The Reverse Magoo

I’m not sure why, but for the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about an incident that occurred nearly 28 years ago, the night of my high school senior prom. It’s the night I did some stupid things and one really reckless thing.

It’s the night that someone was killed. The reckless thing I did is related to that death, but not causally. In fact, I could have saved that someone’s life if the reckless thing I did had actually gone terribly wrong, instead of accidentally right. Or at least this occurs to me, all these years later.

June 1983

I was a senior in high school in my small town, stumbling and sliding toward college in a big city in the fall. My good fortune and my classmates’ apathy about schoolwork had affected me, normally the good boy who listened to his teachers and did all his homework. I was failing calculus and screwing around in Spanish class, barely paying attention in English and physics. What did I care? My application to Big Time University Far from Home had been accepted months earlier, winter quarter grades had been reported, and there was nothing left to do but wait around restlessly until I could shake off the dust of that dusty little town and become somebody else. Fucking around was a big priority. In fact, fucking around was the only priority.

My torrid-and-yet-chaste, on-and-off-and-on-and-off-again romance was off, off, off. I had no real interest in any other girls and no genuine interest in attending the senior prom, but I also didn’t want to seem like I was making a statement by skipping it. In that little town of mine, everyone (yes, everyone) went to the big dance. Also, my ex was going with the brother of a friend, and I didn’t want it to seem like I couldn’t get a date. All the same, there was no one I wanted to ask, and my general passivity led me to delay even trying to think of someone.

So, when C. — on whom I had had a crush on in the first grade and who had recently shown interest in me after my last breakup — asked me, my problem was solved. Well, sort of, because I still had to go to the dance and act like I wanted to go with her. Forgive me, please. I know that this was bad behavior and poor form, but I was an immature and self-centered 17-year-old.

On the senior trip to Big Capitol City, which took place after C. had asked me to the dance but before the big event, she came on to me really strong and freaked me the hell out. With no sexual experience at all (remember: torrid-and-yet-chaste), I was terrified by the potential of having sex, particularly with someone I was not interested in romantically.

I didn’t know how to reject her without seeming rude, but also was fascinated by a real live girl finding me attractive enough to track me down at the hotel pool and throw herself at me — literally. I have a somatic memory of her scissoring her legs around my torso under water, rubbing me red with the prickly sandpaper of her razor-stubble-flecked thighs. Somehow, I don’t remember how, I extricated myself from that vise grip and fled, managing to avoid her for the rest of the trip.

With a couple weeks to go before the dance, I still hadn’t ordered my tux or a corsage for my date. I drifted along, thinking maybe somehow this could all be escaped. C. had revealed that we would be attending prom on a double date with her best friend (A.) and her date (M.), a recent graduate who had returned from his first year of college. Reportedly, A. and M. had been having Major Sex for about two years. I began to feel even more the pressure of C.’s expectations. After the dance, A. and M. would likely find somewhere to go and do the nasty. I would be expected to put out or face great embarrassment, or so I thought.

Further complicating things and compounding my panic and trepidation, my best-friend-and-enabler, E., had backed out of going to the dance with his date, but was still planning on attending (a very sad and silly story I won’t go into here). He was applying subtle pressure to go stag with him. It sounded appealing in that I’d solve my problem. However, I’d somehow have to create an escape hatch that would allow me to break the date with C. but still go to the dance. It was too complicated. I passively drifted in an eddy swirling around me that funneled me toward that terrible and frightening date on the calendar.

Eventually, I procured a tuxedo, I know not how. I do remember the mortifying sensation of slinking into the florist’s shop the morning of the dance to pick up a generic corsage. There weren’t many left in stock, and the woman helping me pointed out that I should have reserved something earlier.

I had, in fact, spent many hours the previous day weaving a daisy chain headdress for my date from flowers picked from the field behind my house. This was an act performed half in the belief that through it I could actually manufacture some romantic interest in my date and half in the belief that it would make my ex, who would have adored and appreciated this gesture, extremely jealous. At the last minute, I decided to leave the headdress at home. This was not an event worthy of such consecration.

