“C’mon. Bare-knuckle brawl. I win, you break up with her. You win and I’ll never bring her up again.”
He put his hands on his slim hips in dramatic protest. “I’m not gonna fight you. How do you think it looks if a black guy beats up a prissy blonde?”
I wasn’t worried about how it looked. Ernie could talk himself out of anything. That boy had a candy-coated mouth and friends in every corner of our mostly white, middle-class high school. My white ass, however, had four to six friends depending on how much I had been running my mouth. Some may have called me unpopular, but the disdain was mutual. During high school I took a full load of courses at a nearby community college so that I only had to go to high school in the mornings. That summer, I had just claimed my diploma a year early and was about to leave Ernie behind to finish high school without me. Not that he minded.
“Fight me!” I jumped up and down on his bed, throwing punches into the air. “C’mon. Let’s go. I wanna be a pugilist.”
Ernie rolled his eyes. “You just couldn’t talk about fighting without using that word, could you?”
“Oh, does the inimitable range of my vernacular bug you? Do you think I’m irascible? Pretentious? Unctuous? Does it make you want to hit me? C’mon. Pugilist, pugilist, pugilist!” I worked my arms like Jack Dempsy, that is if he were a five-foot-five honor student with a thick side braid and Birkenstock sandals.
Always a pragmatist, Ernie befriended me because I had a car and he needed a chauffeur. He knew that I didn’t have anything better to do than drive him around to tend to his flock of nice white girls. Every Friday and Saturday night I ferried him from the house of the benignly attractive girl who was awarded “Best Eyes” in the yearbook to a party for the excessively “free-spirited” girl who won, “Most Likely To Marry Well” — an honor that really shouldn’t have persisted into late-90s yearbooks in Northern California.
Ernie made a project of me. He wanted to teach me to behave myself and get me to stop referring to his gal pals as “cooters.” Because I barely attended high school, I didn’t know most of the cooters, so before entering a new girl’s house, he would give me some tips. “Okay, this chick’s a bit of a snob. You’re going to hate her, but don’t be a bitch ‘cause she will come after you.” Or, “This one’s secretly subversive. She’ll like you if you let her.”
Then, after each visit, he’d give me a postmortem on my behavior, pointing out, for example, that it was all going okay until I told some beauty pageant dropout that her dog looked inbred.
“Here’s a rule: if you want people to like you, don’t make fun of their dogs,” he told me. Then he patted me on the shoulder like I was Coach Ernie’s most hopeless benchwarmer and broke the news: “When you went to the bathroom she told me not to bring you back to her house, ever.”
I appreciated Ernie’s honesty, but during my last summer at home all that straight talk was metastasizing into ugly tension. My soft-spoken and preternaturally calm boyfriend usually rode along with Ernie and I in the backseat, even as our romance hemorrhaged blood. Still, my boyfriend and I planned to go to college together. We’d even gamed the university housing system so we could share a dorm room. No matter how anemic our high school sweetheart thing was, I refused to change my plans.
As my boyfriend and I grew apart, my rapport with Ernie became ever more lively and fraught. But then, Ernie trashed the status quo by sparking a teenage romance of his own before summer started. I was never jealous of his cooters, but his new girlfriend encroached on my Ernie face-time. Ernie confided in me that he planned to date her for one year and if he wasn’t in love with her at the end of the year, he’d break it off. I couldn’t wait that long.
I’d been campaigning for a fight all summer, ever since the June afternoon when Ernie and I smoked out at his family’s apartment along with our wet blanket paramours. I had never smoked pot, but I figured I better give it a shot before I started college. Ernie agreed to make it happen for me, and then crafted a bong out of a water bottle, a pen and a wad of chewing gum using instructions he had scribbled on a piece of binder paper.
My boyfriend took a few puffs and then excused himself to the bedroom Ernie shared with his little sister and older brother. I didn’t have to spy to know that he wanted to be alone to draw miniature dragons drinking rainwater out of roses. He liked to gift me with these doodles as if they were precious, but he never noticed when I threw them away.
