Giving Them Hell
(Sequel to Tough Guy and a Teacher's Pet)
"If you want to improve my life, get out of it".
That was the end of it. I headed for the basement to work off my anger. I was over it. Over her. Okay, not really but it helped to say so. I slammed the door shut and locked it for good measure.
I'm a dumbass for thinking she changed, I thought savagely as I thumped down the stairs. It was so fucking obvious. She only cares…about…school. I reinforced each word by pounding down on the next step. I wasn't going to lie. It hurt, it really hurt.
With an additional fifty pounds, I flung myself down on the bench-press. Soon my anger was replaced by frustration.
Why the hell did I just say that to her? I had been crushing on her for the last few months and I went and bitched her out. Again. No amount of bench-pressing could reverse my stupidity. I must've done thirty or forty reps now and my arms were numb.
Still, it wasn't her place to tell me what to do with my life, especially after betraying me. But maybe that was why I loved her…aside from being hotter than Hell; she actually cared about what happened to me. While returning to school was a waste of time, maybe it was the best thing I could do for myself. It would mean I could be with her, if that was what she wanted…
It didn't seem likely. I treated her so badly. Hell, I'd hate me too if I was her. With difficulty I replaced the bar.
"I am such a dumbass," I said aloud. "I always fuck up everything." I punched the wall and my fist broke through the plaster. Ouch. That brought the feeling back.
My knuckles were split and bloody. My own dumb fault. I started up the stairs to fix my hand up.
I paused at the top of the steps. "Mel?" I called hopefully. The only reply I got was the echo of my own voice in an empty house. She was gone…with good reason. I had only called her a two-faced bitch and challenged her character.
I fell back across the couch where it had all started. Screw my hand. It would serve as a mark of what could've been. I lifted the beer bottle I had left on the table in a sort of mock toast. Here's to a happy New Year and even happier 18th birthday, I thought listlessly. I drained the rest of the beer.
At least I didn't have to face the rest of the gang. Damien would hold it over me for the rest of our lives.
…When Damien and all the others did return, he was too preoccupied with some blonde chick he picked up to bother with me and my nonexistent love life. Alicia was a tearful mess; this was her first New Year without Darryl. She skulked off unnoticed. Everyone else seemed to be in a really good mood. They were shouting and acting idiotic. They snapped on every light in the place, making me squint.
Wanting no part of it, I rolled over on my side and lay still, pretending to be part of the couch. I was hurting and angry and I just wanted to be left alone. Or die. Whichever was easier.
Unfortunately, when one noticed me, they all did.
"There he is!"
"Mike-eee! B-day boy!"
I was surrounded.
"What are you doing home on New Year's?"
"New Screw Year's. It's your 18th birthday, man. You should be out drinking chicks and picking up drinks. I mean…"
"You watching the Ball drop?"
It was hard to believe they were almost six years older than I was. Even if I got completely trashed, I was sure I didn't act as dumb as they did. (Alicia told me that I would make out with anything in sight, but I didn't buy it).
"Dude, where's Mel? You should at least be gettin' some action for the New Year… Damien is."
"Hell, he has a girl a day. That guy knows how to live."
Even though they were pissing me off, I determinedly stared at the back of the couch. The fabric was blue, worn by cig smoke and old age. If I turned around, I would've punched a few faces in.
"Come on, let's go. He's no fun."
I was on the point of caving in when they all walked off. Finally their voices died down. Only when I was sure I wouldn't be attacked again, I got up. I needed air. My arm had fallen asleep and was now tingling painfully.
Not even to bother finding my keys—I'd lost those days ago, but suspected they would turn up soon—I headed outside. I inhaled deeply, the cold air filling my lungs. It was kind of refreshing. Goosebumps prickled on my bare arms, but I always had a high tolerance of cold weather. A few snowflakes were falling; the sky was still pitch-black, except for an occasional firework. It was like five o'clock in the morning. Talk about overkill.
Even if gas prices were getting ridiculously high, I wanted to get away and drive off my feelings. A lot of cops were out cleaning up after New Year's parties or collecting wasted partygoers. I actually had to obey the speed limit. 25 miles and hour was…so…slow.
