By Nana K. Adjei-Brenyah
We are those dudes. The muscle and the gavel, the Friday night lights. Together we run shit, because we can, because we have to. We brothers bound irrevocably by two parts popularity, two parts personality, and three parts fear, are the power at Eliot Becker High. If you haven’t spotted us already we wear cardigans.
Cardigans of every color, from heavy earth tones to summery pastels. We do wool cardigans over mock turtlenecks and cable-knit cardigans over button-ups, basic cotton cardigans over graphic tees or V-necks, cashmere cardigans to be fancy and, of course, for girls to feel on. Cashmere is made from the wool of goats raised way up in the mountains, it’s expensive, expensive and classy. We have class, so, on occasion, we wear cashmere. When we wear cashmere we let them know we’re wearing cashmere. We do not wear cardigans every day, but on any day, within the group, there are one or two cardigans. Trust.
We sit at a long table, ornamented with foam lunch trays and tiny boxes of juice, in the center of the cafeteria with the girls that matter. They matter because they are with us. Most of them are very skinny, and some of them are thin, a few of them are thick, just enough meat on ’em. None are fat. We decide what’s thick and what’s fat. When they see any one of us, they see all of us. When we see them, we see eye glitter and round asses. We think of how they got to be the girls that matter by putting out in their mother’s bed after carefully removing the good sheets because “that would be disrespectful,” in the girl’s locker room, still sweaty from softball practice and, that one time, outside in Flecher Park, behind the far swings but not so far that you couldn’t see us if you took the time to look. When we look at the more wholesome girls among the girls that matter we think of all the things they do in the back seats of our cars while “technically” preserving their virginity.
At lunch we are the centerpiece, they talk about us, they’re jealous of who we are and what we have. They talk about how fake we are, how popular we are. They hate us, some try to ignore us, but really we’re all they ever want to talk about.
We talk about them all the time, almost as much as we talk about ourselves. Among us there are a few Juniors and more Seniors, just one sophomore, he’s our youngest. The sophomore is lucky to be down. He knows it, and we know it. We know each other well. Sixth period is when we consolidate all we see and hear.
“Did you see Heffer Francis today?” we say to our selves and the girls that matter.
“Yeah, in those fucking leggings.”
“Kinda like a whale trying to squeeze into a condom.”
We laugh. The girls that matter laugh too. We are hilarious.
Harriet “Heffer” Francis is one of the nicest girls at school. We know this. Her freshman year, she was considerably overweight, really, a wide load fat ass. She took up seventy-five percent of a two-person seat on the yellow bus, leaving only enough space for half a person to sit beside her, which was more than enough, because freshman year, no one would be caught dead sitting next to Heffer Francis. Boys would lap up on each other before even looking at that sliver of brown faux leather Heffer left available.
Since then – because of us – she’s slimmed down to about a third of her former self and become twice the woman. Now, thick, fat or whatever we decide she is, Heffer is one of the prettiest that Eliot Becker has to offer. Her black hair floats down to her shoulder blades and her green eyes once buried in a pie of face fat have found the surface. We’ve noticed how beautiful they are, we don’t like it.
Last year we had a “Heffer week.” Every day for a week we poured a carton of Milkland farms chocolate milk on Heffer’s head. We would mix up exactly when we’d get her but before that last bell rang, trust, Heffer got her milk. We’d cheer and make moo’ing sounds. We’ve never laughed so hard.
The best was Saturday of Heffer Week, we knew she’d be out jogging around Fordham Lake. We spent that afternoon using funnels to fill water balloons with the chocolate milk. When we appeared at the end of her jog with a cooler full of ice cold chocolate milk bouncing around in red and blue balloons, she didn’t run or scream or anything. And when we started pitching them at her like we were competing for a spot on a major league team, well, that was a highlight in many of our young lives. We remember balloons exploding on contact. Liquid fireworks. We remember the brown milk crawling down her hair and drying on her face before the tears began to cut little rivers into the chocolate stains on her cheeks.
She never said anything to anybody.
