How did I get myself into this?” I said as we walked down the road towards our houses from school.
“Hey man, you said if he didn’t stop talking shit, you were gonna kick his ass.” Jake said smiling at me as if this was some sort of joke.
I looked back at the school; our 7th grade teacher was still yelling at the stragglers in the playground to not treat the merry-go-round like one of those spinning carnival rides.
As we hit downtown, I began to understand how word of my little moment
of bravado got back to Carl. Hell, downtown was a small line of abandoned buildings and a gas station. The population cap read 136 people, not a whole lot. I was sure that there were more people around, as I lived just outside the city lines myself, but not enough to get out of “backwater” status. I knew that in this setting rumors spread like wildfire. I just didn’t expect word of my challenge to get back to Carl in a day.
“Yeah, I realize that. But what was I supposed to say? You’re the one that said he was talking crap about Jess right in front of her and her friend! I had to say that! I think I’m just going to show up tomorrow and say I’m sorry. Then I hopefully won’t have to fight him,” I explained. Jake stopped so suddenly that it caused me to skid across a bit of gravel that had gotten on the road. “Dude, you have to fight him. There’s just no way around it. You back out now, and you’ll be labeled as a wimp for the rest of your time here. Plus girls don’t really like wimps. I’ve seen them break up with guys because they didn’t fight for them. You have to fight.” He seemed pretty serious about this and the last thing I wanted at the time was the humiliation of Jess dumping me, so I agreed. We then split up and went our separate ways towards our houses, just like we had done for the past two years.
At the time I half-heartedly made the comment about Carl I thought I wasn’t afraid of fighting him, I had gotten into a brawl or two, and I had seen a couple between the older kids back when I lived in Chicago. I figured that there was no better place to learn than from a school where fights broke out on a daily basis. The only difference was that the ones I had seen in Chicago were just that, things that I had seen and not experienced for myself. Plus this fight differed from the others that I had been in by one major difference. The other fights I had been in happened in a flair of anger that involved a few punches, a head lock, and then a teacher broke it up. Here it was planned; hell, it was practically a social event. Our run-in during school had attracted a bit of a crowd. To raise the stakes a bit more, this was happening during a weekend, so there weren’t going to be any teachers to break up this one. Anything could happen, and I was starting to get a little nervous.
All night I just thought about what would happen the next day. It festered in my stomach, even made me a little queasy at one point during dinner. Or maybe it was mom’s chicken, but at the time it seemed more like the fight. She even commented that I was really un-talkative that evening. I went to bed early that night instead of staying up to watch my midnight T.V shows. I knew that the excitement I was feeling was going to keep me up, and I needed to be completely alert in the morning. Yet it was to no avail. I couldn’t stop running the fight through my head over and over again, and every time I came out the loser, in a big way.
It’s hard to say if this was because of my lack of self-confidence or just knowing that Carl was definitely bigger and more popular than I was. But either way, I started to fear for myself.
Jake came and got me in the morning after I ate a quick breakfast. It was 10a.m., and we were supposed to be at the school at noon, so we had some more time to kill. We walked downtown and sat at our usual stump in front of the abandoned bank. It was hot that day, unusually so for springtime. The sun was like an oppressive force, slowing down everything it touched. It only made the two hours of waiting that more uncomfortable. “You think that the fight will be called on account of heat?” I asked as I purposefully spilled my soda on the sidewalk to watch it fizzle.
“No I don’t,” Jake said seriously. It was the first thing he said about the subject without laughing. Maybe it was just the heat, but either way, it surprised me. The whole time he took this whole thing as if it was a joke, but it may have seemed just as real to him as it was to me.
Before long it was nearly noon, so we started to head up to the school. The closer we got to the top of the hill where the school sat and the more people that I saw from a distance, the more nervous I got. It was like there was this tingly brick just sitting in my stomach that only served to distract me from everything else around me except what waited for me on that hill. I had never really felt like this before. At the time I thought it was excitement. Later I would identify it as fear, and it only grew as I began to count how many people were there. I counted around 20 faces, give or take. All of them were there to see a fight.
“Don’t these people have anything better to do?” I said under my breath to Jake. “Nope, they live in Gorin,” Jake replied. He then patted me on the back and went to take his place in the crowd that had formed.
Once everyone had seen that I arrived they went deathly quiet. And then Carl stepped out into my sight from them. For a second time slowed down. All of the faces around us became as generic as dummies in a clothing store. All I could hear were the leaves blowing in the wind, and the crackle of a rock that I stepped on when I shifted my weight. The sun shone right into my eyes, silhouetting Carl into something resembling more of a mythical obstacle I needed to overcome than a simple boy. I thought that maybe I could use that as an excuse if I lost, but quickly pushed aside any thoughts of losing; I had to stay focused. We just stared into each other’s eyes, searching for something. It turned out that we were daring each other to make the first move. I was never one for action, and I wasn’t going to be caught off guard. Instead I used those few seconds to think about how I could beat this guy. He was definitely bigger than I was, a full head taller to be precise, and he was more muscular than I was at the time. I saw a few beads of sweat pour down from his cropped hair and over his bronze skin to his shirt. “It’s probably from fear,” I told myself reassuringly, full well knowing that it was really hot that day. Then it hit me. We were friends before this, and I remembered one time when he told me that he had a weak stomach. I felt a little guilty using something he told me in friendship against him, but I was willing to do anything it took at the time to win.
