Paul wanted to run but he couldn’t because of his injury. “There are too few injuries in the world,” he said to himself. He waddled through the heat, emasculated. He didn’t need to limp but he wanted to give his injury depth through theater and, in the sepia light of late afternoon, he moved softly across the grass in the park, hovering at the fringe of the blue shadows the trees cast across the field. He sought a consummation of a journey he’d begun but he realized his hopelessness: no bitter defeat, no pyrrhic triumph. And then Paul had an idea. He would beat up the only person it was impossible to feel sympathy for: Randall, who was the worst of all things: arrogant, unoriginal, unrelenting; a tyrant of ideas, none of them his. Paul heard Randall butcher good literature and good ideas by plastering them all together until they were incomprehensible, and Randall’s speeches always reminded him of a body that he had seen: a dog that had been hit by a train: bones in the wrong places with gore everywhere. Randall had made the mistake, Paul liked to think, of challenging him to fight. It was completely archaic then, and it still was. Paul had said “No,” and Randall had shrugged, and everybody had agreed that Randall was strange and violent. But: “I mean,” they would say, “He’s not actually that scary.” He wasn’t going to come in one day and shoot all the jocks. He didn’t hold grudges. He just wanted a fight, and Paul had given him an excuse for one, and, at this moment, Paul thought, Randall would get one.
Paul went to the party. Randall had not expected to fight him. Paul was shown pictures of Randall and Emily hooking up, but it wasn’t that surprising because everybody knew that Randall was actually pretty hot although he was crazy and Paul was told that Randall had drunk so much that he had become red as a tomato and had passed out. He went up to the room and found Randall on the ground. A girl was on top of him, kissing him, clinging to his hair, blushing with alcohol although Randall didn’t seem awake yet.
“You can fight me if you get up,” Paul said quietly, looking away.
Randall felt himself falling, endlessly, in darkness, although there was a throbbing, just acute enough, for him to still think, while aspiring half-heartedly to consciousness, “Do it”; to chew that phrase endlessly, without saying it, in response to Paul until he was swallowed completely into mute blackness again, not to wake up or whisper until the next morning, with his pants off, suspecting that someone had touched his dick.
The next day, Randall talked to his uncle, Emil.
“Were you drunk when you hit him?” Emil asked.
“No,” he looked at the ground, then continued, “I was pretending to be drunk.”
Randall laughed and smiled coyly.
“Oh. Why do you want to fight him?”
“I don’t, really,” he looked at his uncle, wondering if he could sense the half-lie.
“She’s just totally into it. It’s drama, you know?” Randall smiled thinly, unsure of himself.
“Oh. Well he might kick your ass.”
“Yeah, that could be kind of fun. I’ve never been in a fight before, outside of wrestling. I’ve never used any of that stuff you showed me.”
“Just use your fists. Don’t do anything too dangerous.”
“No. I won’t.”
“Well, if he’s stupid enough to fight you, you might as well fight him. You’re sure she’s going to go with one of you?”
“Yeah, she’ll probably go with him.”
Emil raised his eyebrows.
“Whatever. I’ve got plenty of girls. I don’t really care. This is living; I might as well get in one fight before the end of high school.”
“Well, you’re the one who wants to rule the world. Do what you want. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” Randall continued, “Thanks.”
Randall got to work on a speech he was writing.
This was to advocate for the renovation of the school speaker-system. It was often too quiet, announcements always being missed, words frequently misunderstood, but not so grossly as to make for good comedy. It was not terrible, Randall admitted, but at least it was socialism: a part of the uncompetitive public school system. He copied entire sections out of Free to Choose; imagined gray, gangly, ragged shapes fall lifeless across wire fences and dirt troughs, a wall crumbling under the weight of terrible words.
Most of the people who heard the speech thought it was horrible, but almost nobody laughed. It was hyperbolic but earnest. People said, “His family’s from Argentina, right? What’s that like?” Perhaps that was why Randall was so strange? Few people knew his sources well enough and, besides, his speech was built on logic stronger than oceans. They had elected him Student Body Secretary because he cared about this stuff.
