We asphyxiated one another and considered it a game. Sometimes you had favorites, the kid you anointed to suffocate you.
A half dozen twelve-year-olds congregate in the yard of a housing project. A sheet of rust screw-gunned over the Hudson calls itself the sky; the iconic jingle of a Mister Softee truck wafts from a far-off site. And the trees of the yard shed their crescent-shaped acorn shells, smacking down onto asphalt every now and again like they could give a shit.
“Do me, Stevie,” Janet says. “Stevie, do me.”
“Get on the bench,” I say, and Janet obeys. Finally, the movements of her body convey submission, surrender.
Janet was a bully. We lived in the same building, 288 Tenth. She’d grab me in the stairwell, offer a quick double-jab to the solar plexus, maybe a wrenching headlock if she had an extra minute. It hurt, and more so, my pride: for a boy to get bullied by a girl engendered richer qualities of shame.
She’s waited patiently, intentionally, for the other kids to get shouted home from the windows overlooking the yard. It’s just the two of us now.
She takes a seat and leans back, unveiling her throat. She wears cat-eye glasses and cut-offs wrapped tight to her body. Beneath a tank top, an adult bra wrangles what presents as adult breasts. Her coarse black hair is pulled back, culminating in a bun.
“Do me, Stevie.”
“Relax,” I say, calm and professional, the youngest anesthesiologist alive.
There were two basic techniques. You could stand behind a kid and wrap your arms around their chest, lifting them off the ground—a forced levitation. This worked well on boys. It was fun to watch the bigger boys seize the smaller ones, their legs dangling. Once unconscious, their body received careful escort to the ground. We’d circle the temporary corpse, enjoying the look of confusion on the subject’s face as he came to before somebody’d say, “Who’s next?”
For the girls, you’d sit them on a bench and mount them, your hands to their throats. With this method came a chance for physical contact brand new to me.
I straddle Janet on the bench. My chest grazing hers, skin of thigh touching skin of thigh. Heat rises off her pent-up adolescence, her scent exotic and pungent, with faint traces of a cheap fabric softener.
I’d often imagined Janet’s painful demise, so to find tiny windows of compassion sliding open inside of me for her was strange. I stayed on high alert for a profound sadness that would capture her expression unprovoked.
I take a moment to smooth her skin, brushing away imaginary crumbs. To touch a girl’s neck. Her clavicles. Come on.
“Stevie.” She sounds different.
I feel out intuitively for her coronaries, her main arteries, ready to constrict her flow of oxygen, of blood, of all that green-lights sentience.
“Deep breath and hold it.”
A dramatic inhale pushes her body out toward mine, and as she keeps the exhale to herself, I apply pressure. The slowly retreating life in her eyes petitions me.
I’m sorry, Stevie. How I bully you like I do. I can’t help it.
Harder, still harder, I grip and squeeze.
All tension has run free of her body; shades of aqua mark her grimace. With consciousness fully abandoned, her muscles slacken, and I drop two inches into her lap.
Janet is gone. My hands loosen at her throat and slide to rest on her shoulders. I bring my face to hers and softly taste her careless mouth. Her breath is a stew of Sweet Tarts, pumpkin seeds, and Luden’s Wild Cherry cough drops.
Three seconds, and her eyes flicker open. She touches herself, to confirm herself. I hop off the bench and skip away, leaving Janet to return to the world on her own. Later, I will wonder, given the absence of consent, if it counts as a first kiss.