Lee Nash came from Texas. He talked with a drawl and wore longhorn T-shirts. He hated Los Angeles because nobody had a mullet and everybody made fun of his.
The girls followed him around the blacktop repeating their little jingle: LEE. NASH. WHITE. TRASH. They snuck up from behind and yanked his oily mullet, then ran away in giddy revulsion, wiping their hands on each other’s shirts.
Once for show and tell, Lee brought a baseball autographed by Nolan Ryan. He held the ball in front of the class and told the story of Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter. He talked about being at the stadium that night, watching the game with his grandfather, the excitement of the crowd, the joy of seeing Nolan whiff the last batter, and the tears of pure Texas pride twinkling in his granddaddy’s eyes. Chad Matson wanted to puke.
He found Lee at lunch and called Nolan Ryan a faggot. Then he bet Lee that he could deal it twice as hard as The Ryan Express.
“Like shit!” Lee said.
They took the ball to the far backstop where the yard duty never roamed. Lee got into a catcher’s squat and made his hand into a mitt. He told Matson that he was standing too close. Matson told Lee that he was a sissy.
“Your mother!” Lee cried. “Let’s see it!”
So Matson let him see it.
He dug his toe into the grass, went into his windup, and gassed a straight fastball from thirty feet away. I remember the crunch and burst, the head snapping back, the limp crumble to the ground and Lee covering his face with his hands, motionless and wailing. Somebody cheered. Somebody else got the yard duty. She turned Lee over and pried his hands apart. Mesmerizing. Horrible. The blood so fresh it was purple. The upper lip like plum meat.
Something came up in the yard duty’s throat. She winced and swallowed it back down. She replaced Lee’s hands gently over his face. Then she scooped him up and carried him to the nurse’s office, a few of the girls tagging along beside her, chanting their happy jingle, counting the pennies of blood across the blacktop.
I have these memories of my childhood. Classic Americana memories of Pop Warner football and summer boat trips to Catalina Island, of my handsome father heading off to work in his Toyota Camry, smelling of Brut cologne. The pictures form a collage of harmless normality. They tell me what I want to believe about myself: that I have been pleasantly and healthily constructed, sheltered from cruelty and violence; that I am a fortunate son, bred of two good people, raised in a congenial habitat; and that because of this stable history, I am adequately suited to reproduce and mold my young into wholesome, empathetic beings.
For the last few months, however, for no reason I can pinpoint, I have suffered more and more frequently the intrusion of incontrovertibles; have woken up mornings to memories of kids I went to school with, children who were abused and terrorized by healthy-pleasant children like me, and gone to bed at night to troubling new impressions of myself and my past.
The woman in bed beside me is sure that we will make fine babies together. We talk about it a lot. She vouches for my pedigree, for the wealth of kindly figures that populate my bloodline. She reminds me of my mother, an inner-city school teacher for thirty years, and she cites the generosity of my father, his unfailing gentleness; and looking into her expectant eyes, I take my cue and catalogue all her aunts, uncles, and grandparents who have led tender, upstanding lives. In this way we fortify our decision to bloat humanity with another person or two. The world could use our kind of offspring, she says. Lying in bed, her head against my shoulder, she imagines what that offspring will be like: honorable, understanding, compassionate.
I am awake when she falls asleep, staring backward through the dark.
Emilia Rubacabba had the biggest goddamn glasses we’d ever seen. When she took them off she looked almost rat-like. The eyes and nose would crinkle and scrunch; the crooked upper teeth would jut out. Defenseless, homely, strange—those kids were the easiest.
It is late after school and nobody has picked Emilia up. The teachers have all gone home. The campus is quiet and empty. We have chased her down in the parking lot and are whipping her with vines of ice plant. The plant grows all over school to prevent erosion. The vines are thick, leathery, lacerating.
We swing them over our heads and lash at her little body, her little arms and little back. At some point we lash the glasses off her face and she drops to her knees, utterly blind, and gropes wildly for them, screaming for a time out. For a second we’re confused. Boys yell that, not girls. We wait awkwardly until she finds them, watching her crawl, and when she puts them back on we lash her some more.
