The bigger of the two had just left to take a piss. I didn't like him and smelled trouble . I didn't like his friend, either, but he at least seemed more harmless.
I told my girlfriend at the time, "Let's go home. I'm tired of these guys already." It was about 2:15 in the morning, and we'd been out drinking with a girlfriend of hers.
"Yeah, I don't like them either."
"Does your friend want them here?"
"No, she doesn't want them here."
Finally, a clear fucking answer from one of the two of them. I went up to her friend, whose home we were at, and whispered in her ear, "Do you want them here?"
We'd met the two guys at one of the bars, and they essentially invited themselves along with us. When my girlfriend's friend let them in her apartment, she'd been the model host. Suddenly, she looked at me with alarm in her eyes.
"No," she whispered back.
Trying not to think too much about it, I went up to the guy that was still in the living room. Politely, I explained that we were tired and wanted to be alone, but I also made it clear: "The two of you should go." I was suddenly very aware that my heart was pumping blood at a mile a minute, and my system was flooding with adrenaline.
He was apologetic and suddenly aware that he had trespassed some invisible boundary. He excused himself and started to get ready to leave. I turned around. His friend had come in from the bathroom, and either he had overheard or our host had explained to him the situation. He was sneering at me, sizing me up. But he backed down. He was a smartass about leaving, but the two of them left without incident.
I locked the door behind them.
How in the hell did two guys we didn't like wind up hanging out in one of our homes with us?
My girlfriend, who I am no longer seeing, had just finished her exams for the semester.
She is from Toulouse, France, and was in the first year of her Master's program. I'd been living with her for two and a half months. After studying for a month straight for her exams, extremely stressed, she was looking forward to a night out having fun with her friend from her program.
We went to her friend's place, whose boyfriend was out at a work event, and drank. My girlfriend and I were already tipsy from the three or so glasses of wine we'd had at dinner. At her friends place, we polished off a round of beers, a bottle of wine, and a sizeable amount of vodka during a drinking game. Trying to save money, I didn't particularly want to go out, and we were having a hell of a good time anyway. They did want to go out, however, so we went to a nearby bar. We hadn't even finished one round before my girlfriend shouted into my ear over the loud music, "We're going somewhere else!" Not particularly caring, I nodded along and started putting on my coat. The two girls walked out the front door without me.
When I joined them outside, they were talking to three men. To put it politely, they were scruffy and rowdy. It seems the friend of my girlfriend wanted to go sing karaoke. I liked karaoke, so that was fine by me. I did not, however, understand why we continued to engage in a conversation with these men we didn't know. I'm all for being friendly, don't get me wrong, and I'll strike up a conversation with most anyone. But these three gave me a bad feeling from the beginning.
I don't know whether the friend invited them along to karaoke, or if they invited themselves, but when we left one of the three was tagging along with us. He was friendly if a bit weird. I made small talk with him for a while as the two girls led the way to the karaoke bar, but eventually grew bored and hoped he would go away. He kept looking back and lingering, waiting for his two friends to catch up. I hoped he would join them and we wouldn't see any of the three again. Call me churlish, but I wasn't in the mood to make new friends, at least not with him and his crew.
The karaoke place was shit. The DJ told me they weren't taking new song signups. What's the point of a karaoke place where you can't sing? I asked my girlfriend and her friend if they wanted to stay. They were noncommittal. I waited outside for them.
They eventually came outside with the guy still hanging on like a bad case of lice. All the bars were closing, my friends said, closing time being 2am. The guy invited us back to his place. My girlfriend asked me what I wanted to do. I did not want to go to this guy's home. Instead, I said, we're still near her friend's place, why don't we go back there and have a drink before heading home. The guy seemed to invite himself, or assume he was invited by default. I didn't want him to come. I thought he was weird, and I had that nagging bad feeling about him that is all too easy to ignore. I didn't say anything because I hadn't had a chance to talk with my girlfriend and her friend about him, and her friend seemed to enjoy talking with him. Looking back, I wonder if I should have spoken up at this point. Probably. I didn't, though.
While walking back to the friend's place, I talked with my girlfriend about the situation and expressed my concerns that he was tagging along, saying I didn't like him and didn't want him to come back with us. My girlfriend was apathetic and resigned. "That is the way things are in France," she said, "You meet people and they come partying with you."