I was actually surprised by the number of people heading to work so early and the lights seemed to last forever. The guy in front of me appeared to be getting dressed on the run, overslept because of a holiday hangover. Fun stuff. I watched in fascination as he wrestled with his jacket and tie…at one point, I thought I saw a razor and a toothbrush. A couple yards away, a cop was giving another guy a drinking test. He was failing miserably; he walked everywhere but the straight line as instructed. They were so distracted by the miserable drunk they didn't even see a guy hotwiring a nearby Jeep.
One thing I loved about this place…People here were so fucked up it was almost funny.
Finally traffic began to move. I made sure to steer off into side roads. A few cops waddling out of a doughnut shop had been eying me down. I was a teenager, I was in a car, and I was out at an ungodly hour. That had to mean I was D.U.I.
…Without really thinking, I drove through the entire state to the border. Immediately I was reminded of Mel—and I had been doing a decent job of not thinking about her. Or just not thinking period. Already I had rear-ended someone and almost ran over somebody's dog. But now everything came back. She was maybe a four hour drive away, three and a half if I drove fast.
So what if it cost me a few bucks to get through…
Then as quickly as I began to drive forward, I stopped. People behind me had to swerve to keep from hitting me. I got a number of dirty looks as they passed. But I had a gun and they didn't. Okay, it was New York, maybe they did.
I sat taking up the entire lane, serving only as a roadblock. I couldn't do it. As gay and probably selfish as it sounded, I really didn't want to and I was a little scared.
I normally wasn't a sentimental person, but I felt like I would be giving up a part of myself. New York was undeniably a part of me: I had grown up here, my friends were here, as well as my whole life story and the all memories: going to Central Park with my parents, my first baseball game at the Yankee Stadium, looking down at the city from the top of the Empire State building, right up to my long history with the gang. I couldn't pretend those meant nothing and I couldn't just say "I'm over it" and start a new life. Even before I made a name for myself at my new school, I was known as "that guy from New York".
But did I want to be "the guy from New York who lost his dream girl"?
Once again, I stepped on the gas pedal, but again I wussed out and pulled into the shoulder. What was waiting for me down there, other than an unbelievably hot girl who probably would be just as happy if I fell down dead? Nothing. At least Mel had her family to run home to. All I had was few friends of convenience—Ryan, a very tarnished permanent record and my ex-guardians. (I hated them from the start and swore to get away even as my adoption papers were being signed). Hell, I didn't even have anywhere to live.
… Someone knocked on my window, making me jump. It wasn't easy keeping my gun out sight. I hated being surprised. A big guy was squinting eagerly through my window. He rapped again with his knuckles. "Hey, kid," he said. "You lost?"
I slid down the window to face him. "Yeah," I lied. "I'm trying to find a gas station." It was none of his business what I did, especially since it was a feeble effort to save my love life. Rather than feel grateful toward him for offering to help, I was annoyed by his nosiness.
He chuckled. "That thing's gonna eat you out of house and home." He good naturedly patted the roof of the Hummer. "And you're gonna be looking for a gas station for hours if you go this way." I was sorely tempted to reach for gun again. The way he was talking to me, you'd think I was in an "I Love New York" t-shirt and armed appropriately with a camera.
"There's a Hess station about five miles back, hang a left and you can't miss it," he concluded, gesturing with a fat thumb. Idiot. It was a Sheetz station and it was three miles back, and then take a right. (Sad that I knew that). Still, I knew a sign when I saw one. I wasn't meant to go back to Mel.
I rolled my window back up before he could add more. Overly-friendly guys, or people in general, weirded me out. It wasn't normal. As I continued to learn the hard way, you couldn't trust anyone. If you did, you either got yourself shot or wished someone would shoot you. I experienced both at one point.
At least he got the message. "Okay, good luck."
Feeling dispirited, I sensed the danger of doing something else sentimental—like going around and sight-seeing—and I headed back to the townhouse at once. I knew the place like the back of my hand—there was no need to go around and look at everything like I would never see it again. I didn't have enough balls to actually leave the place. I didn't have enough balls to tell my dream girl how I felt. And I sure as hell didn't have enough balls to kill myself. If I wanted to, I had had eleven years to do it and I wasn't lacking in know-how.
