Brooklyn Thorn and I met for the first time in third grade. It was nothing short of cataclysmic. I suppose it was inevitable for things to happen that way, like a clash of Titans maybe. After all, his parents named him Brooklyn, mine named me Dallas--yeah, I'm still working on forgiving them. Truth is, with names like that we could either be best friends or hate each other on sight.
We chose hate. At least he did. But believe me, I was happy to fall in line.
On that very first day we met on the playground. He was surrounded by his cronies, I was the new boy in town who only had one other scrappy not so popular kid named Jeffie to back me up (we met in class that morning and he offered me half of his Fruit Roll-Up at lunch. In my book that was friendship).
Brooklyn stood all close to me, like I was supposed to be intimidated by his hugeness. He clearly had never been to public school in Newark. Puh-leeze. I just walked right up and got in his face, even if it was a few inches above mine. What did some kid from the butt crack of nowhere think he was going to do to me anyway?
"So you from Dallas, Dallas?" He asked with a sneer. Like I'd never heard that one before.
I rolled my eyes. "Jersey."
"That right? Well, then you don't belong here, Yank."
I didn't know what Yank meant at the time but it didn't seem like anything good. I also had no idea what his problem was with me but I wasn't going to let him get away with being a jerk. Years later I figured that it probably had something to do with my dad coming in and taking over as management for the local Honeypot Snack Cake factory instead of one of the local workers like, uh, Brooklyn's dad for example. At the time I didn't really care.
"I don't want to be here either, Brooklyn."
I made sure that his name sounded like an insult. He'd already pissed me off. Plus it was the truth. Sugarcreek, Texas was the last place I wanted to be. I missed my old friends and my backyard, I hated how the sun felt like it was boiling my brains, and I missed downtown being more than a block and a half of ugly old buildings (with no pizza decent place). It sucked the big one.
"If you want to leave so bad then why don't you take your dumb dad and get out?"
That question was paired with a punch to the eye that came flying out of nowhere. It was my first and not a very strong one. But it took me by surprise--so much so that I didn't manage to punch him back until he was halfway turned to strut away, victory in hand. My fist caught his jaw sideways on a half punch-half uppercut, and he reeled backward and sat hard on the cement of the playground.
"What'd you do that for?" He yelled at me. I noticed his lip was bleeding and he had his hand cupped around his jaw.
"You hit me first! What did you think I was going to do? Cry?"
"I don't know. Run away like a yank. My dad says you're all pansies."
"Your dad doesn't know shit!" It felt cool to swear. I knew my mom would ground me if she heard me talk like that. Good thing she wasn't listening. Unfortunately the playground supervisor was. She'd walked over to see what the commotion was and found Brooklyn on the ground bleeding and me swearing up a storm and rubbing at my rapidly swelling eye.
"You two!" She yelled out. "Follow me."
And that was the beginning. Enemies for life.
* * * *
Our next blow up was a few years later.
We'd managed to avoid each other completely, despite getting stuck right beside each other in every yearbook, classroom, school field trip...I cursed whatever quirk of fate made his last name Thorn and mine Thomason. Even with the forced proximity, the cold war had been in force for nearly four whole years, since that day in the beginning of third grade. We managed to maintain icy silence punctuated only by glares and the occasional insult. By then we'd moved on to middle, school, where I was hoping to never have to deal with him, but wouldn't you know the shit was actually smart so we were in the same advanced classes together.
All. Day. Long.
In math I got to sit next to my own friends, at least the ones who were in the same classes as me, but my language arts teacher had been brilliant enough to figure out that the only person she could sit the loquacious Brooklyn next to if she wanted him to shut up was me. Of course. So she put him with me in early October and he hadn't moved since.
I hated that woman with a passion that I'd before only reserved for Brooklyn Thorn himself.
It was spring of sixth grade when things boiled over. The sun wasn't quite brain melting hot yet but it had reached uncomfortable and was heading toward unbearable pretty damn quickly. The heat always made me pissy. I'd never quite gotten used to it. I was walking into my two hour language arts and social studies block with a sigh. Last class of the day. Two fun-filled periods of Brooklyn Thorn. I hated him. I did. Even though it was hard to remember why sometimes. That was until he glared at me or kicked me under the desk and I glared back and I remembered that he was an asshole.
