Okay, so, I can’t be 100% dead-on about this part because I was blacked out when it happened, but from what my friends told me, it sounds like I started the fight. They ran over when they heard me shouting and found me literally back-against-the-wall next to the dartboard, bending some big guy with a shaved head over in a guillotine choke, while his friends swung on me and I swung back with my free hand as well as I could. My buddies jumped in, and everyone fought until security came and hauled us outside. The other guys had gotten the worst of it. My friends thought the fight was fun, like they always did, but I didn’t remember it. The last thing I remembered was from before we even got into the club, when the stone-faced bouncer was looking at my fake I.D. It had a few more months before I could use a real one. I kept my mask up as he held my I.D. up close to his face, looking for anything off about it. “Where are you from?” he asked, and I gave him the answer from the card. “What’s your sign?” he asked, and cocked his eyebrow up. I remember that part for real. He actually cocked an eyebrow. Then, zap — there’s nothing. The Wikipedia name for it is anterograde amnesia. I’d railed two Xannies that night — I think it was two — before heading out. Anyway, even though I was blacked out, I got in. I walked around the bar, drank, had a bunch of lucid conversations with people, started and won a fight, and made it back to the apartment, all completely blacked out. I broke a knuckle during the fight, which had never happened before. The pinkie knuckle on my left hand was sunken and black. A broken knuckle meant that I threw a bad punch, and I didn’t throw bad punches. My family’s insurance’d expired, so the day after the fight I set the broken knuckle and taped the fingers on my left hand together myself.
A few days later, I went to the gym on campus with my buddies Jerry Cameron and Brad Ferro, who had both been at the club with me. We did a shortened workout on the bench and free weights, with me taking it easy on the busted hand, you know, and went to the second floor, which had the indoor track and boxing equipment. Cameron scowled and bent over into a sort of orangutan posture, doing an impression of the guys we fought at the club.
“I’m fucking pumped, bro,” said Cameron. “I just bought a new Affliction t-shirt and I’ve been doing cocaine for three straight days.”
It’s not like we aren’t like that some times, Ferro especially, but it’s like, you’ve got to have a little bit of self-respect at least. Cameron kneeled down next to the track and stretched out his legs. His shorts lifted halfway up the backs of his thighs, which were tanned to a sort of caramel color. They were covered in short, soft-looking blonde hairs.
“Whah’s going on?” said Ferro, joining in on Cameron’s joke. He spun around with a confused look on his face, shielding himself with his hands from invisible dudes. “Whe-ah did awh these people come f’um?” The pronunciation wasn’t a part of his impression. Ferro just had with trouble pronouncing a lot of words. Kids called him ‘Bwad Fe-wwo’ until the start of ninth grade, when he came back from summer break the biggest motherfucker in school, bigger than most adults, and broke Al Dockery’s jaw in the hallway in front of everybody. Al Dockery had been Big Al Dockery, before Ferro broke his jaw.
“Jackie, you were whaling on those guys one-handed,” said Cameron. He started stretching his other leg. “Even with just one hand, they were scared to come at you.”
He looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back, and said yeah.
Cameron peeled his shirt off. His skin was smooth and brown. His whole body was taut and wiry, runner muscle. He dropped his shirt on the floor and ran down the track, away from us, his blonde sort of surfer hair bobbing up and down on the back of his neck.
Ferro and I went to the room with the boxing equipment. Ferro held the focus mitts and I dodged his swings and jabbed with my right hand. I kept my busted left hand open, and when I rotated my left shoulder in a pre-punch sort of way I didn’t actually extend my arm. Bap bap swish, bap swish.
After a few minutes of this, Ferro looked serious and said, “I can’t get in these fights awh the time. They have pape-uhs on me.”
“I remember, Ferro,” I said. He was on probation for trying to pass a bad check at Best Buy. “So, don’t fight. I don’t need you to help me. Just stand off to the side when it happens.”
A miserable look came onto his face. We worked on our boxing for half an hour while Cameron ran on the track.
On the car ride back to the apartment, Cameron mentioned Cecilia, some girl from one of his classes who he ran into at the club and had pretty much picked up, until the fight broke out and everyone’s plans changed. Who was this Cecilia girl? I wished I could remember that night so that I’d have a picture of her in my head.
