Hottest Place in Hell
I was in awe of her authenticity. Glancing at her across the classroom, I studied her appearance, which seemed to change every day. Clothed in darkness, her big, black shirt bagged loosely over her body, and her dark jeans hung freely under her legs. Gently caressing her shoulders, her curls were elegant in their shagginess. The rings on her fingers made mine look bare – disgustingly naked. She had mastered the art of expression, but I envied her for something more. There was no fear in her willingness to be explicit. She was unrestrained.
My eyes shifted back to my paper. The loudspeaker chimed, and everyone rushed out of their seats. I took my time and waited for her to walk past me. Stepping outside, I glared at the sun and it glared back at me. The heat bore down on our backs, heaving itself onto our skin as we neared the bleachers. I moved closer to her as we sat down. Our arms were barely touching.
Introductions were made. The choir sang, and the dance team performed. She never applauded. When they weren’t clapping, my hands wrung the ends of my shirt, which wrapped around my body, tightly. I suddenly felt confined.
Sweat slicked against my back and I shifted my legs against the burning seats. The buzz got louder as more people filled the stadium. I glanced over at her. She shared my irritation.
A student crossed over to the field, his face shiny. I felt sorry for him, facing the flag, he gestured towards it and brought his megaphone to his lips.
“Please stand for the national anthem.”
I experienced some sort of moral edification last summer. Sheltered by suburbia, I watched the world around me burn. Spending the days secluded in my room and surrounded by my own thoughts, I never stepped out into hell. I had the privilege of developing beliefs and not being forced to experience the struggles at the root of them.
I took pride in my liberalism. I was arrogant in my supposed moral superiority.
The benches creaked as the weight was lifted off them. Shadows towered over me. For the first few seconds, I was engulfed in a state of blankness. There was an edge of hesitation to that blankness, and I waited for the person to the right of me to stand.
It doesn’t matter now. There’s no need to draw attention. It doesn’t mean anything.
I leaned forward to lift myself off the bench, but before I stood, I stole a quick glimpse of her. Those thick boots had stayed firm on the ground. Her arms lay still in her lap. Staring up at the backs of those in front of us, her brows were furrowed and creased in annoyance. Her eyes, though, were amused. Like she had made a bet with herself. That she would be the only one to sit.
And I then felt a ripple of coldness in my chest. It was the stabbing kind of cold. The coldness of realization. The coldness of reflection. That ripple ran down my throat and swelled into panic, but that panic had an underlying certainty. It knew what I was going to do.
We were a silent uproar in the order of things, a gap in the sea of heads. The fear of being a part of this, the fear of being an anomaly was overwhelming. It was just us. Would she lose her bet?
I was shielded before. Safe within my room. But with the flag shoved in front of me, I needed to decide. Would I lose my principles?
I followed her gaze to those in front of us. They hadn’t given any thought to the anthem. This was habitual, nothing to be scared of. And as I stared at their backs, I could feel the eyes of those behind me on mine. Conscience or cowardice?
“O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light.”
Regret instantly replaced my panic. Shame inflamed the back of my neck. Self-contempt boiled in me. That ripple of coldness had turned into a ripple of fire. A ripple that burned with humiliation.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I shook my head. What would everyone else have thought?
They would’ve thought I’m trying to be special. They would’ve thought I’m doing this just to make a scene. A stunt.
I felt her eyes boring into me.
It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t know what I really think. I’m standing for something else.
But I didn’t know what I was standing for.
“Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight.”
Actually, I did. I was standing for myself.
My legs ached with embarrassment. I longed for nothing more than the anthem’s end.
“Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”
There’s a quote I really like; “the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.”
It was so hot that day. I burned in hell.
“O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
As I fell back onto the bench, our arms brushed against each other, and I flinched. Clenching my jaw, I focused my eyes on the games being played on the field, straining to concentrate. But I couldn’t let go of that scorching guilt. My eyes gave up and fell to her hands. The rings glistened against the sun, blinding me. I felt the chasm between us grow wider.
I’ll sit next time. I’ll be sure of it.
But I knew that promise was made only for the sake of reassurance. I wasn’t going to stand only because of the guilt I felt now and if it wasn’t for her, I would remain complacent. The hypocrisy I said I hated was exposed in myself and my values had withered before me.
I directed my gaze to the flag: which was still undulating quietly. I’ve looked at that flag so many times and I thought I was sure how I felt about it. I thought I would act. Instead, I chose expediency. I failed a simple test of moral courage.
Because of that little bubble of fire, I know it’s not nearly enough to declare I stand with a cause. Glorying in our ideals while refusing to align our behavior with them is complicity. We can’t afford to be vague. We can’t afford to live with convenience. We must never preserve our neutrality, even if it’s as simple as sitting.
It’s easy to advocate. It’s easy to write, it’s easy to post, and it’s easy to support. It’s easy to stay neutral.
This narrative is about an arbitrary pep rally held by my school. Right before the rally, we were asked to stand for the national anthem. This piece is about the moral conflict I had in the moments after the anthem started; I wanted to sit, but everyone around me stood without a second thought. I wanted to do what I thought was right, but I was afraid of being the anomaly. This piece is a reflection of what it means to stand by your principles. In that short moment, before the anthem started, I realized my supposed “moral superiority” made me complicit.
Editors: Chris F.
Photo Credits: Dadu Shin