Some words can be small. They are wisps of wind running smoothly past you for a moment, caressing your skin or blowing back a strand of hair, but are soon forgotten. These are small words. Some words can be giant. They are looming storms that demand your attention, force you to alter your view, and are hard to forget. Small words are polite gestures and hellos. Giant words are declarations and have the ability to cause a blow to the deepest parts of the soul. They are the reason they say the pen is mightier than the sword.
My family was a dictionary of small words. We were agreeable and polite. We did not shout. We did not disagree. We tried our hardest to blend in and maintain a positive light in our community, despite our olive toned skin and dark hair in a sea of white and blond. My father was a local store owner. A hardworking man and a pillar in the community’s small business sector. He was known as one of the kindest men in our town. He helped anyone and did everything in his power for even the meekest stranger.
My mother barely spoke even a small word. She was the model house wife. She cleaned until the hard wood floors glowed, cooked so much I didn’t know what our house smelt like without an underlying hint of garlic and rice, took care of the three children my parents created together as a way to solidify their marriage, smiled politely with lowered eyes and a hunched back, and agreed with anything my father said. My siblings were perfect replicas of my parents. My older brother was just as hardworking and dedicated as my father. My younger sister was just as quiet and obedient as my mother. I was the middle child, and I was neither.
Growing up, my mother warned us against using what she called giant words. She said these were the words you couldn’t take back. The words that caused chaos or change. The words we were not allowed to express in public. As a child, I never used these giant words. Even when someone was disagreeable or said harsh things about me or my siblings, I scurried off and cried to my mother, who would reassure me that I did the correct thing. As I grew, I watched my older brother thwart off bullies with silence. Eventually, silence wasn’t enough though and he turned to the library as a safe haven. My little sister was pretty and petite, and despite following my mother in her mannerisms, was popular and vain with rumors and secrets following her through our schools halls like smog. I was considered the outsider. I had a temper like fire that heated my chest until I would explode, giant words and devils spit following suit. I began to feel more and more claustrophobic in our small, sleepy town and found refuge in drawing to control my anxieties. I kept an old, dark purple college rule notebook that I would draw and write in for hours about anything I could see or imagine. I would write the giant words I wasn’t allowed to say – mean things, harsh things, sorrowful things. All my emotions bled out of my soul and onto the pages of my notebook.
One afternoon while my siblings and I were walking home from the market, a young boy with skin like rice paper and fire red hair that curled with a misleading sense of friendliness began to follow us. He chanted giant words in the form of slurs and insults that caused a pain I had never known before. A pain that began as a tingle in my feet and my fingers, that slowly became an ache in my arms and legs, and eventually became a sharp stab in my heart and soul, my entire being pulsing with anger and hurt. This anger was fueled further by my brother’s empty eyes paired with stomach churning silence and my sisters tear soaked cheeks covered by dark hair and hunched shoulders. I don’t remember when I stopped walking, my anger boiling to the point that I could no longer will my body to ignore it. The boy, whose ignorance and hate radiated off of him like the rays of the sun, was genuinely surprised I had stopped. My brother and sister whispered in our native tongue to keep walking and ignore him. I don’t remember when my fist flew like a powerful bird and landed on the boys jaw with an even more powerful crack. I don’t remember crying as I fought him, rage and pain propelling my fist towards him. I don’t remember the giant words I yelled at him as my brother pulled me off the now limp boy. All I remember is thinking enough, and that I would no longer take this abuse in the most giant font possible.
