The last two weeks have been fucking killer. You feel weak, or without true priorities, or out of touch, or like the type of person who makes life worse for other types of people, when you think this way, but, honestly, compared to how life sent you bouquets of fresh shit tendrils, every day, pretty much since puberty (which is about around when you started keeping track of your feelings, and what things actually mean, and who has what, and if they deserved it or not), and then now, with Curtis in the car, looking at you like you birthed the universe, by, like, sweating a little too much one day, a universe popping out of your pores along with the usual moisture, all of which he would worship, if you let him. You don’t even know if it’s healthy for one person to be so caught up in another, to sideline their worth in order to appreciate that of another, or to allow oneself to believe the clear half-truths, borne of lust, and chemical reactions, and a level of liking in drag as what is perceived to be love, that have been thrust into your lap lately; you are not unpopular, and a thing you’ve learned is that people will say things to you, or to others, about you, sometimes awful things, and it’s simply the reaction of someone forced to occupy the same space as you, and so forced to have an opinion of you, only because you are something they’ve heard of, and that’s how this works. A negative opinion of what kind of guy you are, or what you look like, is no more real than a positive one about your haircut, or your outfit, or how pretty your eyes are—they’re all just words, or even less than that, ultimately. Ultimately, you are forced to simply exist as this thing, who feels things, then feels different things; who wants things, then wants different things. And Curtis is forced to be this same creature. Only, right now, he wants you, and you don’t mind. You like it. You’re taught about a time, in the past, when humans were actually discouraged from following their hearts, or their bodies—when they followed what was expected of them, what wouldn’t make their lives harder; when they believed there was an ultimate judgment on their behavior, and that right and wrong did exist as actual things, and that a person could be either one. For better or worse, that has changed. And so your first kiss—with him—was actually in public, during the day. You were standing outside the library, as Curtis peed inside of it, the last couple of hours spent getting tutored, by him, in the perils of algebra. You can barely add, if you want to know a little secret about yourself. I mean, you can add, you just need fingers, and to, like, sound out the numbers. You’re left-brained, or whatever. So Curtis came outside, as you leaned against a pillar, playing with your cell phone, which people still do, and he tripped over his own show laces, falling into you, and you had no idea how warm he was, how sturdy his bones were, underneath all of those clothes, underneath the flesh that protected them; because of it. “Damn,” you said, by accident; saved it by going, “You alright?” He laughed at himself, pushed up his glasses, looked around to see who’d seen, who else was laughing, looked back at you. “Yeah. I’m…why are you looking at me like that?” “Like what?” “Like you haven’t seen me in a really long time…” There was a breeze that day. You had an exam in ten minutes. “I don’t know.” Your hands were still on him, but he wasn’t falling anymore; he was just standing there, but he was still warm, and so you didn’t want to let go. And he kissed you. And you were late for your exam. And, while there were no figurative walls between your feelings for each other, people still talked. People will always talk. There were those who thought one of you could do better, who thought the other deserved much worse. There were those who always imagined one of you, or the other, with them; who lost faith because of what you had become—there were those who found hope because of it. Curtis is more thin-skinned than you, and so this amounted to nothing. But there are others, who would duel over the slightest perceived disrespect. People like Shannon Moore, or Scott Willis, the former who chose someone for a boxing match simply for interrupting her in a conversation in which she was likely to lose her train of thought, anyway; the latter choosing someone for a run through the gauntlet, the victor being he with the best time, and the least bruises, all because that someone started a rumor that Scott shit his pants at a frat party. People aren’t any less ruthless, it’s just easier to stay out of their way, so long as one minds his own business. Many have found this simple task harder to finesse than others, but you imagine this is simply another side-effect of humanity; sometimes only knowing one’s own business can get whatever the cosmic version of boring is; like, sometimes the lives around you just seem worth checking out. It’s hard to fault people for that.
