share a collective guilt for centuries of female suffering, oppression, domination?
I also think Stephanie’s comment is very telling of the male psyche. Had the injured woman been in a bikini, I wonder what everyone would have thought. Would we they have even noticed the bruises, or would they have thought, “Why is that battered woman in a bikini? Sooooooo inappropriate.”
When I was a kid, my mom once tripped on an uneven curb in Manhattan outside our building. She didn’t react in time and did a face-plant in the gutter. One side of her face was badly bruised and lacerated.
A few days afterward, my mom and dad and I got in the elevator to go up to our apartment and before the doors had shut, a couple of other people got in with us, each one eyeing her.
Because of mother’s wicked sense of humor coupled with the sheer joy she experiences in irking my father, in front of all the elevator passengers, and in an unmistakably accusatory tone, she growled at my him, “How could you!”
We still laugh about that.
Speaking only for myself, my assumption sprung from both my martial arts training and the three years I spent employed with a police department. Even as a civilian, there were certain things they taught us about spotting/understanding a victim. So I know pretty damn well what a the aftereffects of a punch to the face look like.
Doesn’t mean I was right, though, as my perspective is doubtlessly colored by my own experiences with violent abuse. For all I know she’d picked a bar fight. Unlikely, but possible.
It’s tough, too, to figure out where the line between civic responsibility and busibody intrusiveness lies. Is there one?
Also: that’s a hysterical story about your family.
I’m not saying you were wrong at all. In fact, like I said, I would probably have drawn the same conclusion, and your experience would make you a lot more qualified.
I was just making an inquiry as to why, in all likelihood, would draw that conclusion automatically. It was more a commentary about social conditioning.
Your experience would make you much more informed. In fact, you should probably be a consultant for any of the shows I mentioned.
“Is it because we, as men, share a collective guilt for centuries of female suffering, oppression, domination?”
I have all of about ten minutes in which to read and comment but that should be adequate time to get all huffy ;). Jordan, I am opting out of your class-action guilt, my friend. I don’t believe in collectivism. I didn’t buy that bullshit about original sin no matter how often the nuns smacked me around and I only feel guilt for the wrongs I have committed personally. Granted I have quite the laundry list of said wrongs but I have never oppressed or dominated womankind. “Suffering” is open to interpretation, given the stress I’ve put various coworkers and HR types through over the years. And, of course, my wife has to live with me, so….
But I don’t share well. And that includes guilt.
Well, Anon, I’m not necessarily there is a collective guilt. I’ve never been a party to oppression or abuse, but, like you I have guilt over things I have done.
What I’m getting at is to understand why people (myself included, but not all people) would automatically perceive the bruised as someone who had been abused, rather than thinking of another scenario, as Simon had suggested.
I always find social conditioning fascinating, and am just looking to dig a little deeper.
As for a collective guilt, it may not exist. But maybe it does for some.
I suppose it all depends on the individual perceiver’s past experience, as Matt had stated above about his own.
And good on you for not caving for the nuns!
Re: the nuns – they can take my knuckles… but they’ll never take… MY FREEDOM!!! 🙂
I agree with you (and others) about perception. We see things are we are, as the saying goes, not as they are. It’s natural and usually takes a bit of effort to think outside our most familiar patterns, an effort that usually eludes you when you have limited time to respond or react. I’ve got a few of those “lost in the moment” stories myself but this is neither the time nor the place (plus it’ll give me something to write about in the months ahead :D).
Hey-all sorry if I haven’t addressed your comments yet–I had a packed evening schedule, and it’s now quite late and I need to get to bed. I’ll be with you again first thing in the morning.
Very well written, Matt. Good stuff.
Life sometimes throws its most depressing elements in your face. I work in a country with an astonishingly high rate of domestic abuse, child abuse, animal abuse… basically, a violent place.
At my old school the kids would come in with cuts, bruises and whatnot. Not just normal kid stuff. The sort of thing that’s socially acceptable to do to children here… I asked my co-workers to translate for me, and found out that one girl – who had a giant cut running down her thigh – had been beaten with her clarinet for not learning fast enough.
But people don’t go to jail here for child abuse. The police don’t care. You can’t intervene. Short of hunting down her mother, father and grandparents, and killing them myself, there’s nothing to do. The teachers beat the kids, their parents beat them… even older people on the street.
And that’s acceptable here. Totally acceptable.
Two years ago I met a creepy little man and his Filipino wife. Lots of Korean guys by Filipino wives. He spoke reasonable English, but he made my skin crawl, and I walked away from him pretty quick. Only later did I realise how silent his wife had been. But again, that’s what happens here.
A month later I was reading a newspaper and I saw them in it. The wife had stabbed him to death after years of abuse. Apparently he’d beaten her so bad she defended herself by killing him.
Of course, that’s unacceptable in Korea. She went to jail and was portrayed as a filthy immigrant by the press. In the biggest newspaper in the country, it actually said that she (and all foreigners) came from a violent culture and didn’t understand Korean society.
Of all the horrifying stories you’ve told about Korean culture, David, that one may just be the worst. The goddamn callousness of treating children in that manner angers me beyond words.
