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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A short story about the dangers of nationalism and violence against outsiders, this piece was partially inspired by my own experiences growing up in an NYC suburb in the shadow of the events of 9/11. It touches upon the occasional ugliness and cruelty of children spurred on by the larger systems of nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and homophobia baked into our cultural hegemony.


I remember the sting. The hair gel, intermingling with the sweat, dripped into my eyes. I winced as another bead slid lazily down my forehead. More followed and soon I was wiping away a torrent of warm, sticky water that smelled of chemicals and sour musk. I remember the baggy shirt, to hide the round little belly perpetually sucked in, and the nervous excitement of being next to Jack. He was handsome and athletic and popular and he even danced with girls at the sixth grade dance (or at least that’s what they said). He probably even kissed some of those girls too, and maybe even did other stuff.

I wasn’t a cool kid like him. I wasn’t athletic or handsome. I was chubby, like one of those naked cherubin in Renaissance paintings, but without any of the mystique or grace or messages to deliver from God. That was mostly ruined by my wispy, peach fuzz mustache, my ill-fitting shorts that came down too low, my brown glasses with the ugly frames, the train track braces, and the stretched t-shirt collar that bunched on the right liked fried bacon, and sagged on the left like Mrs.O’Garrin’s arm fat. No, I wasn’t the image of 12-year-old athletic bravado, nor of angelic prepubescence, holding on a little longer to innocence before the fall. I was somewhere in the middle, dangling above a chasm of insecurity and melting hair gel and cheap, foggy glasses. I guess that’s why they called it middle school.

It was September 11th, 2002, marking a year since the attacks. Our small, suburban town 20 minutes North-West of downtown Manhattan was brought to a stand-still. I can still feel the silent hum of that day, pulsing in my ears like a heartbeat. I remember the tears and hushed conversations in which the teachers nodded their heads at each other, slowly, as if communicating through telepathy that only worked with you furrowed your brow and pulled the corners of your mouth down into a soft semicircle.

It meant today would be full of newscasters and dark smoke and fire on TV, long speeches by the principal over the crackling loudspeaker, and lots of small, plastic American flags. My color for the day was white. All the students in my 7th grade class had been assigned red, white, or blue today so that we could take a picture on the front lawn of the school, aligned neatly in rows in the shape of the American flag. The teachers said the picture would go in the yearbook and maybe even the town newspaper, The Herald, so we needed to all be on our best behavior.

White was an easy color. It was one I could be happy about. I had a white t-shirt that hid my baby fat. It was also a neutral color. I couldn’t be made fun of for wearing white - what’s funny about white, I thought? No material there for people like Jack. Thank God I wasn’t red. RED. Could you imagine? Only little kids wore something as garish as red. Only babies wore red. Or girls (too close to pink, I thought). Or guys who played basketball or baseball or who wore throwback Chicago Bulls jerseys with “Jordan” or “Pippen'' on the back. Red brought too much attention to one’s self. You might as well wear a bull’s eye. No way - this was a new building, with plenty of new kids, and it’s only September. It’s important to hit the ground running. No stumbles. Kids remember that forever.

Jack was to my right. I don’t remember who was in front of me, or besides me, but I know he was there, close enough for me to see the way the white shirt sleeves formed around muscles in his arms and shoulders. They were muscles I didn’t know 12-year-olds could have. His face was turned toward the front of our school building, straight and tall like a soldier ready for battle, hands resting in front of his waist, undistracted, stoic and waiting. We’d been standing at attention in the sun for nearly 20 minutes, which might as well have been 20 hours, but he never broke a sweat. He looked so cool even in the late summer heat. The camera had been positioned on the roof, but the cameraman was still fiddling around with the tripod. We were in position, arranged neatly in our designated little rows, sun beating us down to pulp.

Then, as if knocked on the head with a brick, I recognized a window, an opportunity to reach out, say something, anything, that might get a reaction, open up a dialogue with Jack. It’s not every day you get placed next to a cool kid who otherwise wouldn’t get close enough to risk sharing a single molecule of the air you may have breathed. Plus, he had nowhere to go, isolated in a sea of red and white strangers.

Open your mouth, you idiot. Say something. Imagine what life could be like this year if he knew you, acknowledged your existence. Hell, even an exchange of names would be enough. Visions of a new, possible reality flashed before my eyes like a film reel. We’d start slow, low-fives and chin nods to each other in the hallway and then others would see and obviously, I’d be immediately accepted into his inner circle. These initial awkward stages would then naturally give way to hanging out past 9 in the parking lot near the old Grand Union and hitting three pointers at the swim club basketball court in game after game as 8th grade girls cheered us on.

Yes, it was all within reach. Just talk - talk, damn it!

“It’s so hot. When are they gonna start, do ya think?” I croaked, almost inaudibly. My throat was filled with sawdust and glass splinters and thorn bushes.


His voice suggested annoyance, tinged with arrogance, peppered with boredom, and sprinkled with just enough interest to indicate he wasn’t listening to actually hear me, but suggest to me, and to those within earshot, that I was breaking some code, some unwritten bylaw of coolness I wasn’t privy to. Naturally, I dug my hole deeper and forgot to bring a ladder.

“Think we’ll be done soon? I can’t stop sweating.”

I added a chuckle at the end to let him know I meant no harm, but my voice cracked and I’m pretty sure I farted out of nervousness, neither of which contributed anything of gainful substance to the already faltering exchange. 