“We need a better speaker-system,” Randall concluded.
Silence, in the assembly.
“Thank you,” and then Randall left the stage.
The murmurs rose like a tide, inexorably, imperceptibly and filled the cafeteria, dimmed by gray clouds that hovered ponderously outside suggesting rain. Paul shifted in his seat to address his friend: “This is the guy I’m fighting for Stella.”
“You can tell he’s an asshole.”
“Not really. I never expected him to hit me, but I guess that’s what makes him a real asshole.”
“Yeah, you should kick his ass.”
He glanced around for Randall briefly. Randall had hit him in the face almost two weeks ago while they were talking. They were chatting about the upcoming prom: who was going with who, where to rent a tuxedo, where to buy cheap flowers, etc. It was the polite conversation to have with someone you had little in common with. They played different sports, were involved in different clubs, they both had an interest in politics but Paul knew better than to mention it, and they were on different tracks: Paul was matriculating to Columbia University in the fall while Randall, it was said, was considering not even going to college although he had accepted an offer from UMass Boston.
The boys had pooled by the Harvard boathouse. One bunch, which included Paul, came from the Square, upright and newly showered, fresh out of the subway station and hungry for the virility the night promised them. Another group trickled in from West: the more effusive, some of them already drunk, laughing and patting each other on the back, in the distance their shapes, dark and blue in the fading light, swaying like marionettes. Randall was a part of this group; they had gotten alcohol at his house. Once they met up, they nodded at each other, shook hands. Then they headed east, towards Coast, where the party was.
Nobody knew everybody there. Paul didn’t know Randall. Even though he had several friends there, however, Paul drifted to the edge of the group, moving quietly across the grass. He figured it wouldn’t hurt to look introspective, to distinguish himself that way, and to move to the side and reflect on the orange puddles of light that pooled on the water.
And this is how Randall found him. Perhaps, Paul now reflected, he had seemed vulnerable to pontification, silent and alone. Randall came towards him, out of the gaggle, and was hardly missed. The laughter continued and he marched towards Paul, who stood a silhouette against the deepening evening sky.
Paul saw Randall come, decorated by black ribbons of shadow, and hailed him.
“Hey,” Randall came beside him.
His breath smelled like alcohol. Paul kicked a stone as they trotted slowly, apprehensively the dirt path that traced the river.
“Well, what you doing out here?”
“Thinking,” Paul responded.
“Hmm. Well I was thinking too…”
(after a pause): “You going to Prom?”
Paul looked at him, “Yeah, you want to talk about Prom, Randall?”
“I’ll talk about Israel, too.”
So that was it, Paul thought. He knows I’m Israeli.
Randall put up his hands defensively, sarcastically, smiling, “Of course not, of course not. Who wants to talk about Israel?”
“Not you, of course.”
Randall smiled, “Of course.”
They both chuckled.
“You don’t know me at all,” Randall said, looking ahead at the river.
“Nope. Not at all,” Paul affirmed, “Only what you want me to know come campaign time. You’re just like all politicians.”
“Maybe. Let’s talk about Prom.”
And they did, at first circumscribing themselves to general observations and suggestions, in no hurry to get to know each other at all but rather to pass the proverbial peace-pipe of simple conversation. Eventually, however, they did feel comfortable enough to discuss themselves, and they remained apart from the rest of the company as they moved steadily eastward, past a goose-scatted field.
“Well, I know who I’m asking,” Randall said.
And then he paused, savoring the stone-look on Paul’s face that he had long anticipated, ever since he came up with the idea of asking out the girl who, from the locker room rumor hill, he knew Paul had the hots for. He felt like a God; any ordinary, limited perspective human being would probably not have detected the change on Paul’s face. He hid it so well.
“Oh,” Paul responded.
Then there was a moment.
“How do you know Stella, Randall?”
“Oh, I hooked up with her a few times at a party last year.” (not true).