I really didn't want to get stuck talking to the guys after the day I was having. So I did what I knew I was the best at doing: I hid from reality. I ran down the basement with a couple provisions—beer and cigs—cranked up the stereo and began working out. This birthday sucked. My life sucked. I sucked at life. I repeated the words in unison as I raised and lowered the bench-press bar. When I went to the punching bag, my words fell into rhythm with my blows.
"What are you hiding from now?" Alicia asked. My heart had already been pounding from exercise and when she snuck up on me, it went faster, so fast it began to hurt. I had to stop and walk it off.
"I'm not hiding," I snapped, nevertheless knowing she would see right through me. "Exercise is important if you want to stay healthy," I added unnecessarily. Yeah, I was real healthy. I smoked, I drank, and the healthiest thing I ever ate was probably the vegetables on a hamburger.
"You know what else is good for your health?" Alicia asked. "Talking about your emotions, instead of keeping them bottled up. What'd you do?" She helped herself to one of my beers (all us lived from one hangover to the next) and sat down on the bench-press, prepared for even the most boring, drawn-out explanation.
"Why is everything always my fault?" I demanded, picking up a set of weights and beginning to curl my arms up and down. "I didn't do anything. She left by herself." Oh, shit, I thought. The words just sort of slipped out. Then more followed. "I called her a two-faced bitch and told her to get out of my life."
Alicia looked frustrated. "Just when things were starting to work out," she grumbled. "You are so lucky you're hot, because you don't have any brains. God. She was a sweet girl and you looked so cute together."
"What do you mean by work out?" I snapped. "She only came to bring me back to school." I was entitled to defend myself and my hurt feelings. "Don't take her side," I finished. "She told me herself."
"Do you think that you might've just scared her into saying that?" Alicia challenged. "You never acted like you liked her. I know you almost better than you know yourself, but that doesn't mean that she does. You send very mixed signals."
Somehow this was turning completely around and I was becoming the villain. Maybe I was the villain. I didn't know anything any more. Pretending to exercise wasn't doing any good. (I was only lifting twelve pound weights). I dropped onto the bench-press beside her.
"So you're saying I fucked up my chances," I said gloomily. "God, she probably hates me."
Alicia gave me this evil little smile which immediately made my hopes rise too fast.
"What?" I asked, sounding much too excited. I couldn't hide my feelings around Alicia. She knew me too well. I had become an "honorary" member of the gang when I was eight; Bill and Angie had thrown me out and I was found wandering the streets hopelessly. She and Darryl, though he took longer to warm up to me, were like the older siblings I didn't have.
"Absolutely nothing." Still wearing that maddening smile, Alicia got to her feet and walked up the stairs. "Happy 18th," she called down, closing the door carefully behind her.
I kicked the punching bag when she left. God. Women were so frustrating.
…It didn't end with Alicia. When I decided to grace the rest of the gang with my presence—I could've easily stayed down the basement all day and worked out—they all proceeded to tear me a new asshole.
"Why the Hell did you let her get away?"
"Dude, what were you thinking? She was hot."
"It was nice having a hot chick around for once. Ow! What the hell was that for, Alicia?"
"If you didn't want her, you could've at least let one of us have her. I woulda tapped that."
"Don't talk about her like that," I threatened, my hands balling into fists. Sam knew I meant business, because he squeaked and dove behind Nick.
"I was just saying," he said, feeling braver because I would have to go through Nick to get to him. "You shouldn't be selfish. We shouldn't have to suffer 'cause you fucked things up."
"Who's to say she'd even want you?" a new voice asked. "Chicks—women—have minds, Sam. They have standards and class. They deserve to be treated with respect, not like meat." All of us stopped and gawked at Damien, unable to believe he just said that.
Then everyone went on with their business. It was Damien's new act: being a guy who cared. He tried to look as if Sam's ignorance genuinely bothered him.
"You're right," Sam said sarcastically, as Max, Nick, Jason, and everyone else sniggered. "How insensitive of me."
We had all learned that it was better to pretend along with Damien than have him moping around the townhouse single, bored, and irritating the shit out of everyone. His one-night-stand, a blonde college freshman named Brianna, gazed affectionately down at him. Things between them were getting serious. She was still here. All the others left shortly after arriving.
