The Fight

by Cole Parker

“Just a second, Rusty. I have to drop these books off at my locker and grab my jacket and stuff. Meet you on the steps.”

“Well hurry up! Damn it, John, Chad’s not going to wait, you know.”

“I know. I know! Cut me some slack here. I need to have my physics book for tonight. Mr. Rodler is giving us a test tomorrow. I’ll be right there.”

I tried to move quickly down the hall, but there were too many kids, walking along in both directions. It was rather remarkable to stand aside and watch them. They would somehow manage to twist a shoulder here, take a half-step to the side there, and, not seeming to be watching anything but the person they were talking to or the person they were yelling to halfway down the hall in front of them, avoid colliding with each other. This even when someone would open their locker and stand back from the door to gaze inside to scope out what they were looking for, standing right in the middle of the traffic flow.

Some kids were just making islands of themselves in the middle of the hallway while talking to other kids. It was always like this, this after-the-bell dance we all waltzed to each day in the halls, and wasn’t a problem unless you were in a hurry. I was in a hurry. Chad Tsauri didn’t have a lot of patience, thought mostly of himself, forgot almost everything you said to him unless it was something about how studly he was or what a great quarterback he was or how much money his dad had or how great his car was, but he was something else too, something else that was a whole lot more vital to me than any of those things. Something that was special to me. Something important. He was my ride home.

Hah! You thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you? You thought when I threw that “studly” in there in a sort of off-the-cuff, spur of the moment kind of way, that I was into the guy. Well, I wasn’t. I’m not. I will admit that I do find the odd guy attractive. More than the odd girl, or even the cute one. Odd or cute or whatever, girls don’t catch my eyes the same way boys do. I’ve always found boys a lot cuter, a lot more, well, interesting, than girls. A decent looking guy, most any one of them, when he is enthused about something, whe he’s excitedly talking about it, his face alive, his eyes almost glowing in the heat of his momentary passion, has an inner animation and energy that simply attracts me to it like a moth to a bright light. I liked the looks of some girls, but they didn’t seem to have that spark which set that other species, the boy species, apart.

But I found some boys a whole lot more interesting than others, especially the ones who seemed exotic to me. Some of those turned me on, just looking at them. The way they carried themselves, the look in their eyes at times, the shape of their faces, the way their hair would fall, any number of things would catch my eye and stir my imagination. It wasn’t just handsome. Handsome was nice, and on the right boy was really nice, but handsome was only one more feature to like in a boy. And to me, it was secondary to more important things like intelligence, passionate enthusiasm, a well-developed sense of humor, an engaging personality, and especially an awareness of both self and situation which spoke of an active and insightful mind.

Chad Tsauri had the looks. He’d probably be on everyone’s top five list of the best looking boys in school. But he failed on all the other criteria. He really was only interested in himself. He did have a great passion about that, but he turned me off big time because he idolized himself so much. That made for an unattractive personality, and so another check against him. Couple that with a low C average that was propped up by the teachers in our school who reveled in the accomplishments of our football team, and you have a boy who had pretty close to zero appeal to me.

So no, Chad didn’t do it for me. Right now, no particular boy was on my wish list. There were many that I liked looking at, but at the moment the John scoreboard read, Interesting boys: 206. Crushes: 0. But that isn’t to say I wasn’t looking. I was. And not at girls. I was sure I was gay, even if I didn’t have anyone special I was perving on at the moment.

Of course, I kept this side of me hidden. No one knew I kept such a scoreboard. I was in high school. Unless you had a death wish, you didn’t let people know you thought about kids of your own sex more than kids of the other. I didn’t have a death wish.

You might be wondering, if I wasn’t interested in Chad and wasn’t really his friend, why was I riding home with him every day? It was a friend of a friend sort of deal, but I also thought that some of it could have had to do with the fact that guys like Chad like to have a car full of people so it looks like they’ve got a lot of friends and admirers, an entire crew under their spell. Maybe having the car full even make them believe it themselves. That might have been true, when I thought about it. I could be riding home with Chad every day just because he had an empty seat. That of course didn’t make him look very good. Me neither.

I made what speed I could through the crowded hall. A few kids waved at me and spoke, but I kept moving. Chad really wouldn’t wait more than 30 seconds or so. I was closing in on my locker, it was in sight, when I felt a hand on my arm. I reluctantly stopped and turned to see who it was.

Great. Just great. Kat. The love of my life. Well, actually, the pseudo love of my life. Kat was my pseudo girlfriend. She was the one I took to dances and some school activities like sports events and student plays and rallies. I always felt guilty about Kat because I was using her. She didn’t know about the pseudo part. I knew it, she didn’t, and I felt bad about it, but, if you’ve been paying attention here, I spoke very recently about death wishes and keeping my desires hidden. Having a girlfriend went a long way towards satisfying both those needs, and so overrode my guilt about using Kat. I didn’t like that part of me much, that part that allowed me to do this, but I’d heard people say that the first and foremost thing about high school, rule numero uno, the most important thing of all, was to survive it. Kat was a survival technique. Think pitons and belaying ropes marring the pristine face of a granite outcropping. They’re not pretty, but they keep you alive. Thus was Kat.

Now wait a sec. I didn’t mean it that way. Kat actually was pretty. I meant, I meant―oh hell; you can figure it out.

Kat was like a safety net. We were friends, and the fact I used her and she wasn’t aware of it was just something I had to deal with. I never said I was perfect. Not too many 16-year-olds are.

“John, you going to the game Friday night?” She smiled sweetly at me, still holding on to my upper arm.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t have the chance to ask you yet. Sure, let’s go. I can pick you up a little after seven. That okay?”

“Fine. But what I really wanted to know was, what about Jackie’s party afterwards.”

I frowned. In the back of my mind, a clock was ticking, softly but persistently, and I was pretty sure I was already too late to catch Chad, which meant a half hour’s walk home instead of a five-minute ride. I inwardly sighed and wrote off the ride for today. Of more immediate concern was what Kat was talking about. Kat loved parties, loved the social scene. I wasn’t into that at all.

One of the ways I was able to lessen my guilt about using Kat was that I had a feeling that to at least some extent, she was using me just as much. She loved parties and having me available to take her to them made it possible for her to attend without looking like what she described as “the losers,” those kids who for one reason or another went to them by themselves. It made me uneasy, listening to her call those kids that. But I put up with it. I also wondered how many other high school kids compromised their principles as much as I did.

Me, I didn’t like the party scene at all. The music was always too loud to allow talking, it was usually way crowded and hot and there was a lot of drinking going on and that just wasn’t my idea of how to have a good time. But I let her drag me to them after most games and at other times as well. It was a sort of contrition I paid: taking her to these things eased my conscience.

But I didn’t want to go to this party especially. Jackie Morgan was one of the popular girls and ran with the popular crowd and Kat would have given her first born and maybe taken out a mortgage on the second to be in that group. Jackie Morgan’s parties were famous. Take all the things I just said about high school parties and double them, then throw in all the popular kids at school being in attendance along with all the loud and obnoxious jocks, throw in maybe a fistfight after the beer had been flowing for a while, perhaps one or two kids getting thrown or pushed into the pool, and of course the occasional visit by the police, and you have one of Katie’s parties.

I didn’t want to go. I wanted to go to the game, then go home and watch TV, or rent a video and hang with some buddies, maybe get a pizza later. If that wasn’t possible, if I had to choose between, say, partying and playing canasta with my elderly grandmother, for Christ’s sake, I’d have looked more warmly on the prospects of asking whose turn it was to shuffle than going to that party.

“Well?” She was looking at me with a somewhat worried smile now. Not the happy, broad and bright one of a moment ago. She knew I didn’t like parties, but her own feelings put my dislike of them way down on her list of cares, and worrying about how I felt wasn’t something she spent much time doing.

“Sure, Kat. We can go.”

Dammit!

- - [2] - -

The game was pretty good. Not good competitively, but it was good to watch how great our team was. Our school was one of the magnet schools in our city. For those of you who might think that means our metal detectors at the doors, the ones we have to pass through each morning, pull all the guns and knives out of kids’ pockets and backpacks, it doesn’t. It means our school has specialized and highly competent instruction in various programs, and kids wanting advanced classes and training in those areas are all eligible to come here, no matter what district they live in. As long as their grades are high enough.

Since everyone is eligible, it means our school is pretty large. Large school, lots of kids, this all means there’s a better chance the football team will be good. On top of that, the administration hired one of these fireball coaches a couple years ago, one of those who always seemed to have a winning record. He was a good coach, which was why he won in the first place, but once people realized he was good, he began to attract the top talent in the city, kids who not only wanted to play for a winner, but kids who wanted to be noticed by college recruiters. So, we had a great team.

It was fun watching them play, even though the scores of their games were frequently fairly lopsided. One thing about our coach, when it was apparent we were going to win, which happened pretty early in most games, he’d get the second and third string players into the games. A lot of people talked about how nice that was of him, not to run up the score, to let everyone play. I had a different slant on it, but didn’t argue with the other kids about it. Let them think what they wanted. I thought the coach was a little more devious than that. I thought he was crafty enough to realize if he played the second and third stringers a lot, what he was doing was preparing them for next year when they’d be the starters. Maybe that was part of the reason why he had such good records all the time.

