It surprised me when he stepped on the elevator with me.

It surprised me even more when I spoke up.

He was in his late teens, he had been with a group of friends, in the mall. I had turned towards the elevator and in doing so came into their view. They all, to a one, looked over at me. Then, predictably, they started laughing, and glancing over at me. My appearance sometimes doesn’t meet a verbal response, sometimes it’s just glances from me to each other and back. I’ve been in this situation before and there are several possible responses, I was tired, I chose the ‘go by in dignity’ response, which, by the way, isn’t ‘just ignoring it’. To make it obvious that you have heard and seen the actions of others and to proceed ahead unbowed, unwilling to give them more space, to go bravely by people who have identified themselves as enemy, is action.

I waited at the elevator with my back to them. This, for me, is an act of courage. I don’t like having cruel people behind me. I feel really vulnerable. I don’t know when the words will translate into action, for the glances had become words, said loudly, for my benefit. Sometimes elevators run on molasses time and this one when it finally arrived, I felt older.

I got on, and turned around, just as the door was closing, a hand shot out to stop it. One of the young men got on the elevator with me. This surprised me and scared me a little. Alone, in a small space with someone who thinks me less than human. I was going to 5, he to 6. At 3, I’d had enough.

“Does it bother you,” I asked me, in a quiet and unemotional voice, “how easy it is for you to be needlessly cruel?”

He was startled and said, “What?”

Knowing he’d heard me, I asked an expanded question, “Does it bother you how easy it is for you to be needlessly cruel? Do you ever worry that as a father you will be abusive, that as a husband you will batter your wife? Cruelty comes easy to you. Does that bother you?”

He was shocked, so shocked he wasn’t angry, “We were having a bit of fun, that’s all.”

“Does it bother you that you define humiliating a stranger as fun? Does that worry you for who you’ll be in a few years. Will you humiliate you wife? Will you humiliate your children? I would think that at your age you’d be thinking about this? And so you know, that wasn’t fun for me?”

Now annoyed, “Sorry.” It was an apology with sarcasm.

“Does it bother you that you can’t even apologize properly to someone that you have purposely and needlessly hurt? Don’t you worry even a little about the effect of what you did on me?”

The door opens, I roll out and stop, before the door closes, “Maybe you should think about you casual cruelty and your inability to take its effects seriously before you ever marry or have children. I fear for them.”

“Fuck off,” he said, but there were tears in his eyes.

I don’t know what those tears meant, but I meant what I said. I fear for those who find cruelty a toy, who will they become if they don’t, one day, pack it away.