Do you remember what you did? It was a long time ago, forty-one years ago this December. I was eleven. You were what, thirteen, fourteen? I ask this because you were bigger, and in a higher grade. I wish you’d acted differently that day.
We were in the Wakefield Junior High School library. I’m sure you remember that place. It was a big room, with new industrial carpeting and rows and rows of drawers stuffed with cards. Each card had a hand-typed book title, author, and Dewey Decimal System code. My fingerprints were all over those cards, but yours weren’t, and I’m sure that was one of the reasons you punched me that morning.
Do you remember hitting me?
I was reading a book on the Flying Tigers and their service in China. I was getting my head around how the American Volunteer Group worked with the Chinese to beat the odds. How were the Chinese to survive the Japanese incursion? What motivated the Americans to help? Was it the $500 per plane bounty, as paid by the Chinese government, or was this the chance for men with spotty records to make something of themselves, for their future, now that they were a little more grown-up?
That was the book I was reading, the day of your sucker-punch.
I was sitting at a large, four-place reading table, alone with my book. You were with two other boys, across the aisle from me. I heard one boy, presumably your leader, say to you, “smack that fag with the pretty face.” I didn’t see you coming. I had my nose in the book. And you punched me, just once. You hit my shoulder as hard as you could, then you walked back to your table.
I’m sure you were greeted a hero. I sat as still as possible, my nose in the book, my eyes on the words I was sure contributed to my classification and punishment. And I cried. I used the book’s covers to hide my face and my shock. My face wouldn’t look so pretty to your friend any more.
My shoulder screamed, for sure. But no one can hear tissue ache. No one can hear blood race. Humiliation makes no sound. Confusion is quiet.
I didn’t turn the page for minutes. I just stared at the words ‘AND THE MEN TRIED TO CONTAIN THE FIRE, AND THE MEN TRIED TO CONTAIN THE FIRE, AND THE MEN TRIED TO CONTAIN THE FIRE’, waiting for the bell, for the free reading period to be over, and to get back to my class and to the kids who didn’t do this.
The bell rang, but you were back. I saw you come over from the corner of my eye, and stop right where you’d snuck up on my table. I kept the book open in front of me and waited. You were not going to make me hurt any more than you had. You were not going to shock me, or surprise me. You might be a lingering thorn, a new enemy, but my apex of harm had been reached.
“I’m sorry,” you said. “I’m sorry I made you cry.” So my tears were evident, I hadn’t known that. I was sure my ears were redder than a fire truck. You sat down next to me. I didn’t look and I didn’t move but I could see you were leaning on the table. You rested your head on your hand, your fist at different utility now.
“He dared me to do it,” you said.
My fire truck ears were listening.
“He’s a jerk,” you said. “You okay?”
I wiped my face with my hand and nodded.
You stood up. “Look. If you ever need help, if you ever need a hand, I’ll help you, okay?” You thought a bit, waited a moment, and then left. You sprinted up the stairs to where the 7th and 8th graders took class. My 6th-grade exit was through another door.
I ask again, do you remember? Because it occurred to me much later in life that you were something like the men I was reading about just then. Some of those American volunteers had crossed the line with the law or with military authority, and were making a change in a foreign land. They’d screwed up back home and were looking for a new start. Perhaps the China-Japan war was the pivot point for those men. Maybe, in the library on that day in 1976, you pivoted, too.
Pre-order Ara’s 4th book here, to be published March 2018: https://theliterateshow.wordpress.com/2017/12/03/accepting-pre-orders-on-my-4th-book/