“Oh… so why do you want to ask her? I mean,” Paul hesitated for a fraction of a second, before deciding, yes, it was alright to continue: “You’ve hooked up with a lot of girls, haven’t you?… I mean, we all have.”
Paul had not, in fact, hooked up with many girls.
“What are you saying, dude?” Randall tried to sound annoyed and stopped walking forward. Paul stopped too.
“I’m just wondering why her, opposed to any of the other girls you’ve hooked up with?”
“Because I like her. Of course,” Randall poked his head forward for emphasis.
“But,” Paul said, unable to stop himself, “What’s your relationship to her now? Have you talked to her since last year?”
They fell behind enough that the other kids began to take notice. Paul knew he had to stop talking; he thought, “I’m sounding like an idiot.”
“Are you some kind of fag?” Randall responded dryly.
The group ahead of them started walking back to see what was going on.
Still deadpan: “Can you get off my nuts?”
Paul, again, “What?”
Randall smirked, “Why do you care so much?”
Everybody was around them now. One boy said, “Look, what’s the hold up?”
Paul turned to him, “Nothing, let’s keep going. I accidentally offended Randall.”
There was an, “Oh,” and a silence of understanding from the crowd.
“Is it, cool, if we, keep going?” another boy asked Randall.
Randall nodded slowly. The look on his face was that of a dead crocodile.
And then he hit Paul.
Two muscly, big-faced boys immediately came forward and wrapped their arms around Randall tightly, holding him back. Paul looked downward and brought his hand up instinctually to where the punch had landed on his left cheek. The silence of the kids around him prompted him to speak,
“What the fuck?” he looked at Randall.
Randall smiled, and then spat at him.
Paul remained in place. One of the kids holding Randall said, “Cut it out!”
“Fuck you,” Paul said.
Randall spat at him again and was drawn back farther by his captors, out of range.
Some of Paul’s friends moved forward, rolling up their sleeves dramatically, “Should we knock him out for you?” one of his friends said angrily.
Paul held a hand out and kept his gaze on Randall,
“No,” he responded, “If he hits me again, I’ll kill him, but I’d rather we just move on to the party with no fights.”
“Randall?” he asked, “I don’t feel like fighting, if that’s what you want, but I don’t want to get spat at either, or punched again.”
Randall kept smiling.
“If they let you go,” Paul said, referring to Randall’s holders, “Could you not hit me again? If you do, there will definitely be a fight. Can we just go to the party?”
Paul smiled inwardly, not believing how mature and magnanimous he was being. He was hoping he was earning big points.
Randall nodded slowly and his look changed to one that was more serious.
“I won’t hit you again tonight,” he answered, “Unless you want me to.”
He smiled again.
“Please let him go.”
Randall was released.
There was a tension, and then everyone kept moving. Randall hovered around the back of the group while Paul walked at the front. One by one, people floated over to him to say things like, “What set him off?” and, “Randall’s a psycho.”
“I have no idea,” was Paul’s standard response, “We were just talking about Prom and he got sensitive when I asked him about his date.”
“High school is insane,” Paul thought to himself. The fact that he even had to share space with Randall was insane. The fact that he wasn’t actually alarmed about another altercation occurring was insane. The fact that everyone was so used to the fact that his attacker was crazy was insane.
As he sipped his beer later that night, he thought more about this. He also thought that he couldn’t believe a girl like Stella would hook up with a guy like Randall. The world was truly unfair.
He yukked around with the guys and got a little drunk. The basement lights began to give him a headache a little after midnight; he stepped out and looked into the dank dark blueness that blanketed all the odd extremities of the backyard: a tiny swing-set, a yellow slide, two thin trees that one could barely climb on, a fence resembling a palisade. This was not like his house, although he had played on a neighbor’s play structure when he was littler. Looking into the night, he wanted to say this out-loud. He looked around himself and saw that no one was coming to join him where he stood alone, halfway up the exposed stairwell. A pale girl with reddened cheeks whose name he didn’t know laughed inside with his friend Max. He didn’t say anything.
