Pussy

oldwriterThe year was 1963. A Saturday afternoon in July. It was hot in La Mesa, California, hotter still because there was nothing to do. My foster father, Larry, who was a San Diego policeman, was home, but he had police paperwork to do all day. It was the sort of day where nothing interests you. I didn’t want to read or watch TV, and I was tired of the toys I had. Then my friend Joey Castiglione, who lived a half block up the street, called me on the phone. “Man, there’s nothing to do,” he said. “It’s so hot!” We were quiet for a minute. “Hey, I know!” he said. “Let’s have a water balloon fight!”

Ten minutes later, Joey and his little brother Nicky came down from their house (Nicky sort of invited himself, as he had nothing better to do just then), and the three of us went to the drugstore at the bottom of the hill and bought three packages of 100 balloons each for a total of about two and a half bucks. We hustled back up to my house with our arsenal and started filling up balloons from the faucet in the front yard.

The rules of the water balloon fight were simple: you had to stay on the property; and no hitting in the face. Everything else was legal. We all agreed. Someone yelled out “Go!” and we started bashing each other with balloons, running around the house, back and forth. Butchie, Larry’s three-year-old son, had a water balloon, too, which I had given him, and he ran with me as best he could. He wouldn’t throw his balloon, though, because he didn’t want to waste it.

The fight rotated between the back yard and the front yard. Then Nicky got hit in the ear (by Joey, naturally), and it must have really hurt, because he started to scream. He held his hand to his ear and ran up to his house, crying as if he’d been shot in the head. Joey said it wouldn’t be long before his Mama is going to be calling for him, though it might not be for a few minutes.

We started bashing each other again, and we were laughing so hard it sounded more like we were screaming.

A couple of kids rode their bicycles up the street where we lived. One of them, the smaller of the two, was a gruff-looking kid with a frown on his face that looked like he’d been born with it, and ragged-looking blond hair that stuck up all over his head. The other kid was kind of quiet looking, with an easy-going expression. They were just passing by the house when I threw a water balloon at Joey. It missed him and flew into the street, falling to the asphalt right next to the gruff-looking kid’s front tire. It must have startled him, because he swerved suddenly and almost drove into the path of an oncoming car. The driver honked his horn, and everybody was looking real mean at one another: the driver looking at the kid, and the kid looking back at the driver—and then at me.

I knew he thought I’d tried to hit him. I watched, dread beginning to seep into my stomach, as he turned sharply and started pedaling hard back in our direction. Steam seemed to be gathering in this kid’s frowning face. The kid got off his bike a few feet away from us, while it was still moving, and simply dropped the bike to the ground, all the time looking at me with rage-filled eyes.

Joey and I stood there like mannequins in the yard. The only thing moving was this kid. He kept on running, coming at me full bore with his hands out. When he got to me, he shoved me in the chest and I stumbled backward, almost falling to the ground. He followed me back and shoved me again, and spit out, “You fucking asshole! You trying to hit me with that water balloon? You trying to fucking get me killed? I almost got ran over because of you. You! You mother fucker! I think for that I ought to just kick the shit out of you, right here! What do you think of that?”

Butchie was scared; he whined and ran toward the front door and started yelling, Daddy! Daddy! and went inside, the screen door slamming shut behind him. Meanwhile, the other kid had got halfway up the hill on his bicycle before he figured out his friend was no longer with him; he turned around and rode back down the hill and stopped at the curb a few feet away and just watched.

I was stunned. I couldn’t say anything. I could only look at this kid and feel a numbing fear wash over me like an icy waterfall, though, oddly, I felt my face glowing red-hot. Please, I tried to say to him, please don’t hit me. I didn’t mean it. But I couldn’t get my mouth to move.

I felt everyone’s eyes on me. Joey’s. The other kid, still on his bike, watching me silently. And this maniac who stood mere inches away from me, his fists balled. In my mind’s eye, I saw him bashing one of those rock-hard fists into my face, then the other. I saw my bones, my teeth breaking. I saw blood pouring from my nose.

