A balmy breeze wafted through the rooftop patio of a trendy Toronto bar. A large group of us were there to celebrate the birthday of a close friend. We’d spent most of the night drinking, talking animatedly, dancing, shooting pool and smoking and now, half an hour past last call, most were winding down and getting ready to leave. The bar itself, that had been packed only an hour earlier, had mostly emptied out.
I put out my cigarette and went indoors where the birthday girl and four of her girlfriends were still on the dance-floor, dancing in a circle. I sat down on a bar stool with my unfinished pint keeping an eye out for a belligerent crew of young troublemakers I’d encountered in the restrooms earlier that night. This group of six were loud and clearly wanted to make their presence known to others. They had kicked over the trashcan in the restroom and had made the bathroom attendant clean it up while taunting him the entire time.
Now, on the sparsely crowded dancefloor, they had begun acting belligerent again and were whooping and high fiving each other aggressively while a couple of them had their eye on the birthday girl and her circle of friends. The group were menacing to say the least not only because of their numbers and aggressive attitudes, but also because they had amongst them a certain specimen that appeared to me as more beast than man. He was well over six feet tall and appeared to weigh easily 300 pounds. This Minotaur wore the mean look of a man who goes looking for conflict.
Sitting on the bar stool, the only male of our group who was indoors, I considered going back out to the patio to summon the two other males who were out there still smoking. However, I also knew the birthday girl and her crew were warriors in their own right and this was far from their first rodeo. They had handled plenty of brutes of this variety before.
As this decision making process was happening soundlessly in my head, one of the hooligans came up behind one of the girls and began grinding up against her. She turned and gently shoved him away and continued dancing with her friends as the group became more alert as a whole. I inched off my bar stool, anticipating what might come next. The guy, not interested in taking “no” for an answer, came up behind her, this time grabbing her more forcefully. At this point, the birthday girl, a nearly six foot tall Serbian who most men would think twice about messing with, stepped up to the dude and pushed him firmly away from her friend, using the palm of her hand. I was off my barstool at this point my body tense and at the ready.
Yet, I hadn’t quite anticipated what would happen next. The guy who had been firmly pushed back suddenly retaliated by thrusting both his arms against the birthday girl’s chest, so violently, that she was sent sprawling across the dancefloor. Before I knew it, my right fist had made contact with the guy’s jaw and, as he recoiled, my left elbow was on the way to making contact with his friend’s advancing temple. With both of them going down and my body exposed and vulnerable I had just enough time to brace myself when the Minotaur charged me.
I played rugby in university, so I know how to take a tackle, but this was like being hit by a locomotive. Still, as I hurtled towards the ground locked in a death struggle with the Balrog, the only thought going through my mind was, “If I break my glasses, mom’s going to kill me!”
The glasses were a $400 pair I’d received for my 26th birthday just the month prior and, in that moment as I fell, the fear of having to endure another motherly guilt trip, for how irresponsible I was, far outweighed the fear of losing life and limb. And so, in the split second it took to crash on the ground, I somehow managed to yank my glasses off my face and send them flying under a sofa to safety.
However, in that same single throwing action, my arm caught the end of a small table next to the sofa on which an entire tray of empty shot glasses had been placed, waiting to be cleared by the tardy servers. And as the table tipped over, the shot glasses all shattered on the floor creating a welcome bed of sharp and deadly shards for my careening body to come to rest upon.
So, there I was, lying on a bed of broken glass, a three hundred pound silverback pounding down on me with his fists as the other five punched and kicked me in the ribs from the sides. Birthday girl was doing her best to pull one of them off using a wrestling chokehold. While one of her friends (incidentally the woman I would later marry), an all of 5 feet 3 inches petite package of raw guts, flew into the air like a bat out of hell and landed on the Minotaur’s back and was riding him like a rodeo cowgirl while punching his melon-like head.
To this day, I wish someone would have taken a snapshot of that very moment. What good laughs that may have provided!
Obviously, as it was happening, no one was in a laughing mood. Yet, lying at the base of it, the unwilling protagonist of this bloody drama, I began experiencing something strange. Firstly, I felt no pain whatsoever, not from the broken glass I was lying on top off, not from the punches and kicks I was taking to my ribs, since my arms were busy protecting my head. Not even from a sore ego at having the absolute shit kicked out of me.
No, instead I had this feeling of being tremendously alive and thoroughly relishing the moment. I still remember the Minotaur’s breath and slobber as he sat on my chest and wailed on me with his fists. It was vile, putrid yet smelled so earthy and yummy at the same time; like eating a handful of nutritious soil. That scent mixed with the taste of blood in my mouth was a flavor so primal that it aroused within me a deep gratitude for THIS moment: as bizarre as that might sound.
It all happened in super slow motion. It was like time had slowed itself down in order for my consciousness to fully process and suck the marrow out of that absurd moment. As I witnessed the punches and kicks rain down on me, the contorted faces of friends and foes all locked in a deadly struggle for survival, my own body being tenderized, sliced and diced, it all struck me as utterly and absolutely brilliant. The perfect orchestration of one of the most compelling scenes in the film of my life thus far.
And just like that, the scene was over. The bouncers had peeled the Minotaur off me. Birthday girl and her friends helped me up and all burst out laughing at the sight of me. My entire shirt had been ripped off my body leaving nothing but the collar and the string of buttons running down my torso. Yet, when they glanced at my back that laughter quickly turned to horror as my entire lower back was lacerated and bloody. Fortunately, none of the cuts were deep enough to require stitches and healed by themselves, albeit painfully, over the days to come…
This event, which occurred over a decade ago, often reminds me of the Buddhist tale of the man who, while being chased by a tiger, falls over a cliff and ends up dangling over the precipice while holding on to a single strawberry vine. With the tiger waiting above him and a sheer drop below him, he notices two mice who begin gnawing at the vine at its base. Helpless to save himself, his attention suddenly fixes upon a strawberry growing out of the vine. He reaches for it and puts it in his mouth. How delicious the strawberry tastes!
I consider that moment, as I laid on a bed of broken glass while being viciously beaten, as much an awakening as any spiritual revelation I’ve ever had. It revealed to me that the violent, painful and bizarre moments of life are really no different IN ESSENCE from the peaceful, blissful and serene ones, nor from the ordinary, mundane and boring ones.
“How” the moment appears is merely a distraction – the getup that draws our attention away from the essence that lies beneath it and animates it…the MARROW of each moment.
With the attention firmly and fully planted in the moment, time itself slows to a standstill as the spirit within us declares to it:
“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”