Your goal with him, from the start, was to get him to completely exist out of whatever shell he thought he needed to exist around here; he is from here, you are not. You are able to feign a cool here that you cannot at home, without getting laughed at and being told to take out the garbage, or go get more beer. You want that for him, the freedom to be things he’s suppressed, to have people respect that, instead of insisting he remain true only to the more fearful version of himself, or the version that didn’t know any better; you took your kiss as permission to try, dragging him to mixers, to what none of you knew better than to call a rave, in the city, along with your roommate, Chuck, who is loud, and a better dancer than you, who’s known Curt since, like, the third grade, but who never really talked to him before you started bringing him around, and so accepted this updated version of him as him, and not as a pose, or whatever. He slept over for the first time the night after some house party, where he got sick, spent most of the night whispering promises into the toilet bowl, spent the next day lying in your bed as you wrote a paper at your desk, Chuck having spent the night at his girlfriend’s house. Well, in her room, in another building. He spent most of the daytime snoring into your pillow, having missed his chance to sleep back when you were taking advantage of it, you with your headphones on, finding it easier to write when it feels like a race, the BPMs representing the speed at which you should be typing. It’s been working for you lately, this technique, insofar as it gets you to do your homework. This is today. When you’ve got about a paragraph of paraphrased research left to tap out is when you feel eyes on you, feel a weird sort of pressure on your chest, like your chair is tipping over—panic, like the thing watching you is hiding under one of the beds…but it’s just Curtis, finally waking up, missing both breakfast and lunch, watching you, looking as much like shit as he’s capable of, which isn’t much. “He lives.” “Cliche.” You shrug. “I’m glad your up. There’s cold pizza.” You nod toward Chuck’s bed. A box of pizza sits atop it. “Save the homey some, though. Not me, Chuck. I think he’s on his way.” He nods, sits up, but doesn’t get out of bed. “Is this lunch, or…” You nod. “Post-lunch. I was thinking…I could take you out, if you want. For dinner, I mean. You could use the shower down the hall. You smell like last night. Which I’m sorry for. I…I was doing a thing, where I was, like, trying to make you more like me, which is dumb, and wrong, and I’m sorry.” He yawns through his nostrils. “I don’t have soa—I forgive you, and I get it, but I don’t have soap here. Or clothes. I can’t wear this again. I’m gross.” “You can use my soap. And…you can fit my clothes. All you need is underwear and a shirt. Unless that’s…is that weird?” He snorts, rubs his face. “No.” The door opens. Chuck comes in with Evelyn, the former holding a stack of mail, which you guys haven’t checked all semester; the latter simply holding her purse. You spin your desk chair, go, “Ew,” as Chuck hands you the mail, goes, “Yum!” as he sees the pizza. “I hope it’s cold,” he says. Curtis snorts; Ev waves at him. “Hey. You look strung out, sweetie. Like, in a totally cute way, but…” Curtis removes the sheet, swings his legs off the bed. “Thanks.” You start going through the mail, look for something that isn’t from the school, and, if there is anything like that, for something with your name on it. Chuck hands Curt the pizza, sits on his bed, his girl sitting at his desk. Desks and beds are the only furniture in the tiny dorm room. “What are you guys doing today?” Ev asks. They likely want the room to themselves at some point, likely her idea, Chuck making her do the asking. You look at Curt, who is trying to remove a slice of pizza while trying to look as if he’s only touching that one slice, which he totally is not. He looks back at you, trying not to laugh, goes, “We’re going out to dinner later. You?” Chuck is pulling his laptop from under his bed. “Something inappropriate, I reckon. Anything for me?” He means the mail, which you are still sifting through, unable to both talk to him and read words, tell yourself to just hand the mail to him, so you can bang out a half-assed paragraph of your paper, but then come across special words, words you have been programmed to pay close attention to…your fucking name. On one of the letters. Not from the school, but from the Council for Individual Fairness. “Maron’! Fuck. Fuck.” Everyone looks at you. Ev goes, “What is it?” You drop all the mail except the brown envelop with your name on it, hold it out to her—she takes it. “Shit.” She looks at Chuck. “It’s from