In another memory, I am walking down the main hall. The door to the girls’ bathroom flies open and Emilia comes running out, pulling up her pants. Her shirt is stretched below her shoulder; there’s a livid red scratch down the side of her neck. She barrels past me toward the main office, sobbing. A moment later, three older girls step out of the bathroom. One of them holds up her index finger and the other two lean in and smell it. The girls look both ways, giggle, then hurry off in the opposite direction.
Nobody could pronounce Petrus Karuza’s native country. Nobody could find it on the map, not even Petrus. His first day in class, Miss Busby called him to the front. She pulled down the world map and asked him to show us where he came from. Petrus studied the map nervously. He bent his face to Europe and scanned the continent up and down, country by country. It was funny. It took one millisecond to find America, humongous and supreme.
The longer he couldn’t locate where he came from, the funnier it got. We giggled and whispered, nudged and grinned. Petrus traced his finger from Russia to Italy, down to Greece, then back to Russia. At last he dropped his arm and just stood there, sniffling. Miss Busby seemed to understand.
“That’s fine,” she said kindly. “It’s an old map, dear.”
At lunch we brought Petrus to the handball courts. There was a penalty for kids who couldn’t find their countries. That’s what we told him. “Turn around and face the wall,” we said.
“But I do have country!”
“Turn around, bitch.”
We called it the dirty rocket. First you made prayer hands—the two palms pressed together, the fingers pointy and connected. Then you crouched behind the kid and jammed the fingers up his bum, hard as you could. A decent dirty rocket could make a kid scream. A good one could make him weep. A superb one—one that hit the anus directly—could make a kid scream, weep and shoot to the moon like a NASA liftoff.
We mass into a half-circle and close in around him. Confused and terrified, he backs his rear against the wall and repeats himself desperately.
“You’re wasting our recess,” we say.
“But it was old map!”
“YOU’RE WASTING OUR RECESS!” We shout it all at once, all of us in force, and our unity breaks him, informs him of the truth. He could have twenty countries and it wouldn’t matter. This was always going to happen.
For a moment his pitiful eyes grab onto us. Then he turns and faces the wall. Brandon Venning gets down behind him; Venning is the best at it. He stands on his knees and studies Petrus’s ass like a golfer lining up a putt. Then he brings his palms together, connects the thin pointy fingers. The fingertips rise to the seat of Petrus’s pants and drop back to their starting position. Up again, down again, going through the motion, getting the aim. Petrus strains around, trying to watch, but we tell him not to look, to spread his legs and wait for it. Scott Huber starts the countdown. The rest of us join in. Three . . . two . . . one . . .
The tears and shriek are instant. The awful sting grips his skeleton. His teeth bite down, his pelvis shoots out, his backbone seizes. Whipping around and rising on his toes, he crams his hand down the back of his pants, wiggles it between his cheeks, and begins to rub his anus, sucking breath through his clamped teeth, a hateful grimacing hiss.
We wait to see what the hate and pain will do to him. Make him fight? Make him run and tell? It does nothing.
He stands there with his hand in his ass, seething, clenching, shouting as he sobs. “I DO HAVE COUNTRY . . . I DO HAVE COUNTRY . . . I KILL ALL YOU THERE!”
Not racism. Not nationalism. Not bigotry or xenophobia. Not at that age.
The hostility was empowered by something else, something intuitive. You were little and frightened. Your peers were little and frightened too. Somebody had to occupy the bottom. You knew that instinctively. The minute you entered school you entered a pack system. You were tested for nerve and prowess, probed for vulnerability, sniffed out and measured up. You did what you had to do, formed the alliances you had to form. Anything to stay off the bottom.
