It was the first cold night of fall – the one that made you realize that summer was officially gone. A group of us had gathered in the woods behind the cemetery right around dusk to guzzle the forties of malt liquor we had paid a trailer-park drunk to buy us. We passed around a plastic bottle of vodka that Bill Lando had stolen from his mother and smoked Newports purchased from a vending machine in the lobby of a Chinese restaurant. They helped to take away the sting from the vodka, which tasted like rubbing alcohol.
Chris Vincent had gotten some pot from his brother, but I passed on it. He couldn’t roll joints very well so they burned unevenly and little bits of pot always fell out into your mouth. Plus, it was brown and there were seven of us.
A half hour or so before kickoff we trudged our way out of the woods, the leaves crunching beneath our feet and our heads buzzing with the kind of raw intoxication that every alcoholic’s been trying to chase for years. Chris walked backwards in front of us, promising he would call his brother from a payphone and convince him to give us a ride. Bill claimed that if he saw Jared Dawson after the game he was going to fight him. He asked if we would back him up. I said yes, but I didn’t mean it.
Julianne was standing with a friend just behind the strip of yellow paint adorning the curb when we pulled up. As always, she’d looked slightly different than I had been picturing her – her eyes weren’t as blue as I’d remembered and it appeared that she’d caked on some make-up where a blemish had started to form on her forehead.
Chris’ brother drove an old Chevy Beretta, black except for where the paint had peeled back along the edges of the hood, exposing rusted steel. Its trunk housed an expensive stereo system that rattled the car when the bass notes hit. After the last of us had piled out, he shouted ‘Later, homos’, squealing the tires as he left the parking lot. A trail of smoke floated up from the black tracks left behind.
She was wearing a blue windbreaker and tattered designer jeans that flared out just above her sneakers. Her hands were tucked in her back pockets and she blew a couple strands of her bangs upward before noticing me and smiling. I smiled back and followed my friends towards the stadium.
We usually only watched a quarter or so of the game, sometimes a little more if any of our friends got playing time. Most of the games were spent underneath the bleachers, along the rows of concession stands and bathrooms, where everyone gathered to talk about how much they had drank and where they planned to drink afterwards. The general consensus this weekend was that Marty McCann’s parents were out of town, or so that’s what they had all heard. Everyone laughed and complained about whatever they could find to fill conversation – how cold it was, friends that ditched them, the perceived stereotypes of the school we were playing, etc.
We made our way through the various cliques for a while, saying hello and shaking hands like politicians, and ended up on the side of the brick wall behind one of the concession stands to smoke cigarettes. Nobody ever went back there except for Mrs. Larkin, the principal’s secretary, who was always smoking herself, and before she left always did the thing where she zipped her lips shut with her fingers and tossed an imaginary key into air.
Julianne didn’t smoke, but had filtered in with a friend or two who did. She bounced her legs up and down and rubbed her arms and made shivering noises. I tried to make casual transitions from acquaintance to acquaintance, using them as swinging vines to have a reason to be near her. I managed to make my way over to Mark Morris, who stood just to her left, and struck up a conversation about gym class, my stare catching hers every thirty seconds or so. We switched off a couple of times, her staring and me looking away, and vice versa.
‘So I hear Marty McCann’s having people over,’ I say, shoving my hands in my pockets. I can hear Bill behind me, the alcohol already warping his words, asking if anyone had seen Jared Dawson.
‘Yeah, I think Lisa and I are going.’
‘Cool, well maybe I’ll see you there.’
Eventually we all shuffled back into the stands and made our way up the bleachers, making a slow procession as we stopped every now and again to say hello to various classmates. We ran into Marty McCann, who reluctantly admitted his parents were out of town.
‘You guys can come…but just you guys,’ he warned. ‘I don’t want to the whole school showing up.’ I was sure he had remarked this at least a dozen or so more times, and was going to be in over his head in a few hours.
In the third quarter, our friend Keith returned an interception for a touchdown, and we stomped on the metal planks and high fived. Bill screamed and thumped his chest like he’d done it himself. Despite the score still being close, we left before the end of the game to fetch the beer Chris had stolen from his neighbor’s garage earlier that afternoon. Marty McCann lived about a fifteen minute walk from the stadium, in a subdivision called Seabury Pines. His father was on the school board and his house always smelled like it was new. Bill led the way, the cubed backpack slung over his shoulder, strutting like a prize fighter, and ranting like rappers do about how great he was, and how fucked up he was, and how badly he was going to fuck up Jared Dawson.
