Moth fought his last fight in the basement of a church forty miles out of town. The crowd was polite and applauded after every round, but made hardly a sound while the punches were being thrown. None of the overhead lights were extinguished and there was a constant buzz of fluorescence. He lost a decision to a good-looking guy his own age from the YMHA, and punch by punch it was his most painful fight.
Everybody says you don’t feel the punches, but you do, he told Jake. They don’t hurt as much, but it isn’t like a fly lands on your face. You look at a picture of guys boxing—does it look like they’re not feeling the punches?
They sat across from one another at an empty table in the school cafeteria. These tables, near the windows, were always vacant because of the noonday sun and Moth and Jake squinted at each other. They were hot and Moth’s shirt had begun to stick to his chest.
I know what a punch feels like, Jake said.
But this was different, said Moth. It was like getting punched by surprise. Every fucking punch. I know this guy couldn’t hit like Travis, but it felt harder.
I don’t know why, said Moth. But I know that he wasn’t feeling my punches the way I was feeling his. That’s a nightmare, a fight like that.
Maybe you should quit the wrestling team, said Jake.
I fought this guy wrong, that’s all, Moth said.
They hadn’t spoken much since the robbery, but Jake was no longer terrified. He’d been given a suspended sentence and now he didn’t care who saw them talking. Moth was waiting for a pre-sentence report before trial. He had become a strong but very limited wrestler and he won more matches than he lost. He thought it had made him a better infighter.
What the hell does it have to do with wrestling? Moth asked.
I don’t know, Jake said.
Montreal was too far away to train there every day and during school he could only go to the boxing club on weekends. Soon there would be mountains of snow and he had no idea what he’d do then. He might be boxing in prison.
Moth had fought in the ring for the last time, but he wouldn’t know it for another year or two. He would believe that the town of Valentine had killed boxing for him and he would hold his father responsible, as he would the distance, the weather and the impossibility of training regularly and improving. He would believe these things had been his undoing. He would never accept that he’d quit boxing, left school and returned to Bresby because of Donna Mesrine.
She wasn’t in the cafeteria and Moth had a queasy vertigo, wondering where she was. What she had brought for lunch. She had probably made it herself and put things in it that Moth would never think of eating. Maybe she knew how to use wax paper. Knew what kind of bag to use for lunches and even where to get the bags and how much they cost.
I hate it when seven and eights are in the same school as everybody else, Moth said. My old school was like this. Most schools in Bresby start high school with grade nine. Seven and eight is junior high.
Jake said, If you don’t feel the punches, then why do guys wrestle, but they won’t box? Guys don’t box because they get punched.
I felt every punch, said Moth. And he kept hitting me. After the fight he said I shouldn’t crouch.
You’re harder to hit when you crouch, said Jake.
Not for this guy.
The day of the fight he’d felt as sick and awful as he felt on every other day. It made no difference knowing he would be in the ring with a stranger that evening. Maybe this is what they meant by falling in love, but he doubted it. No one ever talked about this feeling and they would have if they’d felt this way. It was like going back through time in the Travis fight. Someone else would have talked about it if they knew what it was like.
He had taken the bus downtown to the club, where cars were waiting for the fighters. He had always travelled blind. Donna would know every landmark, but she had been on this road how many times? It didn’t matter. Moth would be no wiser or more observant if he made the trip every day for a decade. He had looked out the window trying to commit each building to memory and wanted to sob when he gave up. He knew he could never catch up with her.
She took this bus downtown and she went shopping. She knew the stores, large and small, and Moth had never bought himself a pair of socks. Donna knew east from west and north from south while he could only distinguish left from right. He was stupid. She was smart. All of her school notes were organized and divided neatly in a binder and she did homework every night while Moth read about fights that had been won and lost before he was born. She skied, she read, she knew the names of flowers and trees. She could tread water for twenty minutes. Moth could identify the Big Dipper and Donna could point out constellations in every corner of the sky. Everything about her diminished him.
Each morning Moth woke up and felt like he was starving to death. His stomach had been scooped out and someone was standing on his chest. It was worse than any feeling he could imagine because he had no idea what he felt or why. It had no name. Everything about it was embarrassing. Donna did things right and he did things wrong. She had never said this to him even by insinuation.
Details ruled his mind and crushed him. He saw her pick up a paper clip with her left hand even though she wasn’t left-handed and he found it perplexing. He tried to visualize himself picking up the same paper clip. Left hand or right hand? She knew Casablanca was in Africa. She could skate.
