The Rules We Follow
I am a high school freshman, but I have my brother’s rules to guide me. I wear jeans because boys look up girls’ skirts when they descend the school’s center stairs. I carry just one, single-subject notebook and one Bic pen because that’s the most I’ll need the first few days. I wear earth tones that won’t catch anyone’s eye or suggest I’m trying to look cool or funny or sexy. I sit in the middle seats on the school bus, not close enough to the front to be a goody-two-shoes, but not far back enough to have my ears flicked or my book bag emptied or, worst of all, to end up absorbed by what my father calls “the wrong element.”
I am a college sophomore. My freshman year roommate took me on as a project last fall before she abandoned me for her sorority. Her lessons proved no more or less difficult than any first-year survey course. I wear a denim skirt that hits my thigh low enough to say I’m not a slut, but high enough to say I’m looking. I wear a black top that’s cut to draw attention to my boobs, which have blossomed nicely since I got on the pill last summer. I sit at the bar with my girlfriends, hiding the magic marker Xes on the backs of our hands, sitting far enough from one another to say that we’re friends, but we’re not above going home with new acquaintances.
One day, a high school senior’s car breaks down. He and his two younger brothers revert to the bus. The boys clog the middle section. My brother and I sit farther back than we ordinarily would for the ride to school. My brother has always had poor balance. The bus lurches forward before we can sit and he bumps his hip against the shoulder of a fat girl who wears black eye shadow. He mumbles that he’s sorry, avoids eye contact, and sits. She stares at the back of his head for the rest of the ride.
At the bar, a boy in a Barney-the-Dinosaur purple collared shirt buys me a Sex on the Beach. I ask if that’s an innuendo and he says, “What? There are no beaches around here.”
The bus stops outside school. The fat girl moves with uncanny speed and blocks my brother’s path just after he stands, but before he can get in the aisle. She asks if he can spare her some lunch money. My brother says he’s sorry but he only has enough money for his own lunch. She asks what he had for breakfast. He says Cheerios. She says they don’t have Cheerios in her house. She says her mother doesn’t cook dinner at night. She reaches down and catches my brother’s penis in her hand so the outline of it presses out against his blue jeans. “I’m hungry.”
The college boy in the purple shirt is named Sergio. The name seems exotic and sophisticated. He’s a senior studying finance and expects to walk into a job at the investment firm he interned with last summer. He played lacrosse in high school. He lives in an apartment off campus and makes his own guacamole. “But that’s enough about me,” Sergio says. “What about you?”
In the seventh grade, I had to interview someone in my family about a historical event he lived through. My uncle told me about Vietnam. He talked about a friend who stepped on a mine; how the guy was there one minute, in pieces the next. Had my uncle seen the trigger a half-second before his buddy stepped on it, or was that just his imagination? Could he have tied enough tourniquets to stop all the bleeding at once and get him out of there? Did he run for cover when he should have stayed close? The questions came later. The moment it happened, all that registered was a “god damn it I hate this place,” followed by a “thank you, Jesus, it wasn’t me.” He came home to a medal, not for anything noble, but out of rote—confirmation he had gone away, confirmation he had come home.
The fat girl moves her wrist up and down. Her knuckles turn pale as her grip tightens around my brother’s dick. “Are you gonna give me the money, or am I gonna have to squeeze out some juice?”
One of the fat girl’s friends laughs.
My brother keeps his eyes fixed on the girl’s neck.
Sergio kisses my neck. He hugs me tightly from behind, palm crossed over forearm, over my stomach. He spins me and shoves me down on the couch. I ask about his roommates. He kisses me, hard and wet, scraping his tongue against the roof of my mouth. He forces his hands under me, cupping my ass. He slides his hands upward and his fingers feel cold. He wrestles my shirt off. I hear the fabric around the neckline rip.
Keep your head down. Keep walking. Don’t snitch. These words compose my brother’s guide for survival, and so they compose my own. A new rule develops—an elaboration of an existing one: avoid the back third of the bus at any cost. The wrong element my father described not only absorbs, but attacks.
“Last chance before I rip your pecker off,” the fat girl says. “I’m not bluffing.”
My brother’s trembling hand pulls a crumpled dollar from his pocket. She pats the little bulge in his jeans and lets him go.
I have broken my own rules. I don’t go home alone with strangers. Particularly not on Saturday nights. Particularly not after drinking. I felt Sergio’s bicep in passing at the bar and imagined how nice it might be to kiss him, to touch him, and, yes, maybe even to fuck him. I hadn’t imagined it like this.
The condom smells of rubber and hospital-room sterility. Sergio rams his cock against the outside of me to bully his way through.
My brother once told me there are two kinds of people: predators and prey. He said you’ve got to know your role and act the part. He said, you and me, little sis’, we ain’t the predator kind.
I catch Sergio’s penis. “Stop.”
He asks what I’m doing.
“Stop, or I’ll rip your pecker off.” I squeeze and dig my nails into him. “I’m not bluffing.”
In the second that follows, I see the options run through his mind. He might apologize and slow down. He might punch me in the mouth and force his way through.
Sergio climbs off. He tells me to leave.
I step into my white panties with polka dots the same shade of purple as Sergio’s shirt. Another night, I might have suggested that color proved our compatibility, or our shared destiny. I pull on the torn remains of my shirt. The lace embroidery around the neck hangs limp and loosely clumped together; my battle scar, my medal.
The kitchen adjoins to the living room where I dress. By the refrigerator light, Sergio opens a bottle of beer against the counter. He stands naked, drinking, staring at the floor.
The air outside feels cool on my skin. No stars shine tonight. In the distance, I hear boys laughing. I fold my arms close to warm myself for the walk home.
Michael Chin grew up in Upstate New York, but now lives in Baltimore, Maryland where he completed an MA in Writing with a concentration in fiction at Johns Hopkins University. He has previously published short fiction and poetry in Stymie Magazine, The Floorboard Review, The Broad River Review, The New Sound, and CaKe: A Journal of Poetry and Art.