Paul did take some comfort in the fact that Randall appeared to wander forlorn for most of the night, staking out on chairs in the corner of rooms with a drink. People nodded politely at him when he walked by but, for the most part, Randall was alone. He didn’t give his usual attention to females nor did many approach him. Sometimes he looked lost in thought. “Crazy thoughts,” Paul thought.
But at the end of the night, when Paul was about to leave, Randall did something that made him mad. As Paul headed out the door, Randall called out to him in a serious voice, “Paul!”
Getting up from his chair and reaching out his arm beseechingly, Randall approached.
“I’m sorry,” Randall said, and they shook hands.
Then, Randall drew Paul closer, locking Paul’s hand in his grip, and he brought his lips to Paul’s ear and whispered,
“You pussy. You should fight me for Stella. You big pussy.”
Paul was shocked.
Randall let go of his hand and brought his face away with a smile.
“See you, Paul!” Randall waved.
Paul left, but within a half an hour he had told practically everyone he knew what Randall had said and how much of a dick Randall was. He was also sure to explain the context quickly in such conversations: how Randall had told him he was going to ask Stella out; how, considering what Randall had told him at the party, Randall knew that Paul liked Stella, too, which made Randall even more of a dick.
Everyone rightfully took Paul’s side in the matter and, of course, it got to Stella. Paul figured it would get to Stella; he was shy, but he was almost as determined now to ruin Randall’s chances with Stella as to gauge his own. She probably wasn’t interested in him, but there was absolutely no way now that Paul could brook her going to Prom with Randall.
Stella was, admittedly, entertained by this, as Randall had anticipated. She had no meaningful relationship with either Randall or Paul. She didn’t really care much for either, although she did have some sympathy for Paul after hearing the story and even considered asking him to Prom. She told her friends about her idea and they counseled her against it: “No need to do anything impulsive. Think about yourself. This is your night as much as his. Paul will recover from you not going to Prom with him. You have no obligations. You should go with Larry.”
Larry was the guy that Stella thought was really cute and, she thought, she might have a chance of going with him. But she didn’t want to ask him and, despite her signaling, he hadn’t asked her. It was getting late and she was feeling kind of discouraged but she determined then, after her discussion with her girlfriends, that it was worth waiting a little longer and maybe pressuring him a little more. Some guys wanted to be chased.
Paul got the message within about a week’s time, by virtue of hearing nothing through the grapevine about Stella having any romantic feelings for him, that Stella was probably not going to go to Prom with him. This did not make him any less inclined, however, to take Randall up on his offer. In fact, perhaps, it made him more eager to punch Randall in the face.
For his part, Randall had thought Stella would probably go to Prom with Paul. Paul wasn’t a bad looking guy and he was smart, nice, amicable. A pussy, yes. But sometimes girls liked pussies, Randall thought. And, besides, he had really given Paul shit. Sympathy could do a lot for a girl. But Randall was less concerned with Paul’s Prom date than with Paul’s temper, which Randall hoped to provoke.
Paul, who, in English class, hunched over his reading so far that his face almost touched the page, shifting so frequently that tracks on the carpet differentiated his spot in the classroom from the others, quietly grumbling through the prevaricating monologues of his classmates who hadn’t done the homework, resembled, to Randall, a volcano on the verge of eruption. And Randall’s giddiness at calling Paul a “pussy” was similar to that he had felt years earlier when, as an elementary science student, he had held a cup of vinegar over a baking soda topped papier-mâché sculpture he had spent hours to build.
In the week following the incident, Randall made sure to make passes at Stella (all ignored) whenever he could, to snicker at Paul when he saw him in the halls, and to be even more voluble in English class than he normally was (he knew Paul hated his speeches in English class because Paul tended to avoid looking at him when he gave them).
Although Randall asked his friends (if one could call them that) if they had heard anything about Paul, they all insisted (dishonestly he suspected) that they had heard nothing, so Randall did not receive much feedback until Friday. Predictably, Paul had avoided looking at him or speaking to him for most of the week so, while Randall suspected serious anger, he could not be entirely sure whether Paul was determined to simply brush off the whole thing or not.