Heffer has a lot of pride; we see it in her walk. Sometimes, as she struts by we smile, real wide, at her. She has the nerve to smile back. We don’t care. We are the top of totem pole and the hand that carves it.
Homecoming night is our night. We’re wearing cardigans saved for tonight. Long, snaking skinny ties or silk bow ties are at our necks. We are fresh as all hell. Everything is clean and pressed and polished.
We take swigs from Gatorade bottles filled with Bacardi and Sprite in almost equal parts. We make sure the sophomore takes nice, long gulps. He tries his best to smile through the burn. We notice little tears creeping from the corners of his eyes. We tell him to keep going. We hold the bottle when he tries to fight it. He finishes the bottle. It’s his first time drinking.
We walk towards the back doors of Eliot Becker High. Together we look like a fresh ass Van Gogh painting or something, the one with the mountain at night. When we walk in the building we are noticed. We are purposefully late.
We gather in the back of the gym, in the darkest end, opposite the DJ booth, underneath the basketball rim. We’ve missed the awkward hesitance that swirls early on at these events, when guys are afraid to approach girls and the girls are afraid to let them know it’s okay. We skip that part. We stand for a while, just posting there, soon they come.
We press girls onto the dusty matted gym walls and they squeal with nervous delight as we dance and occasionally touch them inappropriately. “It’s okay, relax,” we whisper in their ears. We like the lingering singed smell of their freshly straightened hair. We love the waxy sweet of their lip gloss. They run their fingers up and down our cardigans; we let them know about the cashmere.
In the dim light you can hardly see us, unless you’re standing close, and your eyes have adjusted. They glance towards our end of the gym, over and over and over, imagining our fun.
Late in the night we get a little tired. We’d been drinking.
We head to the bathroom. When we arrive we’re met by a slew of whispers, the sound of a small mob of girls startled by our appearance. There’s a line for the girls bathroom, well, more like a waiting list. A bunch of them are waiting in a huddle, gossiping and clicking their heels impatiently.
There are a lot of girls that could matter standing outside the bathroom, but there’s one girl we notice. She’s close to the fountain between the two bathroom doors, away from the crowd. She’s pacing back and forth like her bladder is about to split and, with each step, we notice how good she looks in those violent blue heels, each of their four inches feels like a statement. Her black curls have dropped to loose waves in the lateness of the night, and she’s wearing leggings again, they’re dark gray and they look beautifully suffocating. With the white blazer she’s got shining on top of her blouse, no one can deny she looks good. She either doesn’t care that we’re there or doesn’t notice, and after gingerly stomping back and forth a few more times Heffer Francis decides she’s waited long enough and pushes the Men’s door open. We smile, we frown. We wait about five seconds. We shuffle in after her.
She’s in a stall pissing like there’s no tomorrow, and we’re cramming ourselves into this tiny bathroom, pretending like we’re anything but predators. A few of us adjust our bow ties in the mirror and two actually pee in the urinals, mostly we wait. Heffer is done in the stall; she’s waiting for us to leave, she’s a smart girl.
We know she’s smart because she tutors math after school. Last semester, even after “Heffer week,” she still helped us. We can’t forgive her for that. When we appeared at the study room she looked at us the way you’d look at a stray dog. We wanted so much for her to laugh or cry and to refuse to help. But when it was just her and the numbers between us and she finally had her chance to strike back she made us feel like we were less than we are. She helped us. We can’t forgive her for that.
We get impatient. There’s not much to see in the bathroom, white tile floor, two green stalls and two piss-stained urinals. We’re bored standing around, so we give the stall door a few polite knocks with our knuckles. We try to muffle our laughter.
“Hello, we need the stall,” we call.
“Can’t I even use the bathroom in peace?” Her voice is steady, sharp.
“Heffer, this is very rude you know, people are waiting.”
“Get out. It’ll be all yours.”
“We’re not leaving,” we say, flat and cold as a brick.
She gets it. We can hear her stand up off the toilet and adjust herself.