He saw her standing at the cafeteria doors, looking for him. He raised his hand and she waved at him to come over. With her left hand she made a motion as though she were splashing water on her face. Moth tried to imagine how he’d do it. He wouldn’t wave; he would walk over to the table. She was too smart to sit in the sunlight.
She wants you to go over, said Jake.
I’m thinking, Moth said.
He had no idea how you waved someone over. Maybe he had never done it. If he ever had to do it, if there was no choice, he wasn’t sure what he would do. She figured out things like that with no trouble at all. He couldn’t stand it.
Donna came over to their table but didn’t sit down.
Couldn’t you see me waving? she asked.
It was a weird wave, Moth said. I didn’t know what you were doing.
You want to go outside?
Jake raised his eyebrows and smirked at Moth, unseen by Donna.
There’s less than half an hour, Moth said.
Up to you, said Donna.
Moth stood up without another word to Jake. Donna grabbed his hand and they almost ran downstairs and outside into the cool light of noon. The halls were empty except for the monitors who watched with frowns or tight-lipped stares, rehearsing for their future as obedient citizens. They were the irksome informants of tomorrow and Moth had decided to flatten at least one of them if he didn’t get jail time.
The school was only five years old and it rose from a clearing a quarter mile off the main road, with overgrown acreage on every side. The football field looked like a landing strip carved in the middle of the badlands. Moth and Donna ran down the hill toward the bridge where other students smoked out of sight of the teachers. As soon as the school disappeared and before they could be seen from the bridge, they ducked into the tall grass and ran to a thick grove of trees.
Donna looked at her watch. We have to be really quick, she said.
Moth pulled her close and kissed her. She dug her fingers into his biceps then ran her hands down the sides of his body. It made him feel strong and fit. He lifted her skirt and felt for the waistband of her underwear. A sudden breeze turned her flesh to goosebumps under his hands and Moth felt his own skin prickle. They kissed perfectly. He took his hands out from beneath her skirt and held her face. Donna pulled down the zipper on his pants.
Let’s lie down, she said.
They had never come here when it was this cold. On their first time they had taken off all their clothes and run away to another tree, unsure exactly where they had stripped. Donna had led the way and the effect of surrendering control made Moth crazed and insatiable. That same week they had returned to the wrong spot and found no trace of their shirts and shoes and for three endless minutes thought someone had sneaked in and stolen it all. They fell onto the grass and bit one another’s mouths, delirious. They would have to walk back to school naked, Donna whispered, and Moth had moaned and bucked on the ground like a landed fish.
On other days they had crept through the long grass until they could see the kids smoking. Their nakedness was defined and electrified by the school sweaters and white blouses on the bridge. Donna’s hand held Moth and he touched her, their fingers moving on one another while they watched the boys and girls they knew. The world opened up and Moth fell into it.
They brought their lunches with them and bolted sandwiches while they raced back to school. Donna sliced bread diagonally, like they did in restaurants, and Moth cut his straight across, like a kid. He noticed it one noon hour and his throat went dry. It was the very first thing to take hold of him.
The first of that kind, but not the very first thing. She’d had a boyfriend the year before who had moved to Texas with his family. They had written to each other until he met another girl and that was the end of it. That much Moth knew.
He was okay, Jake told Moth. Nothing special.
Big, small, good-looking, what? asked Moth.
Taller than you. He played football.
Did you like him? Moth asked.
He was funny. A nice guy.
You liked him.
He’s in Texas, Moth, said Jake.
You think they did it? He ever say?
He wasn’t the kind of guy who’d tell you, said Jake.
Moth’s sister Beryl had thrown a rock through his bedroom window the night he and Donna lay side by side on his bed, their pants to their knees and shirts unbuttoned. Their teeth scraped when they kissed and Moth knew the time was upon him, and it all dissolved in a burst of glass.
He spent the rest of the night in a fever dream, neither sleeping nor awake. It was all kid stuff. His mouth had covered most of her body and she had journeyed from his lips to his thighs, but he had never entered her. They ran naked in a field and had muffled orgasms while they watched the group on the bridge and it was kid stuff. Moth had pushed his face between her thighs, which seemed very adult and advanced, but it came to nothing. No guy talked about doing that to his girlfriend. The guys carried condoms in their wallets and had secret stashes at home, liberated from their father’s sock drawer. They said they got laid, got fucked, that she was tight as a bug’s ear. They nailed girls, put the blocks to them, threw one into them. Meanwhile, Moth played with Donna.
He didn’t want to play. He wanted to be inside her, like every other guy had been inside girls. Like they were married. Moth would think about marrying her, being in love, having a baby. Not caring that she could figure out when the next leap year would fall. A minute later he would be sitting up, wondering why his mother hadn’t come home and where the hell she’d gone.
