Our small group of self-labeled radical, lesbian, feminists in college had a friend we never expected to gather into our tiny and preciously held circle. His name was Isaac, but he asked his friends to call him Izz. No one did. He was practically the only man we let anywhere near us, and it was an odd choice. Isaac, in truth, was not well liked by any of us. His manners sat on a scale somewhere between socially unacceptable and appallingly rude.
He assumed people disliked him because of his enormous body and disfigured face, and then behaved in a way that would make any reasonable person avoid further contact. We joked about petitioning Webster to put a picture of him in the dictionary under the definition of self-fulfilling prophecy, human form. We shuddered when we saw him coming—afraid to be his next target. In spite of the political convictions that made us brave on a public stage discussing the need to dismantle the Patriarchy, none of us confronted Isaac about his behavior for fear he would be mean to us.
He and Ruth, my lover at the time, sat next to one another in a sociology class, and he just started coming around, ferreting us out in every corner of our small liberal arts campus. He’d show up at our lunch table. He’d show up when we were studying. One day, he decided we were friends, and so that was, apparently, that.
Julia and I sat in our dorm lounge, after a particularly awkward lunch. “Why does he like us so much?” she said. “I wish I understood how we earned his favor because I’d love to undo it.”
Isaac had argued with our friend Holly about whether being a vegetarian was really healthier or if it was something self-absorbed people did to be noticed, and she cried. “If you ask me, it’s an outlandish choice of the attention-seeking,” he bellowed at Holly’s back as she walked away from our table, saying she had to prepare for her next class.
That same week, our little enclave started eating in the second of two on campus cafeterias in an effort to regain our privacy, and Isaac found us after three days. There weren’t many locations to dine on campus, so it was obvious where we were, but our little hint was lost on him.
Julia offered her take. “He doesn’t worry about being judged or feeling unattractive around us. He must like that we’re all considered a bunch of misfits ourselves.”
“No one cares what he looks like,” I said. “I just wish he’d stop offending people every time he speaks.”
Then they disappeared into the streets of Boston, and my life became quietly chaotic and unrecognizable.
Isaac was a big man in both directions; he stood over six feet tall and weighed close to three hundred pounds. He sported what he referred to as a “Jew-fro” that he would comb out and construct a side part, making his head look like it had two enormous black triangles on either side of his face. Most shocking was a large scar on his forehead that looked like a small child had thrown a lump of clay at his face that stuck, and eventually someone sewed skin over it in an attempt to cover it up. The curl of his lip mimicked an animal baring its teeth, and I always knew when I saw it that Isaac was about to pounce.
Once, he and I were eating lunch at a little diner in town when the waitress arrived. “We have some great specials today. I just had the homemade pesto dish for lunch and it’s really good.” She paused. “It’s a nice big portion, too.”
Isaac smiled, his lip taking on the tell-tale curl. “Oh, so it’s a nice portion, you say? I must look like someone who needs a lot of food. Do you think that’s a polite thing to say to a fat man who is about to pay money to eat in your restaurant?” His voice rose to mimicked falsetto. “Oh kind sir, you must want the fat man’s special.”
The waitress’s jaw tightened. “Really, I was talking to both of you. I’ve repeated the same thing today at least fifty times already. My brother’s a big guy, and I’d never say something mean like that,” the waitress said, her eyes wide and moist. “The portion sizes are big here. It’s just a simple fact for both of you to consider.”
“Do you think my little friend here, who weighs about 100 pounds, is also looking for a really big serving? Wow, that lie came so easily. That’s a real talent, I’d say.” He gave a stuttered little laugh.
I’d seen this happen before and knew it would go on for a while--Isaac challenging his victim, which would prompt more conversation and further perceived slights. I considered saying, “Come on Isaac, she didn’t mean it,” but instead, looked away until I heard his breathing slow down.
“Hey, did you hear Julia got into graduate school,” I said, changing the subject the way one does with a toddler. “I think she’s going to pick Stanford.” The entire time we were eating – I had ordered the pesto and it was a huge portion—I swore to myself I would never eat lunch with him again. But the next time he called me to get together, the refusal remained lodged in my throat, as I knew it would.
Isaac and I drifted apart after we graduated, although we now both lived in Boston, only a few T-stops away from each other. Two years later, I was living with three college roommates, and our apartment was broken into when I was the only one home. On a night that would define so much of the next two decades of my life, I was raped repeatedly by two men, and almost killed in the end. I was blindfolded and never saw them, so I guess that’s why they decided not to use the knife they used to slice open our back screen door to stab me. After tying a scarf tightly around my mouth, they bound my hands and feet together with a phone cord. Then they disappeared into the streets of Boston, and my life became quietly chaotic and unrecognizable.
My three roommates and I left the apartment the next morning, never to return, crashing with anyone who had a spare couch. I stayed with a dear friend a few blocks down from my old apartment.
I could barely breathe most days, and I wasn’t sure if and when I would ever feel like myself again.
Word spread quickly among my cohort of friends from college, even those I had lost touch with. They tried hard to make it better, to be in touch, to see what they could do to help me find an apartment or a real permanent job again—not just temp work--when I was ready.
