“But you can’t hurt them, that’s the rule,” says Emma.
There are trees behind the school, just past the fence, a forest with some walking paths and one hilly bit where people have made a bike park.
Andy is breathing. It’s nice being around girls. There’s five boys total. Seven girls. Andy’s chum Kalam goes first. Seven girls descend on him, touching him randomly, pinning him against a tree as they tape him to the trunk. Rips of duct tape attach his shoulders, his chest, his belly button, his thighs, to the tree. He doesn’t say a word.
“You okay?” asks Andy. Kalam nods, eyes wide. The girls tape the next boy.
“You just have to stay there for twenty minutes without making a sound,” says Emma. Beside her is that girl Marlow. Andy’s never seen them together before. Didn’t know they were friends, and as he waits his turn, still isn’t sure. Marlow is staring at the two boys who’ve been taped, like she wants to eat them or something. You’re so weird, he thinks. Kind of pretty but so distant, and a little gross. He abruptly feels sad for her, like this is the type of girl that could have things going for her but really doesn’t – and probably never will.
Two more boys go on trees. “We won’t hurt you,” says Emma. “Promise. That’s the game. We’ll take a few photos. We’ll share them, but nothing bad. Just boys stuck to trees. It’s like nature, right? It’s kind of art. No one can say anything bad about you if they see these pictures. Your parents won’t be worried.”
Then it’s Andy’s turn. Seven girls take him to a tree. The duct tape comes out and they start putting it around him and the tree. He takes deep breaths, to calm himself. Fingers are all over him, like nothing he’s ever felt before. He can smell the girls, against the forest floor, and for a second he feels like he’s going to be sacrificed, but it doesn’t bother him in the least.
When all the boys are taped, the girls take pictures. Some up close, some from the ground. One gets on the shoulders of another and they take photos from a higher angle. They tell Andy not to smile. That he has to look natural.
After it’s over, they start ripping the tape off, and throw it into a garbage bag. The long strips come off with bits of bark, and leave scars on the trees. Marlow comes to Andy and takes off the strip around his shoulders. Then she stops and looks at him. She’s a little gross, he thinks. A bit of a loser. She’s just not going to amount to anything, he thinks. He gives her a half-smile, as though to say that things are going to be okay.
Her knee comes up and hits him in the crotch.
Andy finds Kevin on the fifth of August. The kid has grown up, and is a janitor at a sportsplex. There’s limited information about him, a few photos. He looks like he’s unmarried. No kids.
Public school was strange. Andy had moved to town for grade four, and everyone ignored him. He was a good kid, thinks Andy. Always has been a good kid. But he found Kevin and Kevin wasn’t really sure what was going on around him. At the time, they called him slow. But he was more than that. He was just so vulnerable. You could do anything you wanted to him, and he would be okay with it, because he just wanted attention. No matter what you did to him, no matter how cruel, he would be okay with it, as long as you were near him.
Andy would tease him a bit, but you could only spend so much time on that playground alone, ignored, without going to a different level. One time, he took Kevin behind the school, to a little path. “You’re a monkey,” Andy said to him. “A monkey man.” And back in those shadows, no one else around, that’s what it was like. Kevin the pet monkey to Andy the great lord, doing his bidding. Getting on his knees. Putting his face in the sand and coming up with stuff all over his lips. “Monkeys eat dirt!” cried Andy. “That’s what they do!” And Kevin licked his lips, crunching on the sand and smiling as though this was exactly what he was meant to do, that this was the creature he had become.
Now he’s a janitor, thinks Andy, as he drinks wine. It’s Sunday. August fifth. Warm outside, cool in the house. I could get in my car right now and go to that sportsplex, thinks Andy. I’d find a parking spot and go in with a coffee, like I’m just checking out the place and trying to figure out if I should work out here. Just having a look. I’d walk the halls and bump into Kevin, and he would not recognize me at first.
“Monkey,” Andy would say to him. “Monkey.”
And he’d drop to his knees and make a sound like an animal from the forest, so loud that it would scare the kids on their way to dance class.
Andy drinks more wine. Stares at his computer. It’s the fifth of August, year two thousand and fuck you.
It’s not like Marlow let him hit her twice. His name was Arun, and he had a beard made from bits of night sky and sea water. They’d met in a movie theatre, both of them there alone. The first dates had been wonderful, the sweaty exertions in her bedroom deeply good.
Their first argument had been a simple one. “Why can’t I come to this summer party?” he had asked. “Not happy showing off an Indian boyfriend to your co-workers?”
He liked her for her money, she thought. She’d explained that yes, she had money, and that she’d also hit her ceiling with her company. Maybe with her life. Forty-three and just about done, her assistant taking care of all the work, she occupying an office she probably didn’t deserve, working in a team that didn’t seem to want to call her.
“Not happy showing off my co-workers to my Indian boyfriend,” she’d replied. They’d been a little drunk, and she’d started teasing him about his beard. About his skin colour. But it was when she’d said, “I’d been hoping you wouldn’t be circumcised. But you are. You know?”
He’d been a little drunk. He’d hit her. A hard slap across the face, inside her condo. Her eyes had watered and she’d told him to get out. Had locked the door after him, glad that she’d never given him a key to the condo. He’d called later, asking if she were okay. Five times, he’d called to ask if she were okay, but not once had he apologized or tried to explain. She’d pick up the phone and listen to him, and not say anything. I didn’t mean it, she would think. Did you?
The worst part was that it had been the second time he’d hit her.
He’d stopped calling. Months had passed. And then one day, a text message that she had ignored. A phone call she had declined. It had been nothing. Just him reaching out to finally apologize, maybe. But it had kept happening. A slip of paper under her door. A twirl of marker ink on the window of her car.
I should talk to him, she’d thought. See if it had all been an accident. Maybe it hadn’t happened at all, she thought, as she sat in her condo and waited for the morning, when she would shower and get dressed, climb into her SUV and drive to work. Take her shoes off in the office and put her bare feet on the ground, behind a desk where no one could see them. She thought the calls would stop. That he would stay away. But he didn’t.