The gymnasium sweats. It’s autumn by the calendar, by the start of the new school year, by the way the store displays are all lined with jack-o-lanterns and cornucopias. But by temperature, it’s unseasonably hot for Shermantown, New York. Too hot to run after a football outside. Too hot for the un-air-conditioned gym. And yet, by whatever combination of state and school and Mr. Henderson’s whim, here we are. We warm up with calisthenics. Jumping jacks, pushups, sit ups, running laps.
Henderson is rotund. His tarnished silver whistle bounces against his pot belly with every step and I’d like to ask him how long it’s been since he’s had any meaningful exercise, but I’d never dare actually say anything. I go through phys ed quietly. Keep my head down, keep to myself. I’ve survived three years already under Henderson’s instruction. One year to go, and I don’t intend to martyr myself now.
But today, we wrestle.
Henderson doubles as the wrestling coach. When there’s a heat advisory, or the field outside gets saturated with rain, or there’s a tear in the volleyball net, he defaults to having us run wrestling drills.
The blue mats are out. Two by two. A dozen sets of them. We all know what’s coming.
Henderson blows his whistle. “Partner up.”
Last year, when Jacob and I were still friends, we made sure to stand close to each other in gym class, certain we would play at the same speed and no one would get hurt or embarrassed. Now, Jacob’s the last person I want touching me, the last person I want to smell the stink of.
Everyone has a partner. Shit.
Jacob’s coming for me. “What do you say? You and me?”
Even he sounds tentative. It occurs to me neither one of us has options. Neither one of us wants to be with just anyone. Only, he isn’t avoiding me the way I’m avoiding him. He doesn’t have a clue.
Everyone has already migrated to their mats—the new ones, of course. The ones that are already sweat-stained, but at least it’s only sweat from the last couple years, not the ones with cracked vinyl covers that have had guys dripping into every crevice since the 1980s.
Henderson blows his whistle. “You two, pick a mat.”
In the first drill, Jacob has to lie face down on the mat, arms at his sides. I’m tasked with trying to roll him over. He can’t move his limbs, only stiffen his body and use whatever momentum I muster against me. I try, but not that hard, pushing and then reaching over his body to pull him toward me. He doesn’t budge. In terms of wrestling, we’re inescapably mismatched. He’s a weight class up from me, yes, but also muscled everywhere I’m flabby. I’d might as well be trying to turn over a car.
Henderson blows his whistle. Reverse.
Now I’m face down.
I struggle, even though I’m not supposed to. I can’t bring myself to give in to the inevitable when Jacob starts pushing and gets my left side an inch off the mat. I think he’s going to choose my same strategy and go over me to pull me toward him and that I’ll have no choice but to roll with his strength. He does climb on top of me but stops in a mount, pecs pressed to my back. He digs his wrists under me, between my arms and sides, into my rib cage, cinching in until he locks his fingers just under my heart. He’s stronger than I remember. Or I’m weaker. A grunt and he’s pulled me in the air. Dead weight, at a sixty-degree angle to the mat, he’s hugging me tight. He might toss me over, flat on my back. He might heave me over his head, so my neck slams down, my skull pushed forward, every possibility of paralysis.
I pay attention to his breathing while he holds me there, coming from my right side. I tense my right arm and then swing back, stiff as I can, landing an elbow straight in his nose.
“What the fuck?” He’s not holding onto me anymore. He’s got a hand over his face but it only covers so much. His eyes water. Blood trickles from his nose down to his chin.
Henderson’s got me by the back of the neck. “You think you’re tough?” His hands are massive and I know he’s not gripping me as hard as he can. He could break me even more easily than Jacob could have and, in that non-school-sanctioned moment of physically restraining me, he really might do something to that effect.
He stops, I think, because he sees I’m crying. I’m not sure when I started, but it wasn’t when he grabbed me.
