Jay Barone was always the first to know about a fight. He would find me some time near the end of the school day and he’d tell me excitedly about who was fighting after school. It was the happiest he looked, and I always felt like I was disappointing him by not matching his happiness. It seemed like it was always Matt Eastman fighting somebody or Matt Ladreau fighting somebody or the two of them fighting each other. It would usually be the gravel lot behind the old church on the north end of the island. I was twelve years old, and the thought of watching a fight that I happened to come across was one thing, but the thought of going home, saying hello to my mother, tossing my books in my room, and riding my bike to Jay’s house, where I would say hello to his mother, and then us riding out to the north end to watch two boys fight was magnificently ridiculous.
I didn’t like the implication of it. It implied that other people fighting somehow addressed something in you, and that the way it addressed it was so certain and natural that you could schedule it and show up on time for it, like it was any other kind of appointment.
I couldn’t tell Jay that though. I made up some excuse each time. He began to catch on. He was a smart guy. One day he said he was going to the library to work on a Social Studies project with Allie Friend and I could come along. We rode down Meadowbrook on our bikes and at the hill where you turned to go up to the library, he kept going straight towards the north end.
I stopped. “Where are you going?”
He stopped ahead of me. “Eastman is fighting Ty Kim,” he called. “You’ve got to come.”
He walked his bike back towards me. “We’re going to be in high school pretty soon. I don’t want you to get left behind.”
“Left behind what?” I said, though I knew. Jay was always bringing me along, trying to teach me poker, helping me understand sex jokes.
“The fights are where everything happens,” he said.
There were cars heading home in the afternoon and I thought of how ridiculous we must look stopping on the street like that.
“I don’t care about that.”
“People need to see you there. They need to see you cheering for one of the fighters.”
“I don’t care about either of those guys.”
“Then just pick one. It doesn’t matter.”
The worst part of it was that I knew that in a certain way, he was right. I knew it by how calmly he was explaining how things worked. But I knew I had something too. I hadn’t wanted to say it, but now we were out here in the street, only a little way away from the church. It felt like there was no way around it.
“I feel like a coward to go watch them fight.”
Jay looked heartbroken. “What?”
“I feel like a coward,” I said. “I feel like if I was Matt Eastman or Ty Kim, I would turn to the crowd and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing? We’re fighting. We’re actually doing something at least. What are you doing? You’re just watching.'”
I’d never seen Jay look so sad. I hadn’t thought I could do that. I wished he hadn’t lied to me, and then I would have just tried another excuse.
He didn’t say anything. He turned and rode towards the church, slowly.
I rode home, going back and forth between feeling very guilty and very powerful.
That night he called me up.
“You missed a good fight.”
“I guess I did.”
“You know who was there, watching? Eddie Tadich. Mark Meno.” He said a couple more guys. I knew what he was doing. You going to call Eddie Tadich a coward? You going to call Mark Meno a coward? I felt sorry for him.
“Okay,” I said.
“Don’t you want to know who won?”
“It was a tie. They were both still standing but they got tired. It was a great fight.”
After that Jay didn’t tell me about fights. I’d hear about them afterwards and I’d know he’d gone to watch. I’d feel bad whenever I remembered him saying he didn’t want me to get left behind. But I also didn’t mind getting left behind something that needed me to go and watch two boys fight.
One night I asked my father if he got into fights when he was a kid. He was washing the dishes.
“With other kids?”
“I only fought them until I joined the movement. Then I discovered who my real enemy was. It was the rich and powerful in our country. I was fourteen.”
Well, there it was. He had been telling me about the movement for years, and I’d thought of his real enemy as my real enemy for as long as he had been telling me. I liked the idea of fighting other boys until you discovered your real enemy, the way my father described it. But I guess I’d skipped the first part and gone straight to the second, even if only in my mind.