I ran into Julianne while standing in the hallway waiting to use the bathroom and studying the family portrait on the wall. In it, Marty McCann’s hair was slicked with a neat part, the hands of his balding and pudgy father resting firmly on his shoulders. His was wearing a thick, fuzzy sweater and his smile was rather apathetic.
‘So did we win or lose?’
‘You didn’t stay for the whole game?’
‘No, we dipped out to grab some beers we had stashed in the woods.’
‘You guys have beers?’
“Sure, you want one?’
I waited around while she was in the bathroom, telling the small group that formed behind me that I wasn’t in line, and once she emerged we migrated into the kitchen. A group of football players, their hair still slick from the shower, sat around a table playing drinking games with a deck of cards. Chris was flirting with Lisa Savola in front of the fridge, his arm rested on a Polaroid of Mr. McCann hoisting up a large fish. I squeezed between the two of them to grab the beers, making sure to talk him up as I passed. Lisa gave Julianne an eyebrow raise.
We found a seat on a couch in the living room – the same couch featured in the McCann family portrait – and drank our beers slowly, half-shouting to each other over the throngs of other conversations bouncing around the room.
‘So you’re friends with Bill Lando and them?’
‘That’s cool. I hang out with Lisa and Janessa and all of those girls. It’s…I don’t know, they’re cool.’
‘Yeah, I know what you mean.’
Two of her friends came over, demanding we check out the basement, where a large group had gathered to dance, an activity I’m certain that Mr. McCann didn’t envision when he’d built his rec room complete with entertainment system and bar. Lined along the walls were framed scorecards and pictures of his friends on the golf course. A metal sign hung above the bar reading ‘A bad day on the course beats a good day at the office’. The room still smelled of fresh carpet.
We danced to a Prince song. I hung my hands limply around her waist, and she tossed hers around my neck. Her skin was sticky with sweat and her perfume smelled like something purple. I fumbled my hands around her body, not quite being able to figure out which areas were off-limits. I could feel an erection swelling.
We continued on like this for a few minutes until it got to the part of the song where Prince starts moaning like he’s having an orgasm, at which point we swayed our arms and legs a bit, just to show that we were in it to the end. Bill, wearing one of Mr. McCann’s novelty golf hats with a big foam ball and tee on the brim, turned off the song, telling everyone that Prince was gay.
The crowd moaned and dispersed a bit, and Julianne and I made our way upstairs to get another beer. I stuck out my hand behind me and she latched onto it. I looked back for a quick second to notice a band aid on knuckle of her index finger. We ran into Chris at the top of the steps, who told us that Jared Dawson had arrived and dashed downstairs to find Bill.
‘Get that fuck out of here’, Bill yelled with a shit-eating grin, slapping Chris’ outstretched palm. We had all piled out into the front lawn to witness the aftermath.
Jared Dawson looked like he might’ve cried if half of his algebra class hadn’t been standing around him. Blood had already begun to pool and blacken inside the pockets of flesh underneath his eye. The skin of his right temple had been scraped raw by the tile floor, a few stray strands of his hair matted to it. He looked like he might say something, gathering his thoughts as he panted, but he just spat some blood into the grass and walked off, having to push off my shoulder to get through the circle.
Bill had wasted no time. There was none of the posturing that normally took place during our high school’s fights. They didn’t spend time circling each other, asking what the other’s problem was or disputing statements made. Bill just bounded up the stairs, tore right past Julianne and I, and knocked him back through the kitchen and up against the fridge. A few magnets and post it notes went flying into the air. Marty McCann rushed in, pleading hysterically and tried to fight his way through the yelling crowd that swallowed them to break things up. I tried to jump up and down and get a glimpse, but all I could hear was Bill’s fist smacking into flesh.
I don’t really even remember why Bill had wanted to fight Jared Dawson. There probably wasn’t any real reason. There never really needed to be with Bill. He may have cited something about an errant comment heard in the hallway, but in all likelihood it was just Friday night and Bill had settled on Jared Dawson.
Jared was good looking and had a driver’s license and a spot on the baseball team; Bill lived in a trailer with an alcoholic mother, paid for his lunch with one of those little green punch cards and rode his bike around town. And he didn’t like that, so in frustration he cleaned his clock. That’s probably as good a guess as any.
‘Goddamnit! Fuck! I am so fucked! You guys have to leave now! Everybody! Out!’ An indignant Marty McCann had been pacing back and forth in the kitchen when the police arrived. He had been holding the jagged remains of his mother’s sugar bowl and ranting on like this for several minutes until his eyes caught the red and blues flashing through the window. His shoulders drooped and his eyes filled with a vacant, weary anguish.