“What’s wrong with you?” Jacob puts his hand down and there’s a single trickle of blood out his left nostril. I’m disappointed, having hoped to shatter his whole nose, crush his face, leave him horribly disfigured. “You want a fight, I’ll fight you.”
Henderson has one hand on my left shoulder, and one on Jacob’s left, to keep us separate. It occurs to me he doesn’t know what he’s doing, doesn’t actually have control over the situation. A pair of his wrestling kids take things too far and he knows how to restrain them, how to hurt them just enough to get them to calm down. But we’re not wrestlers and he doesn’t know our history. Perhaps most importantly, I’m confident he doesn’t want anything to do with either one of us beyond this moment.
Henderson lets go of Jacob first. “Go to the nurse’s office.”
I can see Jacob weighing his options. Tackle me and he could probably get in a couple good shots before Henderson stops him. But then, maybe he’s confused about the summer. Maybe he really doesn’t get why I haven’t returned his calls and why I’ve been ducking him in the halls at school.
Jacob walks away.
When I turn back to Henderson he’s already eyeing me. “You can go to the guidance counselor’s office.”
On the way there, I try to puzzle out why that’s where Henderson’s sending me. Why not the principal’s office? I worry that he knows. Maybe it’s the tears, or maybe he’s more observant than he seems. Maybe he’s seen something like this before. More likely than all of this, though, it occurs to me that he sent me out the opposite gym door and in the opposite direction to Jacob, along a path where we won’t meet. He was probably supposed to escort one or both of us to our destinations, but then he’d have to figure out what to do with the rest of the class. Henderson is the kind of coach who resents complications, and has figured out how to make his life as easy as it can be.
I’ve visited the guidance office before, for class scheduling, to meet with a woman whose hair was dyed a slightly different shade of orange each time I saw her. Junior year, I got moved to a different counselor—Mr. Troja, forty-ish, tall and fit, who had worked in college admissions before changing career paths. He told me about that past at our first meeting, a year ago, and not so subtly established that I’d been shifted to him because teachers had pegged me to be on the college track.
We’d charted a course. AP classes to take. Colleges to research over the summer. We agreed we’d meet during the first week of school this year, and he sent me an appointment slip through my homeroom. I blew off the meeting. I didn’t want to tell him that I hadn’t spent any time thinking about college, or that I was thinking about dropping out of all of my AP classes. I didn’t want to talk about why.
Now, the whole room is bathed in yellow light, and the secretary looks up from a keyboard covered in protective plastic. She tilts her head in sympathy. Me in my gym clothes, eyes red. Maybe she thinks this is how I dress for school, white t-shirt tinted brown with age, and navy basketball shorts. I catalog the kids I’ve seen sent to the guidance for anything other than routine visits. It’s where they sent Emily Parker to get the news when her dad died in a car accident. Mark Jonsson got sent there after his girlfriend dumped him and he shaved his head. Felicity Parks, after she had a meltdown during the chemistry final last year.
This secretary must talk to crying kids all day. I wonder if any of them leave this place feeling better.
“How can I help you?”
In lieu of any better answer, I ask for Mr. Troja.
“Mr. Troja is on vacation this week.” She clicks on her computer mouse and bats it around. “But it looks as though Ms. McIntyre is free now. Let me call her.”
“I’m here, I’m here.” I’ve never seen Ms. McIntyre before, but she materializes before us. She can’t be more than twenty-two. Fair skin, caked in makeup, long blond hair in a ponytail. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about her because she’s exactly the sort of woman that the guys usually talk about, but then again I haven’t spent much time with the guys this school year. “Mr. Henderson said you were on your way. You must be Cal.”
She leads me back to her office, tells me to have a seat on an easy chair, coated in brown cracked fake leather, and closes the door behind us. She has a series of motivational posters lining the wall behind her desk, and it takes me a few seconds to recognize they’re jokes—like one that says Take the lead, beneath it a picture of a momma bear leading her cubs, failing to notice the mountain lion closing in on the back of the line, caught in a mid-air pounce. The caption under the picture clarifies, predators pick off the stragglers first.