Sorry, got a little off track there. I was talking about the game. We had an all-state running back who the other team had no luck at all trying to contain. He was able to take the ball pretty much right down the field, 10 to 15 yards at a time, and by the end of the first quarter we were up 21 to squat.

This put the other team in the position of having to score quickly to have a chance, so they had to pass. Which meant throwing into our pass defense. We also had an all-state cornerback who’d transferred in this year, so that didn’t work real well for them either.

Both these all-state players were black. Our school was pretty white, though we did have a mix of white, black, Asian and Latino kids. The football team had a higher percentage of black kids than the school as a whole. I think a lot of good black football players came to our school because they felt they had a better chance of getting college football scholarships if they went here.

We didn’t have much in the way of race problems at our school, or in fact any other kinds. Kids tended to get along here because no one wanted to get kicked out, it was supposedly an honor to get to go here, and we all sort of believed it. It was a great school. Also, this was 2006 and our city and the school board were pretty liberal, socially at least. The school had policies against any kind of discrimination and those were rigorously enforced. Most of the kids came from good families, and the ones that came from poorer or rougher neighborhoods tended to be the minorities but they were minorities who had a lot on the ball and wanted to succeed; it was up to them to fit in at our school and almost all of them did. They wanted to be in this school, the ones who decided to come here knew this was an opportunity for them to elevate themselves above their backgrounds, and they almost always took advantage of it.

Kids in our school weren’t just waiting to graduate and get away from school. They were trying to do well in high school, get a strong background in the areas they were interested in and get into good colleges. A lot of adults don’t believe kids are really interested in learning, or that they look ahead at all. Those adults don’t tend to understand kids very well. Some kids are like that, sure. But a lot of us are more serious. This is the twenty-first century. If you don’t get an education, things are going to be pretty grim for you.

I sat with Kat and a bunch of our friends at the game. I could never tell if Kat really enjoyed football games or not. She liked being out with all the other kids, she liked being part of the excitement. The game itself, I was never sure. Myself, I loved the game. I loved watching both the game and the players, how they acted when they’d done something successfully, how they looked when they’d screwed up, how excited they were watching from the sideline, how they jumped around after making a tackle. I enjoyed watching their antics almost as much as I enjoyed following the game itself.

When the game was over, we left the stands along with everyone else, slowly making our way to the cars. Dad had let me drive tonight. What I found special about that was, he knew we were going to the game and then Jackie’s party. He gave me the keys and told me to have a good time. Now, how many dads do that? How many are able to bite their tongues and not tell their sons not to drink? Not to take any drugs? Especially if they were giving them the car keys? But my dad didn’t say those things. We’d had the talk at the beginning. Now, he trusted me. And that trust was a big part of what made me never drink and drive. That trust was something I’d never abuse. Never. It meant too much to me.

When we got to Jackie’s house, cars were already parked in her driveway and well down the street. Rather than look for one close to the house, I simply parked at the end of a long line that I figured stretched all the way there. It did. Kat and I walked and walked and when we arrived, the noise already had filtered out into the night and found us long before we found the house.

- - [3] - -

The noise level inside was enough to make your eyeballs jump to the bass beat. Kat immediately headed for the kegs that were set up in the family room, her hand on my arm, me reluctantly following her. Jackie’s parents were loaded and their house reflected it. It was huge. The family room—though they might have called it something else; I don’t know; I’ve never needed to know the names of more than four or five kinds of rooms, myself; that’s all we need in my family—had a built-in wet bar and there were two kegs sitting on the floor in tubs of ice right in front of it. That’s where the crowd was the heaviest. Some of the jocks seemed to be competing among themselves to see who could drink the most cups of beer without stopping. The taps never looked like they had a chance to shut off. One cup followed another without respite.

Kat worked her way through the crowd and scored a couple cups of beer. She handed me one, and then we both struggled our way to a spot on the floor near one wall where we weren’t getting bumped and stumbled over every five seconds. The music and dancing were going on in a room next to this, and while it was too noisy here for idle chit-chat, by speaking very loudly it was just possible to converse with someone standing right next to you.

“Did you see Leah when we came in? She said she and Luke were coming.”

I could care less about Leah and even less about Luke. This was what Kat loved to do at these things: drink beer and gossip about who was with whom. And speculate on who was doing what with whom. I told her no, I hadn’t spotted either one. That wasn’t surprising. We’d just arrived and had only seen a small fraction of all the kids partying. They were spread all over the house. That Jackie’s parents always left when she was having a party was one of the reasons the parties were so popular. A lot went on at her parties. The rumor was that two girls had got pregnant at the last one, but I discounted it. I knew both the girls and didn’t think they’d do something like that.

She nodded when I told her I hadn’t seen them, turned and looked around the room, then took another big swig of beer. She always drank the first couple as though she were trying to catch up to something. It sort of bothered me. She loved beer and I could hardly tolerate it. She’d drink a lot at one of these things, getting louder and louder as the night progressed, until I could finally persuade her to leave. I, other hand, not liking beer and frequently being the one who was driving, didn’t drink at all, and this was one of the main reasons these things annoyed me to the extent they did.

I’d let her hand me a cup of beer when she got one so I’d look like I was drinking. Holding it like that, no one would be encouraging me to go get a cup. I’d hold this one until it was time to leave.

She took another big gulp, draining the cup, then turned to look at the kegs. “I’ll be right back. Yours okay?” she shouted at me. She barely waited for me to respond. She didn’t expect me to need another yet; this was a conversation we’d had plenty of times before in this situation.

I assured her I was fine as she was walking away, headed over to get a refill. I waited, and soon she was back.

“I need to go find Leah. You want to come?”

“No, I’ll hang here.”

She smiled at me and moved off.

Left alone, what I really wanted to do was get away from the noise. I started drifting around the house, chatting briefly with some kids, avoiding bumping people when I could and apologizing when I couldn’t. It was a madhouse and when I passed the front door, I discovered more people were still finding their way in. I knew most of them, if only by sight.

I moved through the house slowly, seeing who was there, dodging people, only greeting people by waving since speaking and hearing was pretty much impossible in most of the house. I had a vague goal in mind: to get to the back yard. It should be quieter there, and most likely less crowded.

I kept moving in that direction and finally made it. I stepped outside onto the back patio and all at once the sound was many decibels lower and so was the temperature. It was a pleasant fall evening and with my jacket on, I was very comfortable.

There were a lot of kids out here, too, but there was more room and we weren’t rubbing against each other. I was able to move around without apologizing every fifteen seconds. I noticed I didn’t know many of these kids other than by sight. There was one thing they all had in common, though. They all had beer cups in their hands.

I had been outside for probably a half hour and by that time had moved well away from the door as other kids had come out to escape the heat and noise inside. I was standing by myself looking back at the house when I saw Kat come outside. She was holding her ever-present beer in her hand and was looking over the crowd. Thinking she might be looking for me, I waved my hand. She looked right past me, and even from a distance I could see her eyes were a little glazed. I kept waving and started moving toward her. She spotted me, smiled, and left the doorway, headed in my direction. She seemed to be lurching a little. I guessed by this time she was probably feeling no pain.

When she stepped down from the doorway into the crowd, I could no longer see her as there were too many kids between us, but I kept moving toward where I’d last seen her. I was jostled a bit and probably jostled some of the other kids, too, but everyone was in a good mood.

We finally found each other, meeting in the middle of the patio, surrounded by everyone else.

“You want to dance? I want to dance!”

“You sure? You look like you’re having problems just standing up.” I grinned to make it sound less rude, although I was mildly pissed. “Besides, it’s too loud in there. Why don’t you stay outside with me? It’s nice out here.” I reached out and grabbed her upper arm to steady her.

“Ah, it’s boring out here. I want to be inside where all the fun is. The beer’s in there, the dancing, and it’s great! Come back inside with me.”

“Kat, I like it better out here,” I whined.

“You’re boring, John. Come on inside.”

“Kat. . . .”

She leaned closer to me, which was easy; people were tending to push us together anyway. The patio was really crowded my now. She was pushed against my side. She put her lips to my ear and said, “Come back and dance with me, John. Then, later, I want to have sex with you.”

“Kat!”

We’d never even come close to that before. A little mutual touching, through our clothes, was about as far as we’d gone, as far as I wanted to go with her. She’d never shown she really wanted to do any more than we’d done, either. “How much have you had tonight?” I asked her. I was both puzzled and somewhat confused by this new attitude, though I was used to her personality changing when she drank. ”John, all the girls I was talking to tonight are going to have sex tonight. So I want to, too. You want to, don’t you?” No, I didn’t want to. Well, I didn’t want to with her. There were several guys here I wouldn’t have objected to getting down and dirty with, but a drunken Kat didn’t have any appeal to me at all. I couldn’t very well tell her that. Telling a girl I didn’t want to have sex with her would be a whole lot more suspicious than not ever dating anyone.

