Falling into Us Read online
ONE: A Beginning; or, a Dare
September, sophomore year of high school
“Quit being a prick, Malcolm. ” I gave Malcolm Henry a hard shove, and he stumbled away.
“It’s a legitimate question, Dorsey. You’ve had a crush on Nell Hawthorne for-fricking-ever. When are you gonna man up and ask her out?” Malcolm was the only black guy on the varsity team, our fastest runner, our star running back, and the third part of our team’s All-State power trio, along with Kyle, the QB, and me, the wide receiver.
Malcolm was built like me, short and stocky and muscular, and he had a huge seventies-style afro that he cultivated carefully, figuring if he had to be the only black guy on an all-white, rural community football team, he might as well look the part.
“You’re too f**king chicken,” he goaded me. “You won’t do it. ”
I gave him a glare. “Shut the hell up, Malc. ” We were tossing a ball back and forth on the field as we waited for the other guys to dress out. We’d both gotten out of class early since we had phys ed sixth period, and Coach Donaldson was the gym teacher. “I’m not chicken. I just haven’t had the right opportunity. She’s Kyle’s best friend, for one thing. I’m not sure how he’d take it. And besides, you know what happened with Mr. Hawthorne and Aaron Swarnicki. He’d have my balls on his desk if I had asked her out. She literally just turned sixteen like a week ago. ”
“Which means you’ve had a week to plan this shit. Come on, Jay. Don’t puss out on me now. You’ve been whining about how bad you want a shot at Nell since seventh grade. Now’s your chance. ” He tossed the ball to me, then took off running, sprinting in a zigzag pattern. I hurled the ball at him but missed him by a mile. “Good f**king thing you’re not the QB, Jason. You suck. ”
“Like you could do better? You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. ”
He threw the ball to me, nailing me hard in the chest. “I bet I could hit the broad side of Nell’s ass from fifty yards away. ”
I knew he was riling me, but it worked. “Don’t talk about her that way, you turd. ” I threw the ball back to him, then mimicked his earlier move, cutting right and sprinting several yards before turning to catch the ball.
“Then man the f**k up. Ask. Her ass. Out. ” Malcom threw the ball and it landed flush in my arms; Malcolm could throw better than I could, but I’d never admit it to him.
“I will,” I said. “I will. When I’m ready. ”
At that moment, Blain, Nick, Chuck, and Frankie all trotted out onto the field, tossing their gear in a haphazard pile on the sidelines. I threw the ball to Frankie, who charged at me, tucking the ball in the crook of his arm. I let him zip past me, then easily caught up to him and tackled him to the ground, nailing him hard in the side. We both went down laughing, but when we hit, it was Frankie who took longer to get up, gasping for breath.
“You’re too chicken, Dorsey. ” Frankie pressed a fist to his ribs, wincing. “Fuck, man. I think you bruised a rib. I don’t have my gear on, dude, take it easy. ”
“Pussy. Can’t take a tackle? Maybe you should try running a few plays, take a few real tackles. Might help you man up a bit, you f**king tub. ” I grinned at him as I said it, because we both knew Frankie was the offensive lineman responsible for keeping my ass safe from getting nailed as I cut out for a run. He was a hell of a player and one of my best friends, after Kyle and Malcolm.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m the tub, you’re the twinkle toes little fairy. ” He feinted at me, then wrapped a burly arm around my neck and squeezed; Frankie was huge, truly mammoth, seventeen and already standing over six feet tall and weighing in at nearly two-fifty. He was the kind of guy who looked overweight at first glance, but if you felt him tackle you, you’d realize he was two hundred and fifty pounds of solid muscle. “Maybe you should quit prancing around the field like a f**king twinkie and try blocking for your baby little ass. ”
I gasped for breath as he squeezed and had to drive my fist into his ribs to get him to let go. Blain, the safety and the team peacemaker, shoved both of us aside. “Knock it off, guys. You know how Coach is about horsing around. ”
“Shut up, Blain,” Malcolm, Frankie, and I all said in unison.
“Let’s get back to how you’re too chicken to ask Nell out,” Malcolm said.
“How about let’s not. ” I threw the ball sideways across the field to Chuck, the second-string receiver, who caught it and threw it to Nick, another offensive lineman.
“I dare you,” Frankie said. “I double-dog dare you. ”
I laughed. “What is this, second grade? You double-dog dare me? Seriously?”
Frankie didn’t laugh with me. “Yeah, I’m daring you to ask out Nell Hawthorne. I’m sick of you acting like your crush on her is some big secret. Everyone knows but her and Kyle. Make a move or shut up about it. ”
“I’ll sweeten the pot,” Malcolm said. “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks you won’t do it. ”
“That’s stupid. I’m not taking bets or dares about this. She’s my friend. I’ll ask her out if and when I’m ready. ” I busied myself putting on my pads in an attempt to try to hide my discomfort
“Yeah, she’s your friend…because you’ve been friend-zoned. ” This was Malcolm.
“I have not been friend-zoned. ” I tightened my cleats unnecessarily, jerking the laces so hard my foot twinged, and I had to loosen and retie them.
Malcolm could always see right through me. “Yeah, you have, and you know it. ” He stood nose to nose with me. “A hundred bucks. Put up or shut up. ”
I shoved him away, but he got right back in my face and shoved me back. “I’m not f**king betting your asses about this,” I said.
“That’s ’cause you’re a scardey-twat,” Frankie said.
This elicited a round of laughter from the entire offensive line, now gathered around us.
“‘Scaredy-twat’?” I mocked. “Did you really just say that?”
Frankie lumbered toward me, puffed up and ready to throw down. “Yeah, I did. ’Cause that’s what you are. ”
I faced him down, but we both knew I’d never dare actually step up to Frankie: We would both end up in the hospital. “I’m not afraid,” I said, lying through my teeth.
The truth was, I really was afraid. I’d been friends with Nell Hawthorne since third grade, and I’d had a crush on her nearly that long. Frankie had been dead right when he’d said everyone knew except Nell herself and Kyle. And Kyle might have known, but chose to ignore it; I wasn’t honestly sure.
When you’ve spent nearly ten years crushing on someone you don’t dare ask out, the idea of asking her out on a date is terrifying. I also knew if I didn’t take the bet, I’d be the laughingstock of the entire football team.
“Fuck. Fine. I’ll ask her out tomorrow. ” I hated being pressured into it, but I also knew I’d probably never do it otherwise. “You’ll all owe me a bill by practice tomorrow. ”
Frankie and Malcolm both shook my hand, since they were the only ones actually participating in the bet.
I went through practice on autopilot, running the plays and catching the ball without really thinking about it. My brain was running a million miles a minute, by turns planning out what I’d say and freaking about getting it wrong.
* * *
By the time I got to school the next day, I was a nervous wreck. It didn’t help that Dad had gotten home from work early and worked me over pretty hard. Practice would be rough today with the bruises clouding my ribs and back, but I was used to it by now. It made me tough, he said. It was for my own good, he said. He was righ