I don’t remember very much of the date or of prom itself, except for a snippet of a dance here or some conversation there. Due to great shame I think I’ve managed to suppress how it was I ditched C. to go to the various post-dance parties with E.

In my own strangely passive way, I had not yet acquired my driver’s license, so I was dependent on E. for a ride, now that I had escaped my double date. He and I bounced around the countryside in his car, just as we had on innumerable nights previous throughout our teens. The only difference was that tonight we actually had places to go, places where there was guaranteed alcohol.

We made a point of hitting every party and drinking at all of them, just as everyone else was. We had all heard the lectures and absorbed the lessons (at least we thought) about drinking and driving, especially on prom night. We’d seen the videos, and our principal had given us a special speech, pleading with us to be safe, not to drink and drive. Reckless youth, indestructible, immortal to ourselves, we ignored it all.

The crowning event of the night was a sunrise gathering in a park on a pebbled beach up the lake, not far from the hotel where the dance had taken place. By the time we made it there, we were buzzed and extremely tired. All the same, there were about 30 or 40 of my classmates assembled on picnic benches and sitting on stones, still drinking, still wringing just a little more out of what was the final event before graduation.

After such a long night with such a fraught buildup, I was exhausted. The lake looked inviting, so I stripped to my shorts and went for a swim. My arms and legs felt waterlogged as I did a few clumsy strokes. I remember thinking that it wasn’t such a good idea to swim in my condition, but kept at it for a few minutes all the same.

When I got out of the water, I felt like drinking one last beer, so I grabbed one from a cooler nearby. It was a Lowenbrau, at the time and at our age considered the height of sophistication. I sipped it slowly while listening to my classmates chat dazedly near the shoreline. I sat by myself, not really interested in talking to anyone.

When I finished the beer, I held the bottle in my hand and looked down at it. I clearly remember the silver foil and green glass, the blue label with beads of condensation and lake water dripping off of it.

I looked around for a trash can. A heavy metal barrel, a repurposed oil drum, was about 10 feet away; some classmates stood sleepily around it. The barrel was already full to overflowing with beer bottles. There was room for one more, it seemed, and in my inebriated state I knew just the way to get it there.

I held the bottle in my right hand, stood, and turned my left side to the barrel. Holding out my left arm to ward off a make-believe defender and raising my right above my head in perfect imitation of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I sky hooked the bottle toward the can.

I watched it arc and twist through the morning sky, backed by wispy white clouds just touched by the dawn. Not for one moment did I consider that the bottle might land anywhere but right atop that pile of glass teetering above the can’s rim. Not for one second did it cross my mind that what I was doing was stupid, that I could have hurt one of my friends standing right next to the trash can. I knew it would work. I knew that nothing could go wrong.

And nothing did. Clink! My Lowenbrau bottle slid safely right into its place with its brothers and sisters, as if drawn there by an invisible string.

T., with whom I had been friends since first or second grade, was the closest to the barrel and the bottle I had just tossed into it. We had spent countless hours playing with toys when we were kids, then playing sports together in high school.

He turned and looked at me with a gaze that said it all, that I had just unthinkingly risked his safety and well-being. He said something like, “What the hell are you doing?” He was a little angry, but more relieved that I hadn’t hit him or anyone else with the bottle, hadn’t shattered glass and sent it flying in the faces of the people standing by the barrel.

Through everything I was feeling (or not feeling) that morning, I experienced just a twinge of remorse at my actions. I must have said, “Whoops, sorry.” All the same, I had been convinced that the bottle would go where I wanted it to, and it had. No harm was done; I had been in complete control all along.

The moment passed, and T. returned to his conversation. I drifted off to find E. and we left the park to head downtown along the winding shoreline road.

