Friday, January 14, 2011


Professor James sits down at his kitchen table, slides a mug of tea in my direction, and says, “Thank you.”

Between us flickers the ghost of another man, not a wraith-like ghost, but the specter of too much strength: muscles that bulge to obscenity, a caricature of a man. But not dead. Not dead, not yet.

“Well, you know,” I stammer, “I don’t, I mean, I didn’t really do anything. It’s not like he even talks to me anymore. It’s just that everyone else was worried. I feel sort of…” I wrap my hands around the hot mug and looked down into the steam. “I feel disconnected from him. I didn’t really notice. It’s just that everyone else did, and they kept telling me about it, and I didn’t know what else to do. They’re all so worried about him.”

And tell the truth, I hadn’t worried at all. You meet a guy in orientation. Maybe he’s a little extreme. Maybe he works out way too much. Maybe he’s got a temper. OK, maybe he punched that guy in that bar, but that guy was a Nazi skinhead and totally had it coming. You think you know a guy. You think he’s your friend, someone you can sit down and have a beer with, play some X-Box, just unwind. And then a girl you don’t even like starts throwing herself at you, and you’re wondering, how do I let this girl down? So you go to your so-called friend, tell him your story, ask him for some advice.

And what does that guy do? He punches you in the face and tells you he’s got dibs on the chick. And you don’t even want her! And come to find she doesn’t like him. But you’ve still got a black eye; you’re still down one friend.

“Thank you anyway,” he says. “Thank you for the call to action. It’s—it’s a very sensitive subject for me. My brother went through the same thing, and I’ve never understood it. I knew there was a problem. I saw it too. Just wasn’t ready to confront it. Just let myself not deal with it.”

Me too. I was done dealing with it. But, say five other dudes come up to you and say, “Jeez, what’s up with Steve? Is he on steroids or what? Man, he looks sick. I think he needs help.” What are you going to do? Even if you don’t care about him as a person, as a moral guy, you tell someone, right? You get him some help.

“I’m sorry,” I say. Professor James seems so tough, too. Really tough. Not in a fake, steroid way. Tough like a guy who chops enough firewood to last out a Michigan winter, and then goes up north and chops firewood for his mom. Tough like a guy who never starts bar fights, just finishes them. He’s the last person, you figure, who’d turn his back on something like this.

“Don’t be sorry,” he says to me. “You may have just saved a man’s life.”

“What happens now?”

“The department head will take care of it. Don’t worry. He’ll get the help he needs.”

What happens now is that the department rescinds his assistantship and recommends that he receive psychiatric treatment. What happens now is that, even though you never tell anyone about this conversation and no one should realistically know that you’re the rat, you still get punched in the face. Again. Same eye. And one more thanks. “Thanks for screwing up my life.”