Webbstock is a tradition at Webb Institute going back to 1979. All about booze and bands, it runs from daybreak until long after sundown the first weekend in June. Students, alumni, their families, and close friends are all welcome to attend. There’s an all-day barbecue along with adult bouncy castles, inflatable slides, and other carnival-flavored attractions.
But the students emphasize the drinking. Most of them take their first beer with breakfast and continue, nonstop, until they pass out some 14 hours later. Truthfully, Webbstock is an endurance marathon. Sharpies are left around campus for students to uncap and draw tally marks on their forearms, one for each beer. Kegs are set up along with plastic cups on the first terrace. The following afternoon, bleary-eyed and hungover, students stagger from their dorm rooms eager to compare forearms.
It is, as the school website proudly declares, Webb’s “most infamous event.”
* * *
Three weeks after Jonathan’s assault, I flew out to New York for Webbstock. Things were tense with my brother Allan. I was outraged over his indifference to the consequences of the assault, particularly the resurgence of my PTSD symptoms. His resolute defense of his friendship with Jonathan set my teeth on edge.
Still, my brother was about to graduate. Months earlier, he had invited me to the school’s end-of-the-year party to celebrate with him. I had bought the ticket long before, and I hoped the invitation still stood. So, as best I could, I set aside my anger with him and flew out for one last hurrah on Long Island.
* * *
The day went well enough. I racked up seven tally marks on my forearm, sipping flavorless beer in the June heat with young people I’d met four years earlier and had come to know on my once or twice-a-year visits.
There was Stacey, an outspoken young woman with a loud laugh and long blonde hair who loved literature as much as math. The first year I met her, she had climbed through an open casement window in a skirt and shook my hand. I immediately and permanently liked her. A real Renaissance woman, she played the piano and wrote fiction with the same easy confidence she brought to the wave tank or drafting software.
There was JC, my brother’s roommate, at once easygoing and hawk-eyed. Nothing got past him, yet he was kind about it. He was feminist, keenly intelligent, and humble with a gentle laugh. When he beat me easily at chess that weekend, he was good-natured about it. I loved his company and so did my brother.
There was Dale, one of my brother’s best friends who was always in the top three of his class. Keen and ambitious, he was also playful and witty. Dale had grown up in a rough community in New Mexico where most of his peers didn’t even go on to college. He was mixed race, and some of the white Webb students never let him forget it.
And there was Nathan, a young man whose fervent Christianity annoyed my brother as much as his pointed questions. Has your brother ever dated anyone? Is your brother a virgin? This trip, I had turned to him for bookstore recommendations during my day in Manhattan. He was musical and extroverted, almost to a fault, but he was fun.
All of them were earning double majors in marine engineering and naval architecture. All of them were headed for impressive jobs at firms where their starting salary would be more than I could ever hope to see in two or three years, even at the peak of my career as an educator.
My brother was constantly warning me that they didn’t see me as an equal because of my income and life choices. But I liked them, and I felt that we got along nicely. Maybe it was all in my brother’s head. They were intelligent, and I believe even now that part of intelligence means understanding that other people are playing different ballgames. A middle-aged janitor may have achieved more impressive feats in his life than a CEO. It all depends on what a person has been through.
* * *
After dark, Webbstock started to settle down. The local band had found their groove, and people were dancing barefoot on the lawn. The barbecue line was minimal. Families and friends and alumni had gone home. Some of the students, those who had racked up a couple dozen tally marks too quickly, had passed out on the lawns.
I was talking with Nathan. His classmates had groaned earlier in the day when they’d spotted him down on the second terrace chasing someone’s sister. Apparently, this was a usual problem with Nathan at most parties. I didn’t understand why he was still invited.
I was wearing the Webbstock T-shirt that had been handed out earlier in the day, along with a pair of my brother’s shorts, his belt tied around my waist to keep them up. I’d spilled sauce all over my pants, and this was the best solution we could come up with. With my buzz cut hair and boyish clothes, I’d been told I looked “like a male cancer patient.” This pleased me.
As we talked, Nathan suddenly put a hand on my back and drew his fingers up my spine. I stepped away.
Undeterred, he then reached around me until his arm was draped over my shoulders. Then, he closed his elbow around my throat.
It didn’t seem real. It had happened so abruptly, without warning. It had to be a joke, taken too far as usual with him. Nathan was my friend. Wasn’t he? I was sure he would let go at any moment, having played his prank.
But he didn’t.
He started to drag me away from the crowd and towards the lower terraces, empty and dark with shadows. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t make a sound. White points of light dotted my vision. My ears buzzed. I clawed at his arm, but he kept dragging me off the lawn. Desperate, I shoved my entire body weight forward, but he only closed his arm tighter around my throat and continued dragging me away towards the shadows. Another minute, and I would be out cold.
A switch flipped in my brain. I actually felt it snap.
I was sick of this shit. So, so fucking sick of it. All my life, I had done everything in my power to avoid hurting people no matter what they did to me. For 31 years, I had believed that violence couldn’t be defeated with violence. I had bought Jonathan gelato. I had paid hundreds of dollars to fly out to see the father who had sexually assaulted me. I had apologized to Top for the times that I had hurt him, never mind his assaults.
But all my nonviolent philosophy had earned me was more violence from men.
Maybe it was all the conversations with Nick about how women have every right to break bones if a man comes after them. Maybe it was the year of being out on my own and having to take care of myself in the face of stalking and harassment. Or maybe everyone has a breaking point, and this was mine. But it felt like flipping a breaker.
And my brain snapped into flame.
I stopped dissociating. This shit was really happening. Again. And no amount of thinking the best of someone was going to help me. Nathan was dragging me off somewhere that other people couldn’t see us, for some unknowable reason. I couldn’t breathe, and my lungs were starting to burn, and my vision was going dark. And I had to take care of this myself.
So I elbowed Nathan hard in the ribs.
He doubled over.
And then I kicked him, somewhat gently, in the same spot. Tae Kwon Do had trained me to break multiple boards. I knew how to break ribs. But that wasn’t my goal. My goal was just to shove him off long enough for me to get away.
He staggered backwards.
But then Nathan grabbed me again.
I had still been too gentle. I had still been too concerned with how my efforts to protect myself against a man’s violence would affect him. Lesson learned.
Next time, I promised myself. So long as there is a next time, I will break the fucker’s ribs. Any man who so much as touches me. No more of this shit.
Before he folded his arm around my neck again, I had time to shout one thing. I had studied the Kitty Genovese murder. I knew that calling for help was worthless. So I picked the one young man I could see most clearly, someone I had chatted up earlier in the evening. And I folded my hands around Nathan’s forearm and held him off as long as I could. “John!”
And then my air was cut off again. Nathan was dragging me across the grass again, and I tried to elbow him again. But this time he was expecting it. My vision was darkening again when I saw a large figure stalk over. “Hey,” John said and threw a punch.
Nathan’s arm slipped away, and I dashed.
Scared and faint with a sharp ache in my throat from being strangled, I ran.
I ran, and I didn’t look back.