Falling into Us, p.1part #2 of Falling Series
ONE: A Beginning; or, a Dare
September, sophomore year of high school
“Quit being a prick, Malcolm. ” I gave Malcolm Henry a hard shove, and he stumbled away.
“It’s a legitimate question, Dorsey. You’ve had a crush on Nell Hawthorne for-fricking-ever. When are you gonna man up and ask her out?” Malcolm was the only black guy on the varsity team, our fastest runner, our star running back, and the third part of our team’s All-State power trio, along with Kyle, the QB, and me, the wide receiver.
Malcolm was built like me, short and stocky and muscular, and he had a huge seventies-style afro that he cultivated carefully, figuring if he had to be the only black guy on an all-white, rural community football team, he might as well look the part.
“You’re too f**king chicken,” he goaded me. “You won’t do it. ”
I gave him a glare. “Shut the hell up, Malc. ” We were tossing a ball back and forth on the field as we waited for the other guys to dress out. We’d both gotten out of class early since we had phys ed sixth period, and Coach Donaldson was the gym teacher. “I’m not chicken. I just haven’t had the right opportunity. She’s Kyle’s best friend, for one thing. I’m not sure how he’d take it. And besides, you know what happened with Mr. Hawthorne and Aaron Swarnicki. He’d have my balls on his desk if I had asked her out. She literally just turned sixteen like a week ago. ”
“Which means you’ve had a week to plan this shit. Come on, Jay. Don’t puss out on me now. You’ve been whining about how bad you want a shot at Nell since seventh grade. Now’s your chance. ” He tossed the ball to me, then took off running, sprinting in a zigzag pattern. I hurled the ball at him but missed him by a mile. “Good f**king thing you’re not the QB, Jason. You suck. ”
“Like you could do better? You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. ”
He threw the ball to me, nailing me hard in the chest. “I bet I could hit the broad side of Nell’s ass from fifty yards away. ”
I knew he was riling me, but it worked. “Don’t talk about her that way, you turd. ” I threw the ball back to him, then mimicked his earlier move, cutting right and sprinting several yards before turning to catch the ball.
“Then man the f**k up. Ask. Her ass. Out. ” Malcom threw the ball and it landed flush in my arms; Malcolm could throw better than I could, but I’d never admit it to him.
“I will,” I said. “I will. When I’m ready. ”
At that moment, Blain, Nick, Chuck, and Frankie all trotted out onto the field, tossing their gear in a haphazard pile on the sidelines. I threw the ball to Frankie, who charged at me, tucking the ball in the crook of his arm. I let him zip past me, then easily caught up to him and tackled him to the ground, nailing him hard in the side. We both went down laughing, but when we hit, it was Frankie who took longer to get up, gasping for breath.
“You’re too chicken, Dorsey. ” Frankie pressed a fist to his ribs, wincing. “Fuck, man. I think you bruised a rib. I don’t have my gear on, dude, take it easy. ”
“Pussy. Can’t take a tackle? Maybe you should try running a few plays, take a few real tackles. Might help you man up a bit, you f**king tub. ” I grinned at him as I said it, because we both knew Frankie was the offensive lineman responsible for keeping my ass safe from getting nailed as I cut out for a run. He was a hell of a player and one of my best friends, after Kyle and Malcolm.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m the tub, you’re the twinkle toes little fairy. ” He feinted at me, then wrapped a burly arm around my neck and squeezed; Frankie was huge, truly mammoth, seventeen and already standing over six feet tall and weighing in at nearly two-fifty. He was the kind of guy who looked overweight at first glance, but if you felt him tackle you, you’d realize he was two hundred and fifty pounds of solid muscle. “Maybe you should quit prancing around the field like a f**king twinkie and try blocking for your baby little ass. ”
I gasped for breath as he squeezed and had to drive my fist into his ribs to get him to let go. Blain, the safety and the team peacemaker, shoved both of us aside. “Knock it off, guys. You know how Coach is about horsing around. ”
“Shut up, Blain,” Malcolm, Frankie, and I all said in unison.
“Let’s get back to how you’re too chicken to ask Nell out,” Malcolm said.
“How about let’s not. ” I threw the ball sideways across the field to Chuck, the second-string receiver, who caught it and threw it to Nick, another offensive lineman.