“Hmmm,” was all he threw back.

I’m convinced kids like Jack took a secret night class in being arrogant little pricks. It’s like they spoke a language that registered at a frequency I couldn’t hear.

But, all things considered, not a total disaster, I thought. I avoided public humiliation and managed to get two, full syllables from him. It would have almost been perfect had it not been for the pink stain on the back of my shirt, the one I’d failed to see, and Gregory Lido’s keen eye and loud mouth.

“Hey Gay-rat. Is your mom too stupid to do laundry right, or are you too poor to buy a new shirt?”

Gregory, despite all his flaws, was a master middle school wordsmith and had no trouble turning a phrase just stupid enough to make 12 year-olds shriek like hyenas.

“There’s no pink in the American Flag, dumbass,” he continued, undeterred by my sharp, silent glance over the shoulder. “Are you trying to tell us something? What are you looking at me for? Are you hitting on me?”

Others near us started to notice the pink mark and chuckle. I began sweating faster, but now not the lazy, sticky sweat of late summer, but the cold, steely sweat of panic and shame, the sweat that meant quick, shallow breaths and a swollen throat and a hot, dull throbbing in your ears.

“Ok,” I thought, but as long as they don’t - oh no, they’re breaking ranks to come look. Please stop looking. Please stop staring. Don’t come over here. Why hasn’t the picture been taken yet? I wished I could evaporate into nothing, sweat enough in that moment to melt and sizzle up into vapor and blow away. I would have dug, clawed into the grass and dirt and rock with my fingertips until they bled if it meant disappearing.

I looked around frantically, like a cornered fox, the hounds licking their lips and baying in unison. They were hot and tired and wanted blood.

I considered: if they wanted blood, I’d give it to them. I scanned the laughing faces, mine now as red as the row of shirts in front of me. Searching, searching, I found one. He was smiling just enough, his dark eyes creased as he laughed along with the other pale faces. It would be him. Yes, you’ll do.

“At least I’m not a terrorist like Malik. He shouldn’t even be here. Is this even your flag?”

It was like dropping chum into shark-infested water. My words hung for half a moment in the sticky air before the girl to his right took the bait. She laughed just loud enough, shaking her head vigorously, and covering her mouth with her hand in feigned, exaggerated shock. I could have said anything in that moment, as long as it was mean enough, biting enough, and cunning enough to move the pack towards something sweeter. They were on him in a second. Gregory started in first.

“Even the queer is right - you should turn around. Don’t look at us or I’ll knock your teeth in.” 

That one got Jack to smile. I smiled too. It was working.

“But I’m not Arab! My parents are Christian. I didn’t…”

It didn’t matter. Gregory’s pawns stepped in, leering and salivating through red-lipped sneers.

“Go back to your country. My brother’s joining the Marines. He’s going to shoot you,” a tall, thin boy spat.

Malik deserves the credit of a hero. He could have stayed quiet. He could have kept his mouth shut and waited for the storm to pass. But he turned, fists clenched, and shouted back in defiance, “You’re all idiots - you don’t know anything. They killed Christians who looked like me. I was born here!”

Jack stepped in then, his voice was dark and deep, as if rumbling up from some cave kept sealed for a thousand years and now torn open.

“Shut the fuck up. My uncle’s dead because of what you did.”

And then Jack swung, his right fist connecting with Malik’s temple. In an instant, Jack was on him, tumbling and swinging and crying hard and shouting any expletive a middle school boy could muster. Malik tried keeping his hands raised to protect his face and throat, but Jack’s arms were like hammers, bringing his rage down on Malik again and again and again.

Amidst all the jeering and jostling that had broken out in the circle forming around the boys, we didn’t see Mrs. O’Garrin storming through the rows, eyes transfixed, near the edge of tears herself.

“Excuse me!” she bellowed, working to regain control of the storm of white and red and blue shirts that, in close proximity, showed their trueness. They weren’t just red, white, and blue at all, but a dizzying mix of scarlet and pale salmon, faded navy, egg shell and cream, even an obviously light gray turned inside out, and of light blue and baby blue, and blue that looked black. The swirling whirlpool of colors enveloped us as the chaos took hold.

“Enough, enough!” Mrs. O’Garrin began again, her voice pitched, shrill and broken.

“This is the way we behave on a ceremony for 9/11? This is the respect we show to those who died?!” Her eyes turned to look at me, passed over Gregory and red-faced Jack and then, finally, came to rest on Malik, where they stayed, pressing him down, down into the bloodied grass.

There were no words, only hushed silence then. She grabbed Malik, who by now had managed to work his way out from underneath Jack and was holding one of his muscled arms against the lawn with his knee, and led him away by the shoulder, her pale, white-knuckled hand squeezing Malik tightly. He looked afraid.

By this point, the other teachers had made their way down to the now-indecipherable mass of colors. Jack, Gregory, myself, and a few other boys were told to walk down to the office as well.

Mr. Bolanero, the principal, sat us down and called our parents and told us about the mockery we had made of the whole event and how we would not be allowed to participate in the flag photograph, but all I saw was Malik, who sat alone and cried, Mrs. O’Garrin’s hard, bony fingers still wrapped around a shoulder that now looked so small.

When I got home, I threw the shirt away, stuffed it deep into the garbage can in the backyard where it would never, ever be found, and cried myself to sleep.

Submitted: November 04, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Garrett Van Curen. All rights reserved.

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Thu, November 11th, 2021 11:05am

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