by Joshua James Jordan
The basketball hoops are folded up into the gymnasium ceiling to make room for half of a rusty airplane serving as the centerpiece for the homecoming dance. The shop class had brought it in piece by piece, and the lights strung through it change from purple to blue to green to—now you know where the budget for your raise went. You’re only chaperoning as a punishment after that bitchy assistant principal caught you teaching class while hungover, but, hell, it was a Friday, and you’d used up all your sick leave already, and the substitutes are all idiots anyway.
The dance just started. The few kids there stand in circles, not moving. You can’t wait for the popular ones to get here and smuggle in those little gas-station liquor bottles that you can confiscate.
You’re not at the dance anyway. You’re reliving earlier at Walmart where something happened: Your wife reached for your hand—which was strange since walking through the chilly air flowing off the refrigerated meat section wasn’t romantic, but you’d take those moments whenever they happened—while a man with a New York Yankees cap and a thin goatee went by. As he passed, she squeezed your fingers. You asked her what was wrong, but she just shook her head.
After loading the groceries into your twelve-year-old Corolla with the paint chipped off the roof and driving halfway home, she said, “That was him.” She didn’t have to tell you what that meant. You knew.
You were going to turn the car around and kill him. Punching the steering wheel, you said as much. She asked you to stop yelling. That it was so long ago. It didn’t even happen to you. Just let it go and drive home. She started crying so you just kept going forward, but you couldn’t stop the feeling that he took something that wasn’t his. Something that was yours, too.
That night many years ago, she fought with you on the front porch. She was going out alone. You told her that was fine and to go ahead, fuck someone else.
At the party, she took a drink from a guy with a baseball cap on. She knew better, but she was trying to make you mad. Something besides alcohol lurked in the cup. Later, she woke up lying in his backseat with her bare legs sticking to the leather and underwear wrapped around her left knee. He was there. Her first kick pinned him against the door, and she repeated her barrage until her hands fumbled over the handle behind her head. After spilling onto the street she ran away with her bare feet slapping against the pavement.
It took her a year to tell you the truth. She won’t tell you his name, and maybe she doesn’t know it. She wants to move on, but you don’t. From then on, landmines lace every intimate moment, with one false move reminding either of you of that night. She hasn’t had an orgasm since.
Inside of you is a pot boiling violently, frothy liquid bubbling over and sizzling against the stovetop, filling the air with a caustic burning that wrinkles the nose, and the dial to turn it off is missing. That heat spreads out from your chest up to your reddening face, and your fists coil into tree knots. Your heart beats so hard that it shakes your body like a war drum booming over and over.
Somewhere between reimagining her nightmare and revenge drenched daydreams, the realization that you’re still at this dance materializes, and then a familiar question: How long until retirement? The answer is always: Too long.
The gymnasium’s filled up now. The music blares, seizure-inducing lights flash every color, and the heavy air makes each breath more difficult than the last. You don’t care that the homecoming king has a hand down the pants of a sophomore behind the airplane, so you tell the geometry teacher it’s her problem and that you’re going outside for some fresh air. Along the way you pick up a metal folding chair with a dent at the top. It’s the same that a student used to bash in another boy’s face last year.
Outside, the cooler but still warm air doesn’t offer much relief. The full moon casts down its pale light revealing the woods behind the school, and a fresh pine scent replaces those of fermented hormones. A rhythmic rustling behind a bush warrants an investigation since preventing a high school pregnancy would be the biggest impact you’ve had your whole career.
Behind that shrub’s a girl, eyes closed and arms motionless by her sides, lying beneath Liam Sullivan, the district attorney’s kid. You know it’s Liam because his sleeve’s rolled up over the elbow revealing a mark from the surgery that cost a baseball scholarship to Purdue, and the scar’s like a worm wriggling up his arm.
But he’s not Liam.
Right now, he’s him.
And he’s taking something that isn’t his.
And your bed is a minefield.
And you’re a pot that’s boiling over.
And the war drums are booming.
And you’re holding a metal chair.
Joshua James Jordan lives in Florida. He writes. www.JoshuaJamesJordan.com