I was flabbergasted. That happened anywhere, but not if you didn't like the people you met. She claimed she hadn't had a chance to talk with them enough to have a sense for whether she liked him and his friends or not. Despite her being there and talking to them before I even showed up outside the first bar, I took her at her word. It was the easiest thing to do.
The guy went off to find his friends, coordinating with my girlfriend's friend to meet us at her place. I was wary, and as soon as he left I expressed my doubts.
"He was a bit weird, and frankly I don't feel like meeting up with him or his friends."
My girlfriend and her friend were again noncommittal, and my girlfriend once again reiterated that that was simply how things were in France. "Bullshit", I thought, but I bit my tongue. Secretly I was hoping they wouldn't show up.
On the way back to her place, just the three of us, the friend was nearly hit by a drunk driver who slammed on his brakes right as I was reaching to pull her out of the way. I mention this because if I wasn't already worked up from the thought of these guys joining us, then that certainly did it. I cussed and yelled at the car as it sped off.
We got back to the friend's place, and sat singing Karaoke songs somewhat halfheartedly for fifteen minutes until the friend's phone rang. She answered it without thinking, apparently believing it was her boyfriend on his way back from his event. It was the guy we'd met, and he'd brought a friend. Panicking, my girlfriend's friend invited them up, not knowing how to say no. At this point, her body language was pretty clear that she did not want the two of them there. She seemed surprised and dismayed that they'd actually shown up.
As the friend went to open the door for them, I looked at my girlfriend with a look of disbelief. She said something to the effect of, "I don't know why she's letting them up. She thought it was her boyfriend calling her." She seemed apprehensive but not overwhelmingly so.
They came up. The friend of the guy who had tagged along with us was tall, big, and frankly, a douchebag. Admittedly, I was rather dismissive towards them. I didn't want them there, and still had adrenaline running from the drunk driver incident. I made no effort to be friendly.
My girlfriend's friend found a Michael Jackson karaoke song and put it on. Halfheartedly sung lyrics came out from the group. The big guy asked why I wasn't singing along.
To be honest, I hadn't ever really listened to Michael Jackson and didn't care for his music. I shrugged and dismissed him. Any respectful, decent person would have left me alone. He insisted, and I shrugged him off again.
Then he asked me where the toilet in the apartment was. I told him. He pointed in the opposite direction and asked if it was there. I asked what was wrong with him. This went back and forth like this for a full minute or so, the guy trying to bait a response from me. I simply refused to play ball, ignored his games, and treated him like the idiot he was. "I just told you where the bathroom was. Why don't you go?"
It was clear to me: this guy was trying to fuck with me. He was trying to intimidate me in some way to take control of the situation. Intuitively, on an energetic level, I felt how aggressive he was and how little he cared about other people to come into someone else's home and fuck with the people there.
It felt like a high stakes game of poker, seeing who would fold first. It wasn't about the bathroom at all. It felt positively medieval.
That's when I had asked my girlfriend if she wanted to leave.
Amazingly, my girlfriend didn't even notice that a power play had occurred between me and the big guy, despite being seated right next to me- and in between me and him- the entire time. I thought maybe I was crazy for acting the way I did. Then I remembered the objective facts: both women had told me they were uncomfortable with the two strangers and did not want them there.
At the same time, there seemed to be some sort of willful ignorance from my girlfriend and her friend, and not just about this, but about who those guys were, what they wanted, and them even coming along with us in the first place- until they were already in the apartment.
Singing karaoke for a few songs, just the three of us, distracted me from what was going on inside me. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein had just replaced all the blood in my veins with pure electricity. Distractedly, I downed Coke mixed with a splash of vodka. But we had to leave to catch the last metro back to our place, so we said goodbye. The friend thanked me for helping her. My girlfriend and I walked in silence to the metro.
"Are you mad?" My girlfriend asked. I couldn't believe she could even be asking me that.
"I'm not mad, certainly not at you, but I am worked up as hell. It will take me a while to calm down. Are you not upset at what happened?"
