I didn’t want to fight her. But here we stood, facing off in the bluffs behind our houses, the dirt pocked with tracks where after dark older teens spun brodies and rolled their cars trying to climb the sheer canyon wall. Back here, behind neat rows of split-level homes and manicured lawns, where the gentle slopes of the streets gave way to scrub, to smashed beer cans and pallets, coyotes and desert rabbits.
I still couldn’t grasp how I got here. The girl, a doctor’s daughter, probably couldn’t either. We’d been friends and used to sit together on the school bus. But that morning in French class I told an older girl who’d befriended me, a girl with a reputation as a troublemaker, how the doctor’s daughter had glared at me on the bus—or what seemed like a glare. I suppose I’d wanted to impress her, this eighth-grader who looked like Cherie Currie of The Runaways. When she hissed, what a bitch! I spat back her words, yeah, what a bitch! I worked hard to cultivate my tough girl look, waking at 5:30 each morning to curl and tease my hair, to trace thick liner around my eyes, a twelve-year-old Joan Jett. And if I didn’t look perfect, I’d rewash that section of hair, that bit of cheek or eye, and start again. I thought if I talked tough too, no one would notice my constant nervousness, the sweaty streaks my palms left on my desk.
By lunch, word of the fight-–4:00 p.m. after school—had spread, and now two dozen classmates formed a circle around us. Most didn’t live on this end of town and had walked or hitched a ride because they wanted to see two seventh graders tear into each other, girls who seemed to have it all in our big houses by the Country Club. The girl and I stared at each other, frozen, as if we could hide by remaining still. I wondered if she also clenched her fists to quell their shaking, if someone had shown her how to punch. Lock your wrist, the eighth-grade Cherie Currie had instructed, thumb outside your fist. Then she showed me what she meant by punching a hole through the wall behind my father’s chair.
Trees of heaven crowded the base of the cliffs, as fetid as overripe fruit. Beyond that, a creek coursed through a ravine. I sometimes walked my Irish setter on the trails back here where the wind cut through brittle bunchgrass as my dog bounded ahead, flushing rabbits from the brush. Once he caught one, a kit. Fur matted with saliva and blood, the shrill screams of a girl in distress. Now my classmates, most of them rooting for the doctor’s daughter, their shouts of hit her!, pierced the canyon, me.
The circle around us tightened, and I searched her face for a hint of softness. Let’s forget the whole thing I wanted to say, because wasn’t this really my fault? But she narrowed her eyes. She knew as well as I did that we couldn’t back down. To be labeled scared, worse.
Then because several minutes passed and nothing happened, our classmates grew restless. Hungry, perhaps grateful, for violence not directed at them. Someone grabbed the girl’s fist and flung it at me, grazing my chin. I swung at her and nearly missed, my knuckles glancing off her forehead. She lunged at me, her crimped hair a whorl, and scratched my cheek. I stepped back, stunned, resisting the urge to touch the ribbon of raw skin. Then someone shouted, Cops! and everyone scattered.
I ran north. Skirting clumps of sage and boulders, running until I dropped into the ravine to catch my breath. Alone. The creek was knee-deep, nearly cresting the make-shift bridge, the severed roof of a Volkswagen bug with a white spray-painted peace sign, and over that an anarchy symbol in red. Later, I would have to explain the scratch, the hole in the wall. Later, the girl’s father, the doctor, would knock on our front door, demanding to know what I had done to his daughter, his words stinging more than the mark she left below my eye. What kind of people are you?
But for now, I’d stay here. The bluffs, their jagged columns of basalt, shaded the creek, and I shivered. Something stirred in a tangle of blackberry bramble. A rabbit. I could still hear the one my dog caught, her panicked scream. Maybe it was the police sirens. Or maybe, rising from deep inside, the cry I heard was mine.