The high school soccer season is only during the spring, and so every fall, I play on the city travel team. We practice three days a week, in the public park right down the street from my school, because it’s relatively central to all the girls coming from other schools.
Usually, I get there and the back lot is deserted. I’ll change clothes in the car, which is both convenient and private, because Blue Dragon is not only the size of a small house, but also has tinted windows. Then I wander over to the soccer field and put my cleats on and wait for everyone else to get there.
This time, though, the parking lot is almost full, and so even though Blue Dragon is like a small house, I have to change sitting on the floor because I don’t like the feeling that anyone might possibly be able to see me. Nearly every spot is taken, and there’s a huge crowd of boys standing around in the fire lane, laughing and smoking.
Ordinarily, I’d be anxious or disoriented or sort of confused, if this exact same thing hadn’t already just happened on Monday. I’d gotten to practice and the back lot had been completely full of boys, and there’d been a big stupid brawl, which was one of those kinds where everyone makes a lot of noise and no one ever really hurts each other because they have no idea how to actually fight, and so they swing these giant, clumsy haymakers that never connect, and mostly just wind up looking off-balance and totally stupid.
What I’m saying is, even though I realize that the forecast calls for assault, I am wildly unconcerned.
When I’m done changing awkwardly on the floor of my car, I pad across the parking lot in my socks, over to where Caitlin is sitting with her windows rolled up even though it’s ninety-five degrees out. This is because Caitlin is scared of things—of bad grades and making mistakes and of boys, but particularly of boys with an unhealthy enthusiasm for fighting in the park.
Jinx, who is scared of zero things is flopped down in the grass by the picnic table, yanking on her shin-guards. She waves me over, but eighteen-year-old-Brenna is finally starting to develop a slightly more active concern for other people, so I stop at the edge of the parking lot and eventually manage to coax Caitlin out the car. I do this by rolling my eyes a lot and making flippant faces and pointing around at various boys and telling her various embarrassing things about them.
(Also, even though teenage-Brenna is finally starting to be more conscientious and socially engaged and also friendlier, she can still be just the smallest touch totally judge-y and caustic. Just a tad.)
The three of us sit on the picnic table and wait, and the boys in the parking lot smoke and stare at us and wait, and more keep showing up all the time.
When something does happen, it’s very sudden. A bony, unfamiliar sophomore clips this big, thuggish guy named Romeo under the chin. They do the usual dance—staggering around on the grass, falling down and getting up again. Around them, the other boys are having the time of their lives, grabbing handfuls of each other’s shirts and shouting a lot.
Caitlin squeals, covering her eyes and turning her face against my shoulder. Jinx is laughing a jittering, staccato laugh that reminds me of Woody Woodpecker and giving me a hard time for going to such a stupid school.
When Officer Duchess shows up, no one is very surprised. Officer Duchess is short and authoritative, and even though she can sometimes be kind of prickly, I like her because she never ever yells at me for violating the dress code. She’s a real police officer, but spends a lot of time hanging around on school grounds because she has a euphemistic title that I can’t remember right now, but it sounds like Community Outreach Liaison.
She adjusts her belt and comes stalking out across the soccer field, looking tiny and fierce. “Buster—Buster, stop it! What do you think you’re doing?”
The smaller boy glances at her. “You leave it alone, Miss Duchess,” he calls. “It’s got nothing to do with you.”
She just sighs and grabs his arm, yanking him behind her. “Buster, this is my job.”
With her free hand, she pushes Romeo away. Both boys are breathing hard, looking mutinous, but kind of self-conscious. Romeo is bigger, but also distinctly worse for wear, bleeding from the mouth. Everyone else has stopped shouting and is just standing around, and some are already wandering back to their cars. Everything is slowing down.
And then this:
I’m not certain what happened next. Officer Duchess might have called backup, I don’t know. All I know is that three or four or five cops came running down the hill, shouting, “Break it up! Break it up!” and pushing their way into the crowd.
Then it became chaos in the worst way. Officer Duchess reached out to hold Romeo still and Buster dodged around her and popped Romeo in the face and everything turned crazy […] and it was all arms and legs and shouting, and then one of the officers who was standing a little ways off moved forward quickly, raising his nightstick above his head.
There was a loud crack and Romeo crumpled suddenly, making a soft muffled noise, pressing his face into the grass.
I see this before it happens—just one uncanny second before it happens. But in that second, half of my brain thinks that it’s happened already, and that I can almost see the future.
The officer with the baton is standing a few feet away and the only reason I notice him at all is because he’s standing so still. He takes two steps and raises his baton and I watch with my mouth open. When the baton connects, it makes a dry, breaking sound—very audible—the kind that shivers down your spine, and then Romeo collapses.