I realized I wasn’t answering. I realized it when I felt her hand suddenly slide down my chest, to my stomach, and then keep moving down. She slid all the way down to my crotch. And then, she was groping me! Her hand was squeezing my dick!

I didn’t react well, I think. I don’t know what a straight guy would have done in that situation. Maybe he’d have just stood there and enjoyed it, no matter how many people might be watching. Maybe he’d have moved closer to encourage her. Maybe he’d have opened his legs more. I don’t know. What I did was, in my shock and embarrassment, I jerked away. It was really just an impulsive thing, a reaction mostly, but there was a little feeling of humiliation, and of being molested, too. Doing this was all her idea, not mine, and it didn’t seem right to me that I should be being groped with no say in the matter, and that was also a little part of the reason I sort of jerked away from her hand.

The problem with that was, I was still holding on to her arm. I’d taken it to steady her, and when I jerked away, I jerked her arm, too. And that was the arm that belonged to the hand that was holding her cup of beer.

She held onto the cup, but the beer itself was flung up into the air. Luckily she seemed to have drunk most of what was in the cup, but I caught a glimpse of gold spraying up into the air. Then I heard a sort of grunt and the words yelled in a deep bass voice, “Fuck! Drunken cunt!”

Kat heard, too. She jerked her head around, looking at all the kids behind her. She was immediately livid. “Who said that?” she yelled at the crowd in general. “Who called me a cunt?”

Some people are calm and happy drunks. Kat always got loud and aggressive when she drank, which she’d just demonstrated to everyone around us. Now, she was more than angry, she was hostile and combative, and she scanned the crowd, ready to attack whoever had cursed her when they’d been accidentally splashed with her beer.

She was looking at everyone in her vicinity. Suddenly, she said in a loud, slurred voice, “You! You said it, you son of a bitch!”

I looked where she was pointing. The kid looking back at her had a strange expression on his face, a combination of bemusement, embarrassment, and “why me?” all rolled into one. There was dampness on the front of his shirt, and he was standing there looking a little bewildered. He was a kid I didn’t know, and in fact I didn’t even remember having seen him at school. I was sure I’d have remembered if I had because, one, he was very good looking and two, he was black. We had few enough blacks at school that I thought I recognized them all. I guessed maybe he was someone’s friend at the party rather than a student at our school.

I was having these thoughts while I was also trying to contain Kat. The beer was rather obviously controlling her. She continued to rail at the kid and was trying to force her way to him. The crowd of kids opened for her, and I had to grab her to keep her from advancing on him.

She tried to tug away from me so she could attack the kid she had decided was the one who’d defamed her. I held onto her arm.

And then, unexpectedly, totally out of the blue, things changed. It happened in a heartbeat, and the suddenness of it was much of why the next few minutes seemed surreal to me.

Kat was trying to yank her arm out of my hand, I was yelling at her to calm down, and she turned to me and said, “Okay, John, you do it. Hit him. Hit the son of a bitch! Teach him not to call me names. Stand up for my honor, John. Hit him! Hit him!” And she grabbed me and pushed me in front of her, so I was facing the black kid.

Have you ever been in a group of teens, most of whom have been drinking beer all night, who suddenly sense a fight is about to begin? There’s a visceral feeling, a heightened anticipation, a sense of blood in the air. It’s as if there was one mind, one thought, a group consciousness, and the group is eager to witness a blood-letting. Once this mood grips them, it’s as though all discussion, all reason, all humanity falls to the side as they prepare to see carnage happen in front of them.

I was dumbfounded, completely out of my element. How did I go from trying to hold Kat back to suddenly being faced with fighting some kid I didn’t even know?

The crowd had quieted, but that didn’t last long. Most of the kids were drunk, and someone started chanting, “Fight, fight, fight,” and it was quickly taken up by the others. I was pushed forward, perhaps by Kat, perhaps by the crowd surging behind me, so I ended up only a few feet from the other boy.

He looked at me, then at the crowd, then back at me, and I could see from the look on his face that he was assessing the situation. He looked far calmer than I’m sure I did. My overall feeling was one of panic.

I’d never been in a fight in my life. I was good at talking my way out of situations, and I didn’t like to fight. Hell, let me just say it. I was scared to fight. I’d never done it, had managed to avoid it as a little kid. Sometimes that meant just turning around and running, which I’d sometimes done. It embarrassed me. I didn’t like that part of me very well, but I simply lacked the courage to fight. When I’d gotten older, by the time I was in middle school, I’d learned how to anticipate situations where a fight might ensue and was able to distance myself from them before things tensed up. This all resulted in my never having had to fight anyone, and as time passed, in the building of fear about fighting, a dread of ever having to do it. Fear of the unknown, I guess, was part of my problem, but other fears burdened me too, other fears which accompanied the fear of fighting. I was afraid of disgracing myself, afraid of showing how cowardly I was, afraid of how people would react to seeing my fear, afraid of being hurt in a fight, just basically afraid of anything and everything that had to do with standing up and fighting someone. Now I was faced with the real thing, suddenly and with no time to prepare myself for it, with no way to keep from proving to everyone in sight that I was a sissy.

I was terrified.

My first thought, as always, was to avoid the fight. Though I wasn’t thinking clearly at all, I thought I could simply tell this guy that Kat was drunk, that I’d take her home, and I was sorry this had happened. But when I was just starting to put an apologetic smile on my face, just trying to think of the right mood-diffusing words to use in the muddle that was now my brain, Kat shoved me forward with a hard push to my shoulder, and I stumbled into the other kid. He immediately pushed me off him, his hands came up in fists, the crowd roared, and there was no way to talk to him over the noise, no time left for even trying to talk.

As we both were being held close together by the surging crowd, my opponent assumed a fighting stance. I had no choice but to do the same thing. My head was almost spinning, there was a buzzing in my ears, and I felt a little outside myself, like I was watching the scene from above. My heart was racing. I knew in my mind I was going to be annihilated. I had no idea how to fight. I was hoping I didn’t start crying, or trip over my feet, or turn away and try to run. I was hoping he didn’t hurt me too badly. I looked at the kid in front of me, hoping to see similar thoughts and fears in his eyes, but I didn’t. He didn’t look worried at all.

He was calmly studying me, and occasionally flicking a glance out at the crowd around us. I was close enough to him to read his eyes. I couldn’t see the fear in them I was feeling. I could see intelligence there, and fleetingly, I thought, even a wry humor.

The crowd had finally stopped its noise. I guessed they felt they’d done their job, the fight was on, and were settling in for their reward.

They were enjoying this! And I was so scared I was close to pissing myself!

The guy began moving a little, moving to one side, then the other, his eyes on mine. I had no idea what he saw there, but I had no way to hide my abject fear from him. He moved a step closer to me, pulling his head down into his shoulders a bit and weaving it side to side while watching me, then raising it again. When not being pushed forward, I was just standing still. My heart was beating so fast I was afraid I might have a heart attack. I was waiting for him to spring forward and throw the first punch. I was wondering if I could just fall down then and it would be over, and how much it would hurt. I was thinking about a lot of things, but not at all of throwing a punch at him. That never crossed my mind.

I simply held my hands up in what I hoped was an effective looking defensive posture and watched as he moved side to side, forward and back, not big movements but fluid ones. He did that for 10, maybe 15 seconds, then started moving in. I moved back, then started clumsily circling away from him the best I could while I kept my hands up, closed into fists, tensed and waiting for him to attack me. He was watching me all the time.

It was at that point he stopped. He simply stopped. He dropped his fists and stood up straight. Then he said, loudly, “Hey, fuck this! I’m not fighting some white dude at a honky party without no homeboys here got my back. Monday. After school. You and me, guy.” He glared at me and pointed aggressively at my chest. “Behind the gym. We’ll get it on.” He glanced at the crowd then. “Be a few brothers with me, ‘case any you others want a part of this.” Then he looked back at me. “Not that I’ll need them for you. You, I’ll beat down by myself.” With that, he gave me a sort of dismissive glare and just turned away, then pushed his way through the crowd, and was gone. That last glare stuck with me. I saw something in his eyes that wasn’t anger. I wished I could read it, but with my overall sense of confusion, there was no way.

Kat grabbed my arm and kissed my cheek, then said, “John, you were great! You’re going to fight for me! Monday you’ll teach that jerk not to insult me. Come on. Let’s get out of here. I want you.” She was slurring her words, and was holding onto my arm in a way that felt like it was holding her up. When I looked, I saw her eyes were glassy.

There was a sense of disappointment in the crowd. Some kids were talking to me, excitement in their voices, but my mind was still a blur, possibly from too much adrenalin too short a time ago. I felt fuzzy, and let Kat pull me back to the house, then through it and out the front door.

- - [4] - -

In the car, Kat told me to drive to the church she attended. I wondered just how drunk she was. She wanted to go to church on Friday night? It wouldn’t even be open. Most everything in town closed down on Friday nights when there was a football game, and most of the churches followed suit. Rather than argue with her, though, still feeling a little disoriented, I simply drove her to the church. As I expected, it was dark and the parking lot was empty. I pulled up in front and turned to her.