“I heard you got in a scuffle.” Ms. McIntyre circles her desk, sits down in her wheelie chair, and then scoots on it, out, around her desk, drawing closer. “Can you tell me what happened?”
On her desk, there’s a very small photograph, not more than two inches by two inches. It’s Ms. McIntyre kissing a man in front of the ocean. This is her husband, or fiancée, or boyfriend, or may be an ex-boyfriend, and maybe that’s why it lies flat on her desk, rather than hung up. But no. There’s a piece of dried Scotch tape curled, stuck to the top edge, that must have attached the photo to the bottom edge of her computer monitor, out of sight of the other guidance counselors, Dr. Henderson, kids like me. That last piece of her own life she’s keeping for herself, while she puts on this counselor face for the school.
“It sounds like you were angry. Did Jacob do something to make you angry?” Ms. McIntyre leans in close and for a second I think she’s going to take my hand like my first grade teacher did when I couldn’t keep up with the reading pace of the smart kids’ group. Ms. McIntyre’s hands are smooth and she smells like lilacs. I scan her desk for her hand lotion. Maybe it’s stashed in a drawer. The lotion and the soft tissues with lotion in them, and the gel pens that are easier on your writer’s callus. All in contrast to the contents of her desk, all number two pencils and the same sand-paper-grade Kleenex they have on every teacher’s desk and in the nurse’s office.
“I can see you’re clenching your fists,” Ms. McIntyre says. “It’s OK to be angry.”
She hands me two balls of red putty, and I take them. Flatten them in my fists so the edges leak from beneath my pinky on the left, between my thumb and forefinger on the right.
“You’re friends with Jacob, right? That’s what Mr. Henderson said.”
I’m surprised that Henderson noticed that, and that he communicated it to Ms. McIntyre.
Ms. McIntyre crosses her left leg over the right, just above her knee. Her skirt is shorter than I realized. This closed door meeting with her, one on one, would probably be a fantasy for most of the boys in school.
“I can’t let you go until you say something,” she says. “That’s what you want, right? To be on your way?”
The carpet on the floor is discolored beneath my feet, a shade darker maroon with rows of black diamonds, outlined in yellow. The school probably ought to pull it up, like they did the same carpeting from the library last year to reveal the hardwood underneath. But maybe it’s safer this way. The kinds of kids sent to the counselor might throw themselves to the floor, and carpet is softer. I might throw myself down. See if I can fit between diamonds and fall into all that maroon. Maroon like dried blood and shit and maybe I can drown in all of it.
“I’m going to ask some yes or no questions, all right? And all you have to do is tell me yes or no. Or you can nod or shake your head.”
File folders sprinkle Ms. McIntyre’s desk. Each might be a different student. A different basket case. Black ink on yellow legal pad paper inside. Or maybe there’s a form. Fill in the blanks. Name: ________ Grade: ________ Neuroses: ____________
“Are you still planning to go to college?” she asks. “Cal, look at me.”
Our eyes meet. Hers are blue—not bright, but intense. A gray-blue like morning, right after rain clouds clear.
“Do you want to move far away from here?”
This room probably looks the same, any day, any season. Say what you want about Shermantown, it does have seasons. The long, bleak winter of course. But we get two or three months of summer, too. We’ll have an autumn soon. A few weeks of trees with gold-orange leaves. It must be hard to spend every day in this same space. To leave home when it’s still dark and to come home when daylight fades. Between black and sunset pink, you might forget the sky was ever blue.
“Is Jacob the reason you want to go far away?”
I’m on the floor now. Don’t know how I got here. Crying my goddamned eyes out and I can’t say a word. I’m not sure how long it is before Ms. McIntyre’s there with me. But not on the floor. On her chair. Body folded in two, hand on my shoulder. When I look up, I’ve got a primo view right down her shirt. I should want this. Should pull out my cell phone and take a picture and make like that was all I was after.