Ernie’s girlfriend declined to smoke, presumably because she hated new experiences and merriment. As Ernie and I passed the water bottle-cum-bong, she stared at the ceiling fan and compulsively finger-combed her hair like a captive chimpanzee. She had dropped out of high school to simultaneously get treatment for bulimia and pursue her dream of becoming a pastry chef. Besides having no understanding of irony, she was as affable as drywall. Also, she was thinner than me, which I hated her for, especially because she was cheating with bulimia.
After several passes of the bong, Ernie and I realized we were starving. Fortunately, his mom kept a delightfully working-class selection of junk food in the apartment. Ernie went for the Doritos, but I took on a bag of Oreos, mostly just to bug him. He hated Oreos, as if it were the cookies’ fault that they were deputized into a racial slur.
Ernie laid into those Doritos like a bear in a campsite. Within minutes, his usually immaculate chinos were smeared with Xtreme-flavored powder and I had so many Oreos stuffed into my mouth that I could barely breathe.
Suddenly Ernie was struck with excitement. “You know what we should do?”
“Huh?” I grunted.
“Go to the Renaissance Faire!”
I swallowed a lump of cookie. “Nah. I don’t have enough of a rack to wear a bodice.” Then I thought for a second and I got it. I clapped my hands in delight. “We have to get you a costume and watch people try to figure out if there were black people during the Renaissance!”
Ernie smiled meanly. “No, no. Better. I want to wear shackles.” We both laughed so hard that we were gasping for air.
“Can I walk you on a leash?” I asked.
Ernie stopped laughing suddenly. “No that’s just messed up.” I hung my head apologetically, sad that I ruined the moment by going too far, then Ernie perked back up. “Haaa!” he hooted. “Gotcha! You thought I’d be offended by that?”
But the mood had already turned. I pushed the Oreos away and Ernie chugged the rest of his Dr. Pepper. We joined his girlfriend in staring at the ceiling fan until Ernie broke the tension by bringing up his favorite topic.
“When do you think someone I know will die?”
I leaned back in his step-dad’s exhausted barcalounger and sighed. “Again with this? Knowing someone who dies won’t give you depth.”
“I want to know what true grief feels like.”
“Okay. Close your eyes. Imagine I just killed myself. How do you feel?”
“No, I mean, like, what if someone I really cared about died?” Then he laughed goofily, blowing his joke and causing Xtreme-flavored powder to spray across his mother’s coffee table.
“Fine. Imagine what’s-her-name dead,” I said. What’s-her-name was sitting two feet away, but she was too entrenched in adjusting her bra strap to respond. I wished she’d join my boyfriend in Ernie’s room. Then they could blend into the furniture together. Maybe they’d even fall in love and make baby ottomans.
“No, not her. Like my mom or my step-dad. What would that feel like?”
“Why don’t you read a book about someone whose mom dies? Like, as your brother’s porno mags are to sex, highly emotional stories about dead moms are to grief?”
Ernie shrugged me off. He was uncomfortable with any mention of sex, probably because he wasn’t having any with his barely animate girlfriend. “Fine. Let’s play Truth or Dare. Now choose truth.”
“It’s night. You’re in a parking lot and you see me walking towards you, but you don’t know me. What do you do?”
“I assume that you’re a scary black man and you’re going to rape me. Then, when you get closer, I think, ‘Eh, maybe he’s gay and it’s gonna be okay,’ but, just in case, I rush to my car and speed away.”
Ernie looked as if I’d just punched him. Again, I’d pushed it too far, but he knew what he was asking when he asked it. Everyone pretended that Ernie wasn’t different, like his skin color was a piece of broccoli stuck in his teeth. He needed me because someone had to acknowledge that he wasn’t the same as everyone else.
