essays

A puff of chalk

The other day, I was at the climbing gym when a man rushed by me, slammed down a large bag of chalk on the floor, and hurried on and disappeared from sight. I was standing on the backside of the bouldering structure when this happened, and I realized that the man had done it in order to indicate something to his girlfriend, who stood right by me.

Additionally, I think the man chose this location because it was outside of the main view of the gym, a place where only his girlfriend would have seen him had I not been standing there. The girlfriend continued to stand upright after the man left, some of the chalk he had slammed to the floor spinning into the air in dizzying, congestive whirls. From my perspective, the girlfriend seemed to be shuddering, either in fear, disbelief, her own anger, or some combination thereof.

As I looked at the girlfriend’s backside and the now-dissipating chalk, my own mind reeling with its own reactions, I muttered to myself, “You are with an abusive man.” It was at this point that I looked back in the direction of the rest of the gym, and I noticed that the man himself had parked there, near other gym members, and that he was eyeing me up and down very carefully. His gaze seemed to either threaten or dare me to go and talk to his girlfriend.

After a moment, the man packed up his things and left the gym, and the girlfriend traveled to a different corner of the bouldering structure, where she sat in contemplation. I had noticed both members of this couple earlier in my climbing session, and I had overheard them talking to another gym member who seemed to know them. The man was scruffy, with a long brown beard, tanned skin, and glasses; the woman was lean with dreadlocked red hair. From what I gathered, they seemed to be traveling cross-country together, probably an itinerant pair living out of their van. When the man took his things and departed the gym, it was my impression that he was going to get high.

I walked over to where the girlfriend now sat, planting myself on the edge of the gym’s mat and about ten feet from her, but intentionally facing a different direction. I thought about all the things I might say or do. Most of all, I just wanted to communicate to her that I had seen the way her boyfriend treated her and that this was not okay; I wanted to break the spell of whatever rationalization she might be undergoing while she sat alone, trying to calm herself. I thought of walking over and giving her a note that merely stated my number and said, “Call if you need help.” I thought of simply asking her, “Are you okay?”

In the end, I did nothing. I could say that I was scared of the man and how he had stared at me, but that is not quite true. I have intervened in situations like this before, and I do not think there would have been any danger in doing the same in this one; the worst that could have happened is that the girlfriend would deny the severity of the situation or chastise me, which would be uncomfortable. In truth, I simply did not have the energy, or courage; perhaps that is why I am writing this blog post, to comfort the part of me that knows I could have acted and feels regret.

I drove home thinking of many things about both members of this couple. When the man stared me down, he did not so much look intimidating; he looked terrified. In him, I know there is a morbidly wounded child, one who desperately wants to be seen for the positive qualities he no doubt possesses. Because as a child he likely was not seen for these—in fact, I am willing to bet they were punished or repressed—he now displays himself to his girlfriend in ways that are the opposite of his own better nature, thus reinforcing a negative self-image. As the man and I locked eyes, I saw a scared and hurt child, one turned animalistic from fear.

I thought of the woman, the parallel trauma that had no doubt brought her to this man, that no doubt now keeps her locked into relationship with him, telling herself stories about how he might change or how she might change him. Perhaps if she only acts differently, is less annoying or aggravating. Perhaps he will simply grow out of it, or if he gets help. He only acts this way when he is around certain people, and if only she can change his crowd, his influences, things will improve. Perhaps if he stops doing drugs. In her, I could feel the hope, inside hopelessness—the weird, inverted world that is a hole but feels like a tunnel while inside.

I pray for peace for all beings. I pray that fewer beings incur trauma that makes them react in small, hurt ways, which in turn makes them harm others. Witnessing events like this, I pray for courage for myself and others, for a lack of self-consciousness in us that allows us to step forward and separate the perpetrator from the victim, the wounder from the wounded. At the same time, I pray for the humility to know that in the scheme of things, no one falls purely into either category. I pray that as the chalk settles, we all know ourselves and know that we are deserving of nothing less than absolute love and dignity.

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