We’re passing a joint back and forth, ambling through an alley behind some tumbledown houses with rusted aluminum siding. The sun is starting to go down when flashing red and blue lights interrupt our giggling. “Shit,” Cass says as she pinches the lit end of the joint and drops it in her half-full pack of Marlboros.
We’re standing on one side of a chicken wire fence. On the other is a dry, brown backyard. Sagging clothesline and deteriorated dog toys. A tiny corrugated shed covered in rust. Everything is parched and corroded. Life and color choked and eaten away. He’s there, at the other end of the yard, on the back porch. A dingy white t-shirt where the football jersey used to be. At his feet, a silver-haired woman in flannel shirt and sweatpants sprawled out and limp as a couple of paramedics try to save her from… something.
Me and Cassie, we forget that we’re visible. That we’re not standing outside of this reality looking in. She says, “Dude. Isn’t that…”
“Yeah,” I say, “That’s him.”
He’s in every high school in every town. Not the smartest guy or the coolest guy. Not the best-looking or most popular guy, but the one always standing next to them. The one we’d all made out with at some point. Maybe at a party, or behind the school. The guy who had a new girlfriend every few weeks.
I made out with him in spite of the football jersey, not because of it. Because the guy I would have rather been awkwardly kissing friend zoned me. Yeah, girls get exiled to the zone. Happens all the time. You don’t hear about it because we don’t rattle on about it, we just grab the easy guy in the football jersey for a distraction.
He sucked an ugly blotch of a hickey onto my neck. As I smeared a thick layer of creamy beige foundation on it, I wondered how this is sexy. Why is this cool? It didn’t feel good and looked like an unfortunate symptom of a terrible disease.
Nothing about him felt good. That’s why I chickened out right around second base. Why he gave himself an ego boost and told the smartest guy and coolest guy on either side of him how he gave it to me good over and over again. As if a fifteen-year-old could give it good to anyone.
Then they started calling. Writing notes passed from one hand to another. Invitations from other football jerseys. From guys who’d heard it from someone who heard it from whoever. When I claim the title of virgin, no one believes it. No one cares. They just don’t want the title for themselves. Their rumors stuck. I couldn’t peel them off. Nobody wanted to see what was underneath, anyway.
He looks up. Cassie and I remember we’re not hidden. We’re blatantly gawking at his suffering. Looking at his tear-streaked face, he must have realized he’s exposed, too.
A small angry voice echoes from an ignored cavern of humiliation, wanting to feel satisfaction in how pitiful he looks right now, in his dirty shirt, his sobbing face, and those sad sneakers with the Velcro straps.
Velcro straps. Instead of laces. Somehow this strikes me as the most pitiful of all. I glance at the woman who’s now being strapped on a gurney and wonder if she bought him those shoes. Shoes he didn’t even have to tie.
What really throws me is that this decomposing, forgettable place could be his home. What knocks me out is that this is my neighborhood and he was here all along.
“Hey,” Cass says, “didn’t you make out with that dude?”
Our feet crunch on the gravel as we continue on down the alley, ready to leave that scene behind us.
“Yeah. Didn’t you make out with him, too?”
She laughs, pulls out her smokes and digs for the roach. “Yeah. Fucking high school, man. We all did some stupid shit.”
“Yeah. Fucking high school,” I say, trying to sound like I’m one of those people who can let the worst feelings just bounce off into nowhere.
Rasmenia Massoud is from Colorado, but after a few weird turns, ended up spending several years in France. Once she learned all she could about fromage and cassoulet, she moved on to England, where she lives and writes while trying to keep out of the rain. She is the author of three short story collections as well as several stories published in literary journals throughout the U.S., Canada, Ireland and the U.K. Her novella Circuits End, published by Running Wild Press, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2019. A second novella, Tied Within, was published in 2020.