But, on Friday, Randall got his answer, although, admittedly, it came in a less than ideal form. Randall would have preferred that Paul confront him in the hallway or after school, while they were both standing, and that Paul, an animal fierceness in his eyes, swing at him (Randall) without saying anything in explosive rage. Randall, if he could still stand (which he expected he would be capable of doing), would then fight back, immediately striking Paul in the stomach or face with his arm or fist. Or maybe, if Paul did not seem up for a fight, too satisfied or too scared after his first strike, Randall would humiliate him: he would give Paul a firm, open-handed slap across the face, with a cupped palm, so as to maximize the amount of bystanders’ heads that would turn, and enough force to leave Paul’s soft cheek blistering red.
Yet Randall was disappointed: Paul came to him when he was down, barely conscious, dust from the floor in his nose and lipstick on his face. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Paul had chosen to take advantage of this moment to hit Randall’s face or stomach or back; it would have been so dramatic and the pain would have been numbed by the alcohol. It would have given Randall an excuse for incredible vindictive rage when he awoke. If Paul had been someone else, then perhaps Randall would have seriously feared for his wellbeing in such a position of vulnerability, but he knew Paul was not brutal; Paul let all the bugs in his house outside. So, considering the lack of real danger, Randall would have liked a more violent report.
But, even though Paul did not give him a violent response, Randall accepted the acquiescence as it came. Paul said, “Yes,” or, at least, that was the essence of what he said. That was what mattered. Even if Paul’s offer had literally been, “You can fight me if you get up,” which, delivered at the party while Randall was floored from alcohol, could be considered time sensitive on its face, Randall could now call Paul out in good faith, which is exactly what he did.
Randall called Paul on Sunday night, looked up his name in the student directory and called his home and asked Paul’s father if he could talk to Paul. And when Paul picked up the phone, Randall told him, “So, you’re going to fight me? You’re tired of being a pussy?” And Paul responded in a low, quiet voice, perhaps so that his words would escape his parents’ ears, “I’m not a pussy, you faggot. I’m going to fucking kick your ass. You just tell me the place and the time, and I’ll be there, and I’m going to beat you up bad.”
Paul felt like saying, “And I’ll kill you,” but he didn’t, because he didn’t actually want or intend to kill anyone for as long as he lived.
“Okay,” Randall responded, “You can get your pussy ass to the field near BU at 6:00 PM this coming Friday. I want to give your bitch ass a whole weekend to recover, cause you’re going to need it.”
Paul said, “Okay, I’ll be there faggot. See you then,” and then he hung up.
Paul was, in fact, (unsurprisingly) quite scared as well as excited. Randall was, obviously, a total psycho. He had to be (he knew) a total idiot to meet Randall for a fight. Yet he planned to do so anyway. That was excitement. Because, after all, Paul did think that, perhaps, he could beat Randall in a fight, even with his limp. Randall talked so much; he couldn’t be that tough. “Randall is kind of a loser,” Paul thought, “I mean, he’s not even sure if he’s going to college. Well, I don’t really want to judge. But, come on. He’s such a whiny brat. And a jerk. And he just refuses to do assignments that he doesn’t like (at least that’s what I’ve heard). Uh oh. Maybe there is some poetry in him winning this fight… hmmmm. What I should really focus on is the fact that he is a total jerk and that I am a really nice person. I don’t come from wealth. I’ve got a full scholarship to Columbia. Fuck, I’m poor. And I’m a nice person. Randall is a total jerk. He’s an asshole. He’s a faggot. Oh, I really don’t like saying faggot. I don’t have anything against gays. What a fucked up world this is. Uhh.”
Yes, Paul decided to focus on Randall’s jerkiness. Randall had to be put into his place; he couldn’t get away with it. Paul was doing the universe, and Randall, a favor. Paul had to win the fight; he had to show Randall that there were consequences for his behavior. Randall, he decided, probably had not had his ass kicked enough. It was probably a combination of people feeling badly for him because he was strange and people feeling scared of him, because he was strange. But Randall wasn’t actually that strange. He just wasn’t very nice; that was the root of it. He was mean. What he did was mean.