“It’s closed, Kat. How about I just take you home?”

“I know it’s closed. That’s why I wanted to come here. Pull into the parking lot. Way in the back.”

I drove into the parking lot. At the rear, some trees overhung the blacktop, and there was room for two cars to park where the spaces were sheltered from view by the fenced off area that held the church’s trash bins. She pointed for me to drive back there and park. I did. She reached over and turned off the engine. Then she opened her door and said, “Come on.” Her voice was low and lustful.

I opened my door too, and we both got out. Then she opened the rear door on her side and got into the back. I just stood there looking at her, but she slid across the seat and popped open my door, grabbed my arm and pulled.

I got in the car with her, and she was all over me in a flash, kissing my lips and face with abandon. I smelled beer on her breath, but was more interested in finding space to breathe than smelling. While she was kissing me, she was forcing us back onto the seat, till finally I was sprawled flat on my back and she was on top of me.

She continued to kiss me, but her hands were busy. She pulled my polo shirt up till it was bunched around my upper chest, then started working it over my head. I couldn’t see, my arms were tangled in it, and it was easier to sit up a little and help than fight it. She pulled it off, threw it into the front seat, then started kissing me again, now stroking my chest and torso.

She paused for a moment, and then her own blouse was off, followed almost immediately by her bra. In the dim light of the parking lot, I could see her small breasts, and she rather proudly puffed out her chest when she saw me looking. She reached down and grabbed both my hands and pulled them up and laid them on her breasts, and gave a sigh when they were there.

I had no interest at all in feeling them up, but that was clearly what she wanted. I thought of balking, but realized the scene that would cause would be a lot uglier than just squeezing for a minute or two. I did that, wondering while doing so how to know when it would be proper to stop and ask if we could go home now.

As I was squeezing, she began wriggling a little. She even lay her head back and moaned, which seemed a little over the top to me. I mean, all I was doing was squeezing her breasts, maybe rubbing her nipples with my palms a little. Nothing consequential. I also wasn’t much in the mood for this, and rubbing her breasts wasn’t changing that any.

She was moaning, though. Maybe you’re not supposed to talk at that point, but I did. I asked her, “Kat, why are we doing this? I mean, it’s all of a sudden. We haven’t talked about it at all. Why now?”

She stopped moaning for a moment and looked down at me. “All the other girls are doing it tonight. The popular ones. In school Monday they’ll probably want to talk about it, compare notes and all, and I don’t want to have to act dumb, or say something dumb, or pretend. I need to know all about it.”

She then started moaning again. Never having heard a girl moan in sexual fulfillment before, if that’s what she was doing, I had no idea if it was genuine or not. So I kept massaging, feeling a little foolish. I wondered what straight guys got out of this. It sure wasn’t doing anything for me. Eventually, she got tired of moaning, I guess, and sat up straighter, then moved her hands down to my belt. I realized what she was doing when she had it unbuckled. How had she learned to unbuckle a belt so swiftly? While I was considering that, she popped open my trousers button and unzipped my fly.

“Hey, what are you doing?” I asked a little belatedly and with some alarm in my voice. Silly question, I know, but my thinking wasn’t quite as clear-headed as it usually was. It had been an unusual night.

She didn’t answer, just moved her hand down and began groping me through my underwear. I wasn’t at all hard, but if she was disappointed in that, she didn’t let me know. She found me and started massaging it. When it didn’t immediately jump to attention, she slipped her hand inside my Y-fronts and started direct, skin on skin manipulation.

Now I’m gay, as gay as a person can be, I imagine, I mean I had no doubts whatsoever, but I was also 16 years old and someone other than me was doing what only I’d done before. I responded. It felt really good, and my body responded. The more it grew, the more excited she became. Fairly quickly, she’d peeled down my briefs and I was sticking up straight in the air. She looked at it, back and me with a lascivious look of anticipation on her face, then back at it again. She stroked it a couple times, slowly, feeling all of it. She made a sound in the back of her throat I’d never heard before.

Then she began taking off her skirt, and I remembered exactly what she’d said she said she wanted to do, back when we were at the party. As I thought about doing that with her, and thought about not having any protection, I began wilting. I didn’t want to do this with a girl. I wanted my first time with someone to be with a cute, hot, sexy guy. Hopefully one as innocent as I was. Not with a girl. Not with Kat.

She was undressed by now. Naked. In the back seat with me. She was looking in my eyes, probably wanting to see lust there as I checked out her hot bod. Except her hot bod just looked like a sort of skinny naked girl to me, and wasn’t particularly exciting. She posed for a minute, letting me look, then looked down at me again. I wasn’t engorged any longer. I was still a little plump, but that was it. She reached down and began stroking it again, and again it felt good, but my head was full of thoughts now that seemed to be interfering with the fullness of her purpose.

She stroked for a while, but half-mast was about all she could achieve. Or I could achieve, however you want to look at it. I think it was about then that the beer really kicked in for her because rational thought and logical assumptions flew out the window and was replaced by determination. She ignored the problem and just went ahead with her plan. While she had me about halfway hard, she quickly squatted over me, held me upright, and sat down on it.

Of course, it squashed rather than poked. She tried it again, and got the same result. Frustrated, she got off and worked manually a while, then rolled onto me, reached behind between us, and began trying to stuff it in by hand. After trying this a while, I began speaking to her.

“Uh, Kat? Stop. It isn’t working. Stop that now. Kat. Kat!”

She finally heard me, and I think woke up to the fact I was softer now than when she’d begun, and the chances of getting me inside of her now were about the same as stuffing an octopus in there. It wasn’t going to happen.

She looked away from down there and up at my face. I had to come up with something fast. I did.

“Kat, I’m sorry. This would be great, but I think I had too much beer, I’m thinking about how neither of us thought to bring a condom, and in the very back of my mind I’m worrying a little bit about that fight on Monday. All that stuff keeps running through my head, and I can’t concentrate on what you’re doing, even though it feels so good and you’re wonderful and beautiful and I can’t believe you’re doing this for me.”

“Us. I was doing it for us.” She sounded only about half as angry and disappointed as I thought she’d be. I chalked it up to the beer. The beer giveth, the beer taketh away, I guessed.

I sort of wriggled a little, and she got off me as much as she could in the cramped space we had. I pulled up my briefs and pants. She got dressed, too.

I drove her home. Neither of us said anything during the short trip. She gave me a brief kiss on the cheek, then ran inside without looking back. Maybe I should have been thinking about things to say to her, comforting things, anything to reduce the embarrassment we’d both suffered, but after thinking up the excuse I did, it had reminded me of the fight, and that’s all I’d been able to think about ever since.

- - [5] - -

I woke up Monday morning early. Like an hour early, and for me that’s absurd. I always sleep till the alarm rings, and it usually rings for a while before I slap it off. But not Monday.

I’d spent Saturday worrying. The more I thought about the fight, the more I worried. Then Rusty came over. Rusty is, well, you’ve got to be around Rusty to get the full flavor of him. He’s the class clown type, and you think it’s an act till you’re with him in private and see he just can’t help it. He is what he is, sort of quirky with a dry sense of humor and a way of inflecting his voice up at the ends of sentences so they sound like questions even when they’re not. Some people can’t stand him because he never seems serious and they have to think about what he’s saying. I know him better than they do and realize he’s just like most of us. He can be serious if the occasion demands, even if it isn’t a natural state for him, but on those occasions he is serious, it’s just hard to tell he is. I think that’s one of the main reasons people can’t stand him. I have to stand him, I guess, because he’s my best friend.

He knocked on the door, waited a second, then came in. We did that at each other’s houses. Saved both of us getting up from the couch when we were watching TV, or coming down from our rooms if we were on our computers. I happened to be watching TV, trying to take my mind off my worries. He came in, put one hand on the back of the couch and leaped over it, landing sitting down next to me.

Rusty, nicknamed that by his mother when he was three for his bright red hair—not auburn, not strawberry or mahogany or any other euphemism—is five feet, four inches tall and a great athlete, but since he weighs about 115 pounds and high school jocks don’t have a good sense of themselves and would crush him like a bug if he went out for any sport that involved physical contact, not many kids know that. Since I spend a lot of time with him, I knew and envied him. I was about as athletic as a three-toed sloth is cute, or in other words, not at all.

Rusty was cute, too. He was also straight as a T-square. So I liked looking at him, but didn’t crush on him at all. I had, a few years back, when I didn’t really know him, but then we became friends and somehow that changed the dynamic between us. I liked how he looked, loved him as a friend, but there were no sparks there any more, which made it better as far as I was concerned. It would have been too much trouble hiding my feelings, otherwise.

I sort of thought Rusty knew I was gay. We hadn’t spoken of it, but he gave me looks sometimes. Rusty wasn’t dumb. Some people thought he was because of the way he acted much of the time, but he wasn’t. And since we spent a lot of time together, he had some insights into me other kids didn’t. When you’re out at the mall, and a really fine boy walks past, and your friend is with you, how many times does that have to happen, do your eyes have to follow that cutie even if your head doesn’t, before your friend notices?