Then one day a new kid showed up. Maybe he had strange hair. Maybe she had huge glasses. Maybe he was white or black, rich or poor. It didn’t matter. What you really saw was newness and susceptibility. You saw your chance. Collectively you seized it. Without thought or discussion you assembled like a pride, stalked and isolated. Eventually you pounced. You cornered them on the playground or surrounded them after school. You made them weep or bleed, plead or scream. One way or another you were beating them down, pushing them to the bottom. It was precious that it wasn’t you.
Occasionally, of course, we went too far. Every now and then the degradation would pierce too deeply, would maim their pride beyond what they could bear, and suddenly this bestial vehemence would surge into being like a werewolf on a full moon, transforming them, reverting them, awakening primitive attack impulses. Some bit, some spat, some clawed and kicked. After Colton Mavar pantsed him in front of the popular girls, the kid from Idaho did all of the above, pulling Mavar’s hair, scratching his face, tearing his shirt, mortified and psychotic.
Then there was Eddie Hamayan, the birthmarked Armenian boy who recited the entire periodic table of elements for the class talent show. He’d come to school wearing a plastic pocket protector. An actual honest-to-Christ pocket protector. Derek Willis couldn’t get over it. He ripped the sheath from Eddie’s shirt and dumped the contents on the ground. Six yellow Ticonderogas, all perfectly sharpened.
“You dropped something, professor.”
Eddie studied him carefully. The big saggy eyes, the burst of missing pigment on the side of his face. Slowly, slavishly, he got on his knees and started crawling for his pencils.
We followed him around the hallway and when he got close to a pencil we kicked it out of reach. We did it three or four times, Eddie crawling and crawling, never saying a word. Then Willis walked up and kicked him in the ass. Eddie sprawled, smacked his face on the rubber tile floor. When he pushed himself up Willis kicked out his arm and he smacked his face again.
After that Eddie didn’t crawl anymore. He got to his feet and squared up to us. His eyes filled with a layer of tears, one huge drop in each eye. The little pools shivered in their sockets, then tumbled down his cheeks at the same time. The bell rang and he walked away, leaving his pencils behind.
That afternoon Miss Crutchfield gave a test. She told everyone to take out paper and something to write with. Eddie opened his desk and took out a brand new yellow Ticonderoga. He stuck the pencil into his mini sharpener. He twisted and twisted until the lead was perfectly tipped. Then he stood up, walked over to where Derek Willis sat, and stabbed him in the back of the neck.
Derek Willis, Chad Matson, Scott Huber, Brandon Venning. There was nothing anomalous or mentionable about us. We were children of unspectacular achievers. Spawn of sales reps and patent lawyers. No surname over two syllables. No beliefs or backgrounds out of the ordinary. Conventional, numerous, mean.
The mystery is where the meanness came from. Our lives were potted in the soil of easy growth, in one of those coastal “Rancho” suburbs where the streets were named for horse breeds and dreamy Spanish adjectives: Via Palomino . Calle Hermosa . Our neighborhoods were near tennis clubs and equestrian centers. Our houses were California colonial: red tile roofs and white stucco walls. All around were chaparral preserves, mission-style strip malls, and manicured bridle paths with three-rail white fences. Nobody struggled to get along. There was no gang violence, no bomb craters where playgrounds used to be. Our parents petitioned to save the coyote and attended happy-hour charity events for street kids in Myanmar. Our pee-wee teams were coached by surgeons and ophthalmologists. Everybody went to church. A week before he sent his fingers space-shuttling up Petrus Karuza’s ass, Brandon Venning won a Bible verse challenge in Sunday school, reciting eight consecutive passages on benefaction. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
It is possible I will never get to the bottom of it—never know for sure where the unkindness came from. And the more it remains a mystery, the more I lean uneasily toward my own conclusions: that cruelty doesn’t require a terrible progenitor, a rotten history or traumatic background—it is in the instinct to thrive; that a child is, and must be, a monster of survival before anything else.