Paul thought of Randall’s eager, almost glowing eyes; the eyes of a night predator.
Focusing on Randall’s jerkiness was fine but, as the second week since his initial altercation with Randall rolled by, Paul could not divorce the fight from its inception in his crush on Stella. It was Randall’s remark by the door that added real bite and so, before long, Paul began to see himself as preparing to fight for Stella, too.
Stella was absolutely beautiful. She was actually Italian and not Italian American, not like he was Israeli. Fuck, he wasn’t Israeli, even if he spoke Hebrew. His father immigrated from Israel twenty years ago. He’d been there once. But Stella, she was Italian. She had grown up in Italy and she was only here for two years while her mother got her degree. She had golden skin, a tight, fit body from three sports (soccer, swimming, and tennis), emerald eyes, and glowing brown hair (she probably used conditioner regularly but, then again, Paul figured most people other than himself used conditioner regularly).
Besides being hot, she was also nice. So nice. She introduced herself, personally, to everyone in each of her classes (he had witnessed one such event). She said, “Hi,” to virtually everyone she knew by name in the halls (even him). She volunteered at a shelter after school (he had heard). She never pretended like she didn’t hear someone when she did (he thought). Everybody liked her (hyperbole, but also kind of true).
Just the fact that a guy like Randall could even think about taking a girl like Stella to Prom was enough to make Paul very mad. He could forgive Stella for hooking up with Randall in the past: “I mean,” he thought, “Even if a hot girl were a total bitch, I might hook up with her.” But dating Randall or taking him to Prom, that was totally unacceptable. The symbolism would be devastating, like if the papers reported that Aung San Suu Kyi had left Burma to marry Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
So on Wednesday, after watching Randall deliver an atrocious speech comparing the Cambridge Public School System to Soviet Russia and the faulty speaker system to food rationing (and making a note that Randall was actually less a socialist-leaning Mugabe then a Cold War era right-wing despot not unlike, interestingly enough, Argentina’s Leopoldo Galtieri), Paul turned to his friends and said, referring to Randall, “This is the guy I’m fighting for Stella.”
For Stella. As if Stella cared. If she cared at all, she didn’t want the fight to occur. This, Paul knew. But Stella had gone beyond Stella. He was not just fighting for her as an individual, he was fighting for all the Stellas of the world: the cute girls who would be preyed on by asshole guys and, in the process, risk crushing the hopes of nice guys everywhere.
Besides, Paul’s friends didn’t care. They kind of felt bad for Paul; Max especially. Max looked at his friend, the injured track star: Paul’s face seemed to sag, his brief smiles appearing to resist an incredible gravity to exist for only a moment, his eyes glassy, as if almost on the verge of tears, his movement, even considering his injury, heavy and ponderous, as if he kept ball weights tied to his wrists and ankles at all times. It was like you could see an old person in this young man and that was, Max thought, maybe the best way to describe it (not that, Max knew, all old people were as depressed as Paul). It was sad to him, to see his friend laid so low in only a couple of weeks; the injury had been bad enough for Paul, and now this direct attack on his pride by Randall.
Max knew well Paul’s insecurities with girls. Paul had never done very well, despite asking almost everyone for advice on the subject, and Paul’s dissatisfaction with himself, Max suspected, could only be exacerbated as Paul neared the end of his high school career, and Prom.
Paul needed to fight for something now. He had done so well, Max reflected, in so many areas of his life (Paul was fit, had great grades, was going to a great college, had won medals in track, and was beloved by his family and friends). It was a real shame that he would get so hung up now, a matter of a long accumulation of small injuries from girls and acute damage to his Achilles tendon from dehydration and overwork. And, of course, an asshole (Randall) in the mix.
The leg injury was bad. Paul was out for a month and the season was practically over. He couldn’t just blow off his anxiety about Prom and Randall by blowing by people on the tartan. So this is what happened.