He’d never said anything. That was the surprising part to me, as I was pretty sure he’d guessed. I mean, he talked about girls all the time, he watched the cute ones in the mall and at school, even turning around to watch them after they’d passed by. I couldn’t be that obvious with the boys who I found attractive, but he could be with the girls and was. I wondered why he’d never said anything to me, at least joked about it just to test the waters, but I’d thought about it a lot and had decided he knew, and was waiting for me to say something. He hung with me, and I thought he knew, so I didn’t think he’d have a problem with it, but, well, I just wasn’t sure. It’s a pretty big step, saying something, and I just hadn’t.

Another reason I thought he knew? About six months ago, he’d stopped asking me my impression of the girls he liked. Before that, he’d eyeball one, tell me about her best features, then ask what I thought. I always answered―hell, I knew how to play the game―but my heart wasn’t in it like his was. Then, he’d just stopped asking me to participate. He’d kept telling me all the girls’ good points, but then didn’t ask my impression any longer. So there was that, too.

I felt a little bad about not telling him. I really did. But I was scared to. I guess I wasn’t any braver about that than I was about getting into fights.

Rusty tapped me on the shoulder, grinned at me, then turned to see what I was watching. I did too and was a little shocked to see the weekly stock market report was on. I had been so focused on thinking how my last day alive would be Monday that I hadn’t been paying any attention at all when the cartoons ended and the news reports began.

Rusty looked at the set, then back at me, an amused grin on his face.

“Checking your investments?”

“I wasn’t paying attention,” I grumbled, stating the obvious.

“Thinking about Monday?”

“How’d you hear? That was only a few hours ago, and most people who were there would still be in bed?”

“Ve haf our vays! Braaaa haaaaa haaaa haaaa!”

“Quit it! I’m not in the mood. You want to play five-year-olds, go home!”

He didn’t reply, just looked at me. That wasn’t his normal reaction. Maybe there was something in my voice I hadn’t meant to be there. I didn’t look back at him. If I met his eye, he’d find some way to make me laugh, and laughing was the last thing on my To Do list for the day.

When I didn’t respond to his silence, or look at him, he reached down, took the remote and turned off the TV. Then he said, sounding somber and almost compassionate, “This is really unfair.”

I thought about that, something you frequently had to do with one of Rusty’s remarks, and finally asked, “What’s unfair?”

Rusty moved slightly away from me before answering. “This fight after school. There’s no doubt you’re going to die and all, I mean, look who you’re fighting, but why after school? If it were before school, you wouldn’t have to do that report for History. This way, you have to do it and turn it in before you get killed. Unfair.”

So what do I do? Kill him? Rusty is the one person I could probably beat up since I outweigh him by almost 50 pounds. If I could catch him. He’s pretty slippery, and can run much faster than I can.

I didn’t have the energy to chase him. I didn’t really want to get off the couch. I didn’t want to get off the couch till Tuesday, to tell the truth, but that wasn’t going to work. The fight was bad enough to face. Facing the school with them all knowing I chickened out and didn’t come to school on Monday didn’t bear thinking about.

I just wanted to sit on the couch and brood. My mood was already dark, perfect for brooding. The only problem was Rusty. It was difficult to brood with Rusty around.

When I didn’t make a move for him, Rusty settled back deeper in the couch. After a pause, he said softly, “Really worried, huh?”

Dammit. Why’d he have to say that? That remark, from him, the king of the sarcastic joke, made me want to cry. I was worried sick, and now this? Compassion? I couldn’t take that. That worked its way right through my defenses like they weren’t even there.

I turned my head away from him. I couldn’t speak.

He didn’t say anything more, and then I felt him get up. He walked around behind the couch, and I turned my head back to the front. He continued into the kitchen, where I heard him open the refrigerator. I used the time to wipe my eyes. In a couple minutes he was back, carrying two cans of pop. He set them both on the table, then sat back down.

Neither of us said anything. Finally I leaned forward and took a drink. Then I asked, “So how do you know about it?”

“Frank called me. He was all excited. Told me all about it, asked what I knew, what you’d said to me about it. I asked him if he knew what time it was. He said, ‘Uh, yeah, it’s nine o’clock, dude.’ So I told him the sheep weren’t even done jumping over fences yet and to go back to bed.”

Frank was Frank Nevens. He was a guy that hung around with Rusty when Rusty wasn’t hanging with me. It was his friendship with Rusty, and Rusty’s with me, that resulted in my ride home every day with Chad. Frank was on the football team and had been at the party. I never could figure why he hung with Rusty. He had an IQ of about 35 and there’s no way he could ever understand what Rusty was talking about.

But something Rusty had said earlier suddenly clicked in. My face back to normal now, I turned to him and asked, “What did you mean before when you said something about who I was fighting? I don’t even know who he is, just some dude I didn’t recognize.”

“Oh shit, you don’t know? His name is Calvin Tappler. He’s new this year. I don’t know much about him, but I do know he’s on the football team, which is why he was at the party. He’s plays cornerback. And he’s also all-state. The guy’s a jock, and a really good one.”

I just stared at him. And remembered the kid pointing at me. I think I went pale, because Rusty moved over and grabbed me. I started getting light-headed and Rusty pushed my head down to my knees and held me like that, saying, “Breathe, John. Breathe. Nice and easy. Slow, deep breaths. Just like after you’ve jacked off.”

When he said that, I was in the middle of a deep breath and I almost choked. He let up on the pressure on my back, thank God, and I sat back up. I could feel blood coming back to my face.

“That looks better. Calm down. You have two full days yet to think about things, like moving to Tahiti, or maybe just making out a will. My real first name is Roger, in case you want to leave anything to me.”

I scowled at him. I knew what his first name was. He was looking worried and funny at the same time, and as I looked at him, I couldn’t help myself. The whole situation suddenly seemed too weird to be true, and I smiled.

The look on Rusty’s face changed to one of relief, but only for a moment. Then it became very serious and he said, “We’ve only got two days for training, guy. That isn’t long. I think you’re supposed to cut out all sweets and jerking off. And run twenty miles a day so you have your wind. That might be handy if he starts chasing you. Oh, wait. Him being an all-state cornerback, I think he might catch you in about three steps even if you train from now till next year and he gives you a four step head start.”

I don’t know how he could say that and make it come out funny. He was telling me I had no chance in the world, yet the words were reassuring. Maybe it was just that he was making light of the entire thing. Maybe it was just that he was here with me.

But the reality of the situation kept coming back to slap me in the face, no matter what Rusty said. And every time I pictured it, me and the Calvin kid surrounded by the entire school population, then him stepping forward and wailing on me, I felt more like crying that anything else.

Because in reality, I didn’t see that happening. I didn’t see it getting that far, because I didn’t think I could face him. And that thought wast just as bad as the thought of being beaten down; I didn’t know which was worse. I was going to be humiliated because I didn’t think I could stand up to him. I’d back down, I’d chicken out, and everyone would know. Everyone in the whole fucking school would know I was a coward.

I’d known it all along, but no one else had. Not even Rusty. I felt I could own up to being gay easier than I could to being a coward. I didn’t have any choice about being gay. I was made that way. I did have a choice of whether to stand up and fight for myself, and I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. I wasn’t ashamed of being gay. I didn’t want anyone to know about it, but that was for other reasons, not because I was ashamed of it. I was deeply, horrifyingly ashamed of being a coward.

I guess my face changed as I was thinking this, because Rusty was suddenly next to me with his arm around me. I hadn’t seen this side of him before. Hell, there’d been no reason why I should have. He was happy go lucky and I didn’t have any major problems, so we were just a couple of ordinary kids, and he’d never had to comfort me about anything.

His arm felt good, but it made me want to cry again. And that pissed me off. Why was I such a wuss?

“Talk to me,” Rusty said.

“I don’t think I can.”

“Talk to me, John. I’ve never seen you like this. You’re scaring me. Tell me what you’re thinking. All the TV shows say you have to talk. I don’t know, TV is mostly a bunch of crap, but somehow that seems right, right now. You’re just sitting there looking like you’re going crazy or going to fall apart. So talk to me. It can’t hurt anything.”

“Sure it can. What’s scaring me is what I always keep private. I can’t talk to you about it. It wouldn’t be private any more.”

“So what? You think you have to hide something from me? From me? Come on, John.”

“Are you telling me there’s nothing at all you keep secret from me? You tell me everything?”

Rusty didn’t say anything for a minute while he thought. Then he said, “Well, sure, I don’t tell everything. I do stuff I’m not proud of. I looked at Justin’s paper when we were taking a quiz once and got an answer off it. I cheated, and felt really bad about it for a while. I still do when I think about it. I stood nude in front of my bedroom window one night with the light on, kind of hoping some babe would walk by, look up and see me. I don’t tell you this shit because it’s embarrassing. But there’s nothing big, John. Nothing I can think of.”

