One evening, around twenty years ago, I watched the gala premiere of ‘Gladiator’. It turned out to be an interesting and deeply moving story about a general who would rather be home, tending to his farm, spending peaceful hours together with his wife and son. As it happens, he was betrayed, loses his family and his home, becomes a slave and then a gladiator. He still doesn’t enjoy battles. Yet he has no choice. Resigning himself to what needs to be done, he fights. To stay alive a little longer. To avenge his wife and son. Ultimately, he achieves what he sets out to do. Peace is restored, he dies in the process, and finally joins his family again in the hereafter.
The main character’s longing for peace and home, as well as his challenges to get there, was something I could easily identify with. For that reason, I enjoyed the movie far more than I expected.
What I did not enjoy was the group of drunken teenagers behind me. They were shouting obscenities. Laughing and talking loudly with each other. In general, spoiling everyone’s fairytale experience. Several people in the audience responded with the, in Switzerland, widely practiced form of passive aggression: grumbling under their breath, just loud enough to be heard, yet quiet enough so as not to be confrontational.
About twenty minutes into the movie, I just couldn’t let it slide anymore. These guys were keeping the one hundred people closest to them from being able to fall into the story. Instead they kept them, myself included, rooted in the frustrations of the real world.
I turned around. Surprisingly, there were only five of them. Judging by the noise level, I had expected a crowd of at least a dozen. I looked at each of them in turn and asked quietly, yet firmly, “Can you guys please keep it down a notch? We are all trying to enjoy the movie here.”
This was answered with hostile stares. “Thanks,” I said, “much appreciated,” and turned back to the screen.
The noise level went down significantly. However, I could feel five pairs of eyes drilling holes into my neck. I had become the focus of their attention.
Fear crept up on me and the ‘flight’ part of my instinctive fight or flight response whispered, “Get the hell out of here as soon as the movie is over.” The urgent whisper grew quiet, however, as I was drawn back into the story. The walls of the movie theater disappeared around me and I was back in ancient Rome.
As the end credits appeared on screen, I didn’t hurry to get out. I did what I always do when a movie touches me deeply: I stayed. I let everyone around me exit the theater while I enjoyed reading the credits. I let the soundtrack carry me for just a few moments longer, before it was time to come back to the present.
The credits finished rolling and the last beats of ‘Now We Are Free’ vibrated through the subwoofer. The lights came on. As I slowly got up and moved towards the emergency exit, I breathed deeply, took another hit of warm popcorn-infused air, looked at the sea of empty, blood-red seats, and pulled myself back to Earth.
I got into my car, parked just across from the theater. Hundreds of moviegoers were still outside, animatedly discussing what they had just seen. It seemed that many were not yet ready to return to their immediate concerns either. Which is why I was utterly unprepared when the door on the driver’s side was ripped open. I was too unprepared to feel fear.
It was one of the teenagers from the theater. His entire stance spelled provocation and aggression. He began rolling up his sleeves. Flexed his muscles. Sneered. Beckoned me with an arrogant tilt of the head. His eyes dared me to leave the relative safety of my car. “Come on and fight like a man,” he said.
I was so struck by the lame cliché, I laughed out loud.
He was fast. And strong. He grabbed me by the arm and yanked me out of the car. We were now standing only a breath apart. He finished rolling up his sleeves. I still wasn’t afraid.
Somehow the immediacy of it all didn’t allow me the luxury of even getting to fear. Once his sleeves were neatly secured, he swung the first punch. It only grazed me as I slipped out of the way and managed to grip him from behind. I didn’t hit him but held on as hard as I could to keep him from inflicting further damage. While I struggled to retain my hold, I thought, “Be careful Liam, don’t hurt him.”
This was when my head exploded with pain and I fell to the ground.
I hit the pavement hard and saw that the other four guys had come from behind. One of them had an old two-by-four in his hands. Most likely, I thought, from the construction site next door. At least I couldn’t see any sharp nails sticking out of it.
A woman close by began screaming. High-pierced, loud, and persistent. Combined with my utter passivity, her screams were what saved me. As she continued being a human siren…as I just lay there…absorbing kicks and blows like a punching bag, the boys succumbed to fear and boredom…and finally ran off.
I still lay on the ground, bleeding, and struggled to catch my breath. When I scanned the crowd of people who had just seen ‘Gladiator’ with me, for a moment I felt hatred. I found myself despising them instead of being furious with my attackers. None of them seemed to have taken a mobile phone out of their pockets to call the police. When I managed to make direct eye contact with some of them, they averted their eyes and hurried away.
The next morning, I realized the main damage had not been done to my body. I was a trembling mess. My self-confidence was shot. My physical wounds healed, but even months later, I still looked over my shoulder whenever I ventured into urban spaces I had previously believed to be safe. In my paranoia, every somewhat darker corner within the densely populated center of town felt like a potential battleground.
And in a way, it still does. There are always contenders out on the streets who need to prove they have the bigger…something. These days, as I walk through cities, no matter where on the planet, I am acutely aware of who they are. However, since I still do not have the faintest clue about how to properly defend myself in a fist fight, and am still not inclined to learn martial arts, I avoid eye contact and look at the birds in the sky, the leaves in the gutter, or the tips of my shoes. I walk calmly past them, seemingly preoccupied and as unthreatening as can be.
But even though I want to be safe, I have never stopped wanting to take a stand when it is necessary. In certain situations, I just have to speak up. When I see an act of injustice. When I realize interfering might protect someone. Or, when walking past without any acknowledgement will mean giving in too much, not respecting my own boundaries, or even losing part of myself.
No matter what though, I don’t want to get physical. This doesn’t constitute a lack of courage. I just abhor the thought of attacking someone with my fists or, worse, a weapon. It is an invisible boundary I do not want to cross unless there is no other way of protecting myself from serious injury.
Over the years, I’ve listened in locker rooms and bars and picked up snippets of how other men feel about physical conflict. I’ve chatted to some of my closer work mates and friends about it. Predominantly, it seems, men are still part-warrior. More than once have I heard someone say, “You have not experienced life fully until you’ve been in a real fight.”
Well, I have been. Yet, no matter how I look at it, other than the psychological trauma which needed months to heal, my Gladiator experience has not given me anything valuable. Nothing I’ll be able to apply to anything in any useful manner. After being punched, kicked, and battered with a piece of wood, I did not have an epiphany or get any insight into managing my life better. All that is left of the experience, twenty years later, is sadness at the randomness of human cruelty. An acceptance that this seems to be part of the human condition. And continuing incomprehension as to why anyone could draw satisfaction from beating another.
I’d rather talk with people. Discuss problems before they pass the point of no return. But, even then, sometimes they do pass that point. Then, awareness of the emotional boundaries is everything. They are so easily violated. Words matter. A verbal beating can be just as painful as a physical one. Or worse, for that matter, leaving wounds which may never heal.
This is why in a verbal conflict, if none of us has the capacity to listen, or if we can’t reach a plane of mutual respect, I keep trying anyway. If this brings no solution, I let it go and walk away.
This is the extent of what I can do when faced with the allegorical brick wall. Bleeding knuckles are okay. I can deal with that. I can heal from that. But when my emotional bones (or the bones of another) start breaking, I walk away. Because I don’t want to harm myself or anyone else. And because violence, be it physical or emotional, leaves only victims on both sides.
© Liam Klenk
Liam Klenk is a stage manager and writer. He was born in Central Europe and has since lived on four continents. Liam has always been engaged in creative pursuits, ranging from photography and graphic design, to writing short stories and poetry, to working in theatre and shows. In 2016, Liam published his first book and memoir, Paralian.