Real Men

“You didn’t think you could steal her?” he taunted, laughing. A smirk tried to dance across his face but it was soured into a grimace, the lines of his lips never quite obeying the command to curl up.
“Steal her?” In perfect contrast to his steeled-for-battle opponent, Joseph Raleigh was at complete ease with the situation. In fact, a third party passerby with nothing to gain from the encounter, and so only a small glimmer of interest in the proceedings might have thought Joe the proponent of the battle. His stance was cool, at ease. He wore dark, scuffed sneakers; thin, black jeans; a gray hoodie over nondescript blue t-shirt. His blond curls flopped languidly across the crown of his head, curling down around his ears, throwing his eyes in shadow. He smiled comfortably, nonchalantly tossing his book bag away without looking to see where it would land. He grinned at the other boy, who twitched stiffly in response, sticking up his fists in an amateur, poster boy pose. “Steal who?”
“Emma,” he bit out through clenched teeth.
“Emma…” Joe stroked his jaw thoughtfully. “Emma… is that what this is about? And here I thought it was something important like, say, Jessica. Now she-”
“I don’t have time to mess around,” he spat. “I’ve seen you staring. And Emma is mine.”
“I didn’t know you’d marked your territory,” Joe said, casually infuriating. “I didn’t smell anything on her – unless you’ve made your stake with BerryBreeze perfume…?”
“Don’t act like a kid. I know you like her.”
“You do now?”
“I’m not a baby, like you think. I’ve seen you watching her during class. During every class,” he amended quickly. “Do you think I’m blind or stupid?”
“I think you’re weird?”
“Can we- can we just, like, fight, or something?”
Joe adjusted his stance a little, shifting onto the balls of his feet. “Do you want to?” he asked courteously. “I will if you’d like to. Or we could just handle this like men and go ask her who she prefers. She’s an honest person. And we wouldn’t even have to bring the police into it.”
“I would like to settle this like men, if that’s all right with you, Joe. Right here.”
“You know,” Joe pressed conversationally, “for some reason I’m getting this vibe that we have different ideas of how real men settle stuff. Now I was thinking we could just go talk to Emma without using our hands at all. In fact, we could tie them behind our backs for all the good they’d do. And then the winner could go out with her for a $1 ice cream at Old Pedro’s down the street, bruise-free and perfectly trustworthy, and the loser – that would be you – could go home and take a shower and write a nice, long, sappy love letter to try to win her back instead of soaking your unnecessary injuries in an ice bath. Either way, we would both be long-term winners. You, on the other hand, seem to be sugges-”
“I am suggesting,” the boy retorted belligerently, “that we sort it out here, like real men, and then the loser – which will be you – can go soak in that ice bath, which sounds lovely, by the way, while I take Emma to McDonalds for a real dinner, not some lame ice cream.”
“Wow. A real dinner at McDonalds. That is very impressive. But as much as I enjoy your train of thought, you seem to have neglected to address two critical factors that may inevitably thwart your otherwise predetermined success in this controversial conflict.”
“And what might those two things be?”
“Well, for one, you are not in the position to guarantee your success in our little contest because I will be doing all I can to keep your plan from ever being pursuable. And secondly, though not quite as pressing a concern as beating me, is the problem that Emma is not in love with you or your McDonalds dinner. She would much rather have me and my ice cream cone.”
“Would you have ice cream in the cone?”
“Yes,” Joe said firmly. “There would be ice cream.”
“What flavor?”
“Chocolate. Or vanilla. Whatever she wants.”
“Fine. Can we just, you know, can we just do this already?”
“You actually want to fight?”
“Yeah! Of course I do!”
“Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?” He frowned cautiously and slowly swept his hand around to illuminate the expanse of grass surrounding them. “What’s wrong with doing it right here?”
“We’re going to see Counselor Ryan.”
“Why would we do that?”
Joe kept a confident smile plastered across his lips. He was careful not to let the friendly gesture change into an outright smirk, but he felt it lurking at the corners of his lips, at the tip of his nose, begging him to exert his contempt. Even though it wasn’t necessarily contempt he felt. The problem was that he wasn’t sure what he felt so contempt seemed as good an answer as anything. “You obviously have problems at home,” he said kindly. “Is your dad an alcoholic?”
“Don’t make fun of my dad.” The boy drew himself up proudly. “He’s very nice to everyone. He gave the lady at the grocery store a tip.”
“For what? Charging him too much money for bread?”
“She had a big chest,” he said defensively.
“Okay.”
“So let’s do this.”
“Really?” Joe asked. “I just don’t think you’re going to enjoy the answer. You know, once we’ve answered the question.”
“I can fail like a man, Joe. I just can’t fail like a wimp who actually asks a girl to go out with him.”
“So what were you planning to do?” Joe wondered. “Drag her to McDonalds? I thought you were planning to ask her after you supposedly sent me to my ice bath.”
“Why would I ask her?”
“Because it’s polite…”
“She doesn’t like people who are polite.”
“How do you know that?”
“She told Greg to get the – I can’t say the next word, Joe. I’m not supposed to swear.”
“Fine, skip the next word.”
“Okay. She told him to get the out of there after he asked her to go to Chuck E. Cheese.”
“Why did he ask her to go there?”
“She likes that place.”
“Well why did she tell him to get the… out of there?”
“He had his finger in his nose. Is that bad?”
“Yes.”
“I can’t ask her, though, because she’ll just say no.”