I snapped out of the memory as my eyes refocused on my notebook, a new one I adopted in adulthood that graduated from the old beat up college rule notebook to a sketch book journal, a dark purple cover being the only commonality between the two. The page that I was first mindlessly scribbling in was now filled with dark and harsh lines that slashed across the page like black flesh wounds. I wiped a tear that had escaped my eye with the back of my hand, hoping that no one in the busy, noise soaked café had noticed. It had been a long time since I had left home to escape the small words and even smaller town, and an even longer time since I was tormented for the last time as a child. After that day, no one really spoke to me in school. I became a recluse and spent the rest of my adolescence in my childhood room that had been covered from ceiling to floor with art work, pictures, and posters that made me feel like I was living in a work of art. It didn’t take me long to realize that art and graphic design were my calling. So the day after I graduated high school, I packed everything I could in two duffle bags until they overflowed and left for New York. What had welcomed me was exactly what I had hoped for – flashing lights, lots of people, plenty of art, and even more giant words. I was excited to be somewhere where I could be as loud and expressive as I wanted to be. I could tell the guy with the slick haircut, tailored suit, and ear piece to piss off when his shoulder collided with mine. I could tell the racist hidden by forced smiles paired with demeaning eyes that I was proud of who I was, paired with a middle finger and a smile. What I hadn’t expected was the smell of trash and smog, the eerie feeling of always being watched with prying eyes, and the sense of misplacement even when my giant words stood up for me like a personal soldier. Now, a year and some change later, my roommate finally was able to convince me to start going to some clubs and social gatherings.
At first, embarrassment of where I came from that tucked itself in my chest like a cancerous lump of doubt stopped me from going. As time went on though, it grew into a full on fear of not being enough. What if I wasn’t artsy enough or stylish enough? What if I didn’t fit in? What if my giant words couldn’t hold a candle to someone else’s? These questions ran through my head day and night like they were triggered by the sun and moon until I began to see the irony. I realized that back home I felt like I was too much, and here, I was afraid of not being enough. Both times I would have to swallow my fear in order to move on.
I gathered my things and took one last swig of my bitter coffee and let the strong smell of freshly ground coffee beans from the front of the store invade my nose. I stepped outside and took in the brisk New York morning. Piercing wind and white powdery snow covering the streets froze me to the bone as I began my two block trudge back to my apartment. As the wind whipped past me and caused a numbing ache in my nose and fingers, I couldn’t help but notice how quiet the snow had made the city. It was peaceful, something I hadn’t experienced since I had left home. The usual yelling and honking and snide comments were silenced by the bright white snow. It was just the sound of wind and snow crunching under my boots when all of a sudden, I had pang of something else deep within my chest and soul, something foreign to me until this peaceful moment. A pang of homesickness.
On a chilly night not too long after I had experienced the strange sense of homesickness, there was a buzz of excitement in the air as me and my roommate Jenna walked down the sidewalk, the lights and neon signs from clubs and bars gave the street an artificial and surreal glow that lit up the night and made me smile. This would be the first time I had gone to a bar and my excitement was almost enough to shake off the cold wind that was threatening to make my face go numb. Jenna had said we were meeting some of her work friends and their people. Being a tattoo artist that sometimes delved into the hardcore party and drug scene, this had worried me almost to the point of denying the invite. Eventually, she was able to convince me anyway and we were now standing outside of a bar tucked right inside of a dark alleyway that smelled of booze and piss. The bar itself had no indication that it was actually a bar besides the small neon sign that read “Crazy8’s” and a young guy with a scraggly beard and cigarette hanging out of his mouth sitting outside on a blue wore out plastic crate checking ID’s.
After the usual hassle and conversation of “is this a real ID?” “Then what’s your birthday?” we were able to go inside after having two large X’s drawn on the top of my hand that reminded me of the harsh lines I had written in my journal. Being a newly turned 19 year older definitely had its downsides. As we stepped inside of the club, the smell of smoke smacked me in my face and throat so hard it made me cough. That paired with the smell of beer and undertone of throw up almost made me run for the door. It didn’t help that the music was so loud all you could make out was its rhythmic drumming. It was making it hard for me to even think. Jenna held onto my arm and ushered me inside, killing any chance I had of fresh air.
We walked up to a dark brown high table covered in beer bottles, half-finished drinks, stains from nights past, and cigarette ash that looked like it was almost everywhere except for in the ashtray. Jenna introduced me to a couple people, her boyfriend Bryan whose hair was purple and slicked back to reveal a tattoo under his hairline that read “Repent”, two other artists from the same shop named Kyle and Rachel who looked like Goth twins complete with all-black outfits and heavy dark makeup, and Rachel’s boyfriend Travis. The first thing I noticed about Travis was the medium sized swastika tattoo on his neck and his clean shaven head paired with a underground band t shirt and dirty ripped up jeans. As everyone said hello and offered small polite words, Travis offered a slight head nod and what sounded like a disgruntled “hmm” under his breath. Jenna grabbed my arm abruptly and pulled me away, telling everyone we were going to get a drink.