“Well?!” he said to me. “What do you think of that??”

The kid on the bike looked confused. “What’s going on, Mike?” he said.

“This mother fucker threw a water balloon at me and almost got me run over!” He said this with his eyes glued to my hot face. Saying the words just seemed to infuriate him even more. He took another step toward me and shoved me hard again. I knew it was just a matter of time before he started pummeling me.

“Well?” the kid on the bike said to me, almost matter-of-factly. “Why’d you do that?”

For a brief second I relaxed, hearing what I thought was a voice of reason. “I-I didn’t mean to,” I managed weakly, as much to this kid named Mike as to the kid in the street. “It was an accident.”

“Bullshit!” Mike spat at me, taking another step and shoving me again. He was pushing me all over the yard. “You did it on purpose, I saw you, you lying mother fucker!”

“Mike,” the kid on the bike said tiredly. “C’mon, man, my dad’s already pissed off. I don’t want to be late again.”

Mike snapped his head around and shot the kid a look. “Hey, this punk almost killed me! And now I’m going to kick his ass!” He snapped his head back in the opposite direction and raised his fists and glared at me. “So go ahead,” he said. “Take a swing, so I can kick your ass fair.”

I looked at him. Already I could feel myself shutting down, going somewhere else, the way I remembered doing whenever Daddy came at me with the belt. Even Mike’s voice right in front of me was sounding smaller, farther away. I didn’t move. Then a small voice I vaguely recognized as my own said to him, “I don’t want to fight.”

Mike thought about this. His face looked even sourer than before. He shoved me backward again. “Well, what if I want to fight?” he said.

“Mike, c’mon!” said the kid on the bike again. “He doesn’t want to fight. Can we go?” He looked at me. “Kid, will you just tell him you’re sorry, so we can go?”

I looked down at the ground. I didn’t want to apologize. But I didn’t want to get beat up either. And I knew that was exactly what would happen. “I’m sorry,” I said, my voice hardly more than a whisper.

“What?” Mike said, loudly, so everyone could hear.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

Mike glared at me some more. Then he dropped his fists. “Chicken shit!” he said, thrusting his head toward mine, making me flinch. “Pussy!” He looked at his friend on the bike. “Aw, fuck it,” he said, “let’s go.” He walked back to his own bicycle and stood it upright. “He’s too big a pussy to fight.” He said pussy with plenty of extra emphasis. “It wouldn’t be any fun beating the shit out of a pussy, anyway.” He got on his bike and the two of them started pedaling up the hill. Every couple of seconds, Mike turned and looked back and yelled, “Pussy!” or “Chicken shit!”, all the way until they got to the top of the hill and turned the corner. I figured the entire neighborhood probably heard him. I felt like I was growing smaller and smaller by the second.

Mrs. Castiglione stuck her head out her front door and yelled at Joey to come home, he was in big trouble. Joey looked at me balefully, and trudged up the hill. Not that it mattered much: I didn’t feel like playing anymore.

I went into the house, and discovered Larry sitting on the couch. He had a funny look on his face. “What was that all about?” he said to me. I shrugged, and told him the story. But I had the impression he knew it already. He stared down at the rope rug for a few seconds. “So the kid asked you to fight?” he said finally.

“Yeah. I guess so.”

“So,” he said then, looking up at me with eyes that were both sad and accusing, “why didn’t you fight him?”

I felt the weight of his question, the meaning behind it. My face grew hot again. I shrugged, unable to offer an explanation. He stood up without saying another word and walked from the room into the back of the house and out into the back yard. His wife Charlotte was busy pulling weeds out of the small garden. I saw him through the back window, talking to her, and suddenly I had the strange sensation that Larry’s voice and Mike’s voice were now one and the same, hissing over and over again a single word: pussy.

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