by Joseph Han
I’m not one loser. I know how that sounds. That time Ms. Sumida told me after seventh grade English period I was gonna be the only one from Central Middle had a chance go college, I wanted to believe her so bad. I know she was talking about Nicky and Robert them and maybe she was tryna make me feel better or something. Probably saw me in one headlock during lunch recess.
I mean it took me a while to get kinda cool wit that group but doesn’t mean I’m gonna end up kicking it wit them at the benches between B and C building. Never gonna leave my backpack and shit over there ‘less its gonna get jacked. Not like they would even care. One time, Nicky pushed me so hard that my CD player skipped during tracks and scratched up Eddie’s only copy of The Eminem Show. Don’t even walk by that area if I don’t have to. Somehow you gotta earn the right to hang there. Had all the guys good at basketball and football cool wit the Triad-type kids way into gangsta rap, but who wasn’t those days. Even I had ringtone versions of all the hits on my flip phone and got people making requests for what song they wanna be when they call me.
Nicky was like the leader of all the Asian kids at Central probably cause he was Laotian and the only one. That meant he could call everybody else Chink, Gook, Viet, Jap, flat face, Flip – you know the drill. Like he had this word bank at his disposal, and no one was gonna do something stupid and try out something like, what you dumb Laos. Fuckin Buddhist. Just doesn’t have the sting. The history. He named everybody, and one time when Robert before they was cool said his mom was probably one chink, Nicky grabbed him by the throat and pinned his neck against the bench. Looked like he was gonna behead the dude.
Why you think nobody mess wit him?
Also helped that he had the most expensive shit before uniform days when all we had was dull-ass greys and maroons like all the other schools got the better colors and we got what was left over on the chart. Nicky was always decked out. Guy had swagger like 50 Cent was his personal life coach. Diamonds in his ears. Big ass silver watch. Not the kind you get from those crane games. Nikes he would crack you over even if you scuff um just a millimeter or accidently got dirt in his way. These kicks were so big dude would practically have to be walking out of um until they flopped back around his feet. Nicky would wear basketball shorts so low he couldn’t even ball on the court cause he was running wit a limp, always wit a hand holding on to the waistband. That’s what Ms. Sumida taught us about, called irony.
But that guy, somehow he set the standard seems like, even for someone like me. Like this kinda gear would end up protecting me.
And I needed it – bad.
But shit, get all shame when cannot afford Ecko brand T-shirts wit the logo all big across the chest that cost like forty bucks at Macy’s, and I gotta go Ross to see if they got any on sale. I was on a hunt through those racks. Even found one light blue Ecko collard shirt and wore um to winter ball. Kids would rock Sean John or Rocawear under uniforms even though was one hot day. Sometimes they just wore the uniform like one scarf so they could really show what they was wearing underneath. Took a long time for convince Dad stop taking me Payless for twenty dollar shoes. Even more shitty is when that’s all people call you when they notice. Hey, Payless! Was shame when finally we went up to somewhere around sixty dollars, but that time I only could have one pair a year so you know I was at them things wit toothbrush and bar of soap every night.
Those days, I rolled my ankle high socks over my heels just so it wouldn’t show past my kicks. Pulled my shorts lower but not under the ass kine. I still wanted to walk like one normal person. Wore fake chains that gave me rash on my neck and left um all raw and itchy. Even took to the less fake chains wit toothpaste to make um shine. Replaced laces at least to get one new look. When I did get my hands on some dope Reeboks, crisp and just out kine, had to dodge all my friends wanting for “bless” my shoes by stomping on um. I tell you, whole day I was dancing. And come to find out fuckin Mikey from the drum line in my band class got the same shoes and got all up in my face in the room where all the trumpets stay.
“Fuckin Neal, why you copy me for huh?”
“Nah, I never know you was gonna get these.”
“What, like lickens faggot. Huh?”
Mikey just stared me down and our chests where basically touching. I must’ve given him a mixed what-the-fuck-is-wrong-wit-you-but-please-don’t-hurt-me kind of face.
He broke his like-scrap look and smiled. “Nah nah nah, jus playing Neal. Now I know you got good taste. No need cry.”
Man I probably would have cause Mikey is the only guy Nicky suck up to.
Wit some of these kind guys, you just don’t know. Kids got their share of bruises. Everybody around Central got like one record of how many scraps they been in, like the number hovers above their heads. No matter if they win or lose, kinda hard for tell anyway cause a teacher or somebody always gonna break it up. Doesn’t mean none of us never wanted to see. Everyone comes around on cue to make one arena. To think we used to do that when we was kids, but instead we were holding one rainbow parachute and making all nice. Now’s different. Sometimes I thought, what if I was gonna be in there someday.
Weird thing is, you scrap somebody, couple weeks later they your friend. No joke. How you think Alvin and Johnny became bros? They scrapped. Johnny would piss on my locker and Alvin would block me until he was done, fuckers just laughing.
Not like scrapping was the only thing. One time Nicky showed me these brass knuckles he probably got at swap meet that time one gang from Kawānanakoa Middle was suppossed to come down Central and have one brawl. Eddie was down to jump in case it went nuts, so I stuck around afterschool – and nothing. Still, dudes carried around knives and popped um out once in a while. Worst thing happened at Central was one kid got stabbed wit a compass. The fuckin sharp end from shit we used to make perfect circles in geometry. Our school became the favorite place for cops to park.
You can say I hung out wit some oddballs at Central. That time Eddie and Rocco was way into becoming breakers since we watched B2K in the movie You Got Served, and those guys even bought weight lifting gloves from Sports Authority so they could spin more easy on the floor. First time they was getting into it they looked goofy as fuck, and I told um that.
