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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
I Was Confused And Just Wanted To Know
Out on my bike near my apartment I passed a group of boys standing at a crosswalk.
Fuck you, ching chong chang, one of them shouted.
Halfway down the street I decided to turn back around. I was on my way to work, but work could wait. When one of the boys saw me pedaling back toward them, he tapped the others and they straightened their backs and turned their faces away.
Hey guys, I said, pulling up to them. How’s it going?
It was him, said one of boys, the fattest and tallest boy, pointing at the smallest one. Though they continued to look at me, the fat one and the others quickly crossed the street, leaving the smallest one by himself, with me.
How’s it going, I said.
The smallest one smiled in a sarcastic, fixed way.
How’s your bike, he said.
It’s fine, I said, making an effort to stay calm and adult-seeming. Why are you yelling at people? I was confused and just wanting to know.
I’m not pissed, I added, but when I said it the words felt strange, as if I were exaggerating, or performing a kind of role.
The boy remained standing without saying anything, the sarcastic, fixed smile still on his face. Sarcastic and, it occurred to me, somewhat feminine. I am recalling his dark eyes and aggressive posture, how he must have been both angry and afraid, to be called out like this in front of his friends. He stood there for a few seconds, his face frozen like that as I continued asking him questions. Then he said something else I couldn’t hear and hurried to catch up with his friends.
Have a nice day, I called out after him.
At work I thought about him. Not that I had wanted to get him to do or say anything—I remembered my time as a substitute middle school teacher, how difficult it was to get disruptive students to sit away from everyone else and how every time I did it, I felt annoyed and vulnerable, nervous over what would happen if they refused, what I would have had to do next.
That night, over dinner, I told my housemates about what had happened, repeating the part about not wanting to get him to do or say anything. Because he wouldn’t have, I said to them, I had just wanted to get him to realize something, the potential consequence of what you say, that people were, after all, people.
Is that lame? I said.
No, no, said my housemates and they assured me I had done the right thing, or not the wrong thing (which, of course, is actually very different), and then we all went back to eating and talking about other things. But I did not feel convinced. I thought about the fattest and tallest one, how he had sided with me. I found his cowardice repulsive.
Don’t rat out your friends, I wanted to have said to him, then. I wondered if the smallest one might get him back somehow.
Later that week, while riding to work, I came across a similar-looking group of boys around the same age, waiting to cross the same street. As I passed by I heard them saying things in my direction, in aggressive tones—something, something, “nigga,” “bike.”
I looked up and, for a moment, I thought I saw the boy I had talked to before, flexing his arms and shoulders as if to shove someone—me. This boy’s hair looked different, more dramatic and billowing, but I thought I recognized the same angry, feminine face.
In that instant it occurred to me that I had not at all considered what might happen if I ran into them again. After all, we did live in the same neighborhood. I thought through the possibilities: of having to change my regular bike route to work, of looking over my shoulder while in line at the all-night bodega.
I stopped the next block up to look back and there they were, still there. The shortest one was turned towards me.
I love you! he shouted and right then he sounded so warm and familiar, I could only believe it.
James Yeh is a founding editor of Gigantic. His stories and nonfiction appear in NOON, Fence, Vice, and PEN America, as well as in several anthologies. A recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Columbia University, he is a 2011 Center for Fiction NYC Emerging Writers Fellow. He lives in Brooklyn and maintains a Twitter account here.