And if this is true, then our child will be bound by nature to be brutal and selfish when necessary. We will teach it to be kind, aim it down the path of gentleness and peace; but by instinct it will not grow too soon into decency. It will cause hurt and harm others. One day it will strike at the weak for the sake of feeling safe and strong. And I am afraid of this thought; afraid to bring it up in conversation. I do not want to think in dark inevitabilities. I want to be like her, full of happy anticipation. When she hums toward the future, touching her swelling belly, I want to hum along. And when she falls asleep at night I want to be asleep with her, just as she sleeps now, unstirred by doubt, undarkened by memory, assured of the goodness ahead.
Years later the names get blurry, some get lost. What remains clear is the deviation. The one from Iowa who was all points: pointy head, pointy chin, pointy ears and nose. The one from Canada who dipped his fries in mayonnaise. The kid with the squishy blink (you could actually hear his eyelids open and close) and the silent dark girl with the black scarf wrapped around her head. All it took was a single irregularity. Upon that, a monument of persecution could be built. A different style face, a peculiar food tradition, a subtle quirk in the physiological norm. In a birdcage of fearful sparrows, this was the kind of plumage that got you swarmed.
And yet the meanness and derision—it wasn’t always intentional. Sometimes we were just curious. Some of them came from mysterious places. They had mysterious smells, mysterious habits. There were all these rumors and things we’d seen on television.
There was an Asian kid in fourth grade. Chinese, Japanese—we didn’t know. Now and then we’d single him out, without aggression, and ask about his life: what he ate and how he slept, if he spoke English at home and used forks and spoons like we did.
“I heard you eat dog,” Venning said.
“No, no. I mean your people eat dog.”
“Seriously. You have all these dog farms over there and raise dogs like cows for people to eat. Because the continent is so poor.”
“We don’t eat dog!”
“Wait, listen. My mom told me. And some dogs are specialty dishes and more expensive. Like poodles and terriers. And only rich people can afford to eat them. And everybody else eats street dog and—”
“ARE YOU DEAF OR FUCKING STUPID! WE DON’T EAT DOG! NOBODY EATS DOG! GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME! GO AWAY !”
Once at someone’s birthday party Scott Huber got curious about the Middle East. We were in the backyard with Abdullah.
“Why do you all work at liquor stores?”
“My father’s a doctor.”
“But you all come here and work at liquor stores and quickie marts. There’s a mart by my house and the guy wraps his head in a towel.”
“So is that what you’re going to be?”
“I’m going to be a doctor like my father. What’s your father do?”
“And none of you can play sports either. No hockey players, no baseball players. Not even tennis. Why are you shaking?”
“I’m not shaking. Tell me what your stupid father does. My father works at a hospital. We buy anything we want.”
There was wild rage in the whites of his eyes. He switched off his English and began to speak another language, a harsh and searing language. Then he ran out the gate and never came back. We didn’t understand.
Kara Gifford was going through puberty. It wasn’t going well. In sixth grade her neck and face turned themselves inside out. Everything above the shoulders became a hostile terrain, eruptive and craterous. Once she’d been a pack leader, pretty and powerful. Now her hormones had stolen her crown and she was imperfect and panicked, on the verge of social rejection. The best thing was a diversion, something to cloak her disgrace. Rumors, gossip, humiliating lies. That could do it.
Midway through the year Amanda Luty arrived. A simple-looking girl from Arizona. Nice face, clear skin, blushing and coy. Kara gathered a few girls at lunch and let them in on a crazy secret. Amanda Luty had a penis. She’d seen it herself in the locker room, changing for phys ed. A thumb-like nub mixed in with all her other parts.
By the end of the day the news was all over school. Boys who’d found Amanda cute renounced their crushes. Girls who’d become her friend wrinkled their noses and hurried past her in the hall, huddled and giggling. One boy who’d actually kissed her, George Timson, fled theatrically to the drinking fountain and proceeded to rinse and gargle, blowing water from his mouth like a spouting hydrant.