“I dare you,” Frankie said. “I double-dog dare you. ”
I laughed. “What is this, second grade? You double-dog dare me? Seriously?”
Frankie didn’t laugh with me. “Yeah, I’m daring you to ask out Nell Hawthorne. I’m sick of you acting like your crush on her is some big secret. Everyone knows but her and Kyle. Make a move or shut up about it. ”
“I’ll sweeten the pot,” Malcolm said. “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks you won’t do it. ”
“That’s stupid. I’m not taking bets or dares about this. She’s my friend. I’ll ask her out if and when I’m ready. ” I busied myself putting on my pads in an attempt to try to hide my discomfort
“Yeah, she’s your friend…because you’ve been friend-zoned. ” This was Malcolm.
“I have not been friend-zoned. ” I tightened my cleats unnecessarily, jerking the laces so hard my foot twinged, and I had to loosen and retie them.
Malcolm could always see right through me. “Yeah, you have, and you know it. ” He stood nose to nose with me. “A hundred bucks. Put up or shut up. ”
I shoved him away, but he got right back in my face and shoved me back. “I’m not f**king betting your asses about this,” I said.
“That’s ’cause you’re a scardey-twat,” Frankie said.
This elicited a round of laughter from the entire offensive line, now gathered around us.
“‘Scaredy-twat’?” I mocked. “Did you really just say that?”
Frankie lumbered toward me, puffed up and ready to throw down. “Yeah, I did. ’Cause that’s what you are. ”
I faced him down, but we both knew I’d never dare actually step up to Frankie: We would both end up in the hospital. “I’m not afraid,” I said, lying through my teeth.
The truth was, I really was afraid. I’d been friends with Nell Hawthorne since third grade, and I’d had a crush on her nearly that long. Frankie had been dead right when he’d said everyone knew except Nell herself and Kyle. And Kyle might have known, but chose to ignore it; I wasn’t honestly sure.
When you’ve spent nearly ten years crushing on someone you don’t dare ask out, the idea of asking her out on a date is terrifying. I also knew if I didn’t take the bet, I’d be the laughingstock of the entire football team.
“Fuck. Fine. I’ll ask her out tomorrow. ” I hated being pressured into it, but I also knew I’d probably never do it otherwise. “You’ll all owe me a bill by practice tomorrow. ”
Frankie and Malcolm both shook my hand, since they were the only ones actually participating in the bet.
I went through practice on autopilot, running the plays and catching the ball without really thinking about it. My brain was running a million miles a minute, by turns planning out what I’d say and freaking about getting it wrong.
* * *
By the time I got to school the next day, I was a nervous wreck. It didn’t help that Dad had gotten home from work early and worked me over pretty hard. Practice would be rough today with the bruises clouding my ribs and back, but I was used to it by now. It made me tough, he said. It was for my own good, he said. He was righ
No tackle would ever hurt as much as his fists.
I had fourth-period western civ and fifth-period U. S. government with Nell, and I was planning on making my move between classes. I’d walk her to her locker and ask her as we exchanged books. I stood outside Mrs. Hasting’s first-floor classroom, waiting for Nell to show up for fifth period. I had to bite on my cheek to hide the wince when Malcolm playfully half-tackled me from the side, driving his brawny shoulder straight into a bruise. I shrugged him off, forcing out a laugh as we wrestled until Happy Harry the Hippy Hall Monitor strolled past, calling out a cheerful “Knock it off, you crazy ruffians. ”
Happy Harry was everybody’s friend. He looked like John Lennon, with long shaggy brown hair, a scruffy beard, and round glasses. He’d smoked way too much pot in the sixties and hadn’t ever really left that decade, mentally. He was Principal Bowman’s brother, and was perpetually placid, nice to everyone almost to a fault, and always smiling. He never had to ask anyone anything twice, since even the most hard-ass goth liked Harry.
“So, you’re gonna do it after class, right?” Malcolm asked me in a confidential mutter, flashing a triple-folded hundred-dollar bill between his index and middle fingers.
I reached for the bill, but he danced out of the way. “Yeah, I am,” I said. “Hang out by the our lockers between fourth and fifth period. ”
I rubbed my side where a purple-yellow bruise the size of a grapefruit shadowed my ribs and around to my back, the same spot where Malcolm had hit me with his tackle.