I sat in my desk and hunched as far away from him as I could. The teacher was handing out packets for a combined history and literature project. Combined not only with the two subjects but by the fact that we had to work with our desk partner. When I got to that part on the packet I lost it--quietly of course. I didn't want to end up in the principal's office. My parents hadn't taken it very well the last time.
"Looks like we're working together, Blondie," He muttered at me.
Since when had I gone from Yank to Blondie? I wasn't even a real blond anymore. Just kinda sandy. Oddly enough his voice didn't sound as confrontational as it usually did on the rare times we talked. It didn't really register with me. I was too busy seething.
"Fantastic," was my only answer. I'm sure I sounded pretty bitchy. Too late, I looked up to see that his face had matched his voice. He looked like he might be ready for a truce or at least a temporary detente. That was until I talked. Then he whipped his face back until he was staring at his packet. I could see his jaw clenching, teeth grinding. I wondered if I'd actually managed to hurt his feelings.
"Just do your part and I'll do mine. Think you can handle that, Yank?"
At least we were back to something familiar. I felt a little bad though. A little. I mean, it would've at least been easier to get the dumb project done if we weren't sniping at each other.
"I think I can handle it. I'm not...stupid." I looked him up and down slowly as though I thought he might be. He knew what I was implying, and it clearly wasn't true or fair but I'd managed to guess correctly that it was one of his insecurities.
"Fuck you, Yank," he muttered under his breath. "Let's get this over with. We can divide the work and do it with as little talking as possible."
"My name's not Yank." Not like that had stopped him at any point since third grade.
"Seriously, call me Yank one more time and I will take you down." All five two of me. I think the heat had made me go nuts.
"You and your prissy little friends can go ahead and try, fag boy."
I choked. Fag boy?
I knew it was a generic insult, based on my size and general lack of jock-ness, but it felt in that second like he could see into me, see what I was starting to realize--that while all my friends were crushing on girls, talking about their growing boobs and how good they smelled I was noticing how much I liked to look at boys. Like, really liked to look at boys. I liked their smooth chests, the way their legs were muscular and dusted with hair. I wanted to kiss them and see if their lips felt as nice as they looked. I thought about it all the time. I also knew I wanted nothing to do with those feelings. In places like Sugarcreek, they were enough to get you dragged behind a car by a rope.
I slouched silently in my seat. There was no way I was going to answer that taunt.
We worked diligently, but silently, on our project for a day or two. Both of us were smart enough that we'd managed to divide up the work and somehow convince the teacher we were cooperating. We'd spread the books out on our table so that she couldn't see how we'd separated our bodies so the largest amount of empty air possible was in between. She was oblivious to our glares, or at least she pretended to be. I thought we had a pretty good scam going.
"Can I please see Mister Thorn and Mister Thomason?"
We looked at each other. I was too worried about getting in trouble to be bothered glaring at him. I stood, nearly knocking my books onto the ground. Brooklyn followed me up to the teacher's desk.
"What are you two doing?" She asked quietly.
"Working on our project, Ms. Geppart."
The teacher took her glasses off and rubbed her eyes. "I didn't see a lot of cooperation going on."
"But--" I could see the injustice I was feeling written all over Brooklyn's face.
"No buts. This is a combined effort."
"Ms. Geppart," I tried to sound reasonable. "You know we don't get along."
"There's more to school than just learning facts," She answered.
I gave her a blank stare. "So what are you saying?"
"I'm saying I want to see you two working together. Starting tomorrow after school. I want to see a new topic and I'm going to watch and see that you actually work together. Your project won't get graded if you don't."
Of all the--
I was pissed. I'm sure he was too.
Pissed or not, Brooklyn Thorn and I reported for what amounted to detention the next day right after class. He told me years later that he'd had to explain to his soccer coach why he was missing practice, and got a blistering lecture about getting along with other kids and being a role model. I'm sure that made him love me even more.
