You are a heroic knight, armed only with sword and shield you stand against a rampaging fire-breathing dragon that threatens to destroy your home and family. What do you do?
I am a firm believer in personal choice. Although many events in life happen to us and are beyond our individual control, there are frequent options that we can pick from that dictate the path our lives will take. The choice can be as seemingly inconsequential as which road to take on the way to work, or as important as the choice to fight or run, but those choices can have life-or-death unforeseen consequences. I am often reminded of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read when I was twelve years old. The books placed the reader in the role of a variety of characters such as spy, race car driver, or dragon slayer. Never did any of those stories place me in the role of a thirty-seven year old, out-of-shape man trying to protect his girlfriend and her toddler son from her own brother hopped up on pain killers and looking for a fight.
I am dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and a pair of leather gloves and I am standing in the parking lot of my girlfriend’s condo in mid-January, unprepared for the weather and not expecting to be involved in a fistfight. It hasn’t snowed in a while and the previous snowfalls have been plowed into neat but dirty piles out of the way of traffic and parking spaces.
My girlfriend’s younger brother, Rex steps out of the passenger’s side of a pickup truck and finds me standing there in the way of his destination. Tim, a tall but portly man of approximately my age gets out of the driver’s side and makes his way slowly but determinedly over to Meryl. I understand why Tim is attracted to Meryl. She is a year older than me, but she is stunning. Tall and blonde with a perfect shape, and a confused and helpless demeanor; she has all the ingredients that even a smart guy like me fell for.
I am a roadblock with crossed arms in Rex’s way. I say, “Get back in the truck and go somewhere else,” but all with my eyes. Rex looks at me slack-jawed, hardly believing I would obstruct him. He is not as tall as I am, but what he lacks in size, he makes up in other areas; overall physical fitness, youth, and a circulatory system laced with pain-reducing prescription medications. These facts give him the edge that any Las Vegas bookie would call a ‘lock’.
What my adversary doesn’t anticipate is my proven record of being able to take a beating and survive.
Meryl, has informed me that Rex had stolen money and prescription medications from her when he has stayed with her, in the past. She received a call from her friend Tim, indicating that he had just been released from jail for a crime he committed earlier that night and was looking to stay with her.
“Turn around and go home,” I say, standing my ground. “You can’t stay here.”
“What the…fuck you!” comes the clever response from the thug. “Why not?” he says, laughing dismissively at me.
“Why?! Why?! Because you just got arrested for stealing from Hannaford’s and Tim said you’re high on oxy,” I reply full of condemnation and judgment. Meryl’s friend Tim, a soft-spoken, weak-willed man who was continuously hanging-on, waiting for our relationship to end, waits in the shadows. The symbolism is lost on me.
-If you want to stand your ground and possibly fight a 22 year old drug-addict, turn to page 15
-If you decide to let your girlfriend decide for herself go to page 16
I frantically turn to page 16 and am alarmed at the result of my decision.
16) You decide that it would be best to back away and ask Meryl what she would like to do knowing damn well she will let her druggie brother stay with her and steal money from her wallet and prescription pills from her medicine cabinet and endanger little Luke, whom you love more than anyone you have ever loved. However, you were in a car accident over ten years ago in which your brain suffered damage to your frontal lobe preventing you from feeling the emotion of fear. Due to the fact that you lack the flight part of the fight or flight instinct turn to page 15 and face the guy high on pain reducing drugs who is fifteen years younger than you. Good luck!
In a flash, he is on me. I am unprepared for his sudden attack and he pulls me to the ground and starts to punch me in the body and head. I decide not to fight back, because even though the punches are raining in on me I feel that my girlfriend, or her friend Tim, will pull my attacker off me any second now and talk some sense into him. I wait as he grips my head in his very strong hands and slams it against the cold pavement of the parking lot that has been chilled by the January air.
I did not anticipate the situation being resolved in this manner. I thought he would back down when faced with my stern and heroically unwavering demeanor.
The beating continues. Help does not seem to be coming.
-If you want to survive you had better start fighting back! Grow a pair and turn to page 21.
-To beg for mercy or lay down and die, go back to page 1 and start again.
I do not wish to die here.
21) From the ground, you push Rex off and get into a position where you can land some punches of your own. Wham! Wham! You punch him twice in the ribs. He continues to struggle and attempts to get you back in a vulnerable position. You decide that punching him in the balls, an effective, if not manly attack, will take the fight out of him. BAM! BAM! BAM! Three solid strikes to his softest part and you roll out of the melee and to your feet.
Rex and I rise rapidly and he stomps away from me. I am amazed that he is still functioning, much less on his feet, considering the punishment I have unleashed upon him. I stumble bloody over to Meryl who stands confused in front of a crowd of people who have ventured out of their condos and into the parking lot where our battle is taking place. The crowd resembles spectators in a gladiatorial arena in ancient Rome. They laugh and carry on as if this were an event staged for their amusement. Meryl is just as useless.
I turn to face Rex who is advancing on me again. This time he has a set of keys spaced between the fingers of his clenched fist creating a more deadly attack. I hear Meryl scream as I back-peddle away from his repeated wide swings at my face. Like some paraplegic ninja, I throw a half-hearted kick that does not find its mark nor does it force him back.
-Seriously, dude. No one is helping you! Turn to page 35 to get in your friggin’ car and drive away.
Surrender and retreat are options, but they do not occur to me.
Rex is pacing back and forth on the other side of the parking lot. I imagine steam rising off his body as he punches his fists in rage. I yell out to the crowd, “Did anyone call 911?!” Someone mumbles an unconvincing positive reply.
“You better hope they come soon, because I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you!” Rex yells at me from across the lot.
-If you want to wait for the police, go to page 32
-If you want to respond to his threats, go to page 33
I have taken a beating. Now it’s time to give one.
33) You stride determinedly toward the injured man as he raises his right arm to attack you. With your left hand you bat aside his fist and land a solid blow of your own on his unprotected nose. It collapses in a spurt of blood and crunch of cartilage.
He does not fall.
Instead he comes at me with fists flying. Only the swirling blue lights that are the harbingers of help put an end to the fight. A disappointed sigh escapes from the crowd like the last gasp of a dying animal and they return to their homes.
There are many choices I could have made after the police questioned all those involved in the fight and the witnesses. As the cops try to work out whom they should arrest they jokingly say they should arrest whoever is least beaten-up, because that person is likely the instigator of the fight. We both look beat up. I am covered in blood that is all my own. My skull and face are lacerated and bleeding. Rex’s nose is broken and his face and shirt are soaked in his own blood. His internal injuries are invisible and he cannot feel them.
I hold my breath, not sure whom Meryl and Tim will accuse or whom the police will think has taken less damage.
My luck holds and the police take Rex into custody. Later, they take him to the emergency room for internal bleeding. Had those less-visible injuries been more evident perhaps I would have been the one incarcerated.
The one life lesson I learned from those Choose Your Own Adventure books was that it is possible to make all the right choices and still lose and often the unexpected option leads to defeating the proverbial or literal dragon and getting the treasure.
There was no treasure in this particular story and I didn’t feel like I had defeated any dragons. For the months that followed, the princess I was trying to save instead blamed me for fighting and injuring the dragon. I was trying to be the hero, but instead I was the villain.
Often, as in real life, there is no way of winning and the right choices are not always the correct ones. The great thing about the books was the ability to take a different path if you didn’t like the ending you got the first time.
I wish real-life had the same option.