Kyle’s voice came from behind me. “Your dad go after you again?”
Kyle was the only person other than my mom who knew Dad beat me. I’d made Kyle promise to never tell anyone, though. Telling wouldn’t do any good, since Dad was the captain of our town’s police force. He’d bury any reports, intimidate any social workers who tried to get in his way. It had happened before. I’d made the mistake of telling a gym teacher in eighth grade that the bruise on my stomach was from my dad hitting me, and the teacher had gone to a social worker. The gym teacher had been transferred to a different district within a week, and the social worker had been fired.
I’d missed a week of school, out “sick. ” In reality, I’d been in too much pain to get out of bed. The bruises on my body had taken over a month to disappear. I’d never tried to tell anyone after that. I spent as much time at school, at football practice, or at Kyle’s house as I could. Anything to stay out of Dad’s way. It suited him, since he’d never wanted kids in the first place. I was a disappointment to him, he claimed. Even when I made varsity my freshman year, I was a disappointment. Even when I broke the district record for most receptions in a single season that same freshman year, I was a useless piece of shit. I hadn’t beaten Dad’s record, and that was all that mattered.
See, Dad had been All-State three years in a row during high school and then had gone on to play as a starting WR for Michigan State, and was widely praised as one of the best players in college football. He’d then been scouted by the Kansas City Chiefs, the Minnesota Vikings, and the New York Giants. He’d torn his ACL his first game with the Giants, though, and it had been a career-ending injury. He’d returned to his hometown here in Michigan and joined the police force as a bitter, angry man. When the first Gulf War happened, he’d joined the Army and done two tours with the infantry, and had come back even more f**ked up from the things he’d seen and done.
He liked to get drunk after work, and he’d tell me horror stories. Unlike most combat vets I’d heard of, Dad liked to talk about his experiences. Only with me, though, and only when he was at the bottom of a fifth. He’d tell me about the buddies he’d seen shot, blown up by IEDs, hit by snipers and RPGs. If I tried to leave, he’d lay into me. Even drunk, Dad was formidable. The ACL injury had ended his career as a professional wide receiver, but it hadn’t made him any less physically intimidating. He stood several inches taller than me, wide through the shoulders with thick biceps and corded forearms, his short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair beaded with sweat as he swayed in front of me. He had quick, hard fists, and even drunk he was accurate. He knew where to hit to cause the most pain. I’d gotten better at blocking and dodging, which Dad encouraged. He wanted me to be a man, a warrior. Men don’t feel pain. Men can run plays with bruised ribs and battered kidneys. Men don’t cry. Men don’t tell. Men break records.
Kyle knew all this—he understood it as much as anyone who didn’t live it could, and he never told.
“Yeah, but I’m fine. ” I hated sympathy.
Kyle just met my eyes, staring me down, assessing. He knew I’d never admit to being in pain, so he’d gotten better at gauging how bad off I was. “You sure? Coach wants to run tap-dance drills today. ”
“Shit,” I muttered.
Tap-dance drills were usually run with the coach or the QB throwing a ball and the receiver practicing catching it near the sidelines, tap dancing to stay in bounds with one or both feet. Coach liked to run these drills with full interference, so I’d learn to make the catch while a defender tried to stop me. What this meant was I’d spend most of the practice getting tackled over and over again. With already-bruised ribs, I’d be lucky if could walk off the field under my own power.
“No, I’m fine,” I said. “We’re playing Brighton on Friday, and they like to double-team me. I need the practice. ”
Kyle just shook his head. “You’re such a stubborn ass**le. ”
I laughed. “Yeah. But I’m the best motherfucking wide receiver in the state. There’s something to be said for Dad’s ‘training program. ’” I made air quotes with my fingers as I said the last part.
“What was that word Mr. Lang used yesterday? Talking about the Spartans and how they trained their warriors?” Kyle dug a Powerbar out of his bag and opened it, handing me half.
“Agoge,” I answered.
“That’s it,” Kyle said, chewing noisily. “Just pretend you’re a Spartan, training in an agoge. ”
“It wasn’t a building, I don’t think,” I said, eating my half. “It was more of a lifestyle, a program. And yeah, that’s basically it. Mike Dorsey, Spartan agoge trainer. ”
“Am I gonna have to drag you off the field again?” Kyle asked, only half joking.
