Alone, Victor drops his empty lunch tray at his side to check his phone casually. With his new weather-by-text service, his Nokia will buzz an update every hour, and he’ll smile and tap out gibberish on the keypad. When he gets another text warning him that the last one was undeliverable, he can type another. Three minutes until the next text.
Mostly in pairs and trios, some kids are already at their tables, shouting, snapping down their trays, scrutinizing passersby. The line is at a standstill. Behind him, Victor hears Hector and Julian murmuring “fag,” “clit,” and “bitch.” His face hot, he stares at the patterned carpet, hard-as-pavement packed nylon that burns your palms when you fall. They call Victor “clit” because of his allegedly tiny hooded penis, based on a brief glance in a cold locker room years ago. Again, allegedly. Once some kid screamed the epithet in class on a dare, and everyone ended up in the principal’s office. Victor told, and that was that. He was clit for life and a snitch.
His ear stings. As he cups it in his hands, he hears a flicking sound in the other.
Hector’s arm snaps back, his face all smiles and raging acne. “Faggot.”
“You’re ignorant enough to think that’s an insult,” Victor says. A school counselor once told him to say that.
Julian and Hector explode in laughter.
“So you’re admitting you’re a fag?” Hector says.
Victor ignores Hector and stares at Julian, his thick limbs, thin lips, and powder-blue eyes terrifying against a bloodless white face. The rumor is that he was expelled from his last school for throwing rocks and that his dad owns a vicious Ecuadorian banana empire.
“Why are you so sensitive when someone calls you a faggot?” he hears Julian say.
“Because he’s a clit,” Hector says. “If you push him, he’ll moan like a bitch. Snitch Bitch.”
They laugh and flick his ear again.
When Victor gets out with his food, his ear swelling, he makes for the classroom he knows is empty fourth period. The school has a brutalist architecture, its great endowment poured into sharp-angled gray concrete. Scions of the Miami elite catwalk down the halls with severe expressions, gorgeous and fit by way of wealth and the genes of trophy spouses. With their fitted khakis and uniform polos in a rainbow spectrum, they look like unsettlingly young models in one of those thick-stock catalogs you only get if you live in the right zip code.
When he finally reaches the empty classroom, he shuts the blinds and eats lunch alone, unsure how he’ll make it through the semester, let alone tenth grade. Ever since Miguel moved hours north and changed schools, Victor hasn’t been able to find anyone to share a lunch table with him, a dickless narc. He cringes at the thought, but in middle school, he had bullied Miguel for the way he voiced cartoon characters in conversation. But when Victor opened himself up to Miguel, with his nerdy hobbies and vulnerabilities, they became friends, losing themselves in war games and D&D. And Miguel could voice every character in their campaigns with an incredible, hammy range. Once, they looked up the sounds he made in an encyclopedia —ululation, pharyngeal fricatives, and so on. Miguel’s house was on the edge of town back then, where homes had land to buffer the outside world. At one sleepover, they assembled a robot arm from a kit, marveling at all the things it could grasp and lift—figurines, a shirt collar. Outside, giddy in the mellow breeze under the gumbo limbo trees draped in Spanish moss, they arranged figurines at lengths set by rules in tomes thicker than bibles. They spread the models around the robot arm in the middle of the yard for an unreal war waged with wooden rulers, notepads, and chewed pens, the soft grass brushing their soles and flossing their toes, Miguel’s baby sister sowing the battlefield with plush animals, the Havanese dog sniffing at painted pewter soldiers.
That night, Victor’s parents summon him to their room, where they’re watching TV in bed. He hates talking to them there. His father’s mass is planted upright against the headboard, in a T-shirt and boxers. He puts a watery glass of single-malt scotch on the nightstand, barrel torso sinking into his crossed legs. A dinner tray piled high with rice and picadillo sits on the bed in front of him. Victor is going through a growth spurt, but he doubts he’ll reach six feet like his father. His mother lies tucked at the opposite end of the bed in a robe, a long-sleeve shirt, and sweatpants, a Joel Osteen hardcover on her chest.