“I don’t believe it. Everybody has secrets. Stuff they’re ashamed of. What about Tracy Collins? You were all hot on her, and then suddenly you weren’t, and you never said anything. I asked a couple times, and you blew me off. Like you do so I wouldn’t get mad, but it was a blow off. And I don’t even want you to tell me now; just admit it, it was secret, whatever it was. We all have secrets.”

He turned away from me for a moment, then turned back with a sheepish grin on his face. “You’re right. I asked her out, and she told me to ask again when I’d grown another six inches. It embarrassed the hell out of me, and it hurt. Now, I can look at it and I’ve gotten over the hurt, but it did hurt at the time.

“You’re right. I’m sensitive about my height and I don’t let people know that. I’m a shrimp, and I know it, and I wish I weren’t. And I don’t tell anyone because it embarrasses me. I didn’t want to let anyone know when Tracy said that to me. I didn’t want to talk about it, so I guess I understand when you say you don’t want to talk about something either. But John, that was just embarrassing. It wasn’t eating me up. This is eating you up. Are you that worried about fighting him? Because you don’t even have to, you know? All you have to do is find him in the halls and apologize. Tell him you were drunk, tell him it was the atmosphere, make something up, apologize and make a joke out of it. I’ll come with you if you want. He’s not going to want to fight you if you do that. He doesn’t have some big rep he’s going to protect by beating you. He’s new here and probably just wants to blend in.”

I considered that, and suddenly some of the tension I was feeling began to lift. Apologizing might actually work! Why would the kid want to fight me? He almost certainly wasn’t as scared of fighting me as I was of fighting him, but still, what did he have to gain by it? He probably wanted to make friends at this school. As the school was mostly white, if he got a rep for beating up on white boys, that wouldn’t help his chances of fitting in much. Rusty was probably right. I could apologize. And it would most likely be over. And I’d never have to tell anyone I was a coward.

I looked up at Rusty, and he was looking intently at me. There was worry in his eyes, until I smiled. I was still upset about what was coming, but Rusty’d given me a possible way out. I felt better. I’d been agonizing, and now some of the tension was leaving me. I think Rusty could see it in my face.

He visibly relaxed a little. I kept looking at him, and eventually he said, “What?”

“You know, don’t you?”

“What’re you talking about?”

“You know. I just realized, thinking about everything. What you say, what you don’t say. You know. When I think about what you don’t talk about. I’ve been stupid. You know.”

“Jeez, man. Talk English. People complain I’m cryptic. I have no idea what you’re on about.”

“Yes you do. Don’t you?”

I said, “Don’t you?” as a question, but I meant it as a statement of fact.

I kept staring at him, and suddenly he started fidgeting. Rusty was the most self-contained, unaffected kid I knew. He never got embarrassed. It was funny watching him being uncomfortable. I didn’t say anything to relieve it. He made me uncomfortable much more than I ever could him. I was easy to tease, easy to upset, because I took most everything too seriously. People couldn’t understand how Rusty and I were so close since we were so different. I think the differences were the reason we were close. Opposites attracting and all that. But he was all the time saying things, doing things that made me uncomfortable. I owed him a good fidget.

After a couple minutes, he asked, “You really want to do this?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. I know. At least I’m pretty sure.”

“Tell me.”

“John! If I’m wrong, you might kill me. I’m just a little kid. I break easily.”

I was 160, 165. I was six feet tall, or just under. Tall and slender, but bigger than Rusty by a lot. “Yeah, right. You think you’re too small, but I’d trade with you in an instant. You’re small, but you’ll grow. There’s still lots of time. But as well as small, you’re good looking, you’re coordinated, and you’ve got the best personality in the school.”

“You really think so?” “Yeah, I do, and stop trying to change the subject.”

He was silent again, thinking. Then he said, “Why now? You’re worrying about this guy you’re supposed to fight. Isn’t that what you should be thinking about?”

“I did think about it. You gave me the solution. At the very least, you gave me hope. You’re the best friend I could ever have. So it’s time I was honest with you, and you with me.”

“How am I not honest with you?”

“You don’t tell me what you think. So I’m calling you on it. Tell me.”

“Aren’t you supposed to tell me. Isn’t that the way it’s done, traditionally?”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “I don’t know squat about tradition. Just tell me.”

“All right, but this is all your doing. Remember that. Okay.” He paused, gathering himself, I guess, then said, “For the last several months, I’ve been pretty sure you’re gay. I’ve been waiting for you to tell me. You haven’t, and so I’ve been trying to give you hints that I knew, and that it made absolutely no difference to me. I guess you finally noticed.”

“You think I’m gay?” I said, opening my eyes wide and sounding shocked.

He looked at me, worried for only a flashing instant, then said, “You’re dead!” and pounced on me.

So I was finally out to my friend. And he didn’t care.

Saturday turned out to be a good day, on the whole, not the bad one I thought it would be when I got out of bed that morning.

- - [6] - -

Waking up early on Monday pissed me off. I think I did it because, even with a plan, there was no certainty it would work, and so I was still worried. A hundred things could go wrong, the most obvious being this Calvin kid wouldn’t accept my apology.

I now had a best friend who knew I was gay. If it took facing a fight that still terrified me to have that settled, then I felt I was ahead of the game. I now had someone to talk to about what I was feeling. Rusty, being Rusty, was more joking about it than compassionate, but I now knew he could even be that when it mattered.

We had gone to the mall on Sunday, like half the teenagers in America. This time, when a cute boy walked past, I still couldn’t do more than only move my eyes. Moving my head might have let the boy himself know I was looking, and I wasn’t ready for that. But I no longer had to hide my eyes from Rusty. And best of all, after the kid had gone by, Rusty could say, “About a 7, I’d say,” and I could say back, “No, a 6. Did you see the socks he was wearing? Naked, maybe a 7, but with those socks, I have to downgrade him to a 6,” and Rusty could reply, “Naked! Eeeeew! I don’t even want to think about it!” and I could say, “I do!” with a dreamy quality to my voice and we could both laugh and he could hit me in the shoulder and we’d never been able to do that before. The difference I felt, the freedom to be myself, was amazing.

But now it was Monday, and I was awake too early, and my worrying had set in. I ended up at the breakfast table even before my mom was up yet. I fixed some cereal and toast but didn’t really feel like eating it. I wished for the three thousand two hundred and ninety-eighth time I didn’t worry so much. Again, the wishing did no good.

Rusty met me at my locker, as he’d told me he would. He’d also talked to Frank and found out where Calvin’s locker was. We dumped our stuff in our lockers and went to find Calvin. I only had a chance to do this if I did it right away. If I had any time at all to think about it, now that it was Monday, I’d freeze up. I knew it. Just going to find him had my heart beating way too fast. I really was a coward.

It was still a little early, but most of the kids who got bussed to the school arrived early. Calvin was at his locker. Another black kid was with him. I say “kid” because I guess he was a high school student like we were. He didn’t look like a kid. He looked like a small house. He and Calvin were just standing by Calvin’s locker, talking. I slowed down as soon as I saw them, but Rusty kept going, and when he noticed me falling behind, stopped and said, “Come on. Keep up. If I have to drag you, it’ll look bad.”

So I picked up the pace, starting to hate Rusty. He wasn’t the one who was going to get punched in the face. Easy for him to be so enthusiastic.

We stopped in front of Calvin. He looked at us, and I saw a sudden glint of recognition in his eyes.

I didn’t say anything. I think my throat froze up. Rusty sort of bumped me, but it didn’t help at all.

The house said, “You guys want something?”

I didn’t speak, so Rusty did. “I’m Rusty. This is John. John wanted to talk to Calvin.”

“Is it private? I can leave.”

Rusty wasn’t bashful, even facing a small mountain with who knew what barely contained animosities. “Uh, that makes change for a dollar, I guess.”

The house broke into a grin. I guess you could call it that. His lips parted and I could see some teeth. His eyes narrowed slightly as they do when someone grins. Most people, meeting Rusty for the first time, didn’t grin. They simply looked puzzled.

After grinning, if that’s what it was, the house then made a guttural sound. It occurred to me he might be chuckling.

“Makes change for a dollar, huh? I like that.” He turned to Calvin, poked him, and said, “The boy says I make sense. Get it?”

Then he laughed. I won’t describe it.

Rusty looked a little surprised. Most people had no idea what he was talking about. He looked at the house a little harder, then broke out in a grin. “You’re all right, man. What’s your name?”

“Lucius Browner. And you’re Rusty? I can see why. You mama tried to drown you when you was a baby and it didn’t take, but your hair all rusted.”

He grinned, and so did Rusty. Then Lucius said, “Russ, why don’t you and I do a nickel, give these boys some space?” Rusty laughed. “You want us to take five, huh? I never met anyone before who talks like I do. Okay, let’s split this chicken coop. See ya later, John.”

He started walking down the hall, Lucius right next to him, chatting him up. Talk about an odd couple. If Lucius didn’t weight three of Rusty, it was only because he’d skipped his half-gallon bowl of oatmeal after having his two steaks for breakfast.