Suddenly I saw Carl charge me, his head lowered. I had seen this before in a lot of fights in Chicago. Finally all that “studying” was going to pay off. In an instant I knew that he was going to attempt to tackle me at the waist, then get on top and pummel me until I gave up. So I countered by stepping into it. If I could use my momentum to stay on my feet, then he would be below me and I could do what he planned to do to me. I couldn’t have misjudged the situation more. Instead of attempting to tackle me like I had expected, he grabbed my legs and pulled up and towards himself. My little maneuver only served to worsen my situation as I was instantly put to the ground on my back, the wind knocked out of me.
My mind scrambled for ways to get out of this position as we wrestled with each other on the ground like two scorpions who had their claws locked on each other. All I could do was prevent him from getting completely on top of me. If that happened it would all be over for me. But my fight appeared to be in vain. After rolling around for a few seconds and exchanging a few glancing blows, Carl won the positional battle by getting himself over me. I reacted by making myself as small as possible, bracing for the coming blows to the face that would inevitably lead to my cries of submission. When it came to me.
I can’t be sure if it was instinct or if it was my previous thinking that led me to this action. But instead of using my hands to protect my face like a sane person would, I forfeited my defensive position in favor of grabbing Carl’s shoulders. I braced for the hit that did come, but because my hands on his shoulders restricted his movement the blow was only half as effective as it should have been. As he readied for another punch to my skull, I made my move. I kicked him as hard as I could in the stomach with both of my feet. I was like a large spring that had just suddenly popped loose of its bindings, and indeed I was surprised how far Carl flew back. I heard the thud of when he landed about five feet away.
Suddenly I wasn’t losing; in fact I knew I could win this thing. Instantly I was on top of him while he was still recovering. I hit him once in the mouth, but then slowed my fist’s momentum a little. I found myself not wanting to hit him while he was defenseless and dazed even though it would mean the win. I hit him again; this time in the forehead, a big mistake. Hitting him there only served to hurt my hand more than it even hurt him. Suddenly as quick as a lightning strike, I found myself facing the sky.
There it was again, that oppressive sun. Only this time there were these little black and green stars around it. What were they doing there? In fact what was I doing here? Why does my right eye hurt so much? These were the things I thought as I lay there, sprawled out from a hard hit to the head. I had not realized that just then I lost that fight.
When Carl got up and saw me lying there, he knew just from looking at me that I was done and that he had won. I would imagine that it was like a ref in a boxing match seeing a fighter downed by an especially nasty blow and knowing that he wasn’t getting back up.
As I watched the sky while trying to get oriented again so that I could continue that fight, I saw several faces suddenly appear in my field of view. I recognized all of them. At the time I didn’t realize how good of a sign this was for my health, but only one said anything significant; it was Jake. “You okay?” He asked.
It dawned on me that it was over, and all I could think of to say was, “Yea, I’m just gonna lie here for a bit.” This seemed to suit them fine as they left without any worries of a bad injury. I reached up to my face and touched my eye, the second mistake. I was met with a hyper kind of stinging that made me hiss at it’s slightest touch.
“Well, this was a great idea,” I said to myself as I unwillingly got up from the bed of grass that I had landed in.
“You want to go home?” Jake asked as he winced from just looking at the bruise that was forming around my eye.
I shook my head no, but got up and walked home anyway, telling Jake that I would see him tomorrow. My mother was more than a little shocked to see me walk through the door with my eye looking like it did. After I told her what happened, she said something that held more meaning in it than anything anyone else said on the subject.
“Was it worth it?” She asked it without the knowing superiority I had seen when other parents asked the same question, so I could tell that she really wanted to know.
It took me a minute to think about it, but I had come up with an answer that just felt right inside. “For the most part,” I answered. I loved being vague.
The next time I was at school I expectedly found that word about the fight had spread throughout its small populace, and of course everything was ass-backwards. Two accounts had me being declared the winner when Carl then cheap-shotted me, but most spoke of a complete victory on Carl’s part, and I mean complete. Apparently Carl had been saying , “He almost wasn’t worth fighting.”
When people asked me about my side of the story I always had one answer. “What do you think?” The various reactions to this statement weren’t important to me, nor was the giant pissing contest I knew Carl was starting. All that was important to me was that I saw the fear in his eyes when my fist was ready to smash his face in, and I chose not to.