“Probably,” I answered.
“We’ll hit up the hideout after practice, then. ” Kyle took off for his fifth-period science class on the other end of the school, hustling so he wouldn’t be late.
“Sounds good,” I said, calling after him.
The hideout was a spot out in the woods behind my house. There was an old lightning-struck oak tree with huge spreading branches bending low over the ground, forming a cave-like canopy. Over the years Kyle and I had turned the spot into a clubhouse of kinds, weaving branches together and old boards and pieces of tin from the junkyard around the thick trunk so that we had an enclosed area. We’d dragged old chairs, some crates, even a ratty old couch in there. It was our secret, and even now, when we were old enough that we should be embarrassed about having a secret clubhouse, we still kept it secret. My cousin Doug had once somehow looted several cases of cheap beer from a liquor store, and he’d given me a couple of them, so Kyle and I often went to the hideout to drink together.
For me, though, the hideout was just that, somewhere I could go to get away from my dad. I’d spent the night there on several occasions, to the point that I kept an old wool blanket in one of the crates.
My conversation with Malcolm and then Kyle had taken most of the seven minutes before fifth period, so I was surprised when Nell still hadn’t shown up for class. I thought I’d shit myself if I got myself all psyched up to ask her out and then she didn’t show up for class.
Then she appeared, hair loose around her shoulders, smiling and laughing. Becca was on one side of her, Jill on the other. Those three girls were, in my opinion, the t
Jill was almost lost in the shuffle when she was with Becca and Nell. She just couldn’t compete, if you ask me. If you looked at her when she was on her own or with other people, Jill was hot for sure, but she just wasn’t in the same league as Nell and Becca. Jill was a Barbie doll, like, for real. Tall, impossibly proportioned, naturally shock-blonde hair and blue eyes. She was the sweetest girl you’d ever meet, and yeah, I know, guys shouldn’t use the term “sweet,” but it just fit. Jill was sweet as a spoonful of sugar. She was also a stereotypical bubbly blonde in that she was almost unbelievably air-headed and kind of shallow. She was loyal as hell to her friends, though, and I liked that about her.
It was a High School Musical moment: the three hottest girls in school, striding side by side down the middle of the sun-bathed hallway, Nell in the middle, everyone watching her, admiring her, talking about her. And then she stopped right in front of me, smiling at me, saying hi to me, and I was frozen, gaping, stunned.
Someone bumped me from behind, hard, knocking me out of my reverie. Malcolm stumbled past me, coughing. “My bad, bro. I didn’t see you there. ” He nodded at Nell and the others. “Hey, whassup girls? Lookin’ fine today, I see. Lookin’ real fine, don’t you agree, Jason?” Malcolm liked to “play up his blackness,” as he put it, especially when he was trying to be funny, which was most of the time.
I glared at him, then turned my attention to Nell. “Hey, Nell. What’s up?” Lame. Lame. So lame.
She grinned at me. “Hi, Jason. ”
Becca and Jill had kept walking, stopping at their lockers a few feet away. This spot, the humanities hallway on the first floor near the lunchroom and the adjacent outdoor courtyard, was the prime focal point of our high school’s social world. It was where everything happened. You asked girls out there, you challenged guys to fights there, you broke up there. If you were popular, it was where you hung out and got seen, where the leaders of the various cliques held court. So, of course, being one of the stars of the football team, I had to ask her out there. Nell was popular, but she was the kind of girl who didn’t have a clique. She was cool with everyone, popular because she was beautiful, smart, and the daughter of the second most influential man in our town, second only to Kyle’s dad, and she was Kyle’s best friend. Kyle, of course, was the god of the high school. He was the star quarterback, All-State at sixteen, the son of a senator, and so good-looking it was stupid. He had the perfect life. Best friends with the hottest girl in school, rich, good-looking, popular, athletic, awesome parents. He even had a badass car, a classic Camaro SS his older brother had rebuilt and then left behind when he ran off at seventeen. The only reason I didn’t hate Kyle was that he was my best friend and I’d known him since kindergarten, and I could tell everyone the story of when he peed his pants in third grade and I’d covered for him.