This left me looking at Calvin, and him looking at me. Unfortunately, we also now had a crowd of other people around us. Evidently, news of what had happened Friday night was the topic of conversation when kids came to school this morning. I was now face to face with Calvin, and almost instantly we had a big crowd around us, waiting to see if the fight was going to happen before school instead of after.

This made apologizing to him awkward. If we were alone, I could just do it. I really think, after Rusty and Lucius had lightened the mood, I could have done it. But now, it wasn’t so easy. It was too public, and would look like I was weaseling out of the fight if people heard what I said. Weaseling out was what I was trying to do, of course, but I didn’t want it to look that way to the entire school.

I couldn’t read anything in Calvin’s eyes. His whole face was just blank, waiting for me to say something. I didn’t know how to start. And then I couldn’t because a couple of Calvin’s friends―well, I shouldn’t say that. A couple black kids that I assumed Calvin knew who may have been his friends―came up, pushed through the crowd, and one stepped up to Calvin, the other to me. The one next to me said, “After school. Not here in the halls. After school.” Then he took my arm and sort of marched me away. When we came to the corner of the hallway, he let me go, repeated, “After school, behind the gym,” then turned back and walked away.

Well, it had been a good plan. But now I was sunk.

And I had the whole day in front of me to get more and more scared about it.

- - [7] - -

It took Rusty talking to me constantly as I was going to my locker at the end of the day to get me not to just run away. In my mind, that little part of it that was still thinking coherently, I could run away, not show up behind the gym, and be humiliated for the rest of my schooldays, or I could go out to face Calvin and get humiliated by looking and acting scared before him, and then get beaten up in the bargain. The fact that I probably wouldn’t be as humiliated doing it that second way was a shade of gray that was way too indistinct for me to see clearly. To me, neither one of the options was anything I could deal with.

Rusty kept telling me I had to go, I had to, and it wouldn’t be too bad, that Lucius had told him Calvin was a really nice kid, and he wouldn’t hurt me too bad if he could help it. Great. I still would look scared, standing in front of him waiting to be hit, and everyone would see it. I wasn’t a fighter. I just wasn’t. I had no idea how to look like one. Everyone in the school would know that after this, know they could beat me down whenever they wanted to. I was about to lose not only my own self-respect, but that of everyone in the entire school. I’d just stand there and the kid would whomp on me and I’d fall down. Where in there was I supposed to look good? Maybe, too, when he whomped on me, I’d get a broken face or ribs or wrist, the wrist when I feel down. Then I’d come to school covered in bandages. How was that better than everyone knowing I was a chicken, knowing I was a klutz who couldn’t defend himself? How was the visual proof of that going to work to my credit?

Rusty kept trying to convince me that no matter what happened, if I went out there, I’d retain some dignity. He said no one would expect me to be able to beat up a football player, but they would expect me to show up. If I did that, I’d be okay. He kept a hand on my arm all the way walking to the gym. I didn’t know whether it was a supportive hand or one to keep me from changing my mind. I’m sure if his hand hadn’t been there, however, at some point during the walk I’d have turned and run. That was me. I just wasn’t a fighter, and was afraid. Man, was I afraid.

I was so scared I was sure I must be pasty. I didn’t think I was sweating. I was too scared to sweat. But I had to be pale.

I’d guess half the school was there. When they saw me, they started to form a big circle. Rusty walked me into it. Calvin was standing on the other side. He had three guys with him. Two of them were black, one of them being Lucius. The white kid was one of the football players. All four of them, including Calvin, were bigger than I was.

I hoped I wasn’t shaking, but I was scared enough that I thought I probably was. No one said anything. I didn’t know how this worked. Did people talk to each other? Did they run at each other and start throwing punches? I was out of my element. Big time.

Calvin didn’t waste any time. He sort of got set, about five feet in front of me, so I sort of did the same thing, mimicking him, not knowing what else to do. Then he charged me, hit me in the gut with his shoulder, knocking me to the ground. The crowd started making noise, but it was all happening so fast I didn’t have time to think.

We started rolling around in the dirt, him on top, then me on top. It didn’t take long for me to realize, he was doing the rolling. When I was on top, it was because he rolled me there. When I was on the bottom, same thing.

He rolled me over again and I was on the bottom. He acted like we were struggling, and in doing so, brought his face down next to mine. With his lips next to my ear, he said, “When we stand up, I’ll swing at you. Pull your head back and I’ll miss. Then take a swing at my face. Nod if you understand.”

I heard the words. I don’t know if I understood or not, but nodding seemed what he wanted me to do, so I nodded.

Calvin rolled us over again, and when he was back on top, suddenly jumped up, pulling me up along with him. We sort of wrestled together standing up till we bumped into Lucius. Calvin kind of pushed me away from him then, and I staggered back.

“Okay, enough of the chicken shit wrestling,” he said. Then he stepped forward and shot a slow roundhouse blow toward my face.

I knew it was coming, he’d told me he was going to do that, for Christ sake, but I was confused and a little dazed by what was happening and I only pulled my head back in the nick of time. His fist grazed my chin, then went past and Calvin stumbled forward a little. Almost as if it weren’t me, I took a short step forward and swept my fist at his face.

Calvin looked like he was off-balance, but I watched his eyes watch my fist. He kept his face right where it had to be, and at the very last moment, pulled it back about a half inch. My fist brushed the fleshy end of his nose.

Calvin yelled and staggered back. He reached up with both hands and covered his face, and then I heard a muffled but still loud shout.

“My nose! My nose! He fuckin’ broke my nose!” He pulled his hands away, and his face was covered in blood.

Lucius rushed forward and put his arm around Calvin’s shoulders. Calvin dropped to one knee. Lucius looked around at the crowd, then said in a voice that had no humor in it at all, “Okay, fight’s over. Let’s break this up. Right now. Get going.”

The look on his face, coupled with his sheer size, brooked no nonsense. People started moving away. Faster than I could believe, everyone was disappearing.

I turned back to look at Calvin. He was still on one knee, his head down. I was still scared, but I walked over to him.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Can I help at all? Can I help you to the nurse’s office?”

Calvin didn’t look up, didn’t move at all, and then I heard Lucius’s voice. “Okay, everyone’s gone, except my boy Russ here, and he’s okay.”

At that point, Calvin looked up, then stood. His face was still covered with blood, but he didn’t act like he was hurting at all. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief and started mopping his face. I winced as he wiped his nose, and he saw that and grinned at me.

“Hey, you didn’t break my nose. This is fake blood. I had a capsule. One of those movie prop sort of deals. Lucius passed it to me when we bumped into him.”

I was really confused now. I must have looked that way, because Calvin laughed.

“Hey, don’t worry about it. We had our fight. It’s all over. I knew you didn’t want to fight me, I could tell Friday night. Now we’re clean. Hey, sorry, but Luke and I got to run. We’re going to be late for practice, and the coach makes us run a lap for every five minutes we’re late. Luke hates to run laps, and I got to listen to him whining about it. Guy’s a real pussy.”

Lucius glowered at him, looking fierce, and Calvin broke up laughing.

They started to walk off towards the locker room. They’d gone twenty steps of so when I called after them, “But I want to talk to you. I don’t understand.”

Calvin looked back over his shoulder. “I’ll be in the library during lunch tomorrow. If you want to talk, meet me there.”

- - [8] - -

I had no trouble sleeping all the way to the alarm the next day. I felt really good getting up. The fight was behind me and I couldn’t wait to get to talk to Calvin. There was something about the guy that drew me to him, that appealed to me. It was like a charisma that affected me. I had no idea if anyone else notice it. I certainly did. In the back of my mind I had this feeling about him. I thought we might be friends. I hoped so. I didn’t entirely understand what had happened yesterday, but I had an instinctive good feeling about it. He could have hurt me, and had taken elaborate, planned-in-advance steps not to. I wanted to know why. And I wanted to simply spend time with him.

We weren’t allowed to bring food into the library. Seemed silly to me till I thought about how clumsy and careless teenagers are. Then, it made more sense. I made a sandwich and took it to school with me and ate it on the sly in fourth period Calculus. We were supposed to be doing problems from the book while Mrs. Applegate wandered around the room, apparently to help but mostly making people nervous. While she was on the other side of the room, I kept taking bites of my sandwich and wishing I’d had the nerve to bring a can of pop, too.

I got to the library soon after the bell had rung, then had to stand around and wait because Calvin wasn’t there yet. He finally came in, smiled at me and told me to follow him. He took a table way in the back. I threw my backpack next to his at the table and sat down. I wasn’t feeling scared at all.

He looked at me but didn’t speak. I looked back. I’d thought he was handsome when I’d first seen him at the party. He looked even better, now. He was dressed in a white pullover shirt that looked like it had been pressed. He had on a pair of khaki trousers with a sharp crease in each leg. His loafers were highly polished. The shirt contrasted with his light milk chocolate complexion. He was smiling, and his dark brown eyes seemed to be twinkling. I had the impression, just looking at him, that he knew about twice as much about everything in the world as I did.

