When I look back at my adult life thus far, I see it for what it is: a gradual evolution from a mind-numbingly immature idiot to a more handsome and slightly more experienced-but-still-immature idiot. At the tender age of 17, I was a young adult and at the very beginning of this evolution process. I was starting to come to terms with the realization that one day, I was going to be one of those Older People out there walking around, making Money, living in Apartments, and not talking about Star Wars and Blink-182 all the time. 17 was also the year I got my New Jersey State Learner's Permit. For driving.
I was driving around somewhere in southern Bergen County with my friend Fernando in the passenger seat and his girlfriend at the time, Alice, in the back seat. We had stopped at a red light, and I was talking to Fernando. The light turned green, but I wasn't made aware of this until I heard a loud, gruff voice from outside my window.
I turned to see the face of a very large, dirty, and unshaven man with a scraggly mane of wild grey hair and beard less than a foot from mine.
"LIGHT'S GREEN, YOU LITTLE SHIT! MOVE YOUR FUCKING CAR!"
Now, were my present-day, 26-year-old self in that driver's seat, the conversation would have proceeded like this:
"Oh, I'm sorry sir, I hadn't noticed. Thanks for letting me know."
"OK... good. Don't let it happen again."
"Yes sir. May I say, you have a wonderfully tangled beard."
But my present-day, 26-year-old self wasn't in the driver's seat that day. My 17-year-old self was. This is how I handled the exchange:
"LIGHT'S GREEN, YOU LITTLE SHIT! MOVE YOUR FUCKING-"
"OHH, LOOK AT THE BIG MAN! LOOK AT THE BIG MAN YELLING AT THE HIGH SCHOOL KIDS! BIG MAAAAAN!"
[stunned silence attributed solely, I'm sure, to a sense of surprise akin to what a bear feels when a squirrel runs up and spits in its face]
[eardrum-piercing cackles as I peel away in my father's 2001 Lincoln Continental]
Man, did I show him! And everyone else in the car agreed. Oh, how we laughed. I laughed, and laughed, and laughed up and until the moment my eyes unwittingly wandered to my rear-view mirror, and I saw my large-faced friend about 50 yards away and closing rapidly on a black motorcycle, a thick cloud of exhaust the color of fear billowing out behind him. His eyes shone from behind his wrap-around sunglasses with a fury I have only seen in nightmares, his engine seemed to run on spite and the steady stream of profanities and list of contortions he was going to twist my body into running forth from his mouth. I mentioned our follower to my friends, and once again, we laughed. A bit less confidently this time, but laugh we did. After a few quick rights and lefts, I had lost him.
A few blocks later, Fernando was going on about some new band we had heard when we came to another red light. While I was listening to his thoughts, my eyes, thankfully still responding to the subconscious part of my brain that keeps track of possible physical threats to my corporeal from, wandered to the rear view mirror once again. I found our gruff rider parking his bike immediately behind my car and dismounting it.
"...but seriously, they're just completely ahead of their-"
"Guys, lock your doors."
"What? No, they-"
"LOCK YOUR DOORS!"
I got the driver's side windows up just in time for my friend to start punching them.
"OPEN YOUR FUCKING WINDOW!"
I sat in terrified silence.
"OPEN YOUR WINDOW OR I'LL FUCKING BREAK IT!"
Fernando began assuring me that he couldn't break a car window with his bare fist, but was interrupted when the screaming man pulled out a two inch-wide brass skull ring with blood diamond eyes that I assumed were forged in the icy fires of some long-forgotten tenth ring of the Inferno. He slipped it onto his hand and pressed his fist against the glass.
"OPEN THIS FUCKING WINDOW RIGHT FUCKING NOW!"
"...I'm sorry, sir, I really am, but I'm not going to open the window!"
We had to yell to effectively communicate through the window.
"I WILL BREAK THIS WINDOW IF YOU DON'T OPEN IT!"
I didn't know what I was more terrified about: exactly how this screaming man would send me to the hospital, or exactly how I would explain to my father why the driver's window of his business car was shattered. I decided I was definitely more afraid of the screaming man.
"I'm... I'm sorry... No! I'm so sorry but no!"
He punched once. My window held!
"I'LL BREAK YOUR WINDOW, YOU LITTLE SHIT!"
He punched again. I vividly remember time slowing down as the skull's furious diamonds approached my window. I stared into them as they peered back into my soul, devouring every hidden sin and forbidden thought, determining whether I would provide ample sustenance for their dark master. As the eyes pulled away, two tiny notches were left in my window.
"YOU THINK I CAN'T? YOU THINK I CAN'T, ASSHOLE?"
"No sir I'm sorry I very much believe that you can I don't doubt you at all and I'm sorry so sorry butaslongasthiswindowremainsintactI'mkeepingitbetweenyouandme!"
Punch. The notches became bigger.
At this point, the light turned green. I noticed the car ahead of me pulling away, and a life beyond the next 30 seconds suddenly seemed within my grasp.
He noticed this at the same time.
"DON'T YOU PULL AWAY! I WILL FUCKING FIND YOU! DON'T YOU FUCKING PULL AWAY!"
Every animal on the food chain is familiar with the concept of "fight or flight". In a survival situation, one either fights or takes flight. At that moment, every instinct within me was screaming to take flight. I doubt that at that moment I was even capable of forming an independent thought that even resembled the idea of "fight", let alone the idea of "do not move away from this enraged screaming man". But billions of years of evolutionary instinct were quickly brushed away by the matted, frothy beard of a raging One Percenter on the other side of a more-fragile-than-I-originally-expected plane of glass screaming my license plate number.
"...OK! OK! ...I won't move! Oh god I'm so sorry, I won't move!"
"WHO'S A BIG MAN?"
"I AM! I MEAN I AM! I'M A BIG MAN! I'M THE BIGGEST MAN!"
We stared at each other through the glass, each with a different passion lighting the fire behind our eyes. His, the passion for mentally crippling 17-year-old boys with naught else but a stare. Mine, the passion for clinging to life in any way I could, shame and dignity be damned. A few tense moments passed as we locked in this gaze, but finally, with a scowl, the great scruffy motorcycle god of terror released me and mounted his hellish bike again.
At this moment, I became aware of the chorus of horns and yells from motorists behind us that had been sounding off during our exchange. I managed to peel my foot off the brake pedal and slowly step on the gas. The biker roared past me, stretching out a finger as he did. I slowly rolled away, allowing as much distance to accrue between him and myself as I could before I turned off onto a side street. I lost myself in a residential neighborhood in case a change of heart brought him circling back to find me again.
Once I felt sure we were clear, I stopped the car and looked at Fernando. From my lips escaped one long, uninterrupted bellow that simultaneously had notes of fear, relief, nonbelief, and triumph. I had faced down the beast, and survived the encounter! I strode into the sleeping bear's cave, spit in its face, and huddled in a fetal position until it decided to allow me to live!
Then Fernando, cackling, pointed to my crotch, where an already large dark spot was growing. The total amount of my dignity and self-respect was a small price to pay for the continued ability to take breath.