The stall door swings open with a small squeak. She emerges beautifully. In her heels she’s taller than most of us. He face is round and soft, even with the all-business look that’s glued to it. Those green eyes of her’s are set to high beam. We notice a gold necklace we hadn’t seen before and we stare at her thighs trapped in those leggings.
“See you guys later.” She tries to step through our numbers but, of course, we don’t let her by. She’s staring all of us straight in the eye as we block the only way out. We realize how little the bathroom is and how, in there, we’re packed so close together it’s hard to make out where one cardigan ends and the next begins. “C’mon. Aren’t we getting too old for this?” She’s getting nervous, she’s trying to hide it but we can smell it.
“What’s the rush? Don’t pretend like you haven’t wanted us to notice you.” We lasso an arm around her shoulder.
“You’re delusional Mike.” We wince at the sound of the name like we’ve been hit by a jab to the gut.
“Heffer, we would like to personally apologize for a lot of miscommunication between us in the past.” She coughs a harsh laugh; she thinks we’re a joke.
“You’re sick. Let me go.” She spins and unwinds herself from our grasp and stands, arms folded, looking at the small sea of cardigans between her and the door.
“Honestly Heffer, this is the men’s room, we’re men. We have needs.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” We’re asking ourselves the same, but we keep going.
“It means that if you come into this room you have to do certain things.”
“Go to hell. Mike.” It stings again as she spits the name across her glossy lips but we absorb the feeling and descend on her to get a good strong grasp on her right ass cheek .
“Don’t touch me!”
“C’mon, Harriet, stop pretending.”
“I swear to God.”
We’re pushing her up against the cold, gray walls and we’re kissing her neck. She tastes like sweat and candy. We even bite her gold chain like a rabid dog. She’s fighting us but we’re stronger. We have both of her hands pinned above her head, she looks like twelve o’ clock on the bathroom wall.
We’re watching all of this and we’re thinking that Heffer goes to the same church as us or that she used to babysit our little sister. But, in the very same second, we’re thinking, at least we get to look good in our goddamn cobalt, cable stitch, varsity style cardigan, right? That must be what matters most. It must be because even as we sexually harass the nicest girl in our school, we’re staring at our reflections jumping off the fogging bathroom mirror and adjust the bow ties at our necks, or we just watch the whole thing and smile.
“Please! Calvin, Robbie, Mark!” She’s calling names, it hurts so bad as she does, like a hot steel rod is skewering us to each other, punching through our back before stabbing through the next’s chest. We feel a curdling in our gut. Our fingers are clawing her chest. Heffer’s crying now. “Logan!”
There’s a gurgling sound and then there’s vomit all over the floor. We’re angry because there are half digested hot dog chunks on our boat shoes. Logan threw-up, he’s the sophomore, our youngest. We shouldn’t have let him drink so much. The corners of our eyes begin to sting. We laugh and rub away the feeling with our palms.
“Can we go?” Logan asks. We look around and with orange puke on the floor, and Heffer quietly crying as we hold her against her will, there’s really nothing left to do but leave. We grab a few brown paper towels from a dispenser to clean up our shoes, then we let Heffer go, but not before going for one more good feel on her ass. We want the left cheek. As we reach, Harriet turns and throws her first fist so hard a head snaps back, and, in seconds, blood is flowing down gaping nostrils, across lips, collecting at wispy chin stubble and finally dripping onto to a brand new grey cashmere cardigan.
“Fuck all of you,” she says as she runs out ahead of us. We let her leave, like nothing happened. She won’t say anything. We are still the muscle and the gavel.
We look in the mirror a last time. The sophomore unbuttons his cardigan and throws it in the trash because he’s gotten vomit all over it. Sucks bro, we think, it was a really nice cardigan too. The grey cardigan stays, we use toilet paper to plug the nose bleed. Blood stained or not, cashmere is cashmere, it’s made from the wool of goats raised high in the mountains. We have class.
A consistent believer in the power of belief, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is currently a Senior writing his way through his final year of undergraduate study at the State University at Albany. He identifies as many things: a winner, a stone cold killer, a reader and an aspiring writer. It just so happens that the Deathmatch presents a unique circumstance where he can be all of these things at once.