Street Fighting Man, Chapter 1

It was Kevin’s last day in hell.

Hell being Button Gwinnett Junior High, the school Kevin Choi transferred to in the middle of his 8th grade year. The day would’ve been bearable if he just had to clean out his locker and sit in a stuffy classroom. The lights were sometimes turned off as a placebo for the mind-numbing heat and humidity. It was the perfect microcosm to nod off and drool on a desk. But no. The forces of the universe, the powers-that-be, actively conspired to make Kevin’s life as miserable as possible. The last day of school had to be a field day.

Instead of counting down the interminable minutes to the final bell in a muggy tomb, Kevin was standing in the middle of a field where a withering late May, midday Georgia sun piledrove him into the scorched earth. He was standing with his homeroom class; a motley assortment of jocks, preps, rednecks, nerds, and students bussed in from inner-city Atlanta. These social demarcations existed since time immemorial, but were briefly suspended on field day in the name of homeroom camaraderie. Everyone hated it.

There were a few kids at school that Kevin was friendly with, but none were in his homeroom. The gut-twisting feeling of being other and alone was amplified in the unfamiliar, irregular ranks of his homeroom. It wasn’t bad enough that Kevin was a new student, bereft of the safety net of social connections woven over years of shared experience, he was also a minority of minorities. A Korean-American transplanted to what Kevin considered the deep, dark South. Any deeper, Kevin thought, and he’d find himself in Hazzard County.

Over the school year, an irritating number of students remarked how Kevin was the first Asian person they’d seen up close. Most of these interactions were simply curious and harmlessly uninformed, but some were outright belligerent in their ignorance. But that wasn’t anything new to Kevin, even when he lived in New Jersey, where Asian kids were not quite a dime a dozen, but prevalent enough to suppress the open-mouthed, goggle-eyed stares he received in Georgia.

There were maybe two or three other Asian kids in Kevin’s school. He surveyed them in the edge of his vision, avoiding direct eye contact and thus acknowledging their own benighted existence. Though he didn’t articulate the thought in concrete terms, Kevin felt there were few things more pathetic than associating with others similarly alienated. If you’re going to be an outcast, at least have the decency to do it alone. He didn’t think that way anymore, his pride succumbing to the crushing loneliness one can only feel when surrounded by people.

Coach Maddox, Kevin’s homeroom teacher, was trying to rally her students in the homeroom cheer competition. She was a stout, rosy-cheeked woman with a mullet. Kevin wasn’t sure what she coached besides the 30 listless students in front of her. Coach Maddox ran up and down the lines of her students, pumping her arms and growing redder by the second. “C’mon! C’mon! C’MOOOOOOON!” To Kevin’s alarm, Coach Maddox’s exhortations grew to a shrill and braying crescendo of rodent-like mewling, her entire face a perverse shade of red. It reminded Kevin of a baboon’s swollen red buttocks. He looked away in shame.

The riotous cheers of hundreds of students died down as the principal trilled a whistle to end the cheer competition. After a brief discussion with the vice principal and guidance counselors, the judges of the school field day, Principal Hackett declared some homeroom not Kevin’s as the winner. Raucous celebration from another section of the field. Kevin heard grumbling behind him. “We would’ve won if these fags helped out.” Kevin caught the movement of a hand jerked in his direction and felt eyes on him. Hot, itchy prickles of shame and anger flashed across his neck and jaw. He didn’t bother to see who was talking. Probably some jock named Brock or Connor.

“Who the hell cares?” Kevin muttered as he kicked up a clod of turf. He hated that it bothered him so much.

Kevin expended the theoretical absolute minimum amount of effort that could be called participation for the remainder of the events: tug of war tournament, relay race, human pyramid, inflated pig bladder (water balloon) toss, et al. At the end, points were tallied, and Kevin’s homeroom walked away with an 11th place ribbon. Kevin looked at the ribbon. It struck him as absurd that such a thing existed. An 11th place ribbon? He made a bemused snort and pocketed the ribbon. It wasn’t even worth throwing away.

Principal Hackett gave an end-of-year address to the students through a megaphone. It was as bland and generic as the day was pointless. Kevin’s mind was wandering when he realized most of the students around him had their eyes closed and hands clasped together. The principal was leading the school in prayer. Kevin realized he hadn’t taken a breath, so struck was he by the strangeness of the scene. He quickly lowered his head and looked at his feet. Something like this would never have happened at his old school in New Jersey, but this was a different school, a different state, a different world.

Kevin thought about the possible unconstitutionality of what he just witnessed, but more and more he accepted these and other peculiarities as part of life in Georgia. The Southern drawl with its maddening vernacular. Students wearing camouflage coveralls to school. The paddle hanging in the principal’s office that was not for show. How could he ever be expected to adjust to a place so fundamentally incongruent to the home he once had?

After principal Hackett’s benediction, he absolved the students of all academic responsibility, and set them loose until the final bell. Teachers patrolled the school grounds to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. The occasional scuffle flared up, quelled with brutal swiftness by vigilant teachers long sick of these students. If a teacher threw a careless punch or two and connected, it was lost in the scrum. And in the hidden recesses of the grounds, cigarettes were smoked and bodies were groped.

Kevin looked for Daryl Chen, an improbably small overlap in the Venn diagram of the student body. Not only was Daryl one of the few Asians at school, he was also Kevin’s only friend, which made him an even rarer quantity. Daryl was milling about with a group of boys too insecure to be alone, yet not hormonal enough to dare socialize with girls. Kevin knew all the boys in the group from his classes. Some acknowledged Kevin’s arrival with a nod before resuming conversation. Not quite acceptance, but close enough.