The first thing I did when we got back from the gym was smoke a bowl. Then I looked at myself in my bathroom mirror. By the way, looking into a mirror is bad news when you’re high and has sent me into weed-anxiety paralysis more than once, but I always check my muscles in the mirror after going to the gym. Forearms, especially. Your forearm muscles are the first ones that people see, and they see them no matter what kind of t-shirt or polo you’re wearing. It took me a while to realize this and get why there are guys at the gym who set aside like an hour for just forearm workouts, but since then I’d been working my forearms pretty hard, trying to get some serious Popeye-type shit going. I twisted my wrist back and forth, watching the cords of muscle move underneath my skin. I’d put on sixty-three pounds of muscle mass since I started lifting seriously. Twelve of those pounds came that last summer, when I went on a four-week cycle of testosterone, Winstrol, and Arimidex with Ferro. I wanted to put on more than that. I have an ectomorphic body type that makes it hard for me to put on weight.
When I looked at myself in my bathroom mirror I started thinking about the abs of this one guy at the gym. I lay down on my bedroom floor and did a set of a hundred sit-ups, even though I had done a bunch of sets earlier. The guy I saw had been doing sit-ups on an inclined bench tilted back basically vertically, while tossing a medicine ball back and forth with his partner, who was standing at the foot of the bench. His tank-top had fallen back so that his abs were showing. They were smooth and incredibly defined. He looked like a soccer player. He had cut abs and bulging soccer-type legs, but his arms were thin, so he must have been working out for an actual sport, not like those upper-body-only guys who look like half-squeezed-out tubes of toothpaste.
I stood up and looked at myself in the mirror again. My face was red and my abs were twitching underneath my skin. I could hear the blood pumping through my carotid artery, that steady gunk, gunk, gunk, gunk. The muscles on my skull were tense. I could tell that my whole body was sore, or at least was sending signals to me that it was sore, but the weed made the pain abstract, which is a plus of smoking weed when you work out. I turned to the side. My pecs stuck out a full thumbs-length from my sternum. I showered and dressed.
As soon as I got into the living room, Junior shouted, “Faggot!”
He was shouting into a headset. He and Cameron were on the couch playing something. Junior was tall and pale, and was wearing pajama bottoms and no shirt. Cameron was laughing.
“What’s up, Jackie,” said Junior, without looking away from the screen.
“The rocket launcher’s a part of the game,” said a voice from the television. “If you can’t beat it that’s your fault.”
“Faggot-ass bitch,” said Junior. “Where are you from?”
“God, New Hampshire. What are you, thirteen?”
“I’m in college, asshole.”
“Do they even have colleges in New Hampshire?”
“Dartmouth’s in New Hampshire. That’s an Ivy League school. Read a fucking book sometime.”
“Who would want to read a book about New Hampshire?”
I made myself a dinner of two chicken breasts, a bowl of spaghetti, a can of green beans, and a protein shake. I listened to them play as I ate, but didn’t look up to watch. Junior made fun of New Hampshire guy until he quit. I left my empty plate on the table, re-taped the fingers on my left hand so that my forefinger and middle finger could move around, picked up a controller, and sat down next to them. After playing a few more rounds, Junior said, “All right, au revoir, les bitches,” and went to his room to take a nap. His floor was one huge mass of dirty laundry, which was only about ankle-high in the middle of the room but built into waist-high piles at the walls. We met Junior at the end of our freshman year. We had only been hanging out with him for a few months when Cameron and Ferro asked if he wanted to be our fourth roommate when we moved into the apartment. They told me about it after the fact. I said it was fine.
Cameron asked me how classes were going, and I said fine. I hadn’t gone to any of my classes since the first couple weeks of the semester. Cameron killed a couple guys. Then he said he was going to the library to study and asked if I had anything to work on and I said no. He looked at me for a while. He used to really get on me about school and shit. But he just said fine, and left. I sat alone of the couch for a while. Everything was quiet and still.
