It’s the last day of a weeklong lawyer’s retreat. There are about ten of us out in a big circle in this overgrown field, surrounded by enormous pine trees. The guide is there in the middle of the circle, and he’s shifting his gaze from one of us lawyers to the next, his mouth barely moving as he explains the rules for this last activity. I have this feeling that I want us to be in the middle of nowhere, miles away from civilization, but I can hear a truck grumbling on a nearby highway, and this rankles me. The air is cool, but not biting. We can’t see our breaths.
This is the set up to the same story I keep telling over and over, because I keep trying to get it right. But there always seems to be some detail that isn’t quite correct. I’m missing something essential, and that’s why I keep repeating it, like a prayer or mantra. One day, maybe, I’ll tell it just right, and everything will have to fall into place.
By this time we are all just about sick of each other; sure, we work together every day back in the office, but that is different. Back there, we have jobs to do, and there’s a comfortable distance created by the unspoken rules of professionalism. Out here, on this retreat, that distance has decreased to an uncomfortable proximity. We have no collective task to keep us on the rails. We have nothing to cue us our lines. As a result, each of us is gradually being revealed.
The guide is in the center of the circle, talking about how when you’re on your own in the wild, instincts are all you’ve got. If you can sense the presence of a bear or mountain lion, you might just be able to react in time to save your ass. Difference between life and death, that kind of thing.
He keeps talking about energy. Our energy. The bear’s energy. So he asks for a volunteer. I figure what the hell, raise my hand, and he brings me into the middle of the circle and puts a blindfold over my eyes. He tells me I need to relax, slow my mind down, rid myself of all other thoughts and noise except for the present moment. Right here in the woods, right now. He explains that everyone around the circle is going to be communicating with me, but they won’t be talking. They’ll be sending thoughts my way. Energy. Everyone will be thinking positive things about me. Sending love vibes. Except one person, whom he’s going to choose, who is going to be thinking bad things. Mean, nasty, violent thoughts. Kill, death, motherfucker burn in hell.
And here’s the best part, he says: I’m going to give this person a blade. He flicks his fingernails against a hunting knife so I can hear the steel and know he’s not bluffing. And, he tells me, the person with the blade will be slowly, silently stepping toward you.
At this point in the story, I have an aside about contemplating how much we’ve all paid to be here on this retreat. I wonder if murder, or at least maiming, is grounds for a full refund. I didn’t actually contemplate that. At the time, I wasn’t thinking that way.
I glance at the guide to see if he’s serious, and for the first time I’m struck by the notion that something might be off with him. It’s not his beard, or his walk. It’s something in his eyes, and how they rest on things for a moment too long.
Alright, I’m standing there absolutely still, can’t see shit, trying to go Jedi. I’m listening for footsteps but I’m not hearing anything at all. Really silent. The guide must guess what I’m doing, because he instructs me to stop listening with my ears and start listening with my primal self. Yoda, I say at this point in the story. I wink.
So I give it a shot. I shut everything down. Stop thinking, stop listening. And I swear to Christ, it works. I start to feel this strange buzzing sensation at the top of my head. I can’t help it: I start grinning like an idiot. All those good vibes. A bunch of lawyers standing around in a field silently wishing me the best.
But even as I’m feeling high with all this good energy, there’s something disturbing it. It’s the knife, and it’s getting closer.
I turn to one side and listen: nothing. I whirl around to the other: nothing. I’m turning around so much I start to get dizzy. But what the guide said keeps repeating in my mind. Stop thinking. Stop listening. So I become entirely still.
This is where, in the other times I’ve told this story, I make a joke: most lawyers I know would have stabbed me already. People usually like this joke. They laugh and nod their heads, urge me to go on.
The weirdest thing—I tell them—the weirdest thing is that I do feel it. The knife. In the faintest way possible. You know when your eyes are closed but there’s a tiny light on in the room? Maybe a cell phone or a TV? And you can sort of see the vague blur of light through your eyelids? I feel the knife, and the angry thoughts. I take a deep breath, then yell out There! I swing my finger out just to my left side, but for some reason keep my eyes closed. And that’s when I hear it: a collective gasp.
Ripping off my blindfold, I see that I am pointing directly at this guy, maybe ten feet away, with this crazy look on his face. What kind of look? He seems frozen somewhere between bald guilt—like I’ve caught him doing something he knows is bad and there is no denying it—and pure, vicious, snarling hatred.
Who is he? He might be the new associate. He might be the partner from the Midwest office. He might be my boss. Let’s say he’s a friend. An old friend.
He drops the knife right there and starts apologizing. His hands are shaking. My God, my God, he repeats, with his palms up in the air. He seems to lose his balance, swaying to the right, then over to the left. The vehemence of his apologies, the waver in his voice, the hollowed-out look in his eye; none of it matches with the jovial whoops and hollers of the other lawyers. I wonder: are they willingly covering for the strangeness? Are they trying to superimpose normalcy on the afternoon? Or do they truly not see?
It’s okay, the guide tells the guy, leading him by the arm back to his spot in the circle—you did what I told you to do. But the guy doesn’t respond. He just keeps staring at me, mouth kind of open, waiting for me to tell him it’s okay, too. But I don’t say anything. I just stand and stare.
And there is, actually, a very clear moral to this story. There is a lesson that you can’t possibly miss. But of course I didn’t tell it exactly right, and so that moral is left in the shadows, obscured. This version of the story, the one I’ve just told, is easy for me because it’s not true.
How do you tell the story of being the one with the knife? How do you tell the story of what you knew you would have done?