When I was about sixteen, I saw a boy waiting at the tram stop—the only person there but me. He was perhaps fourteen and looked fragile. His face, his posture, his whole body telegraphed meekness. I thought (feeling the adrenaline rush of someone who had just decided to jump off a cliff)—what the hell! Gotta try everything once.
I puckered my lips as if about to whistle but instead of blowing air out, I drew it in. The small sound hit home; the boy tensed up, then turned around and glanced at me. He knew what the backward whistle meant. He saw immediately it was addressed to him.
In a calm, deliberately casual voice dictated by my role (because we had now entered a script and deviations could cause nothing but embarrassment to either side)—in a voice that was low but distinct, I said “Come here.” It sounded just menacing enough. I marveled at how easily the words came. My churning stomach felt anything but casual but the same words, addressed to me at various times in the past, were bouncing off the walls of my head and echoing from my lips.
Reluctantly, the boy came closer. His face was sullen; he knew what was in store but he also had a role to play. His question was appropriately full of feigned incomprehension: “What?”
Trying to sound as bored as possible, looking not at him but past him, into the weeds choking the roadside, I said: “Got any money?”
I had them in my head: the questions, the answers, the counter-answers, the narrative arc of the entire skit as it had played out before. Only before, I never was in the role I had now assumed.
The kid's part could be titled The Bug that Rolls Over and Plays Dead. He looked at me with strained honesty (wide-open eyes, gee-golly face) and shook his head. “No. Really, man, I don't.”
“Bullshit.” Bored, bored, menacing.
“I swear I don't.”
“Let's walk a little bit over there, out of sight, and have a look,” I said. For we were standing at a tram stop in the middle of a major avenue, in the broad daylight of a spring afternoon, dead as it may have been.
By the way he had drawn up at my suggestion I knew immediately that he had money—enough not to want it discovered. “No, man,” he pleaded. “What for?”
“Come, come,” I insisted almost amicably.
“But what for?” he whined. I sensed his panic grow.
(When I was held up the week before, one guy spoke to me while the other two loomed on either side. That was their job—to loom. Not speaking parts. “What time is it?” the mugger asked, pointing at my watch. I told him. “No,” he said. “I wanna see it for myself.” “What for?” I too asked, trying to sound casual (my favorite technique, it seems). His reaction was swift: “Have you ever been hit in the face with a spring?” he asked and drew his jacket aside on the left. Clipped to his belt sat a thick, tight, industrial-looking metal spring with sharp hooks at both ends.)
Now I asked: “Have you ever been kicked in the kidneys? Really hard?”—since I had no spring.
The boy's lips quivered; he stared despondently into the ground. We both waited: this was the moment where all the words had been said and either he would break or I'd have to prove that I could screw myself up to break him.
Then, with a final hope, he offered: “Would you like a watch?”
Getting queasier by the minute, stifled by the robber's face I kept firmly on, I wanted to jump at the offer. But there was no easy way out for me, no more than there was one for him: the roles had to be played to the end. I had to act skeptical and unhurried, to savor his panic and squirming, to watch him wriggle before I took him off the hook. He had to suffer through my suffering of making him suffer.
“Show me,” I said.
And took it in my hand, and looked it over slowly, slowly, and smiled (as I hoped) derisively, and said: “Fine. Turn around and get the fuck out of here.”
He did just that. As he crossed the road to the other side, his back suddenly convulsed with what must have been sobs. I shuddered in synch, against my will. I knew—I could feel—the kid's burning humiliation as his fear unwound and indignation beat against the bars of impotence.
The encounter took all of five minutes.
I couldn't stay at the stop but there was still no tram in sight. So I walked towards the district of gardens and summer houses that started about a kilometer away. One of those houses belonged to my grandfather. The entire family was gathered there for an afternoon of kebobs, apples, tea and pleasant conversation. I was running late after school; my backpack was heavy with books.
As I passed the next stop on the line, the red electric car had finally floated into view, shedding sparks at an intersection as it rolled majestically along the tracks. I ran to catch up, got in, settled in a good seat near the window—and suddenly realized that the hapless kid's watch was still in my hand. I lifted it to the light and looked it over. It was cheap. Scratches on the casing; no wristband. It looked just like the watch—a present from my parents—that I used to carry around until a couple of years ago. I lost it at school and couldn't forgive myself for a long time.
I stared at my hand until the conductor announced my stop. Then I got up, forced open a window and tossed the watch into the dusty burdocks that grew alongside the tram tracks. It flashed gold for a second with the reflected light of the sun and drowned in green.