When I went back to my bedroom, I took one of the roxies from the sandwich bag in my medicine cabinet and washed it down with a handful of tap water. I logged on to Facebook to check my wall. Eventually, I drifted once again to Al Dockery’s profile, the kid whose jaw Brad Ferro broke back in ninth grade. Al Dockery never wound up going to college. He died a year ago, in Orlando, where he played Pluto at Disneyworld and sold weed and pills out of a little house he rented with four or five other guys who also sold weed and pills. He took a dive off of the eighth floor of an apartment building wearing nothing but the head of his Pluto costume. There were over seven hundred photos of him on his profile. I think I was the only person who visited the page anymore, except his parents, probably. The last comment was from four months ago. There’s something terrible about Facebook profiles of people who’ve committed suicide, the way it keeps all the wreckage on display. There’s a reason why the writing on tombstones is so short and vague. The roxie made me feel like a thick warm blanket was being wrapped and re-wrapped around my body, and I sat there clicking through photos of dead Al Dockery until I fell asleep in my chair.
The next night we played a game of poker in the living room, on a green felt table that Junior owned. It was a small game, just between the roommates. I was knocked out first, when I got caught with a king-high flush against Junior’s ace-high flush. I shook my head and said Jesus Christ and took a couple gulps of my whiskey and Coke. Junior raked in the chips from the pot, while Ferro grinned at me over the tiny stack of chips he still had left. Ferro was doing badly this game. Ferro did badly every game.
“Ha-ha,” said Ferro, in this sing-songy voice. “I’m not the fuhst one oww-out.”
“God damn it,” I said.
“Going all in with that king, man,” said Junior. “You were playing that hand too hard, for this early in the game,” said Junior. “King-six unsuited? Too much can go wrong. See, I had ace-king, which gave me a pair of kings, too, off the flop, and then I had the higher flush on the river. But you followed the low flush in.”
“Jesus, would you shut the fuck up, Junior?” I said.
I got up and poured myself another glass of whiskey and Coke.
“You see how I slow-played that hand?” Junior asked. He saw that I was mad and was fucking with me on purpose. Ferro was laughing. He had this stupid, rhythmic, guttural laugh. Cameron sipped his drink and stared into nowhere.
“I don’t really give a shit,” I said.
“Sun Tzu says that all war is based on deception,” said Junior.
“I don’t care, Junior. I really don’t care.”
I’d had to sit and watch for the rest of the game. Ferro got knocked out soon after me. The heads-up match between Junior and Cameron went on for a long time. I drank a couple more whiskey and Cokes, and smoked a crooked blunt that Ferro rolled and put into rotation. He rolled it but couldn’t smoke it, because of his probation. Junior took long, deep hits. We talked about classes, and I made up things to say. Junior was thinking about changing his major from business management to finance. My little bottle of whiskey was empty, so I got a beer from the fridge. Ferro was meeting with a tutor to get help on his research paper. The fact that Ferro kept passing his classes was a miracle that surprised us every semester. Sitting there listening to Ferro talk, I felt pretty bad about myself because he was passing his classes when I seemed to be about to flunk out, and then I felt even worse about myself for wishing that he would fail. The chips moved back and forth between Junior and Cameron without anything really changing. It was a war of attrition. Someone started passing a second blunt around. The conversation turned to girls, which I didn’t have anything more to say about that than I did about classes. Cameron said that he was going to meet the girl from the club again tomorrow, that Cecilia. Cecilia Marx.
“Suh-seeelia,” I said, as I walked over to the fridge to get another beer.
“Yeah?” said Cameron. “What about her?”
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “I’m hammered.”
Cecilia was a member of the track team. Cecilia was majoring in anthropology and had a piercing in the middle of her tongue, a purple stud. I looked at the beer in my hand, which was some really toxic off-brand shit from the gas station. I looked at the ceiling fan which was loose and swayed from side to side and made a creaking sound as it spun. So the fan was swaying and then the ceiling itself began to sway and blur. I set the beer down. Junior was watching me with his big green eyes, hunched over in his chair, holding a blunt, fucking giggling.