Max took another good look at Paul: Paul’s lips seemed glued in place, he slid his pale hands slowly, almost neurotically, back and forth over the cool blue surface of the cafeteria table, and his body gave no indication of what his mind thought, if anything, as to the quality of Andre’s latest black joke.
“That’s so racist,” Max said, shaking his head, chuckling.
“But I’m Latino! I’ve definitely got some black in me!” Andre defended itself, mouth gaped open in faux indignation.
“Why did your parents give you a name like Andre?” Jeremy asked.
“I don’t know,” Andre shrugged, “It’s a cool name though, isn’t it? I can ask if you want.”
Jeremy replied, “I don’t care that much.”
Max looked at Paul again.
“Still no reaction,” he thought, “Way too cold a response, even for a lame joke.”
Max felt vindicated then in his plan of action: support Paul’s narrative of fighting Randall for the Stellas of the world, until tomorrow when he had arranged for Stella, along with himself and Andre, to talk some sense into him and talk him out of the fight. They would also talk to Randall and tell him to cut out his stupid bullying; to remind him that they were all older now and more mature. They would talk to Randall before they talked to Paul.
They caught Randall immediately after school as he left history class. Seeing them all brought a grin to the boy’s face at first, but as they began their lecture, the grin changed to a grimace and then a glare.
“Get out of my face,” Randall hissed, interrupting their talk, saliva flying visibly out of his mouth and landing on Max’s shirt. He then shoved Max out of the way into Andre before marching out of the circle. Max let him go without fuss, in part because he believed it was the right thing to do; in part, because Stella’s presence was a moderating influence on his behavior and speech (he had refrained from using any cuss words throughout the entire conversation).
Having broken out of the blockade, Randall turned to face Stella,
“You’re a bitch,” he said, and then he stomped down the hall.
Next, they got in touch with Paul. Max texted him and about ten minutes later they met up in a corner of the library, all of them sitting down.
They began the discussion by admitting to Paul that they had tried to talk Randall out of the fight but had failed to get through to him. They told him how Randall had insulted them, and offered the anecdote as further proof that Randall was a mega dick whose ideas were not worth entertaining. Stella led the intervention.
“Paul, this is stupid. Randall’s a total douche,” Stella focused her beautiful, green eyes into Paul’s as she spoke.
“He wants to fight and you know it,” she continued, “I wouldn’t mind if he got beat up, and I’m sure you could do it, but it’s just not worth it and you’d only be doing what he wants. For all you know, that sick fuck likes getting the shit beat out of him. Let him whine; if he touches you again, file assault charges.”
Paul blinked at her; he imagined that he had been anesthetized from the waist down and that Stella was castrating him with a pair of library scissors as they talked.
“If Max wants me not to fight Randall, he made a big fucking mistake by bringing Stella into this,” Paul thought.
Stella kept talking, “And, look, it’s also not worth it because, honestly, I’m not worth it. I’m complimented that you think I’m cute, but I’m not interested in you in that way. You’re a really nice, sweet, attractive guy, but I’m interested in someone else honestly.”
“Big fucking mistake bringing Stella into this,” Paul said to himself silently.
He couldn’t help but imagine Max and Andre laughing at him, even as they sat quietly, still, like fixtures of the building.
He also felt like telling Stella, “Never do this to a guy again,” but he knew it wasn’t her fault. She couldn’t have done this on her own initiative.
In fact, it had been her initiative, although Paul would never find out. Stella had already decided earlier in the week that she was going to talk to Randall and Paul individually on Friday to try to stop the fight and, when Max contacted her, she had responded enthusiastically and she had come up with the idea of taking point in the talk with Paul.
Still, Paul knew that, “This had to be Max’s big fucking dumb idea.”
He struggled to keep his attention primarily on Stella until she finished her piece.
She concluded: “Look, Paul. Be the adult. Be the man. Don’t feed into Randall’s craziness and douche bagginess. And if you have to beat him up, wait until after we graduate.”
