It happened again, not really sure the details, who was involved, or what even happened. I was on my way to Walmart with my friend Alice when she told me. She acted like she knew all about it.
“It’s just sad. When are we going to come to a time when people can stand up and be fully seen and not limited in how they protest. Can’t act up or they’ll label you a violent animal,” she said, shaking a finger at no one. “It just disgusts me. Nothing’s ever going to change.”
I gripped the wheel a bit tighter. Sweat dripped down my forehead. I grabbed for my water bottle and pulled it up to my mouth. I drank too fast and it spilled all over my face. Somehow, I felt more satisfied with the cool stream missing my mouth and playing against my cheeks, as though some semblance of an instinct remained from the days when we used to pull water from streams instead of bottles.
“I mean, isn’t it a little counterintuitive to get violent?” I said.
“It’s not violence,” she said. I could see her face scrunch up out of the corner of my eye. “It’s self-defense. It’s the other side that attacks. Don’t we have a right to defend ourselves?”
“Yeah definitely. But you said you wished they wouldn’t be limited in how they protest. What did you mean by that?”
“Well something’s gotta give eventually, no one’s going to let themselves be oppressed forever.”
We pulled into the parking lot and I turned up the radio, not sure what to say–oh look what you made me do, look what you just made me do—
There was a small group of people holding signs outside the store. They were being ushered away by a security guard as we approached. I glanced over at Alice and saw her seething.
“You can’t silence us! We matter too!” their leader told the guard.
“I know sir, you just can’t be in front of the store. You’re impeding people’s ability to enter, if you’ll please–“
“Don’t touch me! You can’t touch me!”
“Please sir if you’ll just move over here.”
Even without a word, I could hear Alice shouting “Are you fucking kidding me?!” And even though I knew she would never make a scene, I didn’t want her to play it off on me, so I stepped into the bathroom by the door before she could start.
The whole place was a mess. Etchings and markings along the walls, paper towels trailing from the trash can, the urinal smashed in some fury that will never be explained. And the toilet was filled with the worst waste of mankind, but I just held my nose and went on with my business.
When I came out, Alice stood waiting for me. She showed me a picture of her friend on Instagram and asked my opinion of her. I dodged the question and broke away, feigning a need for something.
Finally out of her sight, I wander into the book section. From the opposite side of a shelf, I overheard a man and a woman mid-argument and I made my way around the shelf with my eyes intently searching book-to-book so I could get a better vantage point. The man held two books up to the woman’s face.
“Which do you think?” he said. “We have to get them something. I’m not going to be the only one to show up without a gift.”
“Like I said, I don’t think we have to,” she said. “You know Trent’s not going to bring anything so–“
“Oh so you’re gonna take your social etiquette examples from Trent?” he said, dropping both books onto the wrong shelf. “You gonna drink too much at the party too? Be the only one to jump in the pool with your clothes on?”
“Trent’s fun. Everybody loves Trent,” she said.
“Everybody does not love Trent. We are not going to be like Trent.”
I found Alice comparing the labels of two different moisturizers. I couldn’t tell what helped push her to one side over the other, but I did notice that she grabbed the one that was more expensive.
“That’s everything I needed. Did you get your thing?” she said.
“No, they didn’t have it.”
When we left, the protesters were still there, but now an impromptu opposition group had assembled as well. One protester was face-to-face with one from the opposition, yelling insults about the man’s appearance. The man seemed to just take it quietly, but as we tried to pass, he let loose a single punch that knocked the other guy to the ground. This opened the season and many more people from the opposition jumped on the fallen man and began pummeling him.
“Stop, stop!” I screamed.
The protester on the ground curled into the fetal position and already I could see the blood. They looked like they might kill him. I fell on top of him, putting myself between his body and the blows. It took a moment for the assault to subside, but when it did, one of the opposition shouted at me.
“How can you betray your own people?”
Another said, “Yeah you traitor!”
They all took it up like a chorus.
I got up from the man. He quickly thanked me and ran off with a woman. The rest of his group remained, chanting “Hero!” against the opposing chants. Alice grabbed my arm and pulled me in the direction of the car. Thank god no one followed us. They had started shouting at each other again. Once we were in the car, it was Alice who broke the silence.
“What were you thinking?” she said. “They could have really hurt you.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I wasn’t really thinking.”
“Well maybe you should have,” she said. “Now what are they gonna think of you, sticking up for a guy like that?”
“Maybe you’re right.”
I put the car in reverse, but hesitated before backing out of the space. I was still shaken from the altercation. My eyes kept darting around and I was paranoid someone would come up and bang on the window or dart behind my car as I was backing out. I drove home.
Occasionally, Alice would say something, but I was too distracted watching every car on the road, every person, watching to see what they might do. I only remember her saying one thing. “Don’t you want to make a difference in the world?”
“I don’t know what I want,” I said. “But it’s not this.”