Abuse of the body comes as no surprise. I know this. It’s Friday night and I’m at the regular keg, in the empty lot behind the warehouse, and soon the fighting will start. I know this. It’s hard not to when I’m here, already reaching for my second cup and then a third. In Elk Horn, Iowa, this is Friday night. A bonfire. A keg. Thirty or so of us huddled together, waiting for something to happen.
The boys all wear what you’d expect them to; varsity jackets and steel-toed work boots.The girls are in their uniforms–tight jeans, blue eyeshadow, foundation caking their cheeks. I’m an outlier in my loose clothing, my short hair, and like this I stay invisible. I look around for Sarah but don’t see her. To my right a gaggle of girls are all laughing. They sound like hyenas in my ear and Jenna’s red cup is tilted dangerously close to spilling on my sneakers, but I don’t say anything. Sarah is the only one I talk to.
The fighting comes naturally, like moving through water. A pack of boys in the steaming slick of the night–of course there’s violence. Of course. It only sounds strange because nobody wants to look at it that way. A pack of boys with nothing better to do, with trucks and beer and fists.
Think about where we were born from–that kind of carnage. Scrawny boy-chests flat and unmuscled as dead earth. The edge of town and how it goes barren, colorless dirt. Think about our fathers and reclining sofas, about ice tires, about Fox News and algebra II and complacency. It makes sense, the boys with fists.
I’m the only girl who fights. We crowd around the keg and I drink fast, thinking of the twenty I slipped the Fareway cashier for a case because he doesn’t ID, long as he can keep the change. In the cold my body begins to feel edgeless, skin blurring into night. I fight the boys because because it’s the only option. When you fight, they stop spitting at your feet. When you fight, they leave you alone. When you fight, there are no post-it notes stuck to your backside, no roadkill shoved inside your locker, and they don’t make fun of your short hair.
Tonight, Andrew swings the first punch, this time at Billy. The party backs up, makes a circle. Billy punches Andrew back, red Solo cup sailing out of his hand and clattering to the concrete. So it begins.
The boys fight like dogs, their breathing loud, heavy. Andrew’s smaller, so the crowd thinks he’s done for, but I know it doesn’t matter, that his body is a steel plate dipped into life, that his knuckles could crack your teeth into dust. Billy swings but Andrew’s too fast. He ducks beneath his aim, laughing. He strikes Billy’s cheekbone. I can hear the sound, the collision of flesh on flesh. Billy’s jaw drops and before he can hide it, shock washes over his face in a wave. In that half second, Andrew punches him square in the stomach. He doubles over, a wail escaping him. Andrew not stopping until Bobby is on the ground. No longer the big one. Not anymore.
Andrew, out of breath, takes Billy’s limp hand from his side and raises it in his, signaling the end. Steam rises off his face and neck in the cold, and he grins with all of his teeth showing. The audience cheers drunk and enraptured, made delirious by the violence. It’s only now that my presence is noticed. People around me look out from the corner of their eyes, trying to see if I’m watching. I am. Under my sweater, my heart beats full and heavy, and even in the cold I can feel my hot breath, my wet lips. I’m waiting and imagining my hands as fists, the fight inside a drunken circle. Its own breed of church. Where the anger in me prays, gets reborn staticky and new.
Andrew’s still now, steam rising off his neck, making him look like a stallion. He comes toward me, nostrils flared, gripping my shoulder in the damp curve of his palm, and I nod, stepping forward. The crowd shifts so that we are now in the center. Andrew stands still, hands by his side. He gives a slight nod and this is my cue to swing, hard, right hook aimed at his jaw but he’s faster than me, ducks. He swings straight forward and hits me square in the stomach. I should be doubled over now, but instead I feel electric, I feel like a live wire, and I just smile. Andrew pauses, and in that second I punch his shoulder. He steps back, stunned, and then I’m going for his gut, his face, his hands plastered over his eyes because he knows I’m not stopping. I don’t mean to knee him in the groin because I don’t like to fight dirty, but I do it without thinking. Andrew is on the ground. He reaches up his palms in surrender. I help Andrew up and we re-enter the crowd.
Roy steps into the empty circle now. His varsity jacket looks waxy in the dark and the blockish jut of his forehead and wide nose are the only discernible features on his face. Roy’s the most brutish of the boys, so I don’t volunteer to fight him, despite sidelong glances from the crowd around me. I don’t mind getting beat up, but I’m not trying to die.