I cast him a look of the deepest disgust and hatred. He was beaming up at her. That fucking hypocrite. How could he even live with himself? One thing was for sure, if I couldn't be in a happy relationship with the girl I desperately wanted, my rival wasn't going to be either.
"You are so full of shit," I seethed. Damien's eyes got very wide and he was wordlessly pleading for me to shut up. I had no intention of stopping. "Since women are your number one priority now, why don't you go spend some time with your ex-girlfriends and your four kids?"
Suddenly the look on Brianna's face wasn't nearly as affectionate; she was looking down at Damien like she had never seen anything quite as sickening. "Four kids…?"
"Yeah," I continued, "Damien really gets around." Disgusted with Damien, disgusted with my friends, digested with everything, I stormed from the smoky kitchen…
…Back to the bench-press…I took the basement stairs three at a time…
…I jammed an additional fifty pounds on…it was at 400 pounds…
Hell, I added ten more. So what if I killed myself? I was sick of it all: people, lies, betrayal. I forced the bar from the rack…
410 pounds…almost double what I weighed. The most I normally did was 350. I brought it down to my chest. My arms were begging me to stop already. I forced it up... It came back down hard this time and it took everything I had to get it back up. The veins in my arms were bulging and the sense of numbness again spread through them. My chest throbbed where the bar hit. I tried to put it back up but it crashed back down on top of me.
The blow had knocked the wind out of me, so I didn't have any strength left to move, let alone free myself. I probably deserved it.
"For God's sake," I heard Alicia sigh. "I cut you off from all sharp, pointy objects and what do you try to do? Crush yourself to death." She began climbing down the stairs. "Props for creativity, though."
"I'm not suicidal," I groaned, tipping my head back to stare at her. Even upside-down, her face bore its usual doubtful expression. "I'm not!" I insisted, though a new possibility was presented. "I love my fucking life. I was just pausing to catch my breath." Whenever she was around, I always seemed to act like a kid caught in the cookie jar—even if I wasn't doing anything wrong.
"410," Alicia remarked, seeing all the weight and quickly adding it up in her head, "nice. How many reps with that can you do?" I was glad she changed the subject.
"Ten," I bragged, ignoring Alicia's raised eyebrows, "twenty. You lose count after awhile." I tried to hoist the bar up again. I had only been laying trapped for about ten minutes. Nothing happened.
If I couldn't lift all that, there was no way Alicia could. I was a lot stronger than she was. She had to call for help. Max and Sam came downstairs. They took one look at me and busted out laughing. Even Alicia was trying to keep from laughing. My face burned and I felt so damn pathetic: needing to be rescued from the bench-press.
"Shut the fuck up and lift the God damn bar," I barked, not in the mood. They meekly came forward and lifted the bar.
"I worry about you sometimes," Alicia said. "You're doing it again." I didn't ask what "it" was. "Do you mind?" she snapped at Sam and Max, who were standing there, listening in eagerly. "Fuck off!" Sulkily they headed for the stairs, muttering about being unappreciated.
Alicia swatted me away as I went for the weights. I had a habit of exercising and pretending I was listening. I sighed frusteratedly and crossed my arms, showing that I wasn't going to pick up the weights and tune her out. "What?"
Alicia imitated my actions and stared up at me. "You're being all manic again." She gave me the evil eye, fully expecting me to cave in as I always did. "Why?"
Why? I hated how she always made me feel like a little kid. More like why not? I lost my dream girl and I was surrounded by idiots and jackasses. By making sure I kept my eyes on a crack in the wall behind her, I found I was able to keep from giving her the truth.
"I had a bad day," I said to the wall, "am I allowed or do I have to be all smiles and sunshine?"
Alicia sighed. "Sometimes you are too much like Darryl. I don't get why you guys think it's better to keep people on the outside guessing. That doesn't make you a stronger person. Maybe if you let more people in, you wouldn't have lost Mel."
She knew the whole time but just wanted me to say it. What was with women and emotions and wanting to talk about their problems? There were enough issues in the world without them adding meaningless things like how their hair looked. She just didn't get that guys didn't do that. It wasn't just me and Darryl, though I took her words as a compliment and almost smiled. It was everyone in the gang. We had always been the ones she hung around with the most and tried to force conversation upon.
Before I could say anything, Alicia did. "If you ever do want to talk, I'm here." She headed for the stairs. "We should probably get that crack fixed."