It was nothing I could tell Jay. We were talking to each other less and less at school. I walked around dreaming of the fight I would have with my real enemy one day, which made all the sense in the world when I was by myself and seemed ridiculous among the world of boys at school. Sometimes I could bring that solitary confidence with me to a conversation though, especially if I was talking with just one person. That was how it was when I talked with Matt Eastman about the fights.
It happened because his mother was a notary public, and my father would go to her whenever he was helping Iranians who didn’t speak English with legal documents. Her office was at their house, and I’d gone along because he was dropping me off at the library later.
I’d never have been able to say what I said to Matt Eastman at school, but we were sitting watching a football game at his house while my father and his mother talked, and I felt brave about it.
“I respect you for fighting.”
“Those fights behind the church. I never go to watch but it’s not because of you and whoever you’re fighting. I don’t want to be a watcher.”
“Don’t you feel annoyed by them?”
“The boys who come to watch.”
“They’re telling you to fight but they’re not fighting themselves.”
“They like to watch.”
“It’s cowardly,” I said.
He looked at me like he didn’t know if he was impressed or not. Having said it once to Jay, I could say it the way I wanted to say it now.
“If two boys want to fight, it should just be the two of them fighting,” I said. “That’s it.”
“How will anybody know who won?”
“You’ll know. That’s the important thing.”
“I like hearing them cheering me on.”
“If you’re fighting, the fight should be enough motivation.”
I thought about the fight I was going to have with my real enemy when I got older. The principles seemed to still apply in this case.
“Is that what you do?”
“Me?” I said.
“I’ve never been in any fights,” I said.
He turned back to the game, and I figured my opinion didn’t count. I was still glad I said it.
About a week later Jay found me in the morning at school.
“Matt Eastman has a black eye.”
“He was probably in a fight,” I said.
“Allie said he fought a St. Monica’s kid. He didn’t tell anybody about it.”
I felt very happy. I couldn’t fight my fight yet, but I could bring the principles.
“I told him he should do it.”
“You told him he should fight the St. Monica’s kid?”
“No, I told him the next time he had a fight, he shouldn’t tell anybody about it. He should just fight.”
“Jesus, Babak,” he said. “Why do you have to be this way about everything?”
He looked hurt and I felt bad.
“It’s not like anybody else got to see the fight either,” I said.
“That’s not the point. Why’d you have to say that stuff to Eastman? I didn’t tell Eddie Tadich and Mark Meno that you called them cowards.”
I hadn’t thought that he had considered that.
“You could,” I said.
“You could tell them I said that.”
“I didn’t want to tell them.”
I hadn’t thought that I might have to fight Eddie Tadich and Mark Meno and all those guys. But I had called them cowards and it would be cowardly to pretend I hadn’t.
I saw that Jay had thought it was some kind of secret and I didn’t know why, but if he thought I’d betrayed it by telling Eastman those guys were cowards, then he could tell whoever he wanted.
“Go ahead and tell them,” I said.
“I’m not going to. I have some principles.”
I got excited to hear that.
“Wouldn’t you rather think about the fight you’re going to have anyway?”
“When you get older. Against dictators. Against the people who get richer while poor people get poorer.”
I hadn’t thought that he wasn’t thinking of that fight, somewhere at least. I had thought that all our riding our bikes all over the island and everything else we did was pointing towards that. It was okay if he didn’t feel that way. I was still sure.
“Well,” I said, “who won?”
“Between Eastman and the St. Monica’s kid?”
“I don’t even know,” Jay said, as if to say, that’s how bad a shape I’m in. He didn’t look like a coward. He looked like a guy who hadn’t found his fight, and it was probably the case that all the guys who went to the fights behind the church were like that, and I felt okay about that because we were kids and we had time.
I laughed and punched him in the shoulder.
“Let’s go ask him.”
“All right,” he said, and we walked together to class.
SIAMAK VOSSOUGHI is a writer living in Seattle. His stories have been published in the Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Bennington Review, Columbia Journal, West Branch, and MAYDAY. His first collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. His second collection, A Sense of the Whole, received the 2019 Orison Fiction Prize. Visit his website.