As Simon said above, this sort of violence (against anyone), legal or otherwise, cannot be condoned in a free society.
I’m told that it’s improving… but people still tell me to shut up when I complain that it’s unacceptable, nonetheless. Improvement is great, but when you stopping pushing people to change, they’ll stop changing.
You know, I’ve always wondered if there’s anything helpful a person can do in that situation — when you see someone who clearly needs help, but you don’t know them at all and it’s just a matter of seconds before they will exit your life. You want to reach out to them and say something like “It’s going to be ok,” or “You deserve better…” but what the hell is that going to do? I can only hope that maybe by getting the broken jaw and going to the doctor to get it treated she found a way out. That happens sometimes when things get bad enough that medical or legal folks come into the picture. Really great writing, Matt. Powerful contrast here.
“Is this going to make any difference?” is always the question I wrestle with at times like these. And sometimes, it’s really a moral gray zone–does the desire to perform a kind act actually cause more harm than good in the long run.
I do hope she was able to get some help, at least.
And that the young couple was there to bouy my spirits a bit afterwards.
Ouch. This was just all kinds of pain–single-ness in the face of good legs, punched up face, inability to help….
If I had been there and been drunk enough, I’d have broken out the tears by the time I saw the radiant couple.
Or of joy?
Relief. Rampant relief that there was still something good in the world.
So potent and beautifully written. It’s pretty remarkable how it all unfolded… and how fortunate that you were able to catch a glimpse and take in the radiance and love just after that sadness.
Rachel’s back! Huzzah!
I’m just happy they were there. I think I would have felt like crap for the rest of the day if they hadn’t been there.
Lovely, Matt. I think I don’t actually have anything to say about it other than that.
Works for me! Thanks, QB.
I love the fact that you can take a short bus journey and craft it into a beautiful, poignant and heart-wrenching story. Nice writing Matt.
A few days ago I wandered down a Las Vegas street and happened upon a building I remembered from when I lived in the city before. After a moment of staring, the memory came back to me. A girl and a guy were going through what looked like a breakup outside that building. I had been across the street getting gas. She kept following the guy down the sidewalk and he kept screaming not to follow him. Yet she continued. Suddenly he turned on her and smashed the back of her head on a pole. He continued on his way. She sat down, dazed.
Your story just illustrates that such sad violence is common… sad.
That’s terrible. I’ve been through some tough break-ups, but never one that involved any sort of blunt trauma.
So many parts of the post and comments I want to reply to, but so, so scattered.
I’m glad you clicked the dreaded “publish” button. I’m glad you wrote about the experience so delicately and honestly. The framing and imagery work incredibly well, and your comment about victim pathology was spot-on. Sometimes you can try to do everything to intervene, and it’s just as ineffective and excruciating as doing nothing at all. You can give and give and give all the sympathy and help and education you have, but it comes down to how much they’re willing to accept. My mom’s ex assaulted her when I was 13, and I tried pulling him off her, hitting him, unsuccessfully calling 911 (fucking dial-up internet days, man), begging family to convince her to get help because she wasn’t listening to me, but she never reported it. What makes me sad is that she would have had his ass locked up in an instant if he ever laid a hand on me; like a lot of victims, she saw herself as worthy of so much less.
As far as what that woman saw when she glanced up at you, even if her system flooded with shame the moment she felt outed by your sympathy, she’ll eventually feel grateful, and more importantly, she’ll hopefully realize that she’s worth more than silence and a brutal beating, that people care about her, even the stranger on the bus offering her a handkerchief.
Also, I’m completely on board with International Leg Appreciation Day, even though I’m more of an upper arm girl…it’s all about the bicep/tricep/deltoid combo!
I was honestly convinced this piece was utter doggerel and would tank. I even had a friend read an earlier draft to boost my morale to go ahead; if that response had been negative, this essay would have found itself relegated to the Recycle File. And yet it’s turned out to be the most popular piece I’ve ever put up here. Strange world.
That’s a terrible story about your mom’s ex–and, having been privy to my own forms of familial abuse, believe every word of it. What I’ve never, ever understood is the notion of familial acceptance that comes with it. Tawni commented on a previous post of mine (about my own abusive childhood) how people will let a family member get away with behavior they wouldn’t think twice about calling the police on if it was committed by a stranger. Dad smacks Mom around? Family business. Stranger at the grocery store smacks Mom around? Call the cops!
It sickens me utterly, and is one the huge reasons why I am no longer on speaking terms with most of my family.
Yeah, upper arms are nice, too, but there’s something about the curve of a nice calf or the firm muscles of a thigh that make me feel like a nigh-pubescent preteen just discovering that girls are, in fact, quite awesome all over again.
Thank you for this, Mr. Baldwin. Well-wrought juxtaposition of images–evocative, difficult, beautiful piece. . .
Matt, since I’m late in commenting (due to things getting in the way), everyone has already said most of the things I would’ve said, and now I’m at a loss for words.
Great piece! Loved the contrast you created with the two girls, their stories and your thoughts.
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