How did she do that? It was like she always was in my head. She did know me better than I knew myself. Maybe that was why I needed her as much as I did. Someone had to keep me on track and my head straight. I wandered around lost for most of my life.
She and Mel both…if it hadn't been for them—Mel more than Alicia—I probably would've killed myself. I wasn't pretending that time. But I was living on a lie; I had convinced myself that maybe she felt the same way about me, which, of course, as I learned, she didn't.
I headed back towards the bench-press. But then, remembering what happened before, I cringed. There were other ways of fighting my feelings. Like alcohol…
…I scarcely was aware of anything that happened over the next few days. My life had become strangely robotic. When I wasn't drinking, I was sleeping off a hangover. Eat, drink, smoke, work out if I felt like it, sleep, and repeat. I hit the clubs as hard as any of the others. I would wake up the next morning with a girl I didn't know or beaten up from a bar brawl I supposedly got into.
And still I couldn't get Mel out of my mind. Not that I wasn't trying.
… "What'd you think of that chick at the bar? Wasn't she hot?" I could've sworn Alicia was trying to communicate with me. This was the most sober I had been in days and she was taking complete advantage.
"Didn't notice," I said, sensing how this was going to turn out. I poked my head in the fridge. It was mostly stocked with beer—at least three different kinds. I'd have to have at least one of each. Then the door was pushed, hitting me on the head.
"Ow," I said, scowling at Alicia. "What was that for?"
"Enough is enough," she said firmly. "You're 18 now. You can't rely on alcohol to solve all your problems. You have to start…"
"…Taking responsibility or some other shit," I finished expertly, knowing her speech word for word. God knows I heard it enough.
"I was going to say 'acting like an adult'," Alicia said tartly. "You really are being very immature." No one in the gang held a full-time job and we all did nothing but drink, party, and play video games. Where did she think I got it from?
I figured I'd humor her, so I hopped on the counter to make a pretense of listening. "Enlighten me. What is the mature thing to do?"
When I got annoyed I didn't listen to anything anyone said. Alicia apparently knew this because she started playing with a more effective strategy: guilt. "No matter how attractive a guy is, any self-respecting girl is only going to wait about a week for him."
"Meaning?" I asked contemptuously.
"Meaning you go back to school tomorrow," Alicia answered.
"What's to say she's waiting for me?" I challenged. We were beginning to approach my hidden fears. She was hotter than Hell; she probably had at least five guys begging to go out with her. Least they'd be better for her.
"Nothing," Alicia said earnestly, "but what's to say she isn't?"
"So I go," I grumbled, "and what happens? I lose the girl and everything else." Fear #2. Was I a coward or what? She could seriously do so much better.
"That would suck, but you can just come back here. Where'd you get the crazy idea that we were kicking you out? You'll always be one of us." I felt kind of dumb for freaking about that. But I disliked any sort of change.
"I just want you to be happy," Alicia continued, "and right now the only way it seems like you can be happy is if you're with her."
"I want to be with her," I confided at last, finally worn-down.
I didn't leave immediately. I had a few things thrown it a backpack, but I wasn't mentally ready to leave. I had to think it out. I drove along the border as I tried to sort out my thoughts.
On one hand, there was rejection. I would be ashamed to show my face in New York if that was the case. What if she did love me though? There would be no way that I could run home. Then I would need to get a job and find an apartment. No one would be babying me. I would have to fend for myself. Worst case scenario, I would have to take out the money my parents left me—if Bill and Angie hadn't gotten to it all first.
Ugh. Bill and Angie. I didn't want to deal with them again. Recalling the long hard years I spent with them made me turn around. And then I turned back around. Mel had made sacrifices for me—even if it was only for school purposes. I could suck it up. (I could guarantee that I would be in a lot less danger than what she put herself in).
I stepped on the gas pedal and didn't take my foot off until I was through the border and merging into a lane on the highway.
I was in desperate need of coffee by the time I arrived. Due to my late start it was about 7:00 in the morning. I found a local Starbuck's and got a large black coffee. I bought a newspaper and collapsed at a free table. (People were giving me weird looks. They must've thought I should be trying to rob the place). Might as well look at the job ads, should my trip be successful.
