We head out of the vestibule and over to the snack bar for a bite. We order two large pizzas - one cheese, one pepperoni - and a basket of chili cheese fries and take a seat at a large booth, waiting for the arcade attendant to bring out our food. I slide in after Tractor and get squished between him and Bowie. Tractor is still hot from the game and starting to stink a little with sweat. Being pressed to his moist clothes and warm body is uncomfortable, but I don’t say anything.
I’m across from Calvin, who is between Axel and Josh. We exchange knowing looks, like he understands how secretly gross it is to be squished between two sweaty boys. Sometimes I believe he can read my mind.
It doesn’t take very long for our food to come out, which makes me worry about the quality of the pizza. But it’s food, and we’re starved, so we eat.
“Man, this is bangin’,” Josh garbles through a mouthful of pizza, grease running down his chin. “Why did we all, like, never hang out before?”
Cal looks at me, eyebrows raised. I look at my food, chewing slowly, holding a crumpled napkin in front of my mouth.
“Stevie wasn’t too keen on making friends,” Cal says for me.
“Now, wait a minute,” Gunner says, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “I thought y’all were friends with Justin and them.”
I take a sip of water, but it goes down the wrong pipe and I cough. I look at Cal. He looks at me. They’re encroaching on a subject I don’t want to touch with a thirty-nine and a half-foot pole.
Tractor smacks my back to help with the cough. It rattles my bones.
“Thanks, bro,” I cough, “I’m good.”
When I’m done coughing, I say, “We, uh...we dated for a little bit last year. That’s all.”
“Who?! You and Justin?!” Josh exclaims. “I didn’t know that!”
“Yeah,” I mumble, sipping my water again. This is getting awkward.
“No way! Why’d you break up?!”
“Yeah, why did you? Justin’s, like, the coolest dude ever,” Bowie chimes in.
“No, he’s not,” Axel says defensively, and it occurs to me that he’s really got a crush on Calvin.
Cal shakes his head.
“Let’s not go there, guys,” he says. The table falls silent. The air is thick with awkward. Everyone directs their eyes to pizza, fries, or off into space.
No one knows the real reason Justin and I broke up. Nobody knows what really happened. I didn’t even tell Calvin all the details. I just gave him a vague sketch and left it at that. I haven’t spoken the truth into existence. It hangs in my memory like a phantom; with every day that I don’t tell, it seems to become less and less real, like it never actually happened. Did it happen?
If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?
If I don’t tell, no one will ever hear it, and it will become unreal.
I take a massive breath. I’m shaking a little. My knee is bouncing unintentionally.
“Justin assaulted me.” The sound of my own voice saying these words is both scary and empowering. They burst from my chest, long overdue.
The boys all stare at me.
“Stevie, you don’t have to - ” Cal says, but I cut him off.
“I want to,” I say sharply, and then again, gently, “I want to.”
“Okay,” he nods. He doesn’t understand that sometimes I have to do things, whether I want to or not.
“Justin and I were an item, beginning of last year,” I explain. Each word drops from my mouth like marbles spilling from a jar, rolling off the table, and hitting the floor. “One day, last October, he invited me over for dinner. Only, when I showed up, there was no one there...except Justin. And even though spaghetti was available for consumption, I suddenly wasn’t all that hungry. In fact, the idea of food made me sick. I knew something was wrong, but I ignored it.”
I can smell it. The tangy, irony spaghetti sauce. And feel the warmth of the kitchen on that cold October night. The uneasy churning of my stomach when I walked into the kitchen and realized there was no one there but us. The hair standing up on the back of my neck. The feeling of wanting to run, but being rooted to the spot.
“All the lights were off in the house, except in the kitchen. Justin, in his typical easy manner, tried to offer me food. I couldn’t eat. I watched for a few minutes as he finished off a plate of pasta. Then he suggested we watch some TV for a while. I followed him to the living room, that same uneasy feeling close behind.”
My heart is pounding. I’m sitting across the booth from Justin, spaghetti on his plate. He is offering me some, but he doesn’t seem to care about me at all. His eyes are hollow and unfeeling. He shrugs when I decline and keeps eating in front of me. The smell is making me sick. I know something is wrong, but I don’t leave.
“He sat down on the couch, so did I. Only there was a definite space between us. He didn’t turn on the TV.”
The living room is dark. I wonder why he hasn’t turned the lights on. He sits down on the brown leather couch and looks at me.
Pop a squat he says, still emotionless. I swallow the growing dread and take the spot next to him. The leather is cold. I sink into the cushion. I stare at the television, waiting for him to turn it on, but he doesn’t. He’s just sitting there next to me, looking blankly at the screen. I’m hyper-aware of the space between us. It’s a clear line I’ve established, implying “Don’t cross this threshold.” The fact that he still hasn’t turned the TV on is starting to freak me out. I know something is wrong, but still I don’t leave.
“Almost immediately, he started making moves on me.”
We had kissed before. We’d made out a few times. But it was not at all a pleasant thing. It was like kissing a dead fish - cold, wet, lifeless. I felt obligated to, though, because I was his girlfriend, and that’s what they told me girlfriends are for.
“He put his hand on my thigh and kept moving it up. The other hand pushed me down before I really knew what was happening. He was kissing me and trying to pull off my shirt. I yanked it back down. I was too shocked to react properly. He ran his hands under my shirt, under my...under my b-bra...”