I can’t stop crying.
She keeps a hand on my shoulder until my breathing steadies. Next thing I know I’m back in my chair, pulled up to the desk. I’ve got a yellow legal pad beneath my hands and I’ve already started writing. Jacob took me to a party this summer and we made out. I wanted to stop but he kept going and going. Then I shat everywhere.
I tear out the sheet and crumple it up. I look for a wastebasket but can’t find one. Ms. McIntyre’s standing over me though. I look up at her. She’s read every word.
“I need for you to talk to me, Cal. Just to me.”
Dad gets home from work early by his standards. 5:22. Blazer in hand, collar already unbuttoned, tie hanging loose from his neck. I watch him walk to the house with his eyes on the ground and I know that this isn’t going to be an ordinary night of beef stew from the can or microwave meals, followed by homework and TV and trying to stay out of each other’s way. Tonight, he’s going to take me out to China Buffet or Billy Brew’s for what he calls our “man-to-man” talks.
This will be the fourth. The first one, two and a half years ago, came when I scored a seventy-four on the Earth Science Regents and we had a discussion about how a straight-A student could do so poorly on such a big test. He alternated between chastising me for not working hard enough (which I was pretty sure was how he actually felt), and coaching me on generic study tips he’d Googled over lunch, before he softened up: was I taking on too much? Should I take fewer classes next year? Lose an extracurricular?
The second time—which, in the moment, I hoped would be the last—he took me to a baseball game and asked what I knew about sex. I can only assume using the game as a backdrop was an attempt at a natural segue into asking if I knew what first, second, and third base were. I thought we had each left the experience uncomfortable enough that he wouldn’t try again.
The third time, last spring, it was about getting a job, and how it was time I learned responsibility. I half-heartedly applied to work cash registers around town. No one called back, and I spent the summer sleeping in, reading, and hanging out with Jacob.
We go to Billy Brew’s, the same site as our last talk. It’s a bar and grill, crowded enough that we need to wait half an hour for a table. Dad goes to the bar and gets himself a Heineken, me a root beer, but he encourages me to sip off his like he did when I was in the eighth grade, and really hadn’t ever had a beer before. Bonding, I guess. A little late.
Ms. McIntyre asked me if Jacob and I had, on the night of the assault—her word, not mine—been drinking (Yes), how much (Four beers? Five?). She asked if I had been penetrated (Yes). Was I sure Jacob heard me tell him to stop? (No.) She told me that the victim of an assault was never to blame and I shouldn’t beat myself up over it and that I’d done the right thing by telling her, as if I had made an effort to volunteer any information. And then she told me she would need to call my parents to discuss the next steps.
I begged her not to. She said that there were certain laws. So I spent the rest of the day thinking of all of the things Dad would ask me and all of the things I might say and going in circles because I knew exactly how it was going to go.
“I got a call from the school, Cal.” Dad speaks quickly. He starts all of these conversations this way. “The guidance counselor and the principal.”
So Dr. Thibodeau knows, too. Dr. Thibodeau, who couldn’t pick me out of a lineup.
“Is it true?”
I study the liquors on the glass shelves behind the bar. There’s a mirror behind them that doubles everything, right down to the back of Dad’s head.
“Cal, did Jacob—did he take advantage of you?” Dad doesn’t make any motion toward his beer. He doesn’t look away. This is the father I’ve never had. Not acting out of duty or his concept of what a father is supposed to look like. It’s almost like he cares.
“Was this the first time?”
I can see where this is headed. The same sort of conversation I had with Ms. McIntyre once she got me talking a little. Clinical. Investigatory. I don’t want to have that conversation again. But what can I do?
I tell him it was the first time.
“Had the two of you fooled around before?” he asks. “Are the two of you homosexual?”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?”
I remember the stabbing sensation I had felt when Jacob slipped off with his girlfriend Lily, when I convinced myself that he didn’t really care about me and how I was still feeling hurt about that when he came to me in the bathroom and how I liked it when he kissed me at first. Even now, that part seems nice.