I didn't get in much trouble. My parents were too busy shouting and calling each other names to really notice that I'd given them a slip to sign saying I'd be held after school. Most of the time I tried really hard not to hear what they were saying.
Our teacher lectured us that first day on how part of growing up was learning to work with people you weren't necessarily compatible with. That probably would've worked perfectly if a pissed off and still smarting from his soccer coach lecture Brooklyn hadn't muttered something like:
"Yeah, just like my dad has to put up with your asshat father every day."
I didn't have much love for my father either, he was always gone at work and he was the reason I was stuck in this stupid ass town after all, but I couldn't have Brooklyn Thorn talking shit about my parents. Before I knew it, my fist was connecting with his nose and we were rolling around on the ground under desks trying our best to remove facial features from each other's heads--with knuckles, nails, anything we had. It was actually kind of brutal. I don't know if the fight was really about my dad, or his dad, or us, or how much I needed to prove that I really wasn't a fag boy who loved looking at guys and I could stick up for my own--with my fists if necessary. What I do know is I pounded him with every muscle I had, pure rage battling against someone who was considerably bigger and stronger. And I know that every time he punched me it hurt like hell.
We didn't stop until the principal, who Ms. Geppart must've frantically called, came in and hauled us apart. We ended up the same way we had that day in third grade; with our asses parked in the principal's office while he tried to get a hold of our parents to come pick us up. We were suspended. Both of us. Three days. At least my teacher learned her lesson. She didn't move us apart in class but we were each allowed to complete the project on our own.
I didn't say a word to him the rest of the year.
* * * *
It was kind of a shock when they called my name. I was graduating. Graduating. It felt really weird. In a few short months I had my one way ticket (and it was going to be one way, damn it) out of Sugarcreek, away from Brooklyn Thorn, away from my squalling in-the-middle-of-a-divorce-parents. Just...away. The folks hadn't gone for the idea of an out of state school, at least not if they were paying, so I'd set my sights on Baylor and thank God I'd gotten in. I'd nearly cried with relief. The school was good, and even more important it was at least a three hour drive from Sugarcreek; far enough that I wouldn't be required to visit often.
I stuck out my hand and took the diploma from our principal before I shook his hand. "Congratulations," he said perfunctorily. He didn't know me. Which was good. He'd been the first principal I had in Sugarcreek who wasn't well aware of me and my continuing battle with effing Brooklyn Thorn. And wouldn't you know, that's who was next. The announcer called his name, and he met the same pleasant applause as I did. It was decidedly less enthusiastic than it had been back at the beginning of the alphabet. People were getting tired of listening. I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there.
I had an interview the next morning, stocking and doing inventory at the grocery store. I really, really wanted the job. It would get me some cash for the fall and give myself something to do other than listen to my mother bitch about not having enough money for her own place. Apparently, she'd been out of the job market so long, no one would hire her. I wasn't sure if she was blatantly blaming my father for that or subtly blaming me. All I knew was I needed a break from her rants before I went nuts. Hopefully stocking shelves at Salvatore's Market would be enough of a distraction.
The next day, freshly graduated and ready to take on the world, or at least my very first job interview, I biked the two and a half miles from our housing development to the little grocery store that was right downtown. There was a big Tom Thumb down the highway a ways but most people would still go to Salvatore's for small things, fresh fruit, milk, bread, and then go to the big store on the weekends to stock up. My mom did it herself. The store was sleepy and quaint but Mister Salvatore's back had been hurting and he couldn't do it himself much longer.
I was nervous when I walked in the store. Even more so when I saw someone else standing there in khakis and a polo shuffling from one foot to another.
Shit. He has another applicant. I was suddenly not guaranteed my summer of distraction and easy cash.
The other guy turned when he heard me approach the manager's office where he was standing and I nearly groaned out loud. Should've effing known. Brooklyn Goddamned Thorn. Was there no escape? That jerk would probably get the job too since he'd been on the soccer team and the football team with all the other town heroes and I was just a (scrappy) little bookworm guy with floppy hair and glasses, at least until I'd gotten contacts the year before. No one is ever recognized all over town for being good at schoolwork.