What the hell are you doing?! The scream is raw in my throat. I can feel the hoarseness. Panic grips me. I am on my back, pressing into the leather cushions. He is on top of me, pinning me down. His cologne is so strong in my nostrils, his neck pressed to my face, that it’s making me sick. I can’t get up. I can’t get up. Fingers run under my shirt, on my bare stomach. He lifts the fabric up to my neck, exposing my chest. The air is cold on my skin. I am embarrassed and ashamed of what I don’t want him to see. I tug the cotton T-shirt back down, trying to cover myself. His hands are creeping up my chest like spiders, crawling their way under my bra and all over my chest. Cold, venomous spiders grabbing at me.
Stop it! Get off! Get off! I cry. Abandoning my chest, he goes right for my jeans. His shaking fingers stumble over the button. His knees are on either side of my hips. He is bent over my torso. His crotch is exposed.
I fold my knees and ram them into his groin.
“He tries unbuttoning my pants, but I kick him off of me.”
He rolls off the couch and hits the wood floor, clutching himself.
What the fuck, bitch! he moans. I’mma fuckin kill you!
“I make a run for it.”
I spring from the couch and sprint out the front door. He’s calling after me to wait, come back, he didn’t mean it, he didn’t mean it, but I don’t listen. Heart ramming against my ribs, I bolt down the street and don’t stop until my chest burns and I can’t breathe and my side is cramping and my knees give out and I buckle to the ground and start weeping. Because the weight of what just happened finally hits me.
I drag my aching body home and don’t speak to anyone. The first thing I do is take a scalding hot shower. It leaves blisters on my skin, but that’s okay because I stay until the water runs ice cold. Then I put on some clean pajamas - my dad’s old blue plaid flannel pajama pants and one of his T-shirts - and crawl into bed and stare at the ceiling for hours and hours, waiting for sleep to come. But it never does.
“I didn’t sleep that night. So my mom let me stay home.”
The thought of seeing him again after what he did to me makes me throw up. Literally. I don’t eat a damn thing and dry-heave the whole day. No amount of Pepto-Bismol helps.
“The day after that, I go back to school.”
I am so scared, I make myself sick. I don’t want to go in. I can’t face him. But I have to. My mom makes me go in. I go out of my way to avoid him. I can’t bring myself to look at him.
“And I find out he’s told everyone that he dumped me because my boobs are fake, that I’m a bra stuffer. That he discovered this while we were getting it on at his house, and he rejected me for it, and I was too embarrassed to show my face as school the next day. He made it clear he only dated girls with a specific cup size, and if they didn’t measure up, he wouldn’t settle. Sorry, nothing personal. So now he paints me as this hopeless, desperate slut willing to give favors to anybody. If any guy would take a girl ‘as flat as Kansas,’ that is.”
“So that’s why they call you - ” Josh slams his mouth shut. I look hard at him.
“And why your number was on the bathroom walls,” Tractor drawls, eyebrows furrowed.
“Now you know,” I say. My mouth is cotton-dry. I take a long sip of water. I hadn’t realized it, but I’d been covering my chest with my arms, like how girls set picks in basketball games. “Didn’t you notice how guys used to grab my ass last year when I passed them in the hallway or cafeteria? Didn’t you hear all the nasty things they used to say about me?”
One guy even threw a dollar bill at me and said, “Here’s the tip from last night,” when I passed him in the lunch line - to which his friends all chortled and guffawed, of course.
Josh puts a leg up on the booth next to Cal, his knee bent, and rests his elbow on it. He makes a fist to lean his head on.
“Well uh, I mean, now that you mention it...” he looks somberly down at his plate. “Yeah, I did hear what people used to say about you...” He picks at the pepperoni on his untouched pizza slice with his free hand. “I mean, I ain’t gonna lie, I used to throw shade at you too...but I didn’t know you then...”
The table is silent. No one is looking at anyone. I stir my water with my straw. The ice clacks against the plastic sides of the cup.
“Stephanie, I would like to apologize,” Tractor says, his voice heavy. “I was with a group of boys who prank called you asking for a blow job. I didn’t want to, but I went along with it anyway. I should’ve stood up to them ‘n’ stuck up for you. But I didn’t. And I’m sorry.” He looks at me, his droopy blue eyes the color of denim. He looks like he could cry.
I place a hand on his upper arm.
“It’s okay,” I say. “Thank you.” I give him a squeeze and smile weakly. He puts an elbow on the table and rests his forehead in his hand.
“Jeezus. I never knew. It was that bad,” he breathes.
I turn my attention to Calvin. He’s twisting and twisting his napkin, so tight that it rips in half and he starts to twist one of the halves, which rips and he twists another half, and there’s little balls of twisted, mangled napkin littering his plate. He’s glaring blankly at the table.
And now I’ve gone and ruined our fun night.
Way to go, Stevie, you idiot. All I do is ruin everything.
I clear my throat.
“I’m gonna use the restroom,” I cough. I tap Bowie to signal he should let me out of the booth. He moves out and when I stand up, he doesn’t sit back down. He wraps his arms around my waist and rests his head on my shoulder, squeezing me tight. Axel stands up then, too, and does the same thing on my other side. I’m in a Twins Sandwich and they’re both squeezing me and won’t let go. I nuzzle the top of their heads, inhaling their oily, stinky scalps and feeling loved.