the fucking Council.” Chuck looks at you. “Who would choose you? Did you…what could have you done?” You shake your head, still looking at the backs of your eyelids, and breathing in your palms. “I don’t know.” You’ve been good, you think. Especially lately. With Curt…your disdain for rules, and what one’s supposed to do, it’s subsided in the face of finally having something to lose. You’re panicking again, like the thing hiding in the room is once again staring at you, only now it’s a letter, and Evelyn is holding it. You try to keep the panic inside; it’s your problem, not theirs. Ev exhales. “Can I open it?” You still don’t look up. “Go for it.” You hear paper ripping; you see colors sizzling in the blackness of your restricted field of vision; you try to focus on your breathing, in an attempt to drown out the raging of your heart, which gets enough attention as it is. You pull your hands away from your face, squint at how bright your dim room is acting, see Ev reading to herself, see Curt slowly chewing pizza, looking like he might have a little more puke left in him; see Chuck bracing himself. You roll your chair over to Ev; she hands you the notice. ‘Dear, Mr. Grayson,’ it reads. ‘You have been chosen.’ It gets harder to live with from there. “Who the fuck is Eric Palmer?” You ask this. Your constant attempt to curb visible emotions becoming an arduous task. Ev shrugs. Curt and Chuck trade a look. Curt looks at the crust you know he doesn’t want to eat, but might pretend to, as to not seem wasteful so early in his version of the day. Chuck goes, “We went to school with him.” He looks at you. “What does it say?” You shake your head, try to make sense of the type on the page you’re holding. “It says he’s chosen me for combat with Eskrima sticks. It says I—and I don’t know what the fuck that is, by the way, adding to my brick-shitting—but it says I ‘impeded on his only chance at love’. How the fuck? I’ve kissed two people this year, and one of them is him.” You point to Curt, who tosses his crust in the pizza box, among various slices wanting nothing to do with it. “Did Shanda Price go to your school, too? That’s who else I kissed.” Chuck shakes his head, emphatically. “No. No way. Curtis did, but…he used to bully him—Eric did. They were never even close to friendly, so, maybe this Shanda chick—” “Well…” Curt says this, interrupting. Everyone looks at him. Ev goes, “Well, what?” He scratches his knee, goes, “We…we hung out, sometimes. Just the two of us.” Chuck screws up his face in confusion. “What? When? What…what did you guys do?” Curt rubs his nose, sighs, tries on various thoughtful facial expressions, and you know you’re fucked. You start the emotional process of accepting this.
Chuck is googling ‘Eskrima’ before Curt even finishes his story. You try to befriend this Eric person on the internet—but he’s not having it, and you don’t blame him. You wished you could blame him for calling you out—not blame him so much as be mad at him—but you can’t really muster either, have never been good at being the useful kind of mad—the kind of mad that gets results, that gnaws at your skin and forces change; only, occasionally, the impotent kind of mad, the silent rage kind, where you play out fantasies of confrontations that will never happen, cathartic ways in which the universe could be fairer, ensuring that person has at least one possible future in which they got what they deserved. You would not be surprised if this Eric person were feeling both kinds of mad—maybe types you aren’t capable of imagining, were not built to generate—can’t help but sympathize with what he thought he was getting from the time he spent with the person you spend time with now, even if he wasn’t quite capable of appreciating it, or keeping in touch with him, despite having classes down the hall from him, or seeing him across the lunchroom, and choosing whatever life he’d sculpted for himself on the outside over the life he felt belonged to him on the inside…anger. You feel it. You reach under your bed and grab your composition book, meant for a biology class you dropped until summer, when you can breeze through it without the distraction of other classes. You flick on the light between your bed and Chuck’s, look at him. He stirs slightly but stays asleep. It is four in the morning. You have class in three hours. You turn to page one of the book, and under the words Log of Acrimony, you make a record of the thoughts that couldn’t wait to become nightmares, had to speak to you personally. You appreciate them. You will need them. You turn off the light, slide the book back under your bed, and go back to cuddling with your escrima sticks, which have replaced your lover in these trying times. Briefly, you hope.
