“10 more minutes” he thought to himself after looking at his watch. “Time enough for a little nibble.” The sandwiches he had packed for lunch had provided too little sustenance for the day, so he decided to top up his belly with a snack from the vending machine. His belly had already been topped up by the 20 pounds he had regained over the last two years, but surely a small pack of salted peanuts was justified in this one, singular instance, as it had been in so many others.
Standing up, he walked across the cubicle farm’s break room, through all the chatter of all the unfamiliar people’s familiar faces. He did not know any of their names or positions or even where exactly they worked, but after more than three months on the new job, he at least recognized some of the faces taking their breaks at roughly the same time he did. A few steps later, the break room traversed, he stood in front of the vending machines. While the coffee was free (even minimum wage jobs had their small benefits) the snacks and other drinks from the second machine were not. “60 cents for a packet of peanuts?” he weighed cost and benefit of the salty treat in his mind. “Yeah, I guess that’s alright. I mean, I remember back in the day when…” And that was the thought that launched an avalanche! A single pack of peanuts from more than 15 years ago plunged his whole life in disarray and self-doubt. He hated it when that happened.
He went back to his seat in the chair circle holding his prize in his hands. It was a consolation prize for 4th place, but it was still a prize, and it was his. There were many worse places than 4th, and they did not get anything. He never won anything in sports competitions! This one was running around combined with answering trivia questions, sure, but running around still was a very big part of it. Overweight and sedentary as he was, he had sucked at running around as far as he could remember. Why was running around so important for everybody else, anyway? Why did everybody pretend it was fun when it so obviously wasn’t? Running around and kicking balls and watching other people run around and kick balls was all the others ever seemed to care about. Anyway, this time, his running around had won him a pack of peanuts and he was as proud as he could be. Maybe the next game would be fun, too, who was to tell? Better than all the skiing the school wanted them to do. Skiing, of all things. Who has fun sliding around on snow when clearly all it meant was people laughing at you, as inevitable as all that snow melting come summer? Just because 7th grade did it every year, now he had to do it? Who came up with this way to make his life even worse? Didn’t the teachers know the others would make fun of his physical ineptitude? Didn’t they care? Still, he had done well at that one game in the evening and the next one was going to be charades! He was great at charades, and the luck of the draw had him playing with some classmates who were indifferent to him! His luck just did not stop that day!
He played charades like he had never played before, his temporary team mates could easily guess his creatively mimed phrases and movies and things, and he theirs. They stayed together as team a bit longer before the teachers told everybody to get back into a chair circle. Now Max and Marcus, the two popular guys, and Max his friend since 1st class, were sitting right in front of the table holding his winnings. For the next game, everybody had to be in groups in different rooms, Max and Marcus staying in the main one with a few of the others. When that game was over, he returned to see the two of them gleefully throwing and kicking his packet of peanuts around. Using it as a football, kicking it through imaginary goals. Throwing it to the floor, ostensibly to score touchdowns, because the peanut football had become American all of a sudden. This was not about playing a sport he did not understand, though, it was about making a mockery of him. They wouldn’t have bothered with somebody else’s stuff. You just had to look at their gleeful grimaces. He didn’t even try to intervene and get back what was his. That never worked and only made him feel humiliated even more. He thought that if he didn’t, they might not have quite as much fun and would stop sooner, but that never really seemed to work, either.
When the teachers announced the end of the ‘fun and exciting’ game night, he slinked over to the corner of the room and picked up the limp pack of what had been peanuts, vacuum seal long since broken, given to him as a prize only an hour or two ago…
“They didn’t even want to eat them or anything” he commented on the sudden surge of remembrance, noticing automatically the vending machine’s refusal to accept his coin. “They just wanted to destroy what was mine because of the fun it was. Funny how the image of that limp package stays with me so long.” The avalanching memory from ski resort had opened the floodgates of his recall and suddenly everything was back. It did not really come back as much as it suddenly was back in the blink of an eye, like it had always been there, unnoticed in some remote corner for too long.
How more and more others joined in with Max’ and Marcus’ antics over the following months and years, just to be popular. The insulting conversations ‘about’ him that just happened to be loud enough for him to overhear, in a stage-whisper-y sort of way. The facts and stories those conversations contained, barely worth that name, made up out of whole cloth with just enough benign truth mixed in so that he could not object to anyone who mattered. The personal and family life revealed to everybody by an erstwhile friend to mock. The ridiculous rumours told ‘behind his back’ straight to his face. The occasional gestures of friendship by the ringleaders that made him think he was a part of the group and made burning the remaining bridges all the more difficult. The occasional gestures of friendship by the followers when he dealt with them one-on-one, born from bad consciences, that made the bullying oh so much more painful. They made clear to him that he was less important than the approval of some popular asshole.
He was on his way downstairs to get back to his desk, a wry defeated smile creeping onto his lips, thinking about the sheer length of the list his mind was still busy compiling. The caricatures of him being passed around ‘secretly’. His very name being used as the most grave of insults, received in theatrically over-acted manner. The fact that was never called by anything other than his last name, really. Never being accepted into the group. Or any group, for that matter. Never being able to reaon with people, because bullies cannot be reasoned with (not that anyone had ever told him). Memories of the peanuts had long since made way to Max asking in mock concern during phys. ed. why he did not participate in the exercises when he participated just as much as everybody else and as hard as he could. The guy sitting next to him in class always talking to him during lessons but still not inviting him to his birthday party, passing him over in favour of Max.
The fear and apprehension came back to him. What are they going to come up with today? Are they going to come up with anything or would they ignore him today? Might he be lucky and have a good day today? He left work, going home. He was not exactly sad, but the profound state of not-quite-being-unhappy had seized him again, his go-to mood over most of the intervening years. On his way home thoughts of its effects had long since replaced thoughts of the actual bullying. Was it to blame for his fear of rejection? His hatred of not being taken seriously? His bossy cantakerousness? Was it the root cause of his intense dislike to use people’s names, opting for “hey, you” instead? The indifference towards most other people? What about his social awkwardness? Was all that him or the bullying? Was it even fair to ask those questions? What about the job prospects he had lost for those reasons? Did he like movies and TV so much because he just did, or because they never called him names?
The reasons of his tormentors never crossed his mind. They usually did not when he was in this state. He knew from specialised literature that people are not bullied for being overweight, or smart, or being ginger, or anything of the sort. They are bullied for whatever arcane reason, only making use of aspects like those, like tools. And whether his bullies had bad homes or were jealous or insecure, he did not care one bit. He only knew that while the bullying had stopped in 10th grade with the ringleaders having had to change schools, its effects, whether vague and intangible or concrete and palpable, would stay with him until they put him in the ground.
He sank on his comfy chair that evening, holding his phone in his hands. His fingers moved through the contact list on their own, remembering the patterns of movement better and more efficiently than his brain ever could. He had known the number’s owner since 10th grade. There was a faint ringing noise echoing through his small flat, followed by the almost inaudible click of the call being taken. “Hey mate, how are you? Can you spare a couple of minutes? I need somebody to talk to…”