As soon as we were out of ear shot, she offered an apology, “I’m so sorry man. I had no idea Rachel had gotten back with him. If you’re uncomfortable at all just let me know and we can leave.” I appreciated her genuine apology and concern, but rage had already began to bubble inside of me like a red hot kettle.
“No it’s okay. Thanks. If he says anything he’s got another thing coming for him.”
“Right on man,” she agreed as she smiled and grabbed two overflowing beers from the chipped wood bar.
We walked back over to the table and I noticed Travis speaking to Rachel in harsh whispers. As we sat down, Rachel announced awkwardly that Travis and she were leaving.
“Aw man, why what’s up?” Bryan asked, with genuine concern etched onto his face.
“I’m just not feeling super well,” Rachel replied, trying to be as convincing as possible and failing miserably.
“It’s because I’m here, right Travis?” I offered coolly as I took a small sip of my beer, rage laced into my words.
“Whatever man, let’s go.” Travis spit the words out as he grabbed Rachel’s hand and forced her out of her seat, embarrassment evident on Rachel’s face as she retracted into herself and offered a quiet I’m sorry to Jenna. The way she hunched her shoulders and looked down at the ground sent a stab to my gut as all I could see was an exact replica of my mother. My rage took over and exploded from inside me as I stood up and began lashing out harsh and giant words at Travis, things before I would only have ever wrote in my notebook. Jenna tried to stop me by telling me to calm down and let it go, which only fueled my spite more and made me fling even more giant words at Travis like daggers, who was now beat red in the face and looked like smoke was about to start rising from his ears.
Suddenly, in the mist of my rant about being a racist pig along with other ugly and giant words, Travis’ fist collided with my cheek bone with a blow that sent me flying into another table. He continued to get on top of me, his weight feeling like a large sack of bricks, as his fists came at me with an intensity and speed I couldn’t even keep up with as he screamed profanities that I couldn’t even make out. My head began to become cloudy and vision blurry as Travis was finally ripped off me, the smoke filled air being welcomed compared to his lung crushing weight and blows. I felt warm sticky blood trickle out of my nose and mouth and run down my face, and I couldn’t see out of my left eye. Jenna and Rachel were yelling something at each other while Travis was being forced out of the club by guys with shirts that had “Security” printed on them in bright yellow. The world began to fade in and out and my vision and hearing continued to blur until the world was finally a welcomed dark and silent void.
I woke up to the rhythmic beeping of monitors, bright white artificial lights that made my one eye that could open sting, and the smell of bleach and Clorox. Jenna and Bryan were sitting next to me with worry painted on their faces. When I finally got my senses back to an acceptable level, they asked me if I was okay. They explained that Travis had broken my cheek bone, nose, and eye socket, which explained the lack of sight. My nose had already been set back in place but my cheek bone and eye socket would have to be evaluated once the swelling went down.
“Are you crazy though?? Travis could have killed you man. All cause you wanted to be some tough guy and talk shit.” Jenna’s words struck me hard as tears began to form in my good eye.
“I was trying to stick up for myself,” I argued back. “No one else would have so I called him out.” Despite having a broken face, I was trying hard to find a small sense of pride in using giant words to defend myself.
“Stick up for yourself? Travis was leaving. You didn’t have to say anything in order to be right. Him leaving was reason enough to know he’s a racist bastard. But saying all that stuff just took it to a whole other place,” Bryan explained in an understanding yet firm tone. It reminded me of my father and the pang of homesickness returned again, this time in the form of sadness and regret as I realized what I was trying to avoid all along actually held a hint of truth, that just because we have giant words doesn’t mean we have to use them. My mother had been right in what I thought were her boring and traditional teachings. Even though giant words can be helpful and are sometimes needed, sometimes small words or silence all together was an even more powerful weapon.
“You’re right guys, I’m sorry,” I choked out past the lump that had formed in my throat as I began to reminisce on my family and childhood.
“Hey, were not the ones with cracked faces. Next time, just try to hold your tongue a little okay?” Jenna said through a small half smile and chuckle.
“Yeah man, of course,” I promised to my friends as I also made a silent promise to myself that I would visit my small worded family very soon.