This moment of pause is when I notice Sarah for the first time all night. I see her lanky figure from afar, tight jeans and long blonde hair, hear her high-pitched laugh. From the way she is standing, one hip jutting out, hand gripping a beer, I can tell how drunk she is. It doesn’t take much for Sarah to get wasted but that doesn’t stop her. In her cowgirl boots and blue eyeshadow, she looks, for a moment, like a statue in the cold. My best friend. Not that she knows this. Sarah and I have lived on the same street for fifteen years. We hang out on weekdays, textbooks spread across my living room table. I help her study and she tells me about her life, the boys who wait outside her door to take her on dates, her parents’ arguing, where she hopes she’ll wind up. I never have anything to say back so I just listen, study the blonde highlights in her hair, her perfect nose. She’s my best friend but I’m more like a bookmark, something holding her in place.
“Roy!” Sarah shouts. “Roy!” And then she’s stepping into the circle’s center, the crowd suspended in silence. “Roy! Fight me!” she laughs, although there’s an edge to her voice. “Do it!” Billy shouts. One of the boys starts yelling, “Fight, fight, fight!” Sarah’s stands there grinning, like an idiot, until Roy winds up his right arm and hits her. Hard.
Something swells in my throat and my jaw drops. At first Sarah was laughing in Roy’s face, her teeth bared. But then he hits her, a slap across the face that sounds like a loud crack in the night. It’s horrible to watch,the way her neck jerks from the impact of his strength. Her baby blue eyeshadow almost luminescent in the dark. My best friend.
I want to stop him, but I’m gridlocked by bodies and paralyzed by fear, knowing Roy could unhinge my jaw like snapping a toothpick.
I remember, now, algebra class second period. How they once sat together. How Roy’s hand drifted to Sarah’s knee in a way he thought was subtle. I remember her giggling at his bad jokes and then I remember them not speaking. I remember a week later Sarah holding hands with Roger McCormick. Not Roy.
He stands face-to-face with Sarah, and everything is silent. She’s breathing heavily. He rears back to hit her again, but last minute she ducks and takes off, breaking through the parting throng of people, running, running into the dark.
I sprint after her, my eyes fixed on her moving figure ahead of me, her swinging arms. I don’t know how far she goes but finally she rounds the corner on a barn along the edge of the road, leans against its wall, catches her breath.
My breath makes little puffs of fog in the cold but my heart’s still beating like crazy. Part of it’s the running but it’s also something else, the ugliness I watched, how something dark and sickly was born from within the circle, from the force of Roy’s fists.
The December air starts biting into us now that we’re suddenly so sober, and we find the barn door from its outline in the dark, its door hanging half-open on a crooked hinge.
Inside, we lean against a wall, sliding down until we’re sitting on the concrete floor. It’s dark and empty, no animals inside, no hay lining stalls or farm tools hanging from the wall. Through the rafters I can see slivers of moonlight shining in. Surrounded by all this empty, our breathing echoes back at us, amplified in the soft dark.
I look at Sarah, really look at her, and assess her face. She has a welt in the shape of a hand, a bloody nose. She’s ghost-pale. I wrap my arm around her and she presses her face into my shoulder, her breath soft against my neck. We sit and I think about Roy Normally, I can handle the violence. Enjoy it, even. But tonight was something much darker, a corrosive rage, ripping through me.
Sarah doesn’t make any noise when she starts to cry. I feel a wetness against my neck and I just know, so I stroke her hair, like spun gold between my fingers.
Sarah’s laugh from inside the circle rings in my ears. The image of her like a statue, like a saint, out in the cold. We didn’t deserve any of this. She didn’t, anyway. Me, I know I can take it. That’s why I do.
Sarah lifts her head and her eyes meet mine, wide and glassy.
“Why did I do that?” she asks in a whisper, and I kiss the top of her head, without thinking. I love her, so much. “You’re my best friend and you don’t even know it,” I want to say. But I don’t. I stroke her hair. I say, “I don’t know, Sarah. You know I’m the only girl who fights.”
GRETA WILENSKY was the 2015 runner-up in prose for the first annual Winter Tangerine Review Prizes and the 2016 runner-up for So to Speak’s annual fiction competition. Her fiction and poetry is published or forthcoming in the Best Teen Writing Anthology of 2015, Souvenir Lit Journal, Alexandria Quarterly, Blueshift Journal, the James Franco Review, Bartleby Snopes, Duende, Gone Lawn and So to Speak. Her work has been displayed at MoMA PS1 in NYC and in the Department of Education building in Washington, D.C. She lives in Lowell, MA.
ASHWIN PANDYA is a sketch-artist and illustrator, whose work has graced many book-covers. Acknowledged for his digital art as well as musical compositions, Ashwin Pandya can sketch given any situation, description or character. You can visit his website here.