“Mi hijo, I want you to be happy, that’s number one. And successful. We make sacrifices to put you in that school, even with your scholarship.” His father raises a finger for emphasis. “And we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
There are no chairs, and Victor doesn’t know whether to stand or sit on the edge of the bed. It’s just that his dad is clearly unaware that his boxers aren’t buttoned, and it’s gross.
“I love you, and I don’t want to see you suffer. Not like I did. You know, we left Cuba because of a bully.”
“You never told me,” Victor says.
“I don’t think that’s—”
“And I was bullied at school. They called me names and pushed me around, took my wallet.” He counts everything off on his fingers, pausing for emphasis, counting so hard the bed shakes. “It didn’t stop until I told every single bully that I’d fight them. And I lost all the time, but they had to know that they’d pay a price.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I got a call today at work from two, two little shits saying they’d had sex with my wife—your mother! Can you think who that might have been?”
He really doesn’t want to look at his dad’s penis, but it’s so ugly and huge and terrible that it leaps into his vision.
“And they said that my son is a, quote unquote, ‘pussy.’ Do they call you that?”
Victor says nothing. Someone on TV asks Janeane Garofalo if she’s a Ba’athist.
“Mi hijo, if someone calls you something like that, it’s a special kind of disrespect. He’s trying to take away your manhood.”
“What if they call me an asshole or an idiot?”
“Tell them to screw off, okay. You know you’re not an idiot. But if they call you a pussy or a homo or whatever, you become a target.”
“They call me that, and I’m not gay.”
“Then you tell them, ‘Meet me in the parking lot after school. I’m gonna kick your ass.’” He sneers and grimaces, as if the bully were right there in the room.
His dad has always been intense, but this is a new principle he’s never put into words. On TV, someone says, We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.
“What if I lose?”
“Doesn’t matter. You’ll have respect. They’ll know that they can’t bully you without a fight. Do you really think anyone wants to bully someone who’s handing out black eyes?”
“We’re signing you up for boxing classes.”
Victor throws up his hands. “Can’t I just transfer? Go to school with Miguel?”
“You’ve transferred every couple of years, and it’s not healthy.”
Again, it leaps into view. Like the rest of his dad, it’s just too big and fleshy.
His mom speaks up. “Victor, you know I got bullied in high school, too. I had an accent back then.”
His dad interrupts. “Jog my memory, these two are not Cuban, right?”
“Well, Hector’s parents are I think—”
“—and Julian’s parents are Ecuadorian.”
“Ecuadorian pieces of shit. That’s the problem with Schenkel Prep. These kids come from money but not good, educated families. We should have sent you to Vírgen de la Caridad.” He looks at his wife with raised eyebrows.
She holds the book over her chest like a shield. “We talked about that decision a lot. We did what we thought was best at the time.”
“No, we did what—” He shakes his head and his finger. “Whatever. Vic, you’re taking boxing lessons.”
Victor has evaded physical activity with crafty excuses his whole life, but he decides that boxing could be an acceptable diversion. He doesn’t have to hit anyone or get hit in the boxing class, and there’s something thrilling about wrapping his hands, hammering away at the heavy bag in a hot warehouse under industrial fans, knocking the bag with one fist and catching it hard with the other, the contented exhaustion after. His parents buy him real athletic sneakers. The instructor calls him “big man” and “boss.” At school, he traces his sore muscles with a finger, matching himself with the skinless bodies in his textbook.
At family gatherings, cousins and uncles confirm that, yes, there are some bullies who only respond to violence. One uncle explains how a punch in the jaw whips the head around and slams the brain against the skull, resulting in a knockout. Victor finds the brutality repulsive and the premise ridiculous—that, win or lose, just the prospect of fighting him of all people would deter a bully, that he could decree some law against lèse-majesté, with punishment for violation. He wonders if he hadn’t brought the bullying on himself in some small way—because he was laughable. He used to call bullies ruffians, for example. But figuring out what makes him so bully-able just makes him sad. If there’s any solution, he thinks, it’s to switch schools, preferably to Miguel’s.