Then suddenly she came in and went up to the counter. Nervously I shifted the paper so that my face was hidden. She sat down a stool, sipping her coffee. She noticed me and looked at me hard, as if unsure of what she was seeing. I was too anxious to stay any longer. Deliberately keeping the newspaper in front of my face, I headed for the door. Trying not to look too suspicious, I crumpled the paper and tossed it on top of the stuffed trashcan. I almost ran to my Hummer and floored it as soon as I got in.
…8:00 came and went. It didn't feel right heading into school…just yet. I wanted to do it right. Come 10:15, I started for the parking lot. For old time's sake, I put on my loudest metal CD as I went cruising into the parking lot. Metal also helped to calm me down. I was really nervous.
I parked as best as I could and waited. In no time, Mel came sprinting out to the parking lot. The moment of truth…
"What are you doing here?" Her voice held an icy note to it; her face showed no excitement.
I was hurt, but I would only be spiting myself if I ran back to New York and spent the rest of my life as a gangster. I would have so many more possibilities if I finished high school. Once again I could suck it up.
"Going to school," I replied, trying to sound as aloof as I could.
"Why are you here?" she repeated contemptuously. "Why didn't you stay in New York? Obviously, your whole life is there." So there were obviously no hard feelings about the New Year's blow-up.
"I thought I made it inexplicably clear when I said my life is none of your business." If I spoke civilly to her, I would end up confessing my feelings and that wasn't good for either of us. I slid my backpack over my shoulder and started to walk off. Oh, God. What was I doing? I was killing my chances.
Willing to risk everything, I did what I had been longing to do forever. I went back and kissed her as hurriedly as I could. If she hated me, so be it, but this secret was tearing me apart. I had to at least get it out in the open. Then I would leave her alone. For good.
Reluctantly I pulled back and stared down at her. "I can't keep lying to myself," I blurted, "or you."
"What do you mean?" she asked, looking at me like I was crazy.
"I love you," I half-shouted. "I have since…I don't even know when." I had to kiss her again. I hoped she was actually kissing me back and that I wasn't just swallowing her face and looking like a huge loser.
…By now, nearly the entire school was peering, with great interest, out at us. I pulled back.
"I'm so sorry," I said breathlessly. "This has got to be weird for you. Some asshole just confessing his love after barely knowing you four months… especially after I treated you like shit all that time….I'm sorry…I didn't want you to know how I felt…I just thought you were so out of my league…You're beautiful…and smart…just all around the most amazing girl—person—I've ever met…" That was the truth. I had finally gotten it out in the open.
Another stabbing blow: she seemed like she was thinking about something else. "Can you stop spacing out for one second and listen to me?!" I demanded. Hate me or not, she could at least pretend she cared about what I had to say.
"Sorry?" She sounded terrified.
Then I realized what exactly I did to disgust her. Always with the belittling. "See? I'm doing it again!" I groaned, scrubbing my hand down my face. "I know you probably think I'm a total bastard and you'd have every right to never talk to me again, to hate me even, but I just have to get this off my chest. I couldn't tell you how I felt…I wanted to…every day…but someone like you with someone like me…who was I kidding? You probably don't even have any use for someone who isn't as gifted as Damien…" Why was I saying that? I had no clue. When I got nervous words just sort of spilled out.
She held up her hand and feeling that I had already said too much, I stopped. "Don't worry about it," she soothed. "Any of it. Especially not Damien. Kissing him was like making out with a dog! And…and I didn't sleep with him!"
Thank God. I gave a heavy sigh of relief. "His loss," I managed, overwhelmed by delight and offering her a weak smile.
She continued. "And I have no clue where you got the crazy idea that I hated you. Remember when I said I came to New York to get you to come back to school? It was a lie. I came because I loved you. I love you."
She did?! I couldn't stop grinning. Of course I had to open my big mouth and ruin the moment. "You know, you really have come a long way from that nerd I first met." If things had been fine between us, they wouldn't be now.
She had to think about what I said, unsure if it was meant to be a compliment or an insult. After a painfully long minute, she smiled. "I…guess I have…"
Things couldn't have worked out any better if I planned it. I put my arm around her waist, drawing her close. I never wanted her to leave my side again. "Come on," I said. "Let's go give 'em hell."