I hated when people picked on me and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. My mom told me to ignore them. I thought being just as mean back by ignoring them would make me powerful until Billy Gunther tried to show me his dick on the bus.
Billy Gunther hadn’t always been shitty to me. When we were little we’d play together, me him and Billy’s brother Edward. We lived only one house apart. The Kents separated us. When I was three I stayed with the Gunthers overnight because my mom and dad went to the hospital for my brother Leo to be born. Our families went on vacation and shared a house in Cape Cod when Billy was 6 and Edward and I were 5. We all stayed in the same room. Billy said I sucked my thumb when I slept. I corrected him and said I sucked my finger. My brother sucked his thumb, but he was only two years old.
Five years later the Gunthers got divorced. Liz Gunther discovered feminism and yoga and self-actualization. She remarried a creepy dude named Willoughby with long hair and a beard. No one liked him, especially Billy. That was my guess anyway. Since the divorce our families broke apart. The only time I saw Billy was at the bus stop when he’d stare menacingly at me. I’d see him on the bus when he would go toward the back seats. I stayed close to the front.
Edward was nicer than Billy. He’d say hi to me and there’d be no meanness to it. When all the neighborhood kids would gather in someone’s backyard to play freeze tag or hide and seek sometimes he’d play too. At least until Billy would come by and call him a faggot for hanging out with little kids.
Inside the cheddar colored universe that was our school bus Billy liked to harass everyone, including the bus drivers. On the way home from school Billy would kick the back of some kid’s seat, making the kid too scared to tell him to stop. When the bus driver noticed what Billy was doing and told him to knock it off, Billy would claim not to be doing it and sass back in the time honored 6th grade boy way by loudly mumbling “bullshit” and camouflage it with a cough.
Everybody learned to curse on the bus, but with Billy it was different. It was the way he said it, the way he wanted you to know it came from him and how he’d threaten you if you tried to copy him. Billy could turn on you for nothing and that was scarier than the possibility of being beaten up.
I spent most of my time indoors. It felt safer. After school I’d rush home to watch Hogan’s Heroes. The silly Nazis of Stalag 13 weren’t going to hurt me but Billy and the swarm of boys outside might. I started walking to a bus stop further away from my house that had younger kids at it. I got off one stop early so I wouldn’t have to see Billy or give him the opportunity to find me. I constantly looked over both shoulders on my walk home.
But you can’t do that all the time. You get distracted from your suspicions and paranoia. I had a new Little House on the Prairie book from the school library and wanted to keep reading it on the bus home. I had my head in it and didn’t get to the front of the bus line. By the time I’d walked down the aisle all the front seats were taken. There was an empty seat toward the middle. I took it and got back to page 83 to see what Laura Ingalls was going to do next. The bus started moving, beginning our 45-minute ride home. That’s when I heard Billy’s voice come from the seat across from me.
“I’m going to show you my dick, Jennifer.”
He wasn’t loud or boisterous. He didn’t have his coterie of boys around him. His voice was low enough for me to hear but not anyone else.
I didn’t look at him. I turned my head out the window to see how far along we were in our journey home.
“I’m going to show you my dick and you’re not going to tell anyone about it.”
I looked down at the book on my lap. I really wanted to go back to South Dakota to find out if Laura survived the blizzard.
“If they ask, you tell them it was my thumb.”
My mother told me to ignore people if they said mean things to me. She wasn’t here right now. I was and I didn’t know how to ignore someone six feet away when I couldn’t go anywhere else.
“I’m going to show you my dick.”
I turned my head. Billy was looking straight into the green vinyl seat in front of him and had his hands in front of his fly. There might have been some white flash of underwear, the appearance of something fleshy, maybe flesh colored; maybe pink with a hint of a blue vein underneath it. I really couldn’t tell and I really couldn’t look much longer without him seeing me paying attention. My mother told me that was what people wanted when they said mean things to you, attention.
I turned my head back to my book and Billy kept saying, “I’m going to show you my dick.” I kept ignoring him the entire ride home.
I don’t think he even needed me to pay attention. He needed me as an audience so he wouldn’t appear to be talking to himself because talking to yourself is crazy, or at least that’s what I was told when I got caught doing it.
I thought that he was doing this because he saw me naked through my bathroom window; that Billy wanted me to see him so we’d be even. After the first glance I didn’t want to look again. I didn’t want to be there and know he made me see something I didn’t choose to just by talking to me. I couldn’t do anything about it because I didn’t know what he’d do if I told him to leave me alone. I didn’t say anything because I was afraid he’d do something worse.
“What are you going to tell people you saw Jennifer?”
“Your thumb,” I replied as the bus slowed down in front of our stop.
The doors opened and I immediately stood up and walked off. I didn’t look behind me. I walked past the five houses from the bus stop to mine with my head down. If I didn’t look up there wouldn’t be anyone else there to threaten me with their dicks or anything else. If I just got home and upstairs and into my room before my mother asked me how my day was I wouldn’t have to talk about it. I could just think about it and then maybe pretend it never happened.
It hurt too much to know there wasn’t any magic thing to do to make people stop picking on you so I followed Billy’s instructions faithfully for thirty-six years and never told anyone about what he did. Those films they made us watch at assemblies, the ones that taught you to be afraid of strangers with candy; they lied. It’s the people you know that are far more dangerous.