Defense

[Originally Published in Midwest Literary Magazine]

I raised the baseball bat above my right shoulder and stuck my tongue out with conscious determination, and it was all an act. I was playing a part, and as I scanned the field around me, all the opposing boys bent with their hands on their knees glaring in the sun, the line of boys on my side behind me waiting their turn to take a swing, I felt supremely stupid. Which was a distinction in itself: I didn’t feel like all these guys around me were stupid, or that the teenaged after school care counselors flirting with each other over by the basketball courts were stupid. I was stupid, for thinking this was who I was, if even for just this moment. This wasn’t me, though I didn’t consciously know that what I was doing was acting until later. And even then, at that later date, I’d look back on the incident and realize that on some level deep inside I had to realize it. Because, in all actuality, I knew then what I know now: I don’t like baseball and never really have, at least not playing it (I liked watching it for a while until the Florida Marlins decided that their 1997 World Series Champion squad was too expensive to keep, but that was five years away. I knew nothing about the Marlins then). I didn’t really see where the intense pleasure came from, didn’t see what these other boys saw every time they glimpsed the “Aluminum Slugger” bats and those softballs that our elementary school tried to pass off as jumbo baseballs. They kept them in a shopping cart with a piece of cardboard tethered to the side, “Recess” written on it in bright red letters. I didn’t like playing baseball, and yet here I was holding the bat and waiting for the pitcher to throw the oversized ball my way.

He smiled mischievously and I wondered why.

Usually I just read during this time of the day, or occasionally played the one sport I did like to participate in: basketball. But, for some reason, I decided this day to play baseball with the rest of the kids left stranded by working class parents in Palmetto Elementary’s afterschool program, which presented us children with (more or less) the following: apathetic high-school-students-posing-as-counselors, a few smooth basketballs, aluminum baseball bats, a couple of jumbo baseballs, a juice box, and a small package of circus animal crackers. The impulse to join this baseball game had come over me instantly after finishing my juice box and crackers about ten minutes earlier, sitting by myself over near the main building with my face buried in some Roald Dahl book. I stood up and walked over and was up to bat before I or the kids behind me even realized I was on their team.

The pitcher was a boy I had seen before in afterschool care but never spoken to. He had grass stains across the front and back of his white shirt and his jeans and his curly, fiery red hair had green and brown specks of dirt and grass buried deep. He held the ball like I assume he’d seen countless professional’s do, only it didn’t look so professional then because his hand was about half the size of the ball and it slipped every time he tried to twirl it in his fingers, yet he kept trying anyways. I tried to exude the same air of confidence since he seemed able to fake it so convincingly, but he’d had more experience in that matter than I ever had or ever would. Which just added to the self-consciousness rising in my throat like bile.

Try as I might, the bat continued to shake in line with my own nervousness.

My eyes were already closing up when he let the ball go, the mischievous grin still set across his face. I leaned back instinctively as it approached and felt the wind as it swooshed past my face, inches away from my nose. I had barely opened my eyes before he opened his mouth and the confusion began.

“Strike!” he screamed.

Behind him, a chorus of voices yelled in agreement. A figure from the corner of my eye passed by and I watched as one of the guy’s behind me stepped in front of me, not protectively so much as disregarding, as if he had been the one up at bat. I stood up straight, the bat still cocked over my right shoulder.

“That was a ball,” the boy in front of me said. “You almost hit him.”

“So,” the pitcher said. “He swung.”

“No I didn’t,” I said.

I spoke out of necessity, quietly and with so much innocence in my voice that it was a wonder anybody even heard me. My teammate turned and looked at me with confusion and a bit of surprise, as if I were a cat that had just slipped an English word or two in between incessant meowing. The pitcher didn’t look surprised, his nose flaring with anger.

“You swung,” he said, ignoring the other kid now and stepping towards me.

“No I didn’t,” I said again. “You almost hit me. I stepped back.”

His eyes as fiery as his hair, he took a step closer and clenched his fists. I lowered the bat and tried desperately to stand my ground.