Later that night, I kicked through my bedroom window. I had shoes and a pair of jeans on, but I could feel that the back of my leg was cut and could see a little bit of blood dripping down from under the jeans. I crouched to take off my shoes. I couldn’t see well enough to untie my shoelaces, but the first shoe slid off easily. I was trying to take off the other shoe, the one that was getting blood stains on it, when I heard a knock on my bedroom door, and then Cameron’s voice.
“Jackie?” he said. “You okay in there, buddy?”
I shuffled quickly to the bathroom.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just a, just a sec.”
I ran a washcloth under the faucet and wiped my face with it. In the mirror, it looked like the skin under my eyes was still red. My elbow slammed against the doorframe as I went out of the bathroom. I had to use the wall to support myself to walk to the bedroom door and open it. Cameron was standing there in his underwear, looking sweet and confused.
“Oh, it’s Cameron,” I said. I turned and raised my hand, like a butler. “Come in.”
I wasn’t trying to make a joke, I was just nervous, and some conversation-type part of my brain had gotten switched off.
“Yeah, okay,” said Cameron.
When I started walking again I stumbled into a wall, and then into the bathroom, where I sat down on the lid of the toilet. I tilted my head back, closed my eyes, and breathed through my mouth.
“So, your window’s broken,” said Cameron.
“I kicked it,” I said. “Kicked through it and it broke. My leg’s bleeding.”
I smiled up at him. I bent over to tug at the shoe that was still on.
“I came back,” I said. “Back, to my room, after Junior won the poker game.”
“I won the poker game,” said Cameron. “How drunk are you?”
“I drank some Powerade after I came back because I am very drunk, and very...drunk. And then I watched TV for a little bit. Then I kicked through my window.”
The back of the shoe was tight against my heel and wouldn’t budge.
“Hey, Cameron,” I said. “Can you still see me? I feel like I’m disappearing, Cameron. Or more like...I feel like I’m this little operator inside of a big machine that I can make walk forward, and backward, and side-to-side. I can make it smile, or frown. Nod. Laugh. I put its faces on, Cameron. But each time I make the machine do something, I get a little bit smaller. Every day I shrink. And eventually, I’ll be nothing. But the weird thing is, Cameron, I think the machine will keep moving. I’ll be gone, and my body will keep moving. What do you think about that shit, man? Is that some psycho shit or what?”
“Jackie,” said Cameron.
“And I can’t get this fucking shoe off of my foot.”
I let go of the shoe and held my face in my hands. I felt the shoe loosen and slide off. I felt Cameron’s warm hand on my instep, and the denim of the leg of my jeans roll up.
“I haven’t gone to class in weeks,” I said.
“Jesus, Jackie,” said Cameron.
I covered my face with my hands again.
“This isn’t too bad,” said Cameron. “The bleeding is slowing down already.”
I heard Cameron shuffling stuff around inside my medicine cabinet. I wondered if he saw the little bags with the roxies and the Xanax. I felt a pinch on my leg.
“There was a little piece of glass still in the cut,” he said.
I felt him gently press the cut with the cold, wet washcloth I had used to wipe my face before he came in, and then dab it with a towel and put a large bandage on it. He put his hand on my shoulder.
“Come on,” he said. “Get up. It’s all right.”
I looked up at him and he was smiling. The light from the ceiling made his long hair an even brighter shade of blonde. He grabbed my arms and I grabbed his, and he pulled me up and into him. He wrapped one of my arms around his shoulders and we staggered together out of the bathroom. I moaned as we walked and rested my head on his shoulder with my eyes closed, my nose nuzzling into his hair, which smelled grassy and sour. He led me to my bed and sat me down there, leaning over me. I swayed from side to side, blinking, and held onto his elbow.
“Jackie,” said Cameron. “I’m just going to say some shit about school and everything. When you have an opportunity to do something, like you do right now, you have to take it. You understand? This is your life. You can’t duck your life.”
I looked up at him. His face was only a few inches away. His eyes were looking into mine, and his mouth was slightly open. I let go of his elbow. I grabbed his bicep. I kept adjusting my hold on him, grabbing, and letting go, grabbing, and letting go, moving further and further up his arm. I put my other hand, the hand with the broken knuckle, on his chest. I could feel his nipple under my palm there. I listened to my breathing as it slowed down and looked at his lips.