I nearly turned around to leave when Mister Salvatore called us both into his office at the same time. I had a flashback to elementary school, middle school, when we'd be ushered into some office glaring at each other and deciding silently who was going to throw the next punch the second they left us alone. It wasn't much different this time. Brooklyn didn't exactly glare at me, but he didn't smile either. He let me go first (oddly polite) and then entered the room himself.
Mister Salvatore asked us a series of questions; why did either of us need a job? (college, both of us), could we work late nights or weekends in the stock room? Yes, please anything to get me out of that house. Brooklyn simply said yes just like I did but I could see the same need to escape in his eye. The rest of the questions were simple. We both answered, and both managed to keep our claws out of each other's skin for the first time. It had been nearly four years since our last big blow out. Perhaps we'd grown up a bit. I still hated the bitch. Salvatore said thank you to both of us for coming and that he'd call later when he'd made his choice. I smiled winningly and tried to look like what I thought the best candidate would look like while I shook his hand, then I turned walked to the front door where my bike was chained to the rack.
It was hot outside. Godawful hot, and heavy and humid and everything that made me hate Texas in the summer. I unwound the chain from my bike and went to swing my leg over the bar.
"You wanna lift? I can put your bike in the back of my truck."
Brooklyn Thorn just offered me a ride. What the hell?
I looked over at him, unable to mask my suspicion. I didn't think he'd do anything irreversibly violent towards me, but I couldn't be sure. After all our entire relationship had been conducted by fists so far.
"Dude, just get in. It's brutal out here. You can worry about stabbing me in my sleep another day."
"You're the violent one," I grumbled. He didn't answer. I chose to take my chances with Brooklyn, though, and tossed my bike in the back of his truck before I climbed into a cab that was on its way to being blissfully air-conditioned. He was messing with the dials on his stereo. Soon, the distinct guitar style of one of my favorite alternative bands was pouring through the speakers.
"What? No Taylor Swift? Brooks and Dunn?"
Brooklyn shuddered. "Naw, man, I'm not into that stuff. Besides, that Swift chick—she's a Yankee." I looked over at him. He was grinning. Oh my God. Brooklyn Thorn is teasing me...not torturing but honest to god teasing.
I smiled back hesitantly. "Can't trust us Yanks, can ya?"
"Yeah, you're all trouble."
We rode in silence after that, but it wasn't horrible and awkward, neither one of us glared or plotted, just listened to the music until he pulled up in front of my house. I didn't ask how he knew where I lived. It was a small town, and I was still the new kid even after all the years I'd been there.
"Hey, you know...good luck next year, wherever you are."
"Yeah, you too."
It was weird as hell. He'd actually been nice and I'd been nice back. I had no idea what alternate world I'd entered where we could both be grown-ups with each other. It was a bit disconcerting. I reached into his truck bed and pulled out my bike. I waved goodbye as I wheeled it down the sidewalk and into the shed where I kept it.
Salvatore had hired both of us to work nights, stocking, pricing and doing inventory. Wouldn't you know? Me and Brooklyn Thorn stuck together again. What a shock. Mister Salvatore said he needed someone who was good at cataloguing and calculating inventory and someone to be the brawn to lift boxes.
I shook my head as I hung up the phone, irritated by those categories on both our behalves.
I wondered if Brooklyn ever got tired of being categorized as brainless muscle outside of school. I knew I got sick of being cast in the opposite role. I almost told the grocery store manager that Brooklyn was actually pretty good at math--he'd gotten a better grade in calculus than I had, which still kind of irritated me. But that might have been talking myself out of a job and my only excuse for getting out of the house. There was no way I was going to do that, injustice or not.
All I could think about was the smile he'd given me as I shut the door of his truck earlier. It changed his face completely. Maybe it was time we tried to get along with each other. We'd kind of have to anyway. I could just picture the carnage if we got up to our old stuff, rolling around and punching among jars of spaghetti sauce and cartons of milk. It would be a disaster.