Then Dad puts his hand on my elbow. When I was a kid, he did that a lot, when he really wanted me to listen to him. When he warned me not to play with the knobs on the stove. When he took me to Rockefeller Center to see the big Christmas tree and gave my elbow a squeeze: don’t let go, no matter what. “I’m going to be with you on this, Cal. I know you don’t want to talk about it, and you probably wish it would all go away. But I’m not angry with you. I just want to make sure you come out of this OK.”
That does it. I’m crying again. Not the kind of tears you can just wipe away because they’re coming too fast and heavy. I’ve got a vague sense of Dad leaving money on the bar and standing me up. He’s got his arm over me and God knows what people think. There might be people who know me here. There has to be people who know my father. Shermantown is too small not to know someone—there are only so many places to grab a burger.
“You’re going to be OK,” Dad says again in the parking lot.
The funny thing is, in the time he’s fumbling with his keys, while I’m waiting for my door to unlock and while I look at myself, elongated in the reflection of the passenger side window, there’s a second when I actually believe him.
All of that sense of belief and hope and comfort—it’s all gone the next morning as we wait outside the principal’s office. The secretary is a slim young man with glasses and a tie. He works from a laptop computer and offers Dad a cup of coffee while we wait. He doesn’t acknowledge my existence.
The waiting area outside Dr. Thibodeau’s office was remodeled over the summer. There are two walls consumed with bookshelves, stocked with volumes like Moby Dick and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Rumor has it he gives you a book, depending on what you did. I heard Johnny Reds talk about his visit to the principal’s office after he got busted looking up girls’ skirts. Before he left, Dr. Thibodeau pulled The Autobiography of Malcolm X and advised him to read it and come back to talk to him when he had. Someone asked Johnny if he had followed through and he said Fuck no, I’m not doing any more reading than I have to.
I wonder what book Dr. Thibodeau might send me away with, and if Dad would insist on me reading it.
The door to Dr. Thibodeau’s office opens, and immediately I know there’s been some sort of mistake—a bad decision, an error in scheduling. Jacob’s dad walks out first, wearing his navy mechanic’s coveralls. He looks tired. Then Jacob, fists clenched, eyes on the ground. He’s furious and he hasn’t even noticed me yet.
He stops when he sees me. I figure he’ll stare me down, then pound me into oblivion. But he stops there in the middle of the office. His bottom lip trembles. “Why are you doing this to me?”
I look down at my father’s hand. I wish he’d put it over my elbow again and repeat what he said the day before about being with me on this.
“You’re trying to ruin my life.” A tear rolls down Jacob’s cheek.
I almost tell him I’m sorry, before I remind myself why we’re both here.
He turns his back to me. “I do have a question, Dr. Thibodeau.”
Jacob’s voice is all over the place and his shoulders are heaving. “Is he going to get in trouble for lying about everything?”
Jacob’s dad takes him by the shoulders. His hands are enormous, even bigger than Henderson’s. “Let’s go.” He squeezes.
Jacob goes with him, but on his way out the door, kicks out a leg at me. It just grazes my shin, and hits a leg of the couch harder and he stumbles as his dad pulls him out.
That’s when Ms. McIntyre pops her head out of the office doorway. I hadn’t known she would be there today. “We’re ready for you, Cal.”
Dad leads the way inside. I hadn’t realized there would be a uniformed police officer inside either, or a Child Protection Worker. Ms. McIntyre introduces her as Ms. Farrell.
Dr. Thibodeau looks different from our old principal—at once more lax and more stodgy. A tweed blazer, shirt, and tie, a teapot in front of him with white mugs on white saucers. “Please make yourselves comfortable, all of you. We might be here for a while.”