The closer to the day you get, the less angry you get. The day before, you tell Curt to meet you in the quad, but Chuck gets out of his class early, and meets you there first. You sit on the stone slabs that serve as benches, and you people watch with him. The sun is out today. Tomorrow’s supposed to be nice, as well. You twirl one of your sticks around like a color guard baton. The trees dance for you; everything smells like manure, though maybe you’re just projecting. “What’s funny,” Chuck says, “is I think this county—this county our school is in, and in which I grew up—has among the highest duel rates in the country. You ever go to one? Like a public one? Is yours?” You squint over at Carver Hall for one of the distant bodies stepping out of it to be Curt’s, and you go, “Uh…no. No to is mine public; it’s not. Maybe Eric doesn’t even want people to know. Like, about it.” “You should’ve told everyone just to fuck with him.” “Like it’s so shameful?” Chuck shrugs. “True.” “But, yeah, I went to a couple in high-school. They were both brutal, and I never went to another one. And I’m from the sticks. Of New Jersey, but it’s pretty fucking sticky out there sometimes. It was gross.” Chuck nods, tries to pick some gunk from beneath one of his fingernails with his teeth. “I know what you mean.” You snort. “Tell me about it. You ever see anyone die in one?” He shakes his head. “It happens, though. For all you know, this guy just wants to talk to you under a government sanction that says he’s allowed to hit you if he wants to—” “With a stick.” “—and—yes, with a stick—but, what I’m saying is, maybe he doesn’t want to actually fight you. Maybe he just…I dunno. Wants to make you feel bad. Sometimes people just do that. Like, someone’ll ask me to borrow money, because they know I save money, and so have it, and instead of just saying yes, which is the answer, ultimately, I go through, like, how I have to pay my phone bill in a week-and-a-half, and how my allergy medication might run out soon, so they gotta pay me back soon. And I don’t do it because I can’t afford to live without the money. I do it because I want them to feel bad for even needing it. Like they don’t already. It’s shitty, but…maybe that’s all this guy’s doing with you. Like I’ve been saying, I went to school with him, and he’s like this jock, hippie, strong-silent-friend-of-the-douchebags type of guy. I dunno. Here comes your boy, though.” You look over, see Curt talking to some chick, walking in this direction. You smile, having not seen him in about a week, not really talked to him in longer; it’s so weird, how imaginary he feels when he’s not around. You wave to him, surreptitiously, and he nods at you, not breaking his convo with the girl you’ve never seen, you don’t think. Chuck goes, “You want me to go away?” You shake your head. “Nah. It’s cool.” “You still need a ride tomorrow?” You nod, Curt approaches, you go, “Yeah, I do.” Curt sits down, on the other side of you. “Stranger,” you say. “Where the fuck you been?” He shrugs. “I felt bad for not telling you about ‘im. About…feeling this way before, and have these fantasies before, about what I might look back on one day, and what I might have; that he would say the same things, that his goals weren’t so different from mine as to seem like goals we couldn’t have together…that he was taken away from me, by my limitations, or by his; by his options. I made myself a thing he could…I made myself a thing he could use, and that begged for him, that ate up any scrap of him I could get, and told him it was okay, because there was no one better than him, and that as long as he was there to…to put me to use, it was okay, because at least he was there. And then he was gone, and then there was nothing, ever again, but then there was you, and I was embarrassed, that I settled for nothing. The him-nothing, and the nothing-nothing. And then there was the letter and…and…I told myself I’d come back around once I ran out of reasons for you to be mad at me. I guess it hasn’t happened yet. Now doesn’t count.” You snort. “I’m not mad at you.” You were, though; not rationally, but it’s in the composition book, so. “I know. You were, though.” You pretended not be, and maybe that made it worse, for him, watching you lie for the sake of his feelings, something you promised each other you wouldn’t do, and worse for you, because it made it harder to be mad at about anything, like it was this unjustifiable emotion no one should ever feel, like they got to pick their emotions instead of just what they did with them. Whatever. Your grandmother once said—in reference burping—that it was bad to hold such things in, that your body knew it was doing, and maybe you were just too dumb to realize she wanted you to extrapolate that to apply to every single thing, a catchall bit of advice from someone who knew she wouldn’t be around long enough to give much more. “I’m not, though, now” you say. You put your mini-staff on the pseudo-bench between you and him. “I know. You have a right to be, though.” He’s got his hands clasped between his thighs. You put your right hand—your nearest hand—over his, squeeze them. “I know. It’s just fighting for you, which I would do anyway, even if I wasn’t being asked to. Or forced to. I’m happy here. Or whatever. I’ve got the happy chemicals going. Not that you deserve it.” You’re joking. He snorts. “Tell me about it.” You put your forehead against his shoulder. “I plan on it.”
Eric Palmer wanted to fight. You knew he would. By the time you showed up to the hills, swiped your ID in the card-reader, a small machine, held by the elderly greeter/referee waiting there for you, at the bottom of the hill on which you’d be fighting, looked over his shoulder, and saw the sad, scruffy young man holding a staff the size of both of yours, when held end to end, nodding at the sight of you, pacing as you trudged up the small path, to the battle ground, you knew you’d at least learn how to take a punch this evening, would be getting blood on the passenger seat of Chuck’s Saturn Aura. Which is a type of car, not, like, his belief system or whatever. Either way, you’re kind of glad to be here. Are the only one smiling when the whistle blows, and you’re forced to discover exactly what Curt saw in this guy, get the sense from the first blow to your head that neither of you is really missing anything.