And then I let go, and lay down on my side on the bed, and closed my eyes.
“You’re all right,” he said. “It’s good. You’re all right.”
I felt him pick my legs up and put them on the bed. He wrapped me in his arms and moved my body around so that I wasn’t so close to the edge. I took deep breaths through my teeth and shuddered when I breathed out and felt like I was going to start crying.
“I’m going to move the trash can next to the bed, okay? It’s next to the bed.”
Through my eyelids, I saw the room get dark. I heard a little click as he shut the door behind him. I listened to the sound of the frogs through my broken window and my own ragged breathing.
The next day, I decided to go to class. I packed up my books for psychology and marketing, and a green notebook that was totally blank, except for a course number and some professor’s name penciled in at the top of the first page.
Junior was playing a game when I walked into the living room. He turned away from the screen to look up at me, for what felt like a long time.
“What’s up, buddy,” said Junior.
I sat down to play a couple games with him, since my classes didn’t start for like an hour. I could see he wanted to ask me about last night. Eventually he did.
“I kicked through my window,” I said.
“Shit,” he said. “And you got cut, huh? I see the band-aid down there. That’s a big one. Should have kicked the wall, probably.”
“Yep," he said. “Definitely. I saw Cameron went to your room after.” Junior grinned. “That’s all right, man. We’ve all got those nights when we get shitfaced and need someone to help us to bed. So Cameron tucked you in. That’s cool, man.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Did you ask him to kiss you goodnight?”
I flipped the controller on the floor and got off the couch.
“Always with this shit,” I said. “Always with — this, fucking — every day.”
“Oh my God, Jackie,” said Junior, laughing. “Stop it already. Just stop it. Who gives a shit?”
While I stormed across the living room and out the front door, Junior was still laughing and trying to wave me over.
“Hey, Jackie!” he called. “Come on! Hey!”
So my marketing professor told me I’d already missed the first exam. I asked her if there was still a chance that I could pass the course. She opened up the syllabus and leafed through it with her eyebrows up.
“I could allow you take the exam now, for reduced credit,” she said. “But, with four whole weeks of absences...” She tapped a fingernail on the podium. “Talk to me after class.”
I took notes for the first half of class, even though I didn’t understand anything the professor was saying. Then, and it’s not like I’m proud of this, I just stopped. I held the pencil motionless in my hand and stared at the notepaper, squinting and working my jaw back and forth. The professor occasionally gave me these quick glances like I was a mirage that wouldn’t go away. I didn’t stop to talk to her — why bother, when I knew I was going to fail no matter what? — and I didn’t bother going to psychology, either.
On the bus ride back to the apartment, I looked out the window at the cars going by. I’d have to get out of my lease somehow, but besides that I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do. I thought about what’d happen if I got hit by a car and paralyzed from the neck down. I wondered how long it would take before everyone moved on with their lives without me. A year? A few months? One month, maybe? If you fall behind, does anyone even glance in the rear-view mirror? I thought about my friends here. I thought about Brad Ferro, back in ninth grade, when Al Dockery made fun of him in the hallway and Ferro broke his jaw in front of everyone. Ferro towered over Al Dockery’s slumped and motionless body on the ground, and shouted, My name is nah’ ‘Bwad Fewwo’! My name is... My name is... And he stood there with his whole massive body quivering and his lips open and his teeth clenched together and tears running down his cheeks because he couldn’t pronounce his own name. I thought about Al Dockery just a few years later doing a header into the pavement wearing nothing but his Pluto mask. I thought about Cameron’s arms, and the way his hair smelled. I thought about Cameron when we were thirteen years old. We were at the beach back home, and Cameron sneaked up on me from behind, shouted Jackie-Oh!, and pushed me over into the sand. I spit the sand out of my mouth, tried to wipe the graininess off my cheek with the back of my hand, and glared up at him. He looked down at me with his hands on his hips, grinning. It made me feel angry at first, and then it made me feel shy, but after a while, I started grinning, too. I jumped up to my feet and chased after him, but he was faster than me, much faster than me, and the longer I chased after him the further away he got.