Ernie pointed to my lap and said, “Don’t you think if I was going to rape a chick, I’d pick someone less, um, meaty?” Then he let his eyes drift to his girlfriend, who was obliviously—and thinly—massaging her own neck.
I cleared my throat coldly, so he knew I wasn’t about to say something nice. “I doubt you’d rape any chick.”
I liked to rib Ernie being gay, mostly because he was in choir and it seemed like every other guy in choir was out and proud. But Ernie was straight. During my sophomore year, he and I played Truth or Dare with a few of his cooters. I asked him directly if he was gay, and he swore on his mother that he was not. Ernie was serious about his mother, so it had to be true. Besides, there was no reason not to be honest. Being gay was no big deal. When Ernie’s best guy friend came out, I yawned cartoonishly and sighed, “Duh.” Ernie was mortified of my faux pas and later tried to get me to write, “I will act surprised when people come out to me” in my notebook five-hundred times as punishment.
Ernie’s girlfriend tottered to the sink to refill her empty glass directly from the tap, a big no-no in Ernie’s house. He felt so strongly about bottled water that he claimed to have started the trend of drinking store-bought water at our high school. His fridge contained no less than twelve bottles of Evian, all purchased with his own money and stacked like cheerleaders on the top shelf.
Ernie liked little touches of luxury, things that made him seem like the kind of guy who didn’t live with his family of five in a two-bedroom apartment. He added an extra scoop of Tide to every load of laundry so that he’d smell like “fresh.” He was quick to point out that he wasn’t African American, but the American-born child of an African. His father was from Kenya, which made him exotic and foreign. (Correspondingly, he preferred to not mention his Mexican-born mother because being Latino was too ordinary. He was secretly bilingual, but refused to speak Spanish once he got to high school, getting a D in Spanish to prove his point. He wouldn’t even use it to speak to his mother. If she asked him to do something in Spanish, he’d say, “No hah-blah esp-span-yole, mother.” He didn’t respond to his real name, Ernesto.)
As his girlfriend stood over the sink and slugged tap water like she were chasing a fistful of Klonopin, Ernie mouthed the words. “Not gay. Have a girlfriend.”
I stood up, put a hand on each of his shoulders and leaned into his face to whisper, “You mean that girl over there with the personality of a microwaved cantaloup who you’re not even fucking?”
Ernie clenched up, trying to think of his next jab, but I cut him off. “Just break up with her already!”
“No,” he said with genuine anger.
Then I got the big idea that would define our entire summer. “How about this, Ernie. We duke it out. I win, you ditch Betty Puking Crocker. You win, I’ll leave it alone.”
I sat back down in his step-dad’s barcalounger and grinned, impressing even myself with the brilliance of my plan. I tried to kick the footrest out, but there wasn’t room with the coffee table so I had to be smug sitting up.
“You’re just jealous because she’s thin,” Ernie whispered.
“I may not be thin, but I’m tough.”
“I’m not going to fight a girl,” Ernie said so aggressively that even I knew I had to drop it in that moment. But never one to be deterred easily (a trait I highlighted in my college entrance essay as “perseverance”), I brought it up every day that summer. I started dieting and doing a hundred sit-ups before bed, partly because I was wounded by Ernie’s comments about my girth, partly because I wanted to start college as a honed version of myself, and partly because I wanted to kick Ernie’s ass. As the summer wore on, my gut hardened into a concrete wall, and I grew fond of baiting Ernie to punch me in the stomach while I flexed and sang, “I’m a brick house/I’m the one, the only one/who’s built like an Amazon.” Once I tried to get Ernie’s girlfriend to punch me, but she wouldn’t. If she had, she probably would have crumbled like a cake dropped on the floor.
