The best part of browsing my old college writing is that I occasionally happen upon an event that hasn’t crossed my mind in over a decade.
I usually find a little detail here or there that gives me a chuckle. Very rarely, I’ll find a real gem in there, though. And it’s almost always the sort of story that makes me wonder how I could have possibly forgotten it in the first place.
In this case, I’d been wandering around campus shortly after midnight. I had just returned from a fruitful Taco Bell run. I was probably on my way home to watch Adult Swim because, as a total winner, that was the way I spent most nights. And I very well might have, if the sidewalk hadn’t suddenly been blocked by a group of seven sweaty, shirtless men sporting assorted injuries.
“Hey,” one said when he spotted me, nudging one of his equally shirtless companions. “Let’s ask him.”
It should go without saying that I had zero interest in being asked whatever question he had in mind, let alone answering it. But, like a deer caught in seven very shirtless headlights, I was frozen in place.
“You look bored,” one said.
It wasn’t a question. I very briefly entertained the notion of telling him this, until I heard my grandfather’s sagely advice to never correct a sweaty man with no shirt. For once, the side story of why my grandfather told me that is less interesting than the one I’m telling now, so I won’t get into it.
“Want to have some fun?” another asked. Or maybe it was the same one. It was hard to tell the seven men apart when I was trying to look in literally any other direction.
I cycled through the list of potential answers. I had plans. I didn’t want any trouble. Saying nothing and just falling into the fetal position and crying. As they all seemed about equally likely to end with my savage beating at the hands of a baker’s half dozen of sweaty men, I chose one at random. “I…was just headed back to my room.”
My answer led to the obvious follow-up question. “Have you ever seen ‘Fight Club?'”
Wait. Did I say “obvious?” Because I meant “totally nonsensical shirtless non-sequitur.”
I had seen the movie. In fact, I’d been a disillusioned, angsty high school student, which meant I’d watched it over and over in an attempt to find a bit of meaning in my life. And I certainly could have told them this, though the fact that they weren’t wearing shirts urged caution in volunteering anything but the minimal amount of information. “I think I saw it…a while ago,” I hedged.
One of them stepped forward. “I want you to attack me the hardest you can,” he said with a grin that suggested…I’m not quite sure what. Definitely not something I wanted suggested anywhere in my vicinity.
“Punch me as hard as you can,” one of the others corrected.
“No,” another chimed in. “Hit me as hard as you can.”
Suffice to say, I did literally none of those things.
“Oh,” I said. “Like in the movie. I get it.” I glanced off toward the door to my building, wondering if I could make a break for it the next time they tried to correct a misquote from the movie. Don’t get me wrong. So far as being approached by a group of sweaty men goes, this was probably one of the better outcomes. All the same, I didn’t want to linger there.
Though, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to ask whether or not it had been a set rule in the movie that no shirts were allowed. I’d never thought of it before that moment. It suddenly seemed very important.
“What do you say? Want to join our Fight Club?” the one who’d recently beckoned me to attack him asked.
“Rule number one! We don’t talk about Fight Club!” another called out.
It was a tempting offer. I mean, they were getting a solid forty percent of the movie quotes right. Still, as fun as it was to be in one of the few situations that would end with me being punched by a stranger whether I agreed with them or told them I slept with their sister, I politely declined. “I’m…actually pretty tired. I should eat my dinner and get some sleep.”
“Yeah, well, how much can you really know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” one asked, nearly at a point in the conversation where it would’ve been clever.
“I’ve actually been in…I don’t know…three fights? I’m good.” I certainly hadn’t learned anything particularly interesting about myself, aside from how much I dislike being punched. And even that was probably something I could’ve guessed.
The group was midway through trying to come up with a fitting but not quite correct movie quote when a flashlight shined on all of us, saving them the trouble. “Hey! Everyone put your hands where I can see them. Nobody move!” a police officer said, emerging from the shadows.
Two members of the Fight Club immediately moved, sprinting off at top speed. Within moments, both they and their hands were completely out of sight. Honestly, it was like they weren’t listening at all.
A second officer surveyed the situation and scowled. “What the hell is going on here?”
I turned back to the shirtless men, still having more than a passing curiosity myself. Sadly, no one volunteered the information. On the other hand, no one tried answering it with a butchered line from the movie, so it wasn’t all bad.
Some discussion followed, with one member after another trying to fumble through what had happened in a way that made it seem less insane than it actually was. One had even gone so far as to clam up, aside from saying, “We all wanted to hit each other, so no one’s pressing charges! So no one broke any laws!”
It was then that the officers turned to me and my rapidly cooling Mexican food. “What about you? You with them?”
I glanced down at myself and blinked, wondering if I’d somehow misplaced my clothing and become heavily bruised since I last looked. I felt this should have been the first place the police checked, as well, but I’m not one to tell people how to do their jobs. “No. I don’t even want to be standing near them.”
“Yeah? Then why are you out so late?” he pressed, suspiciously. As though there weren’t thirty other students wandering within a hundred feet of us if he’d just swiveled his head slightly.
I held the bag of food up. “I was getting dinner.”
“What sort of person is out getting dinner at one in the morning?”
I don’t recall my exact answer to the question, though I can safely assume it wasn’t that I was very obviously a total winner.
The officer gave me another look up and down, then shrugged. “Fine,” he said, finally believing either my explanation or shirt. He sent me on my way before leading the line of shirtless and now sobbing men toward the parking lot. The last thing I heard before they left earshot was, “I swear to God. That movie has ruined a goddamned generation.”
“Yeah,” the other answered sarcastically. “Everything was fine between ‘Animal House’ and ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ and now.”
“Shut up, Doug.”
And that’s where I think I’ll end the story. Lest I accidentally end up suggesting there was some sort of greater moral to take from it. Or, perhaps more importantly, before I take the easy way out and end with a painfully forced tie-in quote from the movie.
Stop waiting for one. We’re not doing this. We’re both better than this.