By Erik Rhey


The anticipation of pain is worse than pain itself. The impending doom of the dentist’s drill or the few agonizing seconds before your pissed-off dad spanks your ass into prime rib. For me, the dread of pain causes moments of time to bend and stretch like saltwater taffy. Now is one of those times. I’m standing here in a bogged-down instant, waiting for some guy to punch my lights out in the parking lot of Carl’s Drive-In. My friends are sitting on their bikes nearby, watching like helpless ducklings.

My assailant is a nobody. Some pimple-faced teenage burnout who’s stoned and pissed, showing off for his buddy. His fist is frozen in a backswing, locked in the ready position like a catapult. His long greasy brown hair is fanned over his forehead and his mustache looks as if a good breeze could blow it away. I’m looking at the creases in his black Judas Priest shirt, because I know my eyes are wide and humid with fear.

But even though time has slowed, I cannot run away. If I could this would be over. I can’t fight, but I can run like a motherfucker. I am the fastest sprinter in the ninth grade. This guy with his brown stoner lungs wouldn’t last two blocks trying to catch me. But no, he is going to hit me and I will fall down. The blood I’ve been trying so hard to keep inside my body is going to leak from my nose and mouth. My small vanilla shake is going to spill out on the blacktop like a white river of chickenshit.

Here’s how all this started. We were riding our bikes to Brian’s house. His parents are out of town for the weekend. And Brian, being the best-looking among us, invited over three of the prettiest girls who would talk to us. I have a crush on Emily, and borrowed my older brother’s sweatshirt for the occasion. I convinced them to stop at Carl’s so I could have my shake. They waited for me outside. Some lady was tying up the line trying to explain to the cashier that she didn’t want cheese on her fish sandwich. I looked out the grimy windows and saw my friends yelling and gesturing for me to hurry up. I finally ordered and paid. I scurried out through the glass door, bumping into one of the two teenage burnouts loitering at the entrance.

"What the fuck?" he said. "Excuse you."

"Sorry," I mumbled, not turning around.

"You want to get your ass kicked?" he said. His voice was deep and scratchy.

"Not especially," I said, glancing over my shoulder. "I got things to do."

That was my big mistake. I heard their footsteps behind me, and I thought, foolishly, that if I could only make it across the parking lot to my bike, to the safety of my friends, I would be okay. I saw the expressions on my friends’ faces change from annoyance to dread just before the guy spun me around.

"Hey pussy, where you going?" he said, "Your friends aren’t going to help you."

He was right. They were all struck mute and immobile. The guy pushed me again and I pushed him back only because my friends were watching. That’s when he drew his arm back and trapped me in his inertia.

My eighth grade physics teacher, Mr. Wills, once told us that the greatest example of man defying physics was hitting a major league fastball. Given the trajectory, velocity, and rotation of the ball, hitting it straight, high, and into the bleachers with a small piece of wood was nothing short of amazing. Maybe so, but try dodging a punch when you are scared shitless.

And you know what the worst part is? I know that once he hits me and puts me on the pavement, I’m going to start crying. Trying to fight back those convulsive tears will only make them squirt out faster and wetter. And once they’ve seen you cry, it’s all over. You may as well either change your name to Joe Sissy or move to a different town and start over again. Your friends will find other people to hang out with. The word will get around the bully network and you’ll be tagged. The beatings will become more frequent and last longer. You’ll go to your high school reunion 20 years later and everyone will remember you as the crybaby.

But I try not to dwell on that. Soon he will hit me and see that I’m too weak to be interesting. He’ll laugh and walk away, leaving me there in the Pepto Bismol-colored pool of vanilla shake and blood. I’ll pick myself up, wipe my face off and ride to Brian’s house if they’ll still let me. They will probably ride ahead of me as I awkwardly try to hold the handlebars with one hand pinching my bleeding nose. The girls will be there waiting. Brian will tell them that they tried to jump in and help, but the cops showed up. I won’t shatter his lie because my friends are cowards like me.

Perhaps Emily will feel sorry for me. My hand will touch hers as she holds an ice pack over my eye and wonders out loud what kind of jerk could do this to a nice guy like me. My one good eye will meet hers and she will look beautiful under the florescent lights of Brian’s kitchen. We will share a moment that is as genuine and affectionate as is possible for ninth graders. It is those moments that never seem to last.