All she could say was, Good thing you were there, over and over again. But from the nonchalant, flippant tone of her voice, I could tell it was simply words with no feeling behind it. She was saying it to appease me.
Jesus Christ. Again with the willful ignorance.
We walked from the last metro station to our apartment. I didn't press the issue as I was too busy feeling the electricity flowing through my veins, marveling at the fact that nothing around me seemed to escape my awareness. Every fiber of my body felt awake, energized, ready to leap into action. Rather than being in my head, daydreaming or being self-absorbed, I found myself attuned to everything around me, and everyone who passed. I had the sense that I could read their intentions in some way. For example, things were energetically dead among the passengers on the metro, but on the way home, my awareness spiked as two specific young men went walking past. It only happened with them, and no one else on the way home. Maybe it was my own nerves after what had just happened, or maybe it was me picking up on some vague, barely expressed impulse on their part. Maybe both.
Without thinking, I tugged my girlfriend gently by the jacket back onto the curb as she almost stepped out in front of a car that had the right of way. It had happened automatically, my instincts far ahead of my conscious mind.
We advanced towards the apartment. She continued to say, "you're still mad."
I reflected as we marched up the long hill towards home, still scanning 360 degrees automatically, as if this behavior had been programmed into my genes all along, waiting to be expressed. It sure as hell felt that way.
I'd been in a melancholic slump for the past several weeks, unproductive at work and barely able or willing to leave the apartment. I burned through books until I got so bored I couldn't bear reading anymore. I'd spent most of that day before going out watching stupid YouTube videos.
But goddamn, I felt so fucking alive and purposeful and honest right then. I felt I was right where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. Don't get me wrong. I don't think that what I did was heroic and special. In the end, all I did was tell (politely) two unwanted guests to leave. People do that all the time with no fanfare.
I'd done something similar a few months before, before joining my girlfriend in Toulouse. I was visiting a friend from my childhood in Columbus, Georgia. He invited me out with his friends. We were having a nice time, and had struck up a conversation with a guy who claimed to be an Army soldier stationed at Fort Benning. I'd had the sense he was a weird guy, but a bit lonely. I chatted with him for a bit, then went and talked with some others in the group.
I didn't see it happen, but a girl from the group came up to me and my friend and complained that the soldier had smacked her ass. She was clearly not comfortable being around him and was seeking safety with the larger group. Stunned, I looked over. The guy was still chatting with some in the group, clearly oblivious to this woman's distress.
I thought about it for a second, then marched over. I explained to him, quite politely, that we were friends trying to catch up, he'd made us uncomfortable, and that he should leave. He apologized, but claimed he had done nothing wrong. I was insistent that he leave. He tried explaining himself, and I walked away from him. He got the hint and left.
I had my fifteen minutes of fame in the little group. The brother of the offended woman admitted he wished he'd have had the guts to go up and do what I did. I didn't say what I was thinking: that I had spent all of my life up till that moment wishing the same thing, loathing myself for my own perceived cowardice.
My conscience is complicated by the fact that I've done stupid, insensitive things to women myself. Hell, I'd smacked a girl on the ass myself, earlier that year. Me and my friends were drunk, one especially brazen friend suggested I do it, and without thinking I found myself swinging.
And I've been smacked on the ass myself, numerous times, by both men and women. The one time it happened to me truly maliciously, from another man, I felt humiliated. I still feel my blood boil when I think about it. I still wish I'd have turned right around and socked him.
I still wish I thought about how that experience made me feel before I smacked that women on her ass in that bar in Budapest.
"You're still mad."
I thought about my girlfriend's words. "Yes, I'm still mad. I think maybe it's hard for you to understand, but there's still adrenaline coursing through my veins. I don't think it's sunk in for you what happened back there. Two guys invited themselves into your friend's apartment. No one wanted them there. And yet they were still with us in your friends apartment. So, yes, I'm still mad. I'm not mad at you, or at your friend. But this event has profoundly shaken me."
And it had. How did it come to that? And yes, what if I had not been there? What might have happened?
We see each day a new story of women who didn't feel capable saying no to men who were in a position of power over them. And we need women to feel capable saying no.