I had rehearsed how I as going to be cool and easy-going and totally with it, but now that he was here, all that sort of fell away and I felt tingly. I started to speak, hesitated, then simply blurted out, “Why didn’t you fight me?”

He didn’t answer the question, but instead said, “You’re John, aren’t you? We’ve never been introduced. I’m Calvin Tappler. How’s it going?”

I got a big smile on my face. I’d thought he was going to be friendly. I hadn’t known he’d be so smooth, but it didn’t surprise me.

“Yeah, I’m John Carter. And I want to apologize about all this. None of this was your fault. Hearing your voice, you weren’t even the one who called Kat that name Friday night. It was a bass voice, and you’re a tenor like me. But I still don’t get everything that happened. Why didn’t you fight?”

His face was sober now, and I wished I could read his eyes. They were deep, and I could see a lot in them, but I couldn’t decipher anything at all. “John,” he said, looking right at me, being sincere, “I’ve been in a lot of fights. Where I grew up, you fought or you simply got beaten up, and if you didn’t fight and got beaten up, you then got called things you didn’t want to be called. So you learned how to fight. I was always athletic, so I learned how pretty quickly. A lot of fights, they’re not just fighting over someone calling someone a name. They’re fights for survival. So you learn to survive. I know a lot about it. I knew about five seconds after you put your fists up Friday night you didn’t have the slightest idea what you were doing. I made you move, and you crossed your feet over each other, moving side to side. I watched how you held your fists. You had your thumbs inside your fingers. You ever hit anyone like that, you’ll break your thumbs before you hurt anyone else. Then I looked in your eyes. You didn’t want to be there. On the street, in a real fight, I see that, I know I’ve already won.”

He paused and looked at me like he was trying to read me, and I suddenly knew, he was trying not to offend me. He was talking softly and really respectfully too; I could tell that by the tone of voice he was using. Now he was checking to see that I wasn’t taking offense. I wasn’t.

“You’ve got to understand, John, a lot was going on there. Sure, I could have just hit you a couple times and walked away. But then, I have problems with the football coach, I might have problems with some of the guys at the party, you’ll never have a clue about the problems I’d have with my dad, and in any case, I looked in your eyes and there was no way I was going to hit you.”

“Why not? That’s what I don’t understand.”

“Well, don’t take this wrong, but, well, I liked what I saw. You had your hands up to fight me, even though you hated being there. Not everyone would do that. A lot of guys would find a reason to just turn around and walk away. Yeah, all guys are supposed to be macho, but standing up and fighting some guy they don’t know? A lot of them won’t do it. You didn’t want to, but you did. I respect that. And I wasn’t going to take advantage of you, just because I knew what I was doing and you didn’t. You had a lot of guts, and I wasn’t going to make you look bad.”

“But I didn’t!” I blubbered out before I had a chance to think about it. “I was scared shitless. I didn’t have any guts at all. I don’t.”

“Sure you did. You might have been scared, but you were there. That took guts. You might think you’re too scared to fight, but you were there.”

I thought about that, then said, “I really didn’t have any choice. The whole crowd was there, and Kat was pushing me, and it sort of just happened before I knew what was what.”

“John, you won’t believe it, but a lot of fights start like that. And a lot of kids just drop their hands and walk away, even though the crowd gets all over them for it. You didn’t.”

“So you didn’t fight because you’d get in trouble for it?”

“Yeah, that was one of the reasons.”

“What was the rest?”

“Beside what I already said? You really want to know?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Why?”

I had to pause, thinking how to answer that. He’d been pretty open with me. How open could I get with him?

“I’m not sure exactly, Calvin. But, at the risk of saying too much, there’s something about you that I liked when I first saw you. I was scared of you, but I still saw something. I wanted to be your friend, I think. I wanted to get to know you. That sounds silly, but that was the impression I had when I first saw you. I saw something when I looked in your eyes. I can’t really define it. But I wanted to get to know you.” I looked at him, scared of his response, but needing to see it.

His look remained unreadable to me, but then he grinned. “You too, huh? What I said before? That I liked the look of you? I felt sort of like that, too. Like you said. You looked like someone I wanted to get to know, too. I think we connected a little.”

I grinned back at him, and some of the tension I was feeling disappeared. I decided I had the nerve to ask him something I’d noticed.

“Calvin, how come, at the party, and then behind the gym before the fight, you talked like, well, like what I hear the black kids on TV in the ghetto talking. And now you sound just like me. How come?”

He grinned, a sort of embarrassed but proud grin. “I’m bilingual. Street and regular. Kind of like at the gas station, you take your pick, depending on what you need.”

He looked so incredible when he grinned like that.

I was on a roll now. “What was all that about the blood? Why did you do that?”

“I don’t know how it works here, but where I grew up, saving face is really important. If you punk someone, they often feel they have to get you back. You grow up learning how keep from shaming someone. It becomes sort of second nature, because it’s a survival skill. So when I decided Friday I wasn’t going to fight you, I had to do it in a way that you saved your image. I didn’t want anyone thinking I walked away from you because you I felt you weren’t man enough to fight me. Then, I got to thinking over the weekend. I knew I didn’t want to fight you. I liked you. But how could I end the fight with both our honor intact? I came up with the broken nose bit, and knew the blood would just seal it.”

“How did you know I’d go along? I almost didn’t. I was so scared, I almost blew it.”

“Were you still scared after we’d been rolling around in the dirt awhile?”

I thought back, remembering the fight, reliving it, and realized that no, I hadn’t been scared then. I’d been a little spacey, but not really scared. I was surprised, but he was right. I told him so.

“That’s what I thought. Most guys, once you get going, all that fear about getting into the fighting sort of goes away. I hoped it would happen as it did. If I’d made my swing at you any slower, I was afraid people would start laughing.”

“That was slow? You very nearly nailed me with it!”

“Yeah, believe me, that was slow.

“But how’d you know I wasn’t really going to be fighting by then? I mean, you didn’t know, maybe I was really mad at you, mad that you’d made that remark to Kat. How’d you know I wasn’t really mad and wasn’t fighting for real?” “I could read it in your eyes. There was no doubt in my mind. I looked in your eyes and knew who you were. You never were going to fight me. You’d have let me hit you, but you wouldn’t have fought back.”

“You could see all that.” It wasn’t a question, just me stating what I now understood. “And you’re still willing to talk to me?”

“John, I don’t think badly of you because of that. If anything, I respect you even more because of it. It’s easy to fight. Do it a couple times and it comes naturally. And that’s bad. Weak people fight. It’s so easy to try to settle something that way. But the only thing you settle is who can fight better. That’s the only thing. You’re not settling who’s the better man, or who was right or wrong, or anything important. Just who can fight better. You don’t think you’re very brave, do you?”

“How’d you know that?”

“That was one of the things I could read in your eyes. You were going to stand up to me, you were going to fight, but you didn’t want to, and you felt terrible about yourself because you were so afraid.”

“You could read all that?”

“I told you, I’ve done this a lot, and you learn to survive by reading your opponent correctly. I’m not proud of it, it’s just something I learned because I had to.” I wasn’t sure how to respond. I was so impressed by Calvin. He was brave and not a bit afraid. I think I was beginning to idolize him a little.

He was still looking in my eyes, and he shook his head, then frowned.

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t like that look you’re giving me. John, I think we both said a few minutes ago that we liked what we saw when we first looked at each other. I’d like to get to know you, see where we go with that. But I won’t if what I see in your eyes now is what it’s going to be. I see that look on girls’ faces all the time. They see me play football, they see how I dress, they hear me talk as I’m talking to you now, and they start to treat me like some big rap star, some NBA player or something. I don’t want that. You’re looking at me the same way now. Don’t. If we’re going to be friends, we have to just be ourselves. You start looking like you’re a fan instead of a friend, it won’t work.”

“I’m not sure it’ll work anyway,” I said, grinning. “You can read my mind. I wouldn’t have any secrets from you.”

“You keep secrets from your friends?”

“You know, I had this same conversation with Rusty on Saturday. I had been. He convinced me I shouldn’t.”

“That Rusty looks like he’d be fun. And I agree with him. The more secrets you keep, the less of a friend you are. You’re saying you don’t trust someone if you keep secrets from them.”

I thought about that. I even wondered, just for a moment, if I could tell him my secret. But that was silly. I couldn’t.

I could be his friend, however. Being with him, talking, the feeling I’d had when I first saw him on Friday was even stronger now. I liked him a lot.

Did that include romantically? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know him well enough, but maybe. Or maybe that would come with time. Could be possibly be gay? I didn’t have any of this gaydar thing I kept reading about. Absolutely none. But I supposed he could be. Right now, though, I was more interested in getting to know him than jumping his bones.

It was time to get to our next class. I didn’t want to leave. He frowned at the clock, so I don’t think he did either. We seemed to have touched a nerve with each other. Or as he said, connected. Strange. A black kid from the ghetto, a white kid from a middle class neighborhood who’d been raised in a different world and had his own secrets to deal with.

Yet the vibes were there, and they were strong. Would it just be friendship? More? I didn’t know, but I felt awfully good walking out of the library.

The End