I’m lurking in the shadow on the north side of the Mill Valley Middle School, as far away as possible from the playing field and paved quad where most kids hang out. I’m sitting on a weedy planter made of creosote-soaked beams, eating a butter, lettuce, and black pepper sandwich, listening to distant shouts and laughter while a lone seagull stares me down.
A skinny black boy with an uncombed afro comes around the corner and stops short when he sees me. He struts over slowly, shaking his head, walking like one leg is longer than the other, like he’s got something hard and heavy tucked into his sock.
“What you doing here, girl?” His cadence is melodic, as if he’s singing a little song.
“You ever heard of Troy? Well this is Troy’s territory.” The seagull doesn’t blink an eye as Troy leans against the far end of the planter and crosses his arms with his fists behind his biceps to plump them up. “You going to have to move. Unless you’re going to share, that is.”
I clutch my sandwich with both hands. He laughs and starts to pace back and forth on his stiff, skinny legs, shooting smiles over his shoulder as if he’s got a crowd of imaginary friends behind him. “What is that, anyway? Looks like shit.”
“It’s a pepper sandwich.”
“Pepper? Like salt and pepper?” His laugh is so full of derision it mocks itself. “That’s nasty.”
There hadn’t been anything else in the refrigerator to put in my sandwich that morning. Actually, it tasted fine until Troy looked at it. I toss the last bit in to the air and the seagull flaps up, downs it in one gulp, and then stands there, aiming its blank yellow eye.
Troy’s smile falls from his eyes. “Time to go then.”
I stand but I don’t know what to do. On the quad, girls stand in groups with one hand on their hips, smirking and fluffing their hair. Around the edges of the pavement, stray girls cling to one another. The only girls who sit alone are Ashley (who has Downs Syndrome), Eve (whose skull is encased in elaborate braces that extend into her mouth like metal parasites), Heidi with her pimples and her enormous breasts, and a few other hopeful outcasts. The boys are in the field on the other side of the cyclone fence, throwing balls and insults and wrestling one another.
I tell him, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Troy laughs again, pacing and laughing, pacing like an creature trapped in a cage. “You’re a tough little girl, aren’t you?” He’s standing right in front of me, so close his chest nearly touches mine. Up close, his brown eyes are amber and he has a fringe of peach fuzz on his upper lip. I feel the surge and snap of heat between us like the hum of an electric fence. He falls back, laughing hysterically, and when he finally catches his breath, he asks what my name is.
“You do pushups, Annie?” He pokes a finger into my bicep.
I hit his shoulder, hard enough for him to feel it. “I can take care of myself. How about you?”
He looks behind him again, as if there’s a group of people back there, watching to see what he’ll do. He laughs and hits me back, just as hard, and then freezes, holding his breath: It’s my turn.
I punch him again, harder this time, and again the punch comes back, an aching echo. The startled seagull flaps away.
“You can’t hit a girl,” I tell him.
“And you can’t hit a boy,” he retorts.
So we stand there, eye to eye, a foot apart, punching each other harder and harder in a slow, steady rhythm. He smacks me; I wince and rub my bicep for a moment before I hit him back; he hoots and shakes his arm out before punches me again. My eyes are fastened on his which are filled with the warmth of primordial sap. His breath on my face is sweet and and every time my knuckles connect with his brown skin, my whole body reverberates with the impact.
I don’t remember who got the last punch or who decided not to give another. Maybe the bell rang or some stranger stumbled upon us and changed the picture. Maybe some part of me is still standing there, hitting and being hit.
This story is as real as life, as real as any story. I write in the present tense because I still feel it: it feels like something was built between us, something solid and sturdy and real, something we threw together with the scraps at hand.
I’m writing in the first person but yearning for connection, longing for another point of view, wishing I could clamber up this imaginary thing we built so I could see a bigger truth.