We stopped at the town bakery, just opening up, and got a few doughnuts. E. drove to the lakefront in town and stopped the car; we silently ate. After a few minutes, we both drifted off to sleep. With the windows rolled down, the morning breeze wafted over us.

A brief few minutes later, blaring sirens woke us up. The breeze had died, and the bright sun was heating up the car and punishing us for everything we had done the night before. Ignoring the possibility that those sirens signaled anything to do with us, E. and I drove off. He dropped me at home, and I went to bed.

A few hours later, my brother came home and woke me up. There had been a terrible accident. T., whom I had nearly struck on the head with a beer bottle that morning, had crashed his car on the way back to town from the park, killing his date, L., and seriously injuring himself.

E. came and found me at home. He had heard the news at his sister’s graduation from junior high, where he had gone directly after dropping me off. We drifted through town that day, the sun beating down on our hungover heads. The remorse we felt, the shame, the guilt, the pain . . . I have never felt quite like that since. I remember singing over and over to myself a single line from a song that I loved at the time, the only words that could express what I desperately wanted: “Bring on the night. I couldn’t stand another hour of daylight.”

I called C. to make sure she was okay. She let me know, in a polite way that I did not deserve, that ditching her had been cruel and thoughtless. I knew it, and it shamed me, of course, but I appreciated being told.

Somehow, the sun went down. The rest of the weekend passed. I avoided reading the local papers, 32-point headlines and photos of T. and L. above the fold. Graduation came and went. Then summer. Then college.

T. recovered physically but went into a psychological tailspin. He was overwhelmed with guilt for what he had done. Up to that point an outdoors enthusiast, he literally became a hermit over the next couple of years. He fled to the hills around our little town, sleeping in handmade shelters of his own devising, descending into town to find bits of work here and there and pick up supplies. I ran into him a few times when I came back to town to visit, but we never did hang out after that.

I’ve never told anyone this story before, and I don’t know why it’s been weighing on my mind lately. Only recently have I come to think how different things would have been had I beaned T. on the head with that bottle. Maybe I would have knocked him out cold. Maybe I would have even blinded him. What happened next wouldn’t have happened.

Of course, I wouldn’t have known what I had prevented because it wouldn’t have happened. I wouldn’t be writing about the guilt I was spared and the guilt that I still feel. I wouldn’t be thinking, all these years later, about the good and bad consequences of being extremely lucky.

12 responses to “The Reverse Magoo”

  1. Stella says:

    Wow. It’s a wonder any of us made it through the teen/college years. Nice Police lyrics.

  2. AWB says:


    If it’s any consolation on the C. front, I was C. several times in high school, asking boys I liked to dances and thinking they said yes because they liked me, only later finding out they only said yes because the girls they really liked were taken and they wanted to keep an eye on them. It’s only been 14 years, but I stopped hating them a while back. It’s not entirely our fault that dances make girls think we might get the love we want. Movies are always showing dances as the moments when the boy finally confesses his secret love, or when the girl is just so gorgeous in her dress that he falls in love. But I don’t remember ever hearing of anyone in real life who started dating because of a dance, or had their first kiss at a dance. I think we’re just so pent-up with unspeakable desire at that age that it seems if there could be an event where everyone finally says what’s on their minds and does what they want, we could get something good.

    I agree with Stella on the accident; it is amazing that so many of us survive.

  3. AWB says:

    There’s another myth at work here in the romantic situation here, I think, which is that young women are told over and over that men always want sex, that they want it more frequently and from a wider variety of people, and with less emotional context. It’s meant as a warning not to get played, but there are certain young women who think, as I have, that it should mean that if we initiate some kind of sexual situation with a man, he will at least be happy or gratified at the offer. But there is this other problem (you can tell me if this is inaccurate) that men have a hard time clearly rejecting sexual advances from women because they are burdened by the same myth and fear there’s something wrong with them if they give a clear and friendly “no thank you.”