I’m not sure if it’s a decision of the school or the police, but Jacob and I each get “no contact orders.” We’re not supposed to talk to each other, text each other, get within one hundred yards of each other, as Dr. Thibodeau explains, “to the extent that it is reasonably possible to do so.” If one of us shows up at a football game and the other one is already there, the second person to arrive has to leave. Same thing outside school—I guess that’s where the police come in—if someone shows up at a restaurant or a party.
We’re not supposed to talk about what happened to anyone else who was at the party, either, until the investigation is over. “This is for the protection of each of you,” Dr. Thibodeau says, and, he suggests, to protect our friends from lying and getting themselves into trouble.
I don’t know if it’s a direct response to Jacob’s question, but the police officer tells me that it’s in my best interests to tell the truth. Even if it’s embarrassing. Even if it seems irrelevant. If I lie it could result in “life-altering consequences.”
The day inches along. I wait for something to happen. I try to read for AP English, but it’s just words on a page; how can I pay attention to any of that now? I scroll through Facebook and everything seems trite or trivial. I consider options for distracting myself, but it doesn’t feel as though I ought to have fun at a time like this, like now that I’ve spoken up, I need to play the part of a victim. Mostly, I lie on my bed, on top of the covers, and stare at the ceiling, tracing the imprints from where I used to have glow-in-the-dark stars.
The school rearranges Jacob’s schedule, not mine. We go one week. Then two. When I walk by Dr. Thibodeau’s office I see familiar faces from the party last Fourth of July. I see Lily. She stopped making eye contact with me in the halls days before she got called in. How much has Jacob told her? If he’s told her anything, he’s going against Dr. Thibodeau’s orders, but can you really expect someone not to talk to his girlfriend when something like this happens? He could get her to lie. No one was in the bathroom with us, but the closest person was Lily, in that bedroom down the hall where I saw the two of them making out, what, five minutes before he came for me? Maybe she did see something. Was waiting for Jacob to come back and heard us. Did we make sounds? Maybe she heard me say no.
Maybe she knew about me and Jacob all along. Maybe he never had any secrets.
After two and a half weeks of interviews and deliberation, the police decide there isn’t enough evidence to pursue criminal charges, though the Child Protection Worker makes it clear we could still pursue a civil suit. Dad takes me out for dinner again to talk about that. I tell him no. I tell him I’m not angry anymore.
According to Dr. Thibodeau, technically the no contact order is no longer in effect, but it’s still his recommendation we stay apart. To avoid any complications. Jacob doesn’t seem to have a problem with that, and I sure don’t.
By spring, it’s like I’m in a different school, a different world. I eat lunch alone at the top of the bleachers. I know where I’m going to college and high school has deteriorated into a formality in between my life before and my life ahead. I work hard to prep for my AP exams, but once they’re over, I don’t even bother showing up half the time. It’s easy by then. There’s a college orientation weekend that I miss a Friday and Monday for, so I take Tuesday and Wednesday, too, and no one even calls me on it. Those days, I eat my bologna sandwiches at home, in front of telenovelas I can’t make out a word of, but that I like for the illusion of company.
Come the end of the school year, it’s probably more nostalgia than anything when Brittany Peterson invites me to her graduation party. We sat next to each other in Social Studies freshman year. She has an enormous house with a pool out back and parents who don’t seem to care if high school kids drink alcohol as long as they don’t make too much of a mess. I’ve been to two parties at that house, and Brittany has always been nice to me. Asked me what I thought of Lord of the Flies when we were reading it for English and really listened to me when I talked about my theory that Piggy represented Jesus, and touched my arm, and told me I was smart.
It’s nostalgia, too, when I actually go to her party. I show up late and figure I won’t stay long. No one answers the doorbell, but the door is unlocked, so I let myself in and wander through and around a mass of people, only half of whom I recognize. The place is all marble floors, flat screen TVs, spotless. A large mansion. A small castle. Past the screen doors out back, the party only thickens.