Bill and Chris were the first out the back door, followed by me and Julianne, whom I dragged the first few steps by the arm. A few scattered others trailed behind, pushing at our backs and tripping over our heels as we dashed off into the woods in all different directions, trying to call out to each other in a half-yell, half-whisper for instructions on where to meet.
The four of us ended up crouched behind a pair of large trees, unable to see anything aside from the occasional sweeping flashlight near the clearing. I breathed as slowly as possible, wondering if she could hear the pounding inside my chest as well as I could.
No one spoke for what seemed like an eternity, until Bill – the veteran in these types of situations – rose and announced that it was probably clear to exit the woods, promising knowledge of a back trail that led towards the interstate. A few others emerged from behind various trees and as a group we began high stepping through the trail over branches, our arms extended for balance, Bill Lando leading the way.
We ended up at the Motel 6 near the interstate. Chris had called his brother on a payphone and gotten him to rent us a couple of rooms with the money we all threw together. Bill had managed to get the tattooed clerk with the black and jagged teeth at the gas station to sell him a couple cases of beer.
It hadn’t taken more than three or four calls for the cavalcade of Honda Civics to come rolling in. Two more rooms across the parking lot were rented, and we picked up where we had left off, oblivious to the agony Marty McCann was probably going through at that moment.
‘I’m really sorry about tonight’ I said to Julianne as we sat next to each other on the itchy maroon and green bedspread, oblivious to the Letterman monologue coming from the television bolted to the wall. ‘Bill’s kind of crazy sometimes.’
‘It’s really not a big deal.’
‘Sometimes I wonder why I hang out with those guys.’ Chris mimicked porno music as Bill pretended to hump the other bed, grunting like a gorilla, everyone around them laughing.
‘I know what you mean.’ She squeezed my hand and smiled at me. ‘My friends are idiots, too.’
‘And yet here we are.’
‘I don’t think it ever stops,’ she said, sipping her beer. ‘You just go from hotel parties to frat parties to dinner parties to retirement parties, and you just have to shrug off the fact that they’re all idiots…we’re all idiots.’
‘I don’t think you’re an idiot.’
‘Thank you,’ she said with a laugh, glancing down at her lap. ‘I don’t think I am, either. But, I mean, I’m still going to mall with Lisa tomorrow, right? I’m going to stand around and nod while she talks shit about everyone and acts like she’s got herself together.’
We didn’t say anything for a while. Letterman threw his pencil at the camera while Paul Shaffer laughed and ran his hand down the piano. I thought about Jared Dawson, and Marty McCann, and all we give up to make it seem like we’re not vulnerable. Bill recounted the fight for the third time for those who just arrived, his bravado rivaling a pro wrestler with a microphone in his face.
‘You remember that poem from Mrs. Stanton’s class?’ she asked. ‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you, weep, and you weep alone?’ I think that goes both ways. Like, it’s not cool to be sad, but you can’t be too happy, either. If you’re like, bursting with joy until you can’t contain yourself, people think that’s weird, too.’ She picks at her fingernails. ‘Sometimes I don’t think I really tell my friends anything. By the time I filter it down…it’s a half-truth at best.’
‘I know exactly what you mean.’
‘Enough Breakfast Club over here,’ Bill said, my face flushing with warmth upon realizing he’d been listening. ‘Hit this.’ He thrust a plastic half-pint of bottom shelf whiskey towards us. His eyes were glassy and the cuts on his knuckles were still glistening.
‘Hit it, girl!’ her friend Lisa chirped from across the room, and everyone ooh’ed like a Three’s Company audience. We both took sips from the bottle, and I had to swallow down a little bit of bile.
‘Danny’s a good guy,’ Bill said as Julianne hands him back the bottle, slapping my back. ‘Fuckin’ smart.’ He stumbled off to the bathroom and we smiled at each other.
‘Do you want to get out of here?’
‘Very much so.’
I walked her home, which was about a half a mile down Route 84. We didn’t talk about much – The Barenaked Ladies, our biology teacher’s propensity for scratching at his chest hair, how cold out it was – but I still felt like we were learning things about each other. She kissed me under a streetlight and told me to call her some time. I stood outside until she shut off the bedroom light. On the way back, I tried to reach Chris or Bill from the payphone by the Dairy Mart, but no one picked up. I walked home amidst a disjointed symphony of crickets, the occasional whoosh of a car passing chiming in like a cymbal crash, wondering about the person that she hid from the world.