For most of the first quarter, his usual strategizing and evasion work well, and he slumps into a kind of groove, if not a rut. He gets better at beating the lunch line. After school, he shows up to every History Club meeting with a new biography he’s read, pressed vertically against his chest with the front cover facing out, hoping to spark conversation that could lead to a friendship. It never works. Occasionally, he meets up with someone from the club for a movie or laps around the mall, but it’s humiliating hanging out with people who won’t acknowledge him at school. He calls Miguel as often as he can without letting on that he has no one else. And he tries talking to his dad about transferring to Miguel’s school or even Vírgen de la Caridad, but his dad says it would teach Victor to run from his problems.
One day, as Victor heads to his locker by the cafeteria, a hand grasps his shoulder, pinching hard and pulling down. A sudden jabbing pain in his anus, the sickening feeling that something is forcing in. Victor gasps and shoots his hips forward to escape the pressure driving into the back of his shorts, finding Julian close to his face, his thumb jammed against his index finger, the knuckle forming a triangular point. Hector is not far behind, his fist over his mouth.
“He moaned. Clit fucking moaned!” Hector points.
Victor ducks into the cafeteria, where two teachers are seated across the otherwise empty room. He walks to the middle tables and pulls out his anatomy textbook and a pen, and turns to a random page. He can’t read more than a few words. Nausea and dread ripple through him, stifling his breath, and although he wants to write something, to look like he’s taking notes, he can only black out the illustrations with halting strokes. Hector pokes his head through the doorway and makes a circle with his fingers. When the teachers look at him, he vanishes.
The next day Victor fakes sick. He feels like crying, but can’t, like some phantom is whirling inside him, knocking around and shaking him. Talking to his parents is pointless. Asking the school for help is dangerous. His calls with Miguel get shorter; there’s no way to explain what’s going on with him, and it feels like bringing Miguel into this reality would infect their friendship.
When Victor gets back to school, he realizes there’s something new in him. He sizes up all the boys—reach, strength, jaw prominence. When someone looks at him too long, he stares back until they look away, until he owns the space between them. In his training, he replays flashes of the rudest indignities before every punch. Every night he dreams of a past encounter or potential confrontation, waking up often. Puberty and self-denial stretch his baby fat over his bones. When he’s anxious, he touches the hardest parts of his body in ritual succession—knuckles, knees, elbows.
Most nights, he trains in his room. One thousand skips on the jump rope for endurance and agility. When he stumbles and the hard cable lashes his shins, he adds fifty penalty steps. Then comes a circuit of dips, chin-ups, and sit-ups, finishing with a slow set of pushups on his knuckles, to harden the bones. One day, he stuffs a towel under the door to deaden the sound and slows his breathing, eyes closed, until he sees Hector and Julian’s faces. He punches, and his knuckles flare in pain. He does this over and over, breathing out thoughts, breathing in insults—imagined and remembered. Jab and cross, back and forth, launch off the back heel and snapping back to pivot, one punch fueling the next, fast like the bombs drum-rolling across the desert on TV. He’s approaching fighting shape. His blows land with a satisfying rattle on a thin panel in the wood door. On this panel, he’s hung posters of comic book characters, bands, then Gandhi, and now it’s empty. He imagines hitting jaws, the shock to the skull. The panel splinters. Through the crack, his mother is shouting.
For a while, Victor doesn’t encounter Hector or Julian at school, but he still meets with plenty of disrespect, and he challenges a dozen boys to fight after school for a number of insults. “Dude, I was kidding,” they say, or, “Are you serious?” Of course he’s serious. But no one ever shows up behind the Toys “R” Us next to Schenkel Prep, the place he explicitly designated and where everyone knows fights happen. Instead, he’s left shadowboxing beneath the blazing sun in the alley-like loading area behind the store, a place visible to no one except the occasional semi-truck driver. At four o’clock, he peeks down the street. Either they were kidding or they are cowards. In any event, threats are handled.