Once I moved away to college, I stopped calling Ernie. I was too busy breaking up with my soggy boyfriend and bribing my new friends to buy me cigarettes to hang out with high schoolers. The last time I saw him was at a funeral for a classmate who died in a car accident during the winter of my freshman year of college. I drove home to mourn her, not because she and I were close and she would have wanted me there, but because her death upset me. I keenly felt the horror of dying young, of being frozen as a teenager forever, never transcending adolescence.
After the service, when I was feeling my most vengefully alive, I asked Ernie, “Are you happy now that someone you know died?” The bulimic would-be pastry chef, still enjoying her year-long trial as Ernie’s girlfriend, was by his side. I perhaps underestimated her feelings for the dead girl. For the first and only time, just before stomping away in sobs, she told me to go fuck myself.
Ernie sighed and pulled me into a corner. “You can’t say shit like that in front of her. She doesn’t get you.”
“You mean, she doesn’t get you,” I countered, even though I hadn’t seen him in months. “Well, are you enjoying your grief experience?”
Ernie looked around to make sure no one was listening. “No. Honestly, I wasn’t that close to her. I’m not that upset. It’s gonna have to be an immediate family member before I really feel something.”
I lost touch with Ernie after that funeral. I heard he went to college, but I don’t know if I ever knew where. When I thought about him, I assumed he was a lawyer or a White House aid. I Googled him every now and then, but nothing came up. I even contacted a few of those white girls who won yearbook awards to see if they had kept in touch, but after a decade no one had heard anything. Then, a few summers ago, I was forwarded an article from a Florida newspaper. By clinking on that link, I ungraciously learned that Ernie was gay, an occasional criminal, a likely drug user, and dead. He was murdered by his longtime boyfriend after a night of barhopping. They fought, then his boyfriend stabbed him in alleged self-defense. Ernie bled to death on Berber carpet. He was 29 years old.
I booked a last minute flight to my hometown to attend the funeral. No one at the service knew him after he left home, even, it seemed, his immediate family, giving the impression that Ernie might as well have died in the car accident with that girl whose funeral we attended a decade earlier. There was no mention of him being gay and only oblique references to the last ten years of his life. As grown-up cooters walked up to the podium to recount Ernie’s shenanigans in Spanish class or praise his unmistakable scent of freshness, I kept my mouth shut. My favorite Ernie story wasn’t one people wanted to hear.
A few weeks before I was planning to leave for college with my boyfriend, Ernie and I were for once alone in his bedroom. Time was running out for our fist fight and I wouldn’t let it go. “C’mon, Ernie,” I pleaded. “Let me show you what I’m made of. I promise I won’t hurt you too bad.”
“Why do you want to do this? I’m, like, a foot taller than you and I probably even outweigh you by a little.”
“What if I said something bad about your mom?”
“Then I’d have to hurt you.”
“I don’t have anything bad to say about your mom. She’s really nice.” I hung my head down and thought about it. “How about this: I’ll hit you first. Then you’re just defending yourself.”
“Fine. Let’s just get this over with so you’ll drop it.”
“Seriously?” I squealed. “Thank you so much!” I leapt off his bed and gave him an unreciprocated bear hug.
“But you can’t come back and claim that I beat you up and get me arrested. They always try black guys as adults.” After a pause he added, “And nothing above the neck. I need my face.”
“Deal.” I backed away from him and put on a serious look. “Okay. I’m going to hit you now.”
And I did.
Then, as was his right, Ernie tackled me, pinned me, and battered me with rapid punches that later sprouted into multicolored bruises. I fought back by trying to bite his arm, but he pressed my cheek down with his elbow, hitting my orbital bone in such a way that I still had a hint of a black eye when I started college.
After what seemed like ten minutes of being mauled, he asked, “Are we done now?” Taking advantage of the pause, I lurched to attempt to reverse our positions and slam him down on the bed. He handily caught me, flipped me face-down and sat on my back. “How about now?”
“Never,” I gasped. It wasn’t about his girlfriend anymore. It was just him and me, in a moment of twisted intimacy—consummation—and I didn’t want him to let go.