The angriest I’ve ever been is every time I think about those two assholes in the black BMW on Mulholland. It’s like the switch of a crematory oven. The memory flicks on and I’m consumed. A seething, ethereal anger. It boils my skin. Pops my skull. The smell is burning hair.
It comes without provocation. Driving to the beach, winding through a creek-carved canyon illuminated by orange and yellow sycamores. Sea-salt seasoned breeze rushing through the open windows. I never even see the trigger coming.
Then: “What if I had just accelerated when he got out of the car and smashed him against the door?”
The perverse fantasy stage. Reimagining a past shit experience, if only you had done this instead. I’ve catalogued my favorites. One goes like this.
They swerve back over the double yellow line in front of us, 3 inches from clipping my left headlight. I’m expecting them to speed off with the pre-adolescent aggression of boys who drive for fun. Middle fingers bobbing up and down out both windows, positioned towards us, disappearing over the hill ahead.
Nope. Brakelights. The driver door opens. Out steps a man way too big for his car. Black shirt. The passenger door opens. His friend, shaved head, gets out as well. They march. I look over at Matt. Our surfboards wait apprehensively in the back. Black shirt and slicked back hair gets to my window. He slams his palm against it. Screams something. I look ahead. My foot lifts off the brake. It drops. The two assholes jump back. They’re totally caught off guard. I’m not trying to get speed. Just torque. The back bumper of the black BMW disappears behind the curve of my hood. Contact. Matt and I jolt forward, but my foot stays on the gas. Slow and steady. The RPMs sound unholy. I can barely even hear black shirt and his friend screaming. More pressure. More revs. Then it gives. Inertia is overcome. Now we’re coasting. The front doors of the BMW slam shut with the forward momentum. Applying slight pressure to the right side, I’m able to steer it across the double yellow line. Traffic coming from the other way has stopped to watch. The assholes are banging on my windows but they can’t stop us. We’re getting off the pavement. Onto the dirt shoulder. Off the dirt shoulder. Onto the edge. Off the edge. Into the creek. My motor takes a sigh of relief. I squeal out in reverse and take off in our original direction. We’re going to the beach. The assholes are left in disbelief. Castrated of their automotive cojones.
I wish. None of that actually happened. At least the ending. Not something to brag about. And it all started with a middle finger. My middle finger, to be exact. Of my left hand, to be overly descriptive.
It turns out the middle finger has been a form of insult for millenia. Socrates fell victim to it from an impatient student. The Romans called it the digitus infamis, which I love. In the US it has several names. To flip someone off, flick someone off, give them the finger. Supposedly to flip the bird, but who really says that? The beauty of it is it doesn’t really matter what you call it, because it’s a language that needs no words. You can try and define it as “fuck you.” It’s really much more primal than that. Just the most basic form of telling someone that to you, they are shit. Nothing. Unworthy of respect.
You’d think something so old would lose its power to inspire reaction after a while. Almost like the expression “How are you?” which is probably responded to with a lie more routinely than any other phrase in English. After so long, it loses any real meaning. Our response is automatic and without authenticity.
I’ve learned the hard way that this isn’t the case with digitus infamis. Like many Angelenos, the middle finger is a reliable part of my arsenal during driver-to-driver interactions. There’s never time to explain to someone why their driving sucks. A simple gesture says everything I need to express.
I too have been on the receiving end. In this case I automatically return the favor. Almost like waving to a friend on the other side of the street. It’s not that there’s a deeply held grudge between me and the other person. We’re just engaging with each other in the most efficient way we can. Flip each other off and continue on with our days. There might be some ruffled feathers for the next few minutes, but we get over it. It’s not a lasting anger.
How naive I was in overlooking the fragility of masculine egoism. It turns out the guys that act the toughest are too sensitive to handle a casual insult.
So, back to the story. Without the amendments that paint me as a hero.
Matt and I on our way to surf. The left from Old Topanga onto Mulholland. If you don’t see a car coming around the corner, you’d better hit the gas. There’s no other chance to make it. I see the opening. I go.
Next thing I know there’s a pair of headlights less than a foot behind me. A fascist tailgate, brights flashing. If this were Mario Kart, I’d release a banana. Instead, I hit the juice of my wipers. At 50 mph the liquid barely even touches my windshield. It careens over the top of my car and descends in a perfect parabola onto the black BMW that’s trying to give my bumper a kiss. Bullseye. The reaction is instantaneous. The car careens across the double yellow line and passes me in a fury of screaming pistons. Without a second thought, I launch the missile. The infamous digit. Erect and gleaming, I display it with pride to my passing adversaries.
They cut in front of us and reciprocate. Their middle fingers bob up and down, as though the oscillating motion adds to the insult. I expect nothing less. Until they stop. I hit the brakes, unsure of how to react. Their doors open, and out they come. Black shirt. Shaved head. Marching towards us. I don’t hit the gas.
The driver is screaming at me and lifting up his shirt to show me scars from what he’s emphatically explaining are stab and bullet wounds. I’m not really sure how this is relevant, but I listen, an expression of concern on my face. He continues by telling me that he should kick my ass. His friend spits at Matt. It’s really difficult to believe these guys are actually this mad because of my god damned middle finger. But here we are.
I just tell the psychopath to calm down and go back to his car. After showing me the scars on his pot belly again, in case I’d forgotten, he finally does. Matt and I watch them walk away and get into the BMW. The wheels screech as they speed off, proud participants in the automotive pissing contest that makes it a pain in the ass to live near any highway. I don’t hesitate to put the car into drive and continue on. Trying to act like nothing happened. Passing it off with phrases like those guys are fucking idiots then changing the subject to how the waves might be. But I’m not thinking about the waves anymore. My blood is mercury ready to burst out of a glass vial. My chest is a ball of thread so knotted up and twisted you can’t even find where it starts. I’m seething.
I try to be the bigger man. Control my emotions. Observe and react to the world without letting my instincts overtake me. All that quasi-buddhist shit. And it’s easy to do and feel high and mighty about when an old woman is taking too long at the grocery checkout line.
But this. This is stronger than me. The rage that skips a simmer and goes straight to a boil. The feeling is just as strong as when it all went down. And I’m its slave. That’s the worst part of it all. Those assholes would be elated to know how much their grotesque machismo still gets to me. Pricks.
The one satisfaction is the irony of knowing how insecure guys like that have to be. I mean, sweet Jesus, if some skinny kid’s middle finger inspires you to slam on your brakes in the middle of the highway and show him your belly scars while you scream in his face, it’s time to talk to a professional.
In a way, I’m grateful for it. In a subtle and philosophical way. Not actually. But it does present a unique opportunity. A chance to prove that I can adhere to the story I tell myself about who I am. A personal challenge to my own ego, my own grotesque machismo, my own ability to let things slide off like water. The embodiment of Westernized buddhism. The messages pervading everything I see suggest a man fights if insulted, attacks if threatened. In that moment in the middle of Mulholland, I fell short of that archetype. And that meant I could become something beyond an archetype. Something real. Not some concept. Not a set of codes. An imperfect and inconsistent man.
If I ever see those two assholes and their black BMW again, swerving around cars and flashing their high beams, maybe I’ll thank them. I’ll raise my hand and wave, but this time with all my fingers. A show of gratitude for all that they’ve taught me. A recognition of the challenges they’ve helped me face. I’ll know that because of them, I’m able to change. I’m able to be strong. I’m able to keep my emotions from being my master.
And then I’ll run them off the fucking road.