I stood by abandoned skeletal cars and told the boy two years older than me that I was as tough as him. Tommy looked like a bulldog of a boy. Stout and muscular. A real jerk, if you asked me. He always had something to say—some way of suggesting himself bigger, better, or badder than the others.
This particular Friday night, he boasted about his pain threshold. “I can take more pain than anybody here,” he said. “Go ahead, punch me.” He gloated as he patted his stomach that everyone already knew he kept rock hard. We all knew this because he kept pulling his shirt up and flexing his abs so no one forgot. “But you better be ready for what comes next.” Tommy jabbed the air with his fists and hopped around, amped up. The other guys laughed with glazed and reddened eyes, which only encouraged him. Tommy kept going, wouldn’t give it a rest. “Who thinks they’re as tough as me?”
I got sick of hearing his bluster. If none of the guys would put him in his place, well, then I would. Anything to shut him up. “You can’t take shit,” I said and listened to the guys whistle at a girl’s audacity. “Even I could take more than you,” I said from behind him, but not moving. I didn’t need to.
Tommy circled me, sizing me up, like maybe we would come to blows. OK by me, I thought, waiting patiently for his next move—probably just more lip. My brother had long ago taught me how to box. Got me gloves. Told me how to throw a punch, but even more important, how to take one. We were that kind of family.
He licked his lips. “Let’s see it,” Tommy said. “Prove it,” he egged. He pushed up his coat sleeve and bared his forearm. He shoved his thick arm in my face like a club. Veins popping. “If you think you’re that tough, let’s see who flinches first.” He was referring to a flesh and bone version of the game chicken. Place your arms side by side while a third party presses a lit cigarette between them and see who pulls away first. Child’s play.
Tommy’s arm, while meaty and strong, stretched before me as smooth and clear as still waters. No scars. No bruises. No mark indicating he knew anything about anything. Tommy wasn’t like the rest of us. His family had money; things came easy for him. We drank at the junkyard outside of town because we had nowhere else to go. But Tommy did have somewhere else to go. He could go home, which was more than I could say for the rest of us.
And so I shrugged. “All right,” I said and placed my own cigarette between my lips and let it dangle there while I removed my coat, rolled up my sleeve to the elbow, and placed my forearm next to his. Balling up my fist. I felt the side of Tommy’s arm against my own. Warm and firm. The dead of winter made me shiver.
He dropped his arm for a moment. “Scared?” he asked, getting too close to my face, like he had a secret to tell, like he could turn me on. Like he had something I didn’t.
I rolled my eyes. “You wish,” I said and watched the peacock strut. He puffed his chest out, arms back, and rolled his shoulders around like a boxer warming up in a ring. He tried to tower over me, but he stood at only five foot nine, and I an inch below him. But from the way he postured, you’d have thought I was a goddamn giant. I stood still. Waiting. “Are you done yet?”
Tommy glared at me. “Just getting started,” he said.
The second boy, Dave, more my friend than my opponent’s, looked at me. “Are you sure?” he asked.
I needed to test my resolve, needed to know that I could withstand whatever came my way. I needed to know this fundamentally….
And while I knew Dave meant well, tried to watch out for me, I just looked at those boys and raised an eyebrow, smirking with the right half of my mouth. My favorite side for smirking.
“All right,” Dave said and took his own cigarette in his fingers, blew off the ash gathering around the glowing ember, and placed it softly between our arms. I felt Tommy flinch instantly. He stretched his back leg out beneath him. His whole body shifted its weight this way and that. I felt his skin squirming against mine, pushing against me for support, and so I pushed right back. I stared at the orange red cherry Dave kept easing into our flesh, careful not to let it go out, and then looked up and saw Tommy’s face. His eyes scrunched tight. His neck flexed like a baby bird breaking out from its shell for the first time. I felt his arm vibrate, wanting to pull away. I saw his lips turn inward on themselves, betraying himself, and I knew I would win.
My father always told me to toughen up. Keep a stiff upper lip, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, take it on the chin. Shit like that. He screamed these things as he threw me to the floor, against walls or doors. He said these things after his thick forehead clashed with mine. He said it, disgusted, as my lip began to quiver before him. The one part of my body I could not keep still—a weakness I’d yet to master.
And so when Tommy taunted me at the party, there wasn’t a chance in hell I’d just sit there and take it. I needed to test my resolve, needed to know that I could withstand whatever came my way. I needed to know this fundamentally, but what did Tommy need—why thrust his arm before me asking for a punishment he couldn’t stomach?
A group of guys from the party had circled us. Tommy buried his face against his shoulder, his body twitching, and I thought for a moment that I could hear his heartbeat, a thudding fury inside his chest, but the pounding I heard was my own.
Eventually he yelled, “Enough!” and jerked his arm away, pulling it up towards his chest like a wounded dog. He glared at me as though this was my fault, as though I had challenged him, and I felt sorry for him. Sorry someone had to lose.
He sulked off toward his car, slammed the door and sped away—the other guys yelling after him, teasing him about being weaker than a girl.
One of the guys handed me a fifth of Old Crow. I pulled a heavy swig from the bottle. The boy looked at me. “I bet you can’t go shot for shot.”
Dave looked at the guy. “Did you see her arm? You’re an idiot if you think you can out drink her.”
We all looked down at my arm half blistered, half raw flesh where the skin had burned away. Dave asked me if it hurt and then told me I should put something on it, some medicine, so it wouldn’t scar. I think he felt bad about his part in it.
I poured Old Crow over the top of the open wound. “It’s going to scar no matter what,” I said. Then I took another swig of whiskey and handed the bottle back to the boy. “Your turn.”
“You’re crazy,” he said and backed away, taking his whiskey with him.
Once the dust from Tommy’s Camaro settled, I asked my friend if I had looked like him. “Was my face all messed up like his?” I asked, knowing appearances matter. They’re everything in a world like ours.
Dave looked at me. “No,” he said. “You just smiled.” His eyes left mine and surveyed the old Chevys and Ford pickups that had long since broken down and been covered in patches of rust. The graveyard of unfinished business. “It was like you felt nothing.”
I did not look at him, could not look at him, my voice a thin whisper of itself. “I feel everything.”