The story was so stupid that Amanda didn’t know what to do with it. The first few days she told us to grow up, get a life, get lost. Then she just ignored us and waited for the rumor to pass. It didn’t. We learned a new word and put it to use. We wrote it on her desk, scribbled it in her books: hermaphrodite. There were crude graffiti doodles, two-sexed stick figures tagged on her locker, jotted on paper and slipped into her backpack. Nobody believed it, but that didn’t matter. Puberty was kicking the crap out of all of us. We all needed a diversion.
One afternoon a note got going in Mr. Odorizzi’s algebra class. A nasty joke. A gross cartoon. I don’t remember what it said.
The note went down the aisle, desk by desk. We opened it in our laps, muffled our laughter, folded it up and passed it on. Amanda sat rigid in her chair, staring ahead. When the note came by she reached across the aisle and snatched it out of circulation. She looked at the kid she’d grabbed it from, eyes wet and blazing.
“It’s not true!” she shrieked. “You know it’s not true!” Then she stood and shrieked at the class. “YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW!”
The lesson dropped dead. Odorizzi beckoned Amanda to the front, but she didn’t seem to hear him. She stood with the note crushed in her fist, pale blue veins bulging from the back of her hand. “Amanda,” Odorizzi said. “Bring it here, Anna.”
Slowly, rage vanishing to shame, Amanda walked up and handed the note over. Odorizzi unrumpled the paper, made a weary face, then crumpled it up and threw it away.
“It’s just a stupid tease, Amanda. Don’t be melodramatic.”
The heat went out of Amanda’s face. She returned to her seat and slumped across the desk, arms wrapped around her head. Her crying filled the room, thick and soft; and when it didn’t stop Odorizzi excused her from class, failing her for the day.
The British kid didn’t know about American football. So we showed him. Derek Willis showed him the clothesline. Brandon Venning showed him the blindside. Mavar, Matson, and several others showed him the dog pile. Then Scott Huber, with one homicidal stiff arm, showed him six stitches and a fractured eye socket.
We did these things: the beatdowns, the jumpings, the castigations. But nobody called it what it was. After Petrus Karuza we were punished for “quarreling.” After Lee Nash, Matson was reprimanded for “roughhousing.” With Amanda Luty it was “teasing.” And once, when the assistant principal caught us whipping Emilia Rubacabba, we were told to stop “flirting.” Quarreling, teasing, roughhousing, flirting: That’s what we thought we were doing. And we did it well.
We got busted, of course. Called before an authority figure to account for some unusual and baffling aggression, we would stand there sheepishly, pawing our feet, looking repentant. The standard reproof was to ask us whether we’d like to feel the same thing we were making other kids feels. How would you like it if someone did this to you? You wouldn’t like that very much, would you? I don’t think you’d like that at all. Then there’d be detention, trash pick-up, or if the violence was really bad, a parent conference.
As we got older we began to understand it, why these kids rarely fought back. Justice didn’t go to the minority. Some who fought back were forced to apologize for it. Teachers, parents, administrators—they didn’t like retaliation. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Turn the other cheek. Be the bigger person.
But on the schoolyard appeasement was the end of you. And to turn the other cheek was to invite greater abuse in the future. And there was no bigness, none whatsoever, to be gained in swallowing your disgrace.
After the stabbing they took away Eddie’s pencils, suspended him for three days, and when he came back they made him apologize to Derek Willis in front of the class. Eddie’s mother even bought an ice cream cake and personally came in to hand out the slices. On the cake, written in marble raspberry frosting, was the message: Please Give Me Another Chance!
There was an extra slice for Derek, since Eddie wasn’t hungry.
I dredge the bottom of my life river, where my earliest memories have settled into the muck of my cranium, and find a startling cargo of nasty transgressions: everyday acts of excessive meanness that did not seem excessive to me then or for years afterward. The distance between act and remorse is what shames me. And as the feeling persists the questions become more pertinent. Was I young or was I cruel? Am I still the way I was? Do the things we do to others determine what they become?
Derek Willis got mononucleosis in junior high. We didn’t see him for two years. When he came back in eighth grade he was overweight and acne-ravaged. He hadn’t grown.