At home, Victor’s mom frets, and he sometimes catches her peeking at him while he does homework or trains. She offers to drive him two hours north to visit Miguel one weekend. He’s excited, but the whole way there he can’t stop thinking about the mean things he said to Miguel in middle school, and what a hypocrite he was. He tries to clear his mind. When they arrive, he kisses her on the cheek. Before she lets him out of the car, she stares at him with mouth agape and worried eyes, like she’s trying to put something into words.
“Mom, why do you give me that look?”
She smiles tightly and unlocks the door.
The Havanese dog still remembers him. Miguel’s little sister is now in braces. Miguel has set up a grand scenario on a table in the garage, an enormous plywood sheet at least ten feet long, covered in tiny terrain that smells like fresh paint. They set up the miniatures, Afghans and Soviets on Styrofoam sand dunes. They play, again and again, switching sides, adding challenges, moving the hills around.
Eventually, he has to ask, “Are there bullies in your new school?”
“I guess, but we kind of stay out of their way. They don’t seem interested in us.”
Us. “Good. That’s really good.”
Miguel bends over the table to measure the distance between two squads. He glances up at Victor. “What’s … going on with your situation?”
“It’s fucked up, man. I think I’m getting things under control, but I don’t know. I think the problem is, there’s a lot of people that just talk shit.”
Miguel listens and then holds up a finger like he remembers something, leaving the room and returning with the robot arm. “I have a solution. Vee shall crush ze boolies.”
Something about Miguel’s voice overwhelms him. As the door closes and the fresh-paint smell wafts into his nose again, he’s crushed by two thoughts—that Miguel painted this scenario just for him, or that he painted it to play with new friends. He takes the robot arm and sets it down, out of sight. “Do you remember before we became friends?”
“Like, I was mean. I was one of those kids that called you Mademoiselle Miguel.”
Miguel shrugs. “But you changed. We became friends.” He keeps measuring, rolling dice, and writing down the results.
It’s too much. “But I needed Chris and Dan to show me that. They were the ones who said you were cool. And I feel like shit about it. I’m not saying that’s why I became your friend.” He runs his hands through his hair and pulls on a patch. “I mean, they did point out I was being mean, and it was dick. But you’re like my best friend, even though we barely talk anymore. And I feel like shit about that, too. Like, I never call, and it’s not you. I’m just going through some stuff. You’re actually like one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, and I love you, dude.”
“Sure, we’re still best friends.” Miguel looks confused.
“I feel like you should stick me in the face for what I did.” Victor slams his fist into his palm.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I deserve it for being that disrespectful. You deserve to have that.”
“That was a long time ago.” He shakes his head and points to Victor’s side of the table.
“But it would help me, too. I’ve never been punched in the face, not without boxing gloves, and it would help pop my cherry before I get into a real fight.”
“Why are you getting into a fight?” Miguel puts down his ruler and notepad.
Victor can’t articulate an answer. He walks around the table and presents his face. “You can punch me.”
Miguel picks up the robot arm and gently closes the plastic pincers on Victor’s nose. “No, never,” he says in a cartoonish, peaking voice that sounds vaguely foreign.
“Migs, whenever you want, punch me right in the fucking face. I won’t hit back. It’s a free punch.”
Miguel’s mom appears in the doorway. “Is everything alright, guys?”
Miguel pauses for a second. “Yeah, we’re fine, Mom.”
“Yeah, it’s not what you’re thinking,” Victor says. “I was saying that he’s my best friend, and that I’m sorry I used to be a jerk. He can punch me. Once, in the face.”
“Mom, it’s fine. We’re joking around.”
She lets out a halting laugh.
A week later, Victor comes back from boxing, peels off his shirt, and lies down on the antique wicker chaise longue in the living room. Through the French doors he can see lush tropical vegetation lit up with garden lights. The tile floor and Spanish baroque furniture were snatched up at estate sales. He turns on the TV and flips to a boxing match. He watches the jaws. Lying down in the big empty room, he feels masculine, with his taut limbs and broadening chest. And regal. He feels like pointing at things and ordering them around. Three days ago, he stared Hector down in the hall until Hector looked away.
Soon, he’s ambushed. His parents settle on the couch across from him. They want to talk about his apparent stress level.