There’s a keg out there, right in the same spot where I found one three years earlier. I don’t bother to pour down the side of the Solo cup. Let it foam up, more head than beer. I’m not looking to get drunk tonight. Not like the bare-chested kid who takes the tap next, or the half-dozen other people who have lined up behind me. Everything smells like chlorine. The side of the house—white by daylight, is a pretty, inconstant shade of blue from the way the fancy lights in the pool refract up out of the water.
That’s when I hear him. Jacob’s laugh, loud and goofy, almost a barking sound. He has his shirt off and he’s chest deep in the water, leaning against the side. He has his arm over a girl in a pastel pink bikini top, wet hair all plastered to the sides of her head except for one clump that juts out and hooks in like a third of a pretzel. At first, I think it’s Lily, but when I get a little closer I see it’s Brittany herself. Her skin is usually fairer, but she’s been getting some sun.
Brittany kisses Jacob’s ear. Maybe whispers something. And in that moment his eyes catch mine.
I don’t think Brittany tipped him off. Why did she invite me at all? Does she want a confrontation—for Jacob to tell me off in front of a crowd? Or does she want us to reconcile before summer? Maybe she forgot we were ever friends at all.
Brittany doesn’t seem to have noticed me, and curls her whole body toward Jacob. Her hand across his body, resting on the opposite shoulder. Chest to chest now.
Jacob’s still watching me. The last time we looked at each other was outside Dr. Thibodeau’s office. He doesn’t look angry like that now. He’s at peace. Relaxed. I wonder, if I go over to him now, if he’ll talk to me. Not that I want to talk to him again. Right? Wasn’t that the point of making the report and making him change schedules? Of eating lunch alone to keep from sitting at the same table?
But then Brittany’s on him. Her head between Jacob’s and mine. She swivels and grinds over him.
I dump my beer in the bushes and leave. I don’t know why I came at all, but I’m not having fun and I’m not going to have fun, and I just want to be somewhere else. I have to push past another couple making out by the screen door. Then I have to remember the best route to get back out front. I zig zag through rooms I know I have been in before and ones I know I haven’t seen. A billiards room that a subsection of the party has spilled into, in which a girl in a tank top who I recognize from my French class last year stretches a bare arm over a guy to guide the stroke of his pool cue. She looks up at me and glares. Then the guy, too.
Another room’s full of chatter until I walk through. Everyone quiets down. I fix my eyes straight ahead, on the opposite doorway. There’s an oil painting of Ronald Reagan over it, and even the president seems like he’s staring me down.
I make it back to the front door. One final circle of people. Even Lily’s there, but either she doesn’t notice me, or she saw me coming and now she’s doing everything in her power to avoid eye contact. Johnny Reds stands beside her and nods his head to me, not an unfriendly acknowledgment. He doesn’t ask where I’m going or try to get me to stay, though. He turns back to his conversation with another girl in the circle, a girl with dark tan skin and a curly mess of black hair.
Back in my car, back on the road, I turn on my high beams. I’ve never understood why, but rich as it is, this part of town has no streetlights. It’s only in passing the sign—Now Leaving Shermantown… See Us Again Soon!—that I realize I’ve made a wrong turn. I’m headed the opposite direction from home.
I play out fantasies in my mind of what the next years of my life might look like. That I’ll meet a girl like Brittany or the one leaning over the pool table, or the freckle-faced girl from Chemistry whom I should’ve asked to prom. That we’ll be a couple and we’ll have our group of friends and we’ll laugh over late-night pizza and studying for exams. That my father will come to visit and leave me with a six-pack of beer. That I’ll have a normal life. In this moment, it all seems possible.
I take a series of turns that I think will loop me back toward home. The scenic route, though I can’t see a thing to either side of me, just pitch blackness. I end up hitting a dead end and have to turn around. Try to trace my way back to Brittany’s house. There’s no rush, I tell myself, I’ll find my way. Nothing at all about this road looks familiar.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is a recent alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Iron Horse, Front Porch, and Bellevue Literary Review. He works as a contributing editor for Moss and blogs about professional wrestling and a cappella music on the side. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.