Officer Duchess is in the middle of handcuffing Buster, and she starts yelling for everyone to just calm down, to leave Romeo alone, she’ll get him in a minute so don’t touch him, just let her get to him in a minute. It doesn’t make a difference. Another officer cuffs Romeo and tries to drag him to his feet, but he just falls down again, pressing his face into the grass. He’s sobbing in hoarse, breathless gasps. They keep trying to pick him up by his handcuffs, and he just keeps falling.
“Stop it!” Jinx screams beside me. Her voice is shrill when most of the time, she never sounds shrill, and that’s how I know for sure that something is actually wrong and I’m not just confused or dreaming it. She has me by the neck of my T-shirt, yanking it sideways off my shoulder and shrieking, “Stop—just stop!” over and over.
I realize belatedly that I’m wringing my hands like an actress in one of those silent films where everyone wears a lot of black eye-makeup, and force myself to stop. I stare out at the mob in the parking lot, fourteen or fifteen police officers now, squad cars everywhere, more than a hundred kids—maybe more than two hundred—and everything a screaming, seething mess.
“Pigs!” Rooster was standing on the roof of Dweezil’s Blazer, cupping his hands around his mouth. “You $%&@ing fascist m*****f*****s!”
Then the others began to shout too, while officers waded between them, trying to impose some order. All around, the voices were blending together and everything was bad, bad, bad. In the parking lot, an officer was slamming some guy up against Mitzi’s car again and again. She waved her hands in their yellow keeper’s gloves and wailed about her doors.
“You asshole piggies,” Odd was yelling, grinning like he enjoyed the whole thing. “You $%&@ing Nazis!”
#4 was standing by himself beside Odd’s car, looking uncertain. On top of the Blazer, Dweezil and a girl I didn’t recognize had joined Rooster and the three of them were shouting over the crowd. It was like nothing was real.
The police set up roadblocks so they could ticket people as they filed out of the park. #4 and Odd sat on the curb and watched us practice until they were allowed to leave.
In the paper today, they called it a riot. That’s funny. If it had been a real riot, I suspect that being twelve feet away from it would not have been far enough. Instead, I could sit on the picnic table, right in the middle of it, watch it spool out, tangle up at my feet. Sit right in the middle of it, invincible, because no matter how loud they shout, no matter how fast the bodies are moving, no matter how bad it gets, it has nothing to do with me.
When I write this last part down, though, it’s almost like I’m not even talking about myself—my own actual state. It’s more like I might be channeling #4, who, during this entire bad, unwieldy scene, is standing on the curb by himself, holding his cigarette like someone would hold a pen and staring off into the chaos like he’s not really seeing it. I recognize his expression immediately, because it’s the exact same look he had at the homecoming dance last year, like he’s wishing really hard that he were someplace else.
The police begin to separate the clusters of boys, shoving them into squad cars. They set up roadblocks so they can ticket people as they file out of the park, and the crowd gradually begins to thin. Odd joins #4 on the curb and they sit and smoke and watch us practice, waiting for their turn to collect their citation and leave.
Our coach is entirely freaked out (not without cause). He doesn’t know what to do with us, so we wind up spending the next two hours doing nine million formations and passing drills. Everyone keeps making fun of me for going to the thug school.
“What’s wrong with you?” Amy says, as I pass the ball to her way too hard and she chases after it.
When what I want to say is, I think we just saw a boy get his kneecap broken and you’re asking me if something’s wrong. I want to say, How can you stand there and act like nothing just happened? I think that maybe something just happened. I mean, didn’t something just happen?
I want to say, Is this really okay? Any of it?
But I don’t.
For discussion: have you ever been in close proximity to something dramatic, but not actually been involved? Was it vivid and immediate, or did you have some weird kind of disconnect? Have you ever seen something happen and then wondered if it was real? Have you ever seen anyone fight anyone else? (Have you ever gone to—dare I say it—the thug school?)
Also, just to clarify: I don’t want to give even the slightest impression that I condone fighting in the park, because I absolutely do not.
This particular incident is just really hard to talk about coherently, because it still gives me a barrage of very mixed feelings that I don’t quite know how to describe. Mostly because there really was a lot of hitting and shoving and manhandling of people who appeared fully compliant, and three of the officers spent way too long trying to make Romeo walk, even when it seemed pretty clear that he couldn’t.
Anyway, even now, I’m just not convinced that the situation was dealt with all that well. (Except for Officer Duchess, who unquestionably did the A-plus-best job she could have under the circumstances.)
But no, I don’t think that fighting in the park is okay. In fact, I think it’s pretty stupid.