His dad lights a cigar. “Vic, I worry that maybe I put some of my own garbage I went through in high school on you.”
His mom sits with her hands tightly together on her lap. “When I was a kid, I had to deal with some awful bullies, too.”
His dad sips from his crystal tumbler and waves his cigar hand. “You can’t internalize this stuff. Focus on making friends, building positive experiences. I’m not saying don’t stand up for yourself. But you’re getting too negative, maybe too intense.”
“Vic, I wonder if you even need to fight at all,” his mom says.
His dad gives her a stink-eye. “I think this is more of a guy-to-guy conversation.”
Victor tunes out and nods, imagining his dad, a man who complains to waiters, being locked in a cage with Julian and Hector like he is. “I’m still me. Friends will come and go; I’m just in a transition period. And things are getting a little better every day. I feel safer. I’m gaining respect.”
They go back and forth until his parents are satisfied. His dad goes upstairs with his tumbler, Mom sorts bills in the kitchen, and Victor starts watching TV in the living room, flipping to a skit. An actor with bronze makeup and drab green military regalia mimics Baghdad Bob. It’s not something Victor would have laughed at before, but now he does, caressing the incipient hair tufts on his chest. He hasn’t been able to laugh in a long time, and it feels like it all might disappear, so he laughs as long as he can until his mom comes into the room to check on him.
“I’m fine. Jesus, mom.”
Victor eventually settles on a preferred spot in the library during lunch period, against a corner in the back, behind the banks of computers. He can see anyone coming in and out of the library from there. One day, he looks up from his books to see Julian and Hector.
“What’s up, clit?” Hector says.
“The fuck did you say?”
Hector looks surprised. Julian rounds the table, getting closer.
“You need to back the fuck up.”
“I what, bitch?” He pump-fakes a lunge at Victor.
Victor’s hands shake with fear and rage, so he bangs them on the table. “I would love it. God, I fucking wish you would.”
Students turn around at their computer stations and stare. Some peek over the bookshelves. Some bounce in their seats.
“Why not now? Why not right now?” Victor stands up.
“I’m not getting expelled for you, bitch. I’ll see you at Toys ‘R’ Us.”
His hands are still shaking uncontrollably, so he crosses his arms. He can feel his heart pounding and doesn’t realize how much he’s sweating until he tucks his hand into a drenched armpit. The bell rings, and the librarian shuffles out of the bathroom and adjusts her hearing aid.
That afternoon, there must be a dozen boys behind the Toys “R” Us. Victor and Julian circle each other. Victor holds his fists up, shoulders forward, belly stiff, light on the balls of his feet. Julian advances with his guard down. He’ll aim for that snarling mouth. If he can catch Julian’s jaw and rattle his skull, it could be a knockout.
As soon as the first jab hits something hard, he swings his right cross, slinging all his weight and catching Julian below the eye. The eye widens as the punch pulls his cheek down. Victor’s wrist shunts. Julian falls, screaming angrily. Victor is stunned. Has he won?
Julian catches him by the beltline and slams him down, Victor’s palm burning as it catches the pavement. A heavy thud in his ribs deflates him. He wraps his hands around his head and feels the fingers being peeled back, the knuckles and tendons snapping and popping. His skull lights up with piercing shocks, Julian punching his head so hard it feels like it’ll crack.
“You give up bitch?!” Julian kicks him in the ribs. The pain is oddly distant. “That’s right, pussy, fucking take it!” His whole body swings behind each kick.
He looks up at Julian’s face just as Julian kicks him one last time and spits on him. The adrenaline still coursing, he springs up and stands over his backpack, away from Julian and the crowd, without quite knowing how he got there. He touches his head, and it’s already swelling; so is his wrist. Dog shit on his bleeding elbow, his palms and knees and forehead bleeding and burning, too.
The crowd erupts in a cursing, shrieking cacophony.
They walk back to school, all the boys thirty feet ahead and Victor following alone behind, the mob turning around to scream, “Are you done talking shit, bitch?!” “You got rocked, pussy!”