Isaac showed up in my life and would not be deterred. He called me incessantly to make plans, demanding I see him. If I had let him, he might have moved into my friend’s apartment and slept on my bedroom floor like a giant sentry keeping guard. I had no idea how to say a simple “No” to him, so I said, “yes, OK, sure, come on over” whenever he called.
He would insult my friend, Alice, within moments of his arrival at her place.
“You look awfully pleased to see me. And hello to you, too.”
“Hello Isaac. I’m not sure what that remark means exactly but let’s just move on, shall we. Michelle, your company is here! Come quick.”
I always made the next date with Isaac when he visited, just so he wouldn’t have to call the apartment, since he was just as bad on the phone: “I do hope Michelle gets the message that I called. Messages from me have a way of getting lost.”
One day, Isaac and I were sitting on a stoop, waiting for the Brookline Booksmith independent book store to open, and I said, “Isaac, can we talk?” My plan was to tell him he needed to stop attacking my friends, or I wasn’t going to see him anymore, but the thought of having an angry man in my presence made my nerve endings tingle and my breath shallow. Isaac looked at me and seemed to know what might be coming next.
He started to curl his lip and clench his fists, but then stopped, sighed and relaxed. With some effort, he reached around to his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, opening it to show me a picture of a beautiful young man on the inside. The boy was thin, with trimmed black hair. He looked around eighteen, and he was staring out sideways at the camera with his chin tilted up. His forehead was clear, his eyes sparkling, and he was smiling.
“Who is that?”
He looked at the picture for several minutes, not answering.
It’s me,” Isaac finally said, in a soft voice, startling in how empty of anger it sounded. He spoke so quietly, I had to lean in to listen.
“I was in high school. I was a great student, got the lead in the school plays, and had a wonderful family. One day, around the holidays, I started getting headaches and my mom thought it was just stress. They got worse so my parents brought me to the doctor. Sometimes, the pain was so bad, I would cry.” I listened, trying to picture him when he was the boy in the wallet.
“Turns out, I had a brain tumor and the doctors told my parents I was most likely going to die. It was usually fatal, the kind I had. We all thought I was going to be a famous actor or singer. Our family had a future pictured and I was front and center, playing a lead role.” He laughed and wiped his face with his hands, never taking his eyes off of the photo. “I had brain surgery and I spent months getting treatments. This scar is partly from the radiation and partly from surgery.” He sighed. “Well, obviously, I lived. My family was so happy, especially after months of trying to prepare for my death. As far as they were concerned, it was over and they were ecstatic.
“But it wasn’t over for me. It wasn’t that I thought the tumor was going to come back. It’s just that I didn’t know how to live after waiting to die. I gained a lot of weight and my family couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happier.” He looked at me with a gentleness I didn’t know he was capable of. Instead of the usual jagged anger in his face, there was pain, and it softened him. “I didn’t know what to do once I was going to live. I pushed everyone away. I still do. Not dying kind of ruined my life.
“Take a lesson from me. I know I’m not always nice to be around. Do whatever you can to feel better. You’re just too sweet to get lost in what happened to you.” He leaned on my shoulder and I let him. “You’ve had quite a blow. Don’t let it destroy you. It can, and it would make sense if it did, but please don’t let it.”
Isaac put the picture away and smiled at me, a soft shy smile. I held his gaze. For a brief moment, I felt something I couldn’t quite identify sitting next to the fear I carried around, like a backpack full of bricks—sadness, maybe, mixed with a modicum of hope. It was just a sliver, but it was there.
He was an unlikely guardian angel, but there he sat, completely exposed and full of love. The huge shadow he cast, which he saw as completely dark, held a small morsel of light just for me. If I didn’t think Isaac would misconstrue the gesture, I would have grabbed his hand, stroked his face, and walked silently around Boston with him all day and all night.
Not dying kind of ruined my life.
The next time I saw Isaac, the curl to his lip had returned, and we had a few unpleasant interactions with strangers throughout the day--in restaurants, on the street, and getting off the subway. Months later, after much pressure from my friends, I wrote him a letter, saying things I couldn’t tell him to his face, writing maybe it’s better if we don’t see each other for a while. He never contacted me again.
It took me years to recover from that violent assault. I couldn’t work; I felt scared pretty much all the time, and I watched with envy and bafflement as my friends moved on to the futures we had dreamed of together. Often, I felt like maybe I should surrender as I tried to live my unfamiliar life and pondered my disappointing prospects. Then, I would think of that boy in the old, worn wallet and decide I wanted a different future than his; I wanted to find the light even though I didn’t know how. I owed the boy in the wallet at least this much.
[Author Note: The names of the people have been changed.]
Michelle Bowdler is a recent alum of the Grub Street Memoir Incubator in Boston, and will be a Fellow at Ragdale Artist Colony in January 2018. She has been published in the New York Times, The Rumpus, and her piece “Eventually, You TELL Your Kids” (Left Hooks Literary Magazine) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has two upcoming essays in: We Rise to Resist – Voices from a New Era in Women’s Political Action, Dail & Wells editors (McFarland 2018) and was honored to be a recipient of the 2017 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award for Non-Fiction.
Michelle lives in Sudbury, MA with her wife and they have two college-aged children.