Better than Fiction! (creative non fiction)
Trigger Warning: Story contains language about gay people that, while reflective of the dominant culture represented in the story, does not express the views of Better Than Starbucks or any of its staff, nor are these sentiments acceptable by today’s standards.
by Yongsoo Park
The first day that I walked to school in third grade, Willie had me wave hello to every homeless person we saw. I had no idea why he did this and thought that maybe it was just another American custom that I’d yet to learn.
He explained that bums could help me. Just a year earlier, just such a bum had chased away three kids who’d been about to jump him. That was all the convincing I needed. From then on, I shouted an enthusiastic hello to every mangy street person who crossed my path. It didn’t matter why they were out on the street. I just needed them to remember my face.
Willie was just two years older than me, but he was savvy and the undisputed leader of the dozen or so boys who lived on our block. Before I’d been on the block a week, he’d taught me every curse word in English and had even shown me how and when to launch the middle finger. He’d also told me in very strong terms that in America, I must never hold another boy’s hand the way I’d done in Korea as a sign of friendship. Doing so in the U.S. was not a sign of friendship but a sign of being gay, which he went on to explain, was the absolute worst thing a boy could be. It was worse even than being a sissy or a coward.
I couldn’t help but look up to him. He was tough and the only kid in the neighborhood who could throw a tennis ball from the street up to the roof of our seven-story building. This was something that even Joey, a half-Irish-half-Puerto-Rican kid who was the strongest and a head taller than the rest of us, couldn’t do and something that I certainly never managed to do even as an adult.
Willie and the other boys on the block had been slow to warm up to me. I was younger and not very good at sports, especially at football, which I’d never even seen before moving to the U.S. I was slow, weak, and had terrible eyesight. I’d eventually get glasses, but until then, most balls that flew toward me were just big fuzzy blurs. I was grateful just to be included.
So when Willie pitted me in fights against other kids in the name of toughening me up, I couldn’t say no. My chance to prove myself came against a Colombian kid named Alex, who’d had a lifetime of training at being tough from his older brother John, who’d coached him to man up by slapping him hard in the face whenever he acted soft.
Every kid on the block came out to see our showdown, which was held in our most popular venue, the railroad tracks, which was where we threw rocks, built fires, and did other things that our mothers wouldn’t have approved of.
Our fight wasn’t exactly a Rumble in the Jungle, but once a human ring formed around us and kids started screaming for blood, the atmosphere turned electric. Alex and I came out swinging from our respective corners. Willie shouted something to me, but I couldn’t make it out since a train roared past, drowning out all other sounds.
By the time the train disappeared into the distance and we could hear again, the fight was over. Displaying phenomenal reflexes, I’d blocked every single punch with my nose, and blood was gushing out both nostrils straight into my mouth.
Alex’s brother rushed over and held up Alex’s arm to signal his victory, and the Hispanic kids gave their champion his props. The fight was ruled a win by T.K.O.
A week later, I was right back in the middle of that human circle. I got another bloody nose, but unlike in our first match, I managed to hit Alex in the face enough times to leave some marks.
John rushed in and held up his brother’s arm as he’d done in our previous fight. But this time, the crowd’s response was more muted. Alex’s win was ruled a split decision.
Alex didn’t look nearly as confident when we fought again a third time, in a forgotten basement storage room, where we’d retreated to because of heavy rain. That fight ended after two minutes with Alex struggling to catch his breath and holding me in a headlock while I kept throwing punches into his stomach. His brother would later complain that the musty basement air had triggered his asthma and interfered with his breathing.
John again held up Alex’s arm in victory, but no one bought it. The fight was declared a draw with each side claiming victory.
Alex declined to fight me again after that. His brother insisted that there was no reason for him to do so since he’d already proven his dominance over me, but this didn’t go over well.
It was strange. I’d never managed to come out ahead in any of the three fights, but a lot of kids, including Willie, told me I had heart.
Heart. Guts. Courage. Call it whatever you wanted to. At that point in my life, it was what had finally earned me the tiny bit of acknowledgement that I’d so desperately sought from Willie and the other boys in my world. It was proof that I had finally been accepted into the twisted gang called masculinity.
Yongsoo Park is the author of the novels Boy Genius Prince of Bogota and Las Cucarachas, the memoir Rated R Boy, and the essay collection The Art Of Eating Bitter about his losing battle to give his children an analog childhood.
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