At the same time, the willful ignorance displayed by my girlfriend and her friend distressed me. How could they not see what was going on? There's only one reason a guy goes back to a girl's place at 2:30 in the morning. It is to have sex. Women know this too. And yet, this willful ignorance still persists. I say this, hard as it is to believe, without excusing any behavior from the men. You can see the same willful ignorance in the moment in many of the high profile abuse and harassment cases that came out over the past couple of years.
These two women- my girlfriend and her friend- did not feel comfortable saying no, and more distressingly, did not even feel the need to say no until the men were already in an apartment with them, when it was precisely the hardest for them to say no.
What might have happened, indeed, had I not been there? My girlfriend and her friend clearly had no intention of drawing boundaries with those men- else they would have never made it into the apartment. Once you allow someone to cross your boundaries once, it gets progressively harder to stop them the next time.
Most guys have good hearts and want to treat women respectfully. And despite the story I've told, I have no way of knowing for sure what the two guys would have done, what their intentions were, and whether or not they would respect a "no" or even be attuned enough to the women to know whether or not to even try anything. But the point here is that the continued silence of the two women made it a moot point. All they had to do was continue to be willfully ignorant and pretend that what was happening around them was not happening.
And, I admit it, there was a part of me that wondered if my girlfriend (and her friend) actually wanted something to happen with them. That would be one explanation for their behavior.
"But I can tell you're mad at me."
I thought about it some more. I typically would have assured her I was not mad to avoid an argument. We'd been arguing too much recently. But as on fire as I was feeling, I literally felt no desire or capacity for deceit, no matter how insignificant it might seem. I felt truly myself. And it started with speaking up in a difficult situation.
"Yes, I am mad at you to a certain extent. I am angry that you do not seem to realize what a difficult situation that was. I am angry that you did not pick up on what was going on, heed my warnings about these guys, and take what was going on seriously until they were already in your friend's flat. They were in her flat. You two had already shown you weren't willing to say no up to that point. When were you going to start saying no?"
Walking up the steep, abandoned street at 3am, my girlfriend protested. "But I had told you she didn't want them there!"
"Yes, after they were already up!"
"No, I told you when they called!"
At that point, all the bottled-up anger came spilling out of me. Icily, calculatingly, I seethed:
"Bullshit. Bullshit. I blame myself for not taking action sooner, but do not lie to me and tell me you said something you did not. That is a fucking cowardly thing to do. Yes, I am venting some of my anger at the situation and at these two guys at you, and I am sorry for that. But do not lie to me about what you said. I told you over and over again I did not like these guys and was not comfortable with them, and you said nothing until they were already in your friend's place."
"But I couldn't have known they were weird! I didn't talk with them!"
Ah, this excuse again. "You were there and you went through the same interactions with them as I did. You cannot pretend you did not pick up on anything. And if you didn't, then that is even more fucking worrisome."
We got home. I checked the door behind us and locked both locks. I took off my jacket, powered into the bathroom, and sat down to have a moment to myself. I wanted to smash something and I wanted to cry. Compared with tonight, everything up to this point felt like a frivolous game. This was the first time I was standing up for someone I really knew and loved, where the stakes seemed real. I felt anger and raw energy building up in me in a way I hadn't felt consistently since I was a child, when I was taught that feeling this way was wrong. That I shouldn't feel this.
That feeling it made me a bad man.
I walked out onto the balcony of the apartment, still trying to make sense of what happened, still trying to understand the events of the night and the reaction of my girlfriend. I felt deeply troubled by what had happened that night. But the overwhelming sense I couldn't escape was just how goddamned alive and purposeful I felt. And it only came from speaking up, in the moment, in a situation that would have been easiest to run from. It's a lesson I won't forget. By not speaking up, I am complicit in what is unfolding around me. When I speak up, I have at least discharged the responsibility I have in the moment. I have imbibed an antidote to future remorse. I do not want to babysit other people's experience, I have a hard enough time with my own. Perhaps next time I'll speak up sooner. Perhaps it will be easier with practice. But if it were easy, it wouldn't be a meaningful thing to do.
For whatever reason, my friends that night did not want to speak up.
I couldn't sleep, and only felt the desire to do something, to create, to testify, to mark time. And so I find myself writing this, trying to make sense of what happened, trying to understand my reaction to it.
...sees much and knows much