“You try then you piece of shit.”
“Nah, I’m good. I’ll just be entourage.”
We was always in front of B building right behind the columns and someone would buss out some speakers for connect to a CD player and they would just go, at least until faculty told us cannot. This was the best way to spend my time, plus playing football out on the field when Ryan would bring his ball and it wouldn’t get stolen.
“Mikey, give um back. That’s my dad’s.”
“Nah, I just like sample.”
“C’mon man. Don’t be like that.”
“Real quick, real quick. No cry. I give um back to you afterschool.”
Was my way of not getting into trouble. Keeping busy. Watching Eddie try head spin wit his new beanie on. Rocco could do one mean worm, I give him that. On defense, sometimes I would just hang out behind a palm tree and try wait for one interception if a receiver came past. Nobody saw it coming, and that was my thing. Only worked a few times though.
How many times I ended up “sparring” wit Nicky, I dunno. Dude would just wanna start that shit up out of nowhere just to fuck wit me. Like it was in his daily routine or something. Eat breakfast, go school, fuck wit Neal. Probably cause I always did stuff like make sure I did my mile run faster than him. Was after P.E. he came after me.
“I not gonna hit for real.”
“I’m alright Nicky, no need,” I said, backing away. “Some other time.”
“Come on, don’t be one fag.” He had his hand up in front of his face. “Just slaps. Promise.”
Every time he smacked my head and moved like he was duckin, even though I wasn’t even into it. Next thing you know he gives me one hook right in the stomach.
“Okay, okay, I’m good.” I stood up even though I wanted to fold.
“Ah, one day you gon learn, Neal.” Nicky gave me a huge grin. “I just lookin out for you. Make sure you not one pussy.”
Now, you ask me how many times I woulda scrapped wit Nicky if I really could? Thing is, on my side of things I really wanted to. Sure, the boys had my back and always said they would, but wit Nicky? Those fuckas would let me get served and pop-lock their asses out of there real quick.
What you think I went to Nuʻuanu YMCA for? On. The. Daily. I would just pop off my uniform and got my Fruit of the Loom tank underneath. Look at mirrors thinking, I’m gonna fill this fucker out one of these days. First day I went, kid you not, couldn’t even bench the bar. Other guys there probably looking at me thinking what a scrub.
My arms was probably as thick as the bar that time. Next thing you know, watching Greg the speed bag and boxing trainer going at um wit other guys, learned how for get in the rhythm by watching. If had stairs like in Philly, I would run up those too. Yeah, I had that ringtone too. Just imagine one face on that speed bag and go, even though I never had wraps for my hands just did um until my knuckles got all red, all hot off the leather.
Things at Central got better by eighth grade at least. By then I got shoes no one had yet, and even Robert had to say damn, those are dope. Mikey and I got cool cause I was on his team more and during football I ran the fastest out for passes, even though they never always come to me. When we balled on the court, I gave him some good assists. Also cause I got up to second chair trumpet and beat out Johnny, who was skinnier than me by then.
Mikey even told me he had my back when this sixth grade kid said he was gonna get his crew and I could get my crew and we all scrap, just because he was singing one day and I turned around and must’ve looked like I was saying shut the fuck up. That’s when he called me out, got all up in my face the way people do, and I told him whatever and walked away. And somehow everybody knew about it.
“Ay, you heard about Neal, how he was gonna crack this scrub?”
“Heard he goes Y now.”
“Yeah, he could lay him out.”
“If they try gang you, no worries.”
Was a long time Nicky never go wit his routine. People talkin, saying dude’s depressed and got stuff going down at home. Like he falsed his stepdad or something. Steals money to buy his shit. Staying at one friend’s house. Probably Robert. Stuff people heard but never gonna ask him about. He started smoking cigs on the daily afterschool and all of us thought, this guy can get anything he wants.
Right when lunch recess was gonna end and I went bathroom before heading to Ms. Sumida’s class since she taught higher eighth grade English, Nicky came in and first thing he did was throw up his hands.
“Ho, wassup Neal?”
“Wassup.” I tried go in for one handshake but he just slapped um away. The bell rang.
“C’mon,” he said, swaying his head back and forth, hopping on his toes. I tried to walk around him to go out the door but he pushed me. “You hit me once and I stop and you can go class.”
I never wanted to be late and disappoint Ms. Sumida and not go college, so I put up my hands and gave him one solid punch real quick. It landed even though he tried for dodge.
Nicky backed up and touched where I hit him.
“Damn, Neal, you punch hard ah?” He chuckled and patted my back on his way to the urinal. “Shoots then.”
I hit his shoulder but I was aiming for face.
I never care what he was or where he came from. What kind of clothes he wore. The scraps I heard he got into. I never care that he was gonna ditch whatever class he had next, probably just straight up walk out of Central just to smoke cigs.
If we ended up scrapping and the whole school jumped in, I would’ve just been knocking heads like I did thousand times already wit momentum on my side. Then what, everybody gonna become my friend and scared of me after?
If you asked me, the only thing I cared about those days was how this guy got in the way and that time I made him move.
Joseph Han was born in Seoul, Korea and raised in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. He is the author of a poetry chapbook, Orphan (Tinfish Press 2015). His recent work is forthcoming in AAWW’s The Margins, while other writing has appeared in poets.org, Connotation Press, Mascara Literary Review, and Fiction Southeast. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing at the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa. You can follow him @hanjoseph.