He found the old crew and followed us everywhere, trying to reattach. But that wasn’t how it worked. Once you disappeared, your position disappeared with you, your cliques moved on. And if you ever came back—well, you were new.
We did what we could to scrape him off. When he asked what we were doing after school we told him we had plans. When he asked where we were sitting at lunch we said, “Away from you.” One day at the mall we gave it to him straight.
We led him near the Fountain of Serenity where everybody hung out. The courtyard was loaded with important peers. Lots of cool girls from school, lots of cool boys.
We waited for the right moment; then turned and grabbed him. Mavar, Matson, Huber, Venning. All the old crew. We wrapped him up from behind, lifted his legs like a rolled-up carpet, and dumped him into the fountain.
Every loitering peer within fifty yards hustled over to watch. Willis thrashed to his feet, his face contorted and grotesque. Shock, horror, humiliation—it was all there. The slimy cold water stupefied him, and for an instant he only stood there, arms extended, dripping and bizarre like a creature rising from a putrid lagoon. He never spoke to us again.
Some years later, I came home from college and saw an article in the local paper. An arsonist had started a brush fire behind some homes. Then he’d burned down part of an abandoned school. The name was familiar but the picture was strange: the head shaved clean, the grown face pitted with acne scars, flames of black ink climbing up the throat. My mother came into the room and caught me standing there, staring at the photograph.
“Didn’t you go to school with him?” she asked.
“I did,” I said, closing the paper. “He was always a problem.”
I know that forgetting is good. I’ve come to understand that some amount of past behavior must be ignored, left at the bottom of our minds and never dredged. In life we cause pain. We inflict cruelty and hurt. But to remember every instance of unkindness would make existence unlivable, self-respect impossible.
And so I try to forget: the bullying and debasements, the ruthless acts of my innocent years. I leave them buried in the riverbed, obscured by the silt and muck, and go along with my life with the notion that I am a decent human being, or at least as decent as anyone else I know.
And then there are nights like this. Nights when the sands unexpectedly shift and the memories float free to the surface. Looking at them closely, I see the fear and ugliness in my nature, and cannot help to wonder whether it would not turn out to be my greatest abuse to the world, replicating more of the same.
The woman asleep beside me is confident that she has given her love to a good man. Nothing I’ve admitted about myself has ever shaken this belief. She is sure that we are doing a wonderful thing, that we will make a good and wonderful child, and more often these days she pushes to find the same sureness in me. Tangled in bed, half-naked and still, she asks me to describe it—what our child will be like, what I hope it will become—and I bunch her close and tell her that I hope simply for balance: that our child takes no crap and gives no crap; that it is tough when toughness is required, and compassionate when compassion is best.
My words put her to sleep with a pleasant feeling. And when she is out I lie awake in the dark with her question, wondering if I will ever have the guts to confide my true emotion. What do I hope? I hope that when our child feeds on the weakness of others it will at least revile the taste. I hope that it isn’t popular, that it stands out from the crowd, and at the same time I hope that it isn’t unpopular: ostracized, excluded, alone. The truth is I don’t know what to hope for my child. Only that it survives and does not hurt others too terribly in the process; that somehow, miraculously, it finds a way to make it out of this world kindly, honorably, less frightened than I have been.
I write about my life and have no idea where to begin. There is only what comes to mind first.
I am whipping Emilia Rubacabba with a vine of ice plant. It is late after school and the teachers have gone home. Her mother hasn’t picked her up. There are four, maybe five of us, all boys.
Emilia runs but we chase her down. She collapses on the pavement and covers her head. The vines are thick and lacerating. We swing them over our shoulders and lash at her legs and arms, listening for that shrill screech that will let us know we’ve gotten her good.
I am eleven years old at this moment. My parents are loving, educated, Christian people. I am their loved, educated, Christian son. My home is happy and affectionate, my life is free of hate, and I am whipping this girl because she is weak and alone, making lash marks on her body, swinging harder when she shrieks.
Names have been fictionalized.