“You’re a cheater,” he said.

“No I’m not.” I cleared my throat and tried to put some bass in my voice. “You’re a cheater. I didn’t swing, you almost hit me.”

And like a pulled trigger, an explosion of movement came at me. Within moments, the pitcher had me on the ground, beating, grabbing, yanking with unbridled rage.

“I’m not a cheater you stupid black boy liar!” he said, gnashing his teeth. “Don’t call me a cheater I’m not a cheater you’re a cheater cheater you stupid black boy cheater liar!”

I didn’t feel the punches at first, too entranced by the boy’s ferocity. I couldn’t remember the last time anybody had ever been that mad at me, couldn’t remember ever doing anything to induce such wrath. Granted, my dad had a tendency to go overboard occasionally, but even then he’d never just unleashed on me like this. The boy was a whirlwind, reminiscent of the Tasmanian Devil cartoons I watched at home. I watched it all happen like it was on TV too, from the outside, looking down as the pitcher clawed at my face like a caged animal. The numbness only lasted for a moment though, as did my nonchalance. Then his knee came up into my groin and I felt my own explosion of anger, mingling with an excruciating pain.

The pitcher boy stood and walked away and I stared up at the sky from the grass, focusing on the deepening blue and the pain between my legs. From the corner of my eye I could see the pitcher walking back over to his friends with a swagger, and it was then something burst inside my head, like a cautionary synapse snapping off and rolling to the base of my skull. “Violation” had not yet been added to my vocabulary, the word or the concept, but I knew that something about this situation was above the norm. I knew something should be done about it, and for the first time in my life I felt like I could be the person to act. It was the anger, a different type of anger than I was used to. I was used to the reserved anger, the type I got when my sister changed the channel from something I was watching or my dad came in and woke me up for school by turning on the lights and yelling “Up!” like was in an army boot camp or my mom forced me to go to bed before I was tired. During those moments it was a simmering anger, a quiet anger, easy to deal with through faint mutterings and glares and an active imagination. This was different though. This anger demanded action. This anger drove the pulsing pain between my legs back where it came from, until there was nothing but a minor tingling down there as I stood slowly. I glanced at my teammates and noticed their entranced stares, their entertained postures (leaned forward, eyes wide, frozen stances), but felt no sense of pride in my movements, merely a sense of purpose, as if these boys that sat on the side watching the altercation deserved more. More than a single display of disrespect, no lesson learned. They deserved retaliation. They deserved vengeance. I deserved retribution.

I aimed high but contacted low, the bat making a soft whoomp sound as it hit the pitcher boy in his back and he fell to his knees. I took another swing, aiming for his head again, missing again, and hitting him in his back, again. Then I hit him again, and again. I didn’t realize I was screaming until the counselor tore the bat from my clenched fists. I didn’t realize I was crying until I heard the pitcher boy’s cries behind me, but by then I was already being dragged by one arm towards the front of the school, where the main office awaited my arrival.

In the office, the pitcher and I were sat roughly down in chairs on opposite sides of the room, awaiting the verdict and sentencing from our one-time judge and jury, the head counselor of the after school care program. An older woman—around my mom’s age—with red hair very nearly the same shade as the pitcher boy who I’d just hit with a baseball bat, her face contorted with anger at the sight of me. And try as I might, I couldn’t stop crying. Sitting there in that chair, waiting to see what would happen to me, my eyes continued to produce tears despite my sincerest efforts to stop them. Across the room, the pitcher boy had stopped crying. In fact, he didn’t even seem upset anymore, and I envied him in that moment. Sitting in the chair, bruises swelling up on his arms, he stared out the window and picked  at his fingernails and swung his legs as if he were waiting in line at the arcade. And there I sat across from him, sniffling and trying not to moan.

Eventually, the sound of me crying must have begun to enervate the head counselor, because she stood and came within a couple of feet of me and before I could even really figure out what was going on, she was in my ear.

“Stop crying!” she yelled. “Stop it, you brought this on yourself!”