On the ride home, he tells his mom that he played pickup football. Before he showers that night, he peels off his sweaty clothes. His underwear is so damp he figures he must have peed at some point. He snatches his shorts out of the hamper and looks for a spot, but there is none. In the shower, the bumps on his head sting so bad he can’t shampoo. In bed, he can’t stop thinking, and it takes hours to fall asleep. He can smell the cigar smoke wafting through the crack in the door panel. What if it’s like that movie Fight Club, and now he and Julian will have a mutual sense of detachment from everything, liberated by what they shared? Probably not. How could he face anyone at school now after what they saw? He gets up and checks the hamper, examines his shorts again. He doesn’t fall asleep until he’s convinced they’re dry.
The next morning, he keeps fretting on the way to school. How could they call him a pussy, when he was the only person in the school who stood up for himself? If only he’d been as vicious as Julian, leveraging that first knockdown into a victory by mounting him and pummeling his jaw. He looks at his mom, who is transfixed by the road and adult worry. He slowly extends his fist until it lands gently on her jaw.
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” he says.
She laughs, kind of.
He looks for Julian before class and finds him in the main quad, by the towering flagpole. He has to know what all of this will yield. Julian and the boys around him—even boys he’s challenged to fight before—hurl a barrage of insults. He’s never noticed until now how massive the windows in the classrooms are, all around the quad, like an observation pen. He rounds a corner to an empty outdoor hall. Blasts of adrenaline and anxiety pulse through his chest and tingle his fingers. This wasn’t supposed to happen. There’s no rulebook or dice to navigate this scenario. He stood up for himself. They have to respect that.
He walks, following a course set by his legs, the tingling terror pulsing harder, until he circles the building and reaches Julian again. The crowd parts, faces expectant and hungry. Victor winds up and punches him again, this time catching him below his left eye with a loud and satisfying smacking sound.
The boys around him erupt screaming. Victor stands, staring.
“You can’t let this sucker-punching little bitch get away with that!” Hector is breathing hard.
“Oh, I fuckin’ won’t.”
Hector points to the mulchy area under the tree canopy, where kids are dropped off in the mornings, out of sight of the security guards and staff. Victor follows alone behind a seething Julian orbited by the other boys, clapping, hooting, and pounding their palms in excitement. Hector massages Julian’s shoulders, screams in his ear, and slaps his back.
This fight goes faster than the last one, far more of it in the dark. Julian anticipates every move and has Victor on the mulch in seconds. It’s as if the only thing the first fight accomplished was to give Julian some deeper knowledge of him. Victor’s head drums in the dark until staff intervene.
The wrestling coach leads him to the bathroom to clean off the dirt and blood, and wait for his mom. He starts off with, “Jesus Christ, you know how many kids would kill for the opportunity to go to this school, and you want to risk it all?” Then he informs Victor that his problem is he needs a supportive group of friends, like a team, and that what he did was wrong but it took “heart.”
When Victor’s mom picks him up, he asks, “Did I do the right thing?”
She purses her lips and glances at him as she drives. “Yes.”
“I stood up for myself, right?”
“Did you win?”
“No, but that’s not supposed to matter.”
At a stoplight, she flares her nostrils and breathes in like she’s resolving to do something hard. “Victor, you did something brave. Everyone will know that.”
His parents sit him down that night, telling him in a cigar-smoke haze how proud they are of him for standing up for himself, and how Julian will surely be expelled. When he tells his parents about the first fight, they furrow their brows and look at each other, maybe for answers. He feels sad, mostly for himself, but also for what they had to see and believe.
Lying in bed that night—stiff and straight, staring at the ceiling, his mind winding— the bumps throb when he turns his head. Months later, they’ll shrink and harden like gemstones in a crown. He thinks now that he’s shown so much heart throwing himself into the fray again that he’ll finally get respect. But what if he doesn’t? The first fight made no difference. Why should the second one? The boxing and all his plans and stratagems suddenly feel feeble. Maybe it will never end. For the past few months, he’s thought about Hector and Julian every day. They might be a part of him forever. He still can’t cry, and it will be some time before he can.