“Well that would mean she doesn’t like you.”
“Or else she’s just scared and wants me to take the first step. Now let’s please do this.”
“I really don’t want to that much,” Joe said, and then he broke off as something was flung at him. He grabbed his adversary’s body as it careened into him. “That’s your game plan?” He righted the other boy easily and stared at him. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. What else was I supposed to do?”
“Are there any circumstances that you know how to handle?”
“This one!” Once again the body whirled toward him, but Joe’s feet were planted more firmly now, and he simply sent the boy tumbling away, to right himself in the grass with a couple deep breaths and a slightly ginger shove off from the ground. “Now this is a fight!”
“No,” Joe shook his head pleasantly. “Not really. I wouldn’t really call this a-” and for just an instant his guard went down. It was a very short moment, but it was enough to send them both sprawling on the grass. Not that it particularly hurt. It was just weird being turned into a battering ram that he wasn’t sure would ever actually get battered. He knew now that there was no possible way he could lose. All he’d need to do would be to stand and push the body away whenever it came at him.
For five minutes he stood and pushed away. Once more he was taken to the ground, and then forced to stay down when he felt a sudden weight on his back and realized the other boy had dropped on top of him. The ensuing wrestling match took a further two minutes, during which time he felt a small thatch of hair pulled from him, one cut open on his arm as he flung it up to shield his eyes, and a couple bruises burn on his cheeks and limbs. All in all, it wasn’t a bad wrestling match, but the blows he got in were too thick, too fast, and too easy to be much fun for either party. Eventually, he stood up. This happened due to a sense of boredom, hearing someone approaching, and seeing that the sky had darkened somewhat so that it couldn’t be earlier than 5:30, which for him meant dinnertime, which in turn meant that he needed to find Emma right now if he was going to take her for ice cream tonight, the unappealing alternative to that being continuing the tussle and then being forced to postpone the ice cream until tomorrow.
His partner took the opportunity to stand up as well, and both of them stood side-by-side, trying to covertly examine the physical damage while straining against the sun to make out the two approaching figures. They passed the sun’s glare, and the boys could make out a girl beside a boy. Then they came even nearer, and the two simultaneously recognized the girl.
It was with the relief that came from knowing her that the “Hey, Emma”s were called out.
“Hey, boys!” She smiled, pressing her hand against the unnamed boy’s. He smiled and grasped it.
“Hi, boys,” he echoed, but they ignored him because they had just realized something.
“Hold on…” Joe cried. “Emma!” He plastered a smile on his face and pretended it didn’t hurt, even a little bit. In retrospect, he wondered whether a little moan would have been more appealing since it would have both alerted Emma to the sacrifice he was making on her behalf and – and, he found this the far more important component – he would have woken some primitive desire in her to play nurse to hi, which would have then forced her to spend extended periods of time checking in on him while he healed. In other words, she would have had a stake in him recovering. As it was, he didn’t moan and that was the mistake.
“Have you guys been fighting?” the strange guy asked curiously.
“Yes,” Joe’s opponent said gruffly, looking at his sneakers. Joe decided that looked too much like a loser position and adopted a confident stance himself, staring at the guy.
“Yes, we have.”
“Who won?” the boy asked.
Joe was about to say “Me,” because he was pretty sure that he had won, but Emma frowned. “You guys should know better. Tony, don’t you think they should be acting like men now that they are in sixth grade?”
“Absolutely,” Tony said, completely forgetting that he had just asked after the winner. Joe frowned too. That wasn’t very cool of Tony.
“Tony, when did you stop fighting?” Emma pressed.
“Oh fourth grade, definitely. After fourth grade, you have to act like men, guys. You know that?”
“Yes. I know that,” Joe said – because he did know that. His partner didn’t say anything.
“You are way too old to fight. What was it about, anyway?”
“Just a girl,” Joe said, brushing the air to show the guy that it wasn’t important.
“Do you like her?”
“Duh,” The other boy said. He was still looking at his sneakers.
“Well you should ask her then,” Tony said. “Like me. I’m going to take Emma to get some ice cream at Old Pedro’s. It’s the 1$ dollar sale.”
“What? How?” Joe cried.
“Oh,” Tony said. “Well I just asked her a little while ago. What about you? Who’s the girl?”
“Aren’t you a little young?” Emma said.
“Yes,” Joe said. “We are way to young.”
“But who is it?” Tony asked. He leaned over and kissed Emma’s forehead. Joe thought that was really going too far.
“No one,” he said.
Tony kissed her again.
“Can you stop? That’s kind of gross.”
Tony laughed. Then he kissed her again. And then they walked away.
“I don’t like her anymore,” Joe said. “I didn’t think you actually had to kiss her. That’s kind of weird.”
“Yeah.” The other boy wrinkled his nose. “Kind of weird.” He shuffled his feet. “But what are we supposed to do now?”
“Do you want to go get some ice cream?”
“Can we just act like men?”
“What?”
“You know. We should go rescue Emma.”
“From what?”
“Tony.”
“That’s a really bad idea.”
“What?”
“It is. Let’s just go home.” He grabbed his twin brother. “Are you okay?” The boy nodded. “Just watch. One day we when show up and settle this with Tony like men, he’s gonna be sorry he messed with us. We’re gonna get her.”
“You can have her,” his brother said. “I don’t want her spitting on me. That’s gross.”
And then they went home.





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