They wandered without purpose across the school grounds. There were impromptu spitting contests, pebble throwing contests, and other random diversions that 13 year-old boys invented when bored. Kevin didn’t join in, being content to hang back and snicker when appropriate.

“What are you gonna do this summer?” Daryl asked.

Kevin paused. “Hmm. Probably just play games, read comics, draw.”

“Cool. Let’s hang out. Finally play some Dungeons and Dragons or something.”

When Kevin first transferred to Button Gwinnett Junior High, he carried a Dungeons and Dragons rulebook to fill all the dead time when nobody talked to him. It’s not like he really made an effort, either. Daryl had seen Kevin reading the familiar thin, red book, the cover featuring a warrior fighting a dragon on a massive bed of gold. Daryl was the first to talk. He figured it was his responsibility, according to the complicated social calculus involved when dealing with new students. The conversation spilled over into the hallway and kept up pretty much since.

Kevin and Daryl became fast friends, bonding over many shared, geeky interests: D&D, video games, comics, genre fiction, Japanese animation, and cult film. Kevin had to fight the urge to be clingy and desperate because Daryl was a lifeline in an environment that seemed so alien and inhospitable. But Daryl had other friends, being an Atlanta native and having been in the same school system for several years. He alone was unable to fill Kevin’s hungry need to be accepted and known. Though Daryl introduced him to others in the class, Kevin had a hard time warming up to them. At this point in the school year, with social circles clearly defined, they had no need to make more friends. It just wasn’t worth the effort.

The rest of the group had fallen behind as Kevin and Daryl discussed potential summer plans. In the middle of planning out optimal bike routes to the comic book store, arcade at the mall, and to each other’s houses, Kevin felt a tap on his shoulder. It was a kid named Bryce Timm.

“Dude, they gleeked all over your back.” His face strained with the effort to hold back a laugh.

Kevin turned to look at his back. Dark pinpricks of saliva made a constellation map all over his t-shirt. Daryl’s back was untouched. Of course it was. He looked at Bryce, who clapped his hands and bent over with silent laughter. Kevin looked at the other faces in the group and saw they were laughing as well. He felt a mass of raw, black anger form in his stomach and roll over into a raging boil. His temples throbbed.

“What the hell, you guys?” asked Daryl.

“Chill out. It was just a jo…” Bryce’s excuse was cut short by Kevin’s unexpected right hook to the jaw. Bryce stumbled back and held his face in disbelief. He’d never been punched in the face before. The air turned as thick as pitch as the boys tried to process what was happening.

A long, breathless interval passed.

When the world began to turn again, Bryce stirred, his face contorted and purpling in anger. “What the…”

Bryce’s words were cut off again. This time by a solid roundhouse kick to the stomach. As Bryce doubled over, unable to breathe, Kevin cuffed a hand behind Bryce’s neck, flipped him over, and sent him tumbling headlong down the steep hill that flattened out into the activity fields below. Almost as one, the entire school turned and held their breaths as they watched Bryce pinwheel down the hill in a growing cloud of choking dust. After what seemed like minutes, Bryce slammed into the ground at the bottom of the hill and lay moaning.

The boys at the top of the hill stared at Bryce in mute shock. Sentiments of remorse mingled with resolutions of violence. By the time they looked towards Kevin, it was too late. Whatever retaliation they hoped to exact was drowned out in the frothing wake of Kevin’s anger. He lashed out at them one at a time and all at once. Knife-handed chops to the neck, snapping kicks to the side of the head, punishing blows to the solar plexus, and one by one, as with Bryce, Kevin sent them hurtling down to earth below.

Or that’s what Kevin wished had happened.

“What the hell, you guys?” asked Daryl.

“Chill out. It was just a joke.” Bryce snickered and joined his friends.

Kevin felt the anger percolate into hot pools that threatened to spill over from his eyes. He absolutely could not let that happen. But Bryce and the other boys weren’t even looking at him anymore. They were already walking off, looking for their next piece of idle amusement. Kevin turned to leave.

“Hey, wait!” Daryl blurted out. Kevin stopped and looked at him.

“You’re hanging out with him?” Bryce sneered.

Daryl looked over at his friends. He looked back at Kevin and gave a pitiful shrug that begged for absolution. Kevin made the decision for him and walked away, half-blind with tears.

He found a section of wall far away from the throngs of restless students and sat down. Kevin looked out at the crowds with a fierce, stabbing resentment. He hated all those stupid kids. He hated this stupid school. He hated this stupid state and the circumstances that forced him here. And Daryl. That stupid traitor. They were supposed to be friends. Kevin wiped the tears from his face as his anger subsided into a dull fugue.

When the final bell of the school year rang, Kevin remained still, mouth parted. He breathed through his teeth, stoking the dying embers of his rage. Kevin saw the mad rush of students swarming to the buses. He rose haltingly to his feet and started walking to his bus. His back and legs were sore from sitting in place for so long, but the discomfort kept the anger alive. He avoided the students in his classes, anyone that would recognize him.

Step by step, the black nucleus of Kevin’s anger petered out. By the time he set foot onto the bus, the ashen remains drifted up into nothing. He took an empty seat near the middle, leaned back, and sighed. The strong smell of warm vinyl was like a balm. A warm breeze washed over him from the open window.  God, Kevin thought. Finally. The sense of relief was almost physical.

He flipped a middle finger at the school as the bus pulled away.

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