  4. LP says:

    LHD: This is an amazing essay, so evocative of those high school days and the complicated feelings and the pressures thereof. Reading it, I felt like I was there. And your sadness at what happened comes right through the pixels.

    You write: “Of course, I wouldn’t have known what I had prevented because it wouldn’t have happened. I wouldn’t be writing about the guilt I was spared and the guilt that I still feel. I wouldn’t be thinking, all these years later, about the good and bad consequences of being extremely lucky.” This is true. The reverse Magoo (original Magoo here, for anyone who hasn’t read it) allows only for feeling regret, rather than relief.

    But the thing is – and I know this may sound a little crazy, or a little pollyanna-ish – you still don’t know whether your actions prevented something worse from happening. If T had been drinking and was driving drunk, it’s not inconceivable that your actions saved others on the road – by changing his evening by that one short moment, by leading him to step away from the trash can and have a slightly longer conversation with someone else than he would have if he had still stood there, by changing the time of his departure from the lake by a few minutes or an hour. Teenagers driving drunk often end up crashing into other cars and killing people that way. It’s unspeakably tragic, what happened to T and L. But pure logic tells us that although the evening could have ended so much better, it could also have been even worse.

    All of which is to say: The Magoo theory actually still applies, even in a situation that feels like the reverse Magoo. As Swells commented in the original post: “Coincidentally, I just received an email recommending this novel that seems to focus on exactly this philosophy, only without your healthy perspective: taken to the other extreme of being terrified by every decision because of its possible consequences.” We could all drive ourselves crazy, thinking of things we’ve done that might have negatively affected eventual outcomes. Because sadly, those are the times we remember most – even 28 years later.

  5. LHD says:

    #3: Yep and yep. Boys, too, are told by our culture that they always want sex and therefore young men are often led to believe that something is wrong with them if they don’t want to sleep with a particular woman at a particular time, especially if she’s attractive and willing. Sex for me (much to my disappointment), however, has always signalled a romantic interest, a crossing of a line that indicates some sort of future consideration, if not even a commitment. In retrospect I wish that I could have brought myself to sleep around. I’m a firm believer that all those hormones and energy are wasted on the young.

    #4: Thank you for your kind words about the essay.

    I know that anything could have happened and that therefore there is no direct relationship between my sheer luck and L.’s death. I don’t feel responsible or guilty for not having prevented it. I do feel guilty for having participated in and supported the drinking and driving that led to the accident. It may be that the Magoo is not reversible, but I still can’t help but think about what may have happened had my bottle throwing gone terribly wrong. I could have seriously hurt someone; I could have started a big fight that resulted in my arrest for reckless endangerment. I did something stupid and got away with it. T. did something stupid and didn’t.

  6. LP says:

    So little commentary from the Great Whatsiteers? LHD laid it all out for us here, people.

  7. LHD says:


  8. LP says:

    Sad if true.

  9. jeremy says:

    Wow. This is so good. So evocative. So in incredibly, deeply sad. Wow.

  10. swells says:

    I don’t know what tl:dr means, even though FP Smearcase has told me before (I forgot already), but I loved every word of this. I am sheepish about my noncommenting lately–so so overwhelmed at work I can’t even read it every day these daze, let alone construct a thoughtful response–but I did read this this morning and thought about it all day long. I know you don’t need me, at least intellectually, to tell you that you had nothing to do with the outcome, but I completely understand your emotional impulse to believe that you did. You didn’t. T. would never think you did. But you are a compassionate and sensitive person to even consider that you might have.

  11. LHD's really good female friend who doesn't have razor stubble thighs says:

    tl:dr = “too long, didn’t read” but it’s not too long; it’s the perfect length. This story flows like melted butter, LHD, and I love that you’re sensitive to things that many people wouldn’t even notice.

  12. swells says:

    Maybe we should all think about the hundreds of terrible tragedies we each somehow prevented today due to the small choices we made.