And right then the door to the main office at Palmetto Elementary School opened and in walked the familiarly rugged face and stocky body of my father. His presence caused an immediate shift in the atmosphere of the room, and my entire body tensed as a whole score of images flitted through my mind, repercussions of my altercation with the pitcher boy. Part of me wanted to trade my dad’s presence for the continued yelling of the red-haired lady next to me, while another part of me just wanted to get the hell out of there. There was a moment during which he just stood there, looking from me to the head counselor. The pitcher boy stared at all three of us, intrigued, that same mischievous smile on his face as I sat across from him, feeling like everything was closing in on me. It was a claustrophobic sensation, my chest tightening, and I felt the rising anger from earlier again in that moment and wanted nothing more than for it to just go away, for everybody to just go away and leave me alone.

My dad took one step in my direction, then another, then surprised me by walking past me and stepping up to the head counselor. I almost reached out and tapped him, warned him, told him she was not to be trifled with. I’d seen what happened to other kids who caught attitudes with her, the timeouts and yelling and removal of basic privileges. As inconsequential as the animal crackers and juice boxes would have been in the comfort of my house, being denied them at after school care was almost like a slap in the face, having to sit and watch as the other kids gleefully chewed and sipped from their straws. But my dad looked so confident in that moment that I could only watch in awe as he glared at the woman and pointed at me.

“If I ever hear you yelling at my son like that again,” he growled. “I will make sure it’s the last thing you do at this institution.”

The head counselor stuttered, glancing at me and my dad held his hand up.

“I don’t want to hear it,” he said. “Do not ever talk to my son like that again.”

I didn’t pay much attention to what happened in the next few minutes, the hushed explanation of me and pitcher boy’s altercation on the field, the seemingly sincere apology from the head counselor and the faux apology from pitcher boy. Next thing I knew, I was sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s Corolla, waiting for the thunder. I stared out the window and contemplated how bad my punishment would be, whether or not it would be a simple whipping or a harsher grounding, video game and TV privileges revoked for days. I contemplated all of this up until the moment my dad took a left turn into a Burger King parking lot and pulled into a spot near the front door. Then I turned and looked at him and he looked at me and stifled a smile, motioning for me to come inside. In line, he ruffled the curly mop of hair that had accumulated on my head and we ordered and sat down and it was a moment before either one of us said anything. Finally he spoke:

“You defended yourself,” he said. I didn’t know if it was a question or not, so I just stayed quiet. My dad chewed his food slowly, staring out the window and finishing his fries before speaking again. “That was good. You must always defend yourself. People will walk over you if you don’t.”

I stayed quiet, staring down at my food and wondering if I should say something. Part of me still felt like some sort of backlash was coming, partly because my dad was wrong and I knew he didn’t like being wrong. I hadn’t been defending myself. From what he’d told me before—the way he’d explained the concept of “defending yourself”—it was something people did consciously. It was something that took calculation, thinking things through, figuring out when and how to act to best bring about a sufficient resolution to the conflict at hand. I hadn’t done any of that with pitcher boy. I had just gotten really, really angry, so angry I’d wanted to kill him. And right then I realized that was exactly what I’d wanted, to hit that kid until he wasn’t moving anymore, until it was impossible for him to ever throw a jumbo baseball at me and jump on me and hit me and scratch me and call me a stupid black boy cheater and knee me in my private parts again, and I was suddenly scared. Of myself, and of what my dad was telling me. He called my name and I looked up at him, only able to hold his stare for a moment before looking out the window.

“Don’t start it,” he said. “Don’t ever start it, but always defend yourself if somebody else does. And make sure you finish it.”

I listened and I heard him, but I can’t say that I understood. What was the difference? I wanted to ask, but I suddenly wanted more to get as far away from the situation as I could. I didn’t understand, and I didn’t think I wanted to. Even as we finished our food and he put his arm around my shoulder and guided me out of the Burger King, back to the car and back through the hurricane-ravaged city up to our temporary home in North Miami, I didn’t want to understand. I can’t say I do to this day.