Stella laughed, realizing that last part was probably not helpful.
“Okay, what I just said was dumb,” she amended her instructions. “Listen, just don’t fight, okay? You’re a sweet, smart, mature, handsome guy. You’re going to get a hot girlfriend. You’re going to get a six figure salary. You’re going to get to travel the world; do the things you want. Randall isn’t going anywhere. Fuck him, okay?”
Paul wanted to say, “Never call me handsome again,” but he didn’t. He kept blinking, and then he took a deep breath.
He looked at Andre, who was scratching his neck, and then he looked at Max, who was biting his lip. Then he looked back at Stella, whose nose and lips were perfect. Then he took another breath, and made a big smile,
“Okay,” Paul said, trying to sound as warm as he could, “Thank you guys. I’m not messing with Randall.”
He paused, and then spoke again: “At least,” he winked, “Not unless he lays another finger on me.”
Max patted him on the shoulder assuringly and gestured toward Stella and Andre, “Then we’ll witnesses in your lawsuit.”
Paul smiled again, and he smiled too when, nearly an exact 26 hours later, he recalled this meeting in the seconds leading up to his long anticipated second altercation with Randall.
Randall stood on the grass just beyond the shade of a big tree, on the field beside the Charles, just across the bridge from Boston University’s main campus. It was the location that they had agreed on previously, but a different time. It was 5 pm instead of 6 pm. Paul had arranged for it to be an hour earlier in order to prevent external meddling (Max, Andre, Jeremy, and the other boys had planned a raucous outing beginning, curiously, early at around 5:30 pm, perhaps to prevent an altercation).
There was no chance of further intervention now, at least not from Paul’s friends. Randall had, somewhat predictably, brought no one to the fight but, somewhat oddly, had also not invited anyone (although Paul had no way of knowing this).
As Paul stepped onto the field, Randall moved toward him with his right hand outstretched. Randall walked stiffly, almost goose stepping, his arm rigid in its extension of greeting, the hand still except for the slightest trembling; his fingers, apart from his thumbs, appearing as if they were frozen together. Randall’s face was placid, his lips slightly curled into a thin smile.
“An Israeli,” Randall thought as he approached, “I wonder if I have any Arab blood in me? Any blood that will be shocked to life, like Galvani’s frogs’ legs only real, upon impact with Paul?”
Randall imagined that, eighteen-hundred years ago, his ancestors and those of Paul had met in battle and shed blood; he imagined that this fight might only be the latest iteration in a never-ending epic cycle of violence; that these two families, these two individuals, might have been brought together by the strands of fate, from two continents, to fight on a soil alien to them both.
Two shadows fought on a plain, their punches and kicks grotesquely overreaching: punching and kicking far through and beyond each other. The sky was yellow forever, like dawn.
The mind reached into that horizon and saw the outline of Europe, Anatolia, the Levant, and North Africa: Italy’s boot.
Then it made sense to Randall: it was the not the Arab blood that was making him feel as he felt, it was the Roman. Everything made sense: the almost goose stepping, the honor that compelled Randall to extend his hand to his opponent in courtesy even before they met in savage combat. Yes! He had been a gladiator once, and a legionnaire! And a general! Perhaps he had even been a Caesar once or twice! He imagined giving the order to have Jerusalem sacked! He imagined crushing the Jewish rebellion!
Then Paul hit him. Paul hit hard, really hard, even before Randall was ready. They had not even shaken hands or spoken.
Randall heard a crack in his jaw; he felt an aching. He looked down at the ground and back-trekked rapidly away from Paul. Paul stood in place, stunned by his own force.
“My nose!” Randall screamed inwardly. “What if he had hit my nose? Is my jaw alright?”
He opened and closed his mouth and moved his jaw back and forth. He felt pain.
“What if that had been my nose?”
In the moment, only one of Randall’s narcissisms could triumph, and his bellicosity failed.
“Would my nose ever be the same again? Will my jaw ever be the same again?”
And Randall ran until he was out of sight of Paul. And then he went home.