Now they were in the field kissing and had only twenty minutes at most. Soon it would be too cold to come here. Moth kissed Donna and held her face. She had managed to dig him out of his underwear and she gently moved her hand, but he wouldn’t let her kneel down.
Tell me you love me, he said.
She said it. He said it back to her. He kept her face on his and their lips together. He wanted to tell her the whole thing, from the very beginning to her waving in the cafeteria. Confess every humiliating moment of it. That was the only way his mind would feel empty of its madness. If he could tell her now, he would be cleansed, reborn, ready to start again. He could stop asking questions she couldn’t answer. Donna was smart. Maybe she would tell him what was wrong with him.
Don’t you want to do anything?
Moth kissed her and didn’t answer. He wanted to do everything. He wanted to be normal. It would mean returning to the starting line and he didn’t have the energy. Maybe he was as normal as hell and didn’t know it. He had a weird quirk about—what? What was it? Moth wanted a name for the way he felt and he wanted reasons. It could be a small corner of his brain acting up, like people who couldn’t stop shoplifting. Or it could be his very essence. He kissed her miserably.
I guess I just don’t feel like it today, he said.
He felt himself slip out of her hand and her arms went limp. He had never said this before and she looked carefully into his face.
What’s wrong? Did I do something?
Let’s get back, Moth said.
They pushed their way through the grass and onto the road, then trudged up the small hill without holding hands.
It’s because I was late, Donna said. Is that why?
I don’t know, Moth said.
I had to help her find her stupid watch, she said. She was really upset.
Do you know where Mount Everest is?
Of course I do, Donna said. Why?
She was mystified and hurried to keep up with him. Often he asked her questions that were dumbfounding, as though he were giving her a secret test.
You know what I think? said Moth. You keep trying to prove how smart you are. I don’t think you’re so smart.
It came as unexpectedly as the sky raining turtles. She thought she knew his sensitive points by now and didn’t number intelligence amongst them. Her last boyfriend had been more her academic match and they had struggled mightily to defeat one another in final exams. Moth was a different proposition. He seemed oblivious in the classroom and never carried home a book. His binder was a prop, a couple of pages covered in his own rating system for the greatest middleweights of all time. He told her the story of Stanley Ketchel being gunned down by Walter Dipley and he talked about Dempsey riding the rails. It wasn’t very interesting, but it wasn’t as dull as football. None of it had to do with being smart.
You can’t walk past a fucking weed without telling me all about it, Moth said.
Why didn’t you just say it bothered you?
I’m saying it now, aren’t I?
You ask me a lot of questions, Moth, she said.
Don’t worry, I’ll stop, he said. Why do you swing your arms when you walk, anyway? I don’t.
She looked at her feet and watched them hurry. If she started to cry she wouldn’t be able to stop. The thought of crying made her want to wail. She knew this tone of his and she felt old and tired every time she heard it. He would attack from every side and no resolution was possible because she had no idea what he was talking about. It would be unpredictable and relentless and it made her head ache. Swinging her arms.
Stupid, said Moth.
Her feet slowed and halted. They were in front of the school and Moth went a few more feet before he stopped and turned around.
We can’t stop, he said. We’re going to be late.
She wondered why he buttoned his shirt right up to his throat. His face was hard and angry and his neck looked swollen. Two more words and the top button would pop. One night when her father had stood in the living room and yelled at her, she had seen a small spot of ink over his heart. He had told her she would be grounded for the rest of her life if she ever saw Moth again and all she could think about was the leaky pen in his breast pocket. She had wanted to tell him about the pen and she wanted to ask Moth about his buttons.
Why do you button your shirt right to the top? she asked.
Moth stared at her, as stunned as if she’d hit him in the face. Donna heard her own question and closed her eyes while her shoulders trembled. Moth stepped toward her and laughter burst from her like a shout. She had no control over it. It shook her body and made her bend over, holding her stomach. Tears wet her face. She straightened up and it started again, right from the beginning. Moth looked scared and that was funny, too. But not as funny—nothing was as funny—as asking him about his stupid buttons.
You see? she said, trying to catch her breath. It’s funny. You’re funny.
Moth frowned at her in warning and it enraged her.
You know why I swing my arms, Moth? she asked him. Because I’m so smart. That’s right. I shave my legs and I don’t cut myself because I’m a genius. I’m sorry it makes you feel so bad.
She closed her eyes and covered her face with her hand. Her body still shuddered in waves, and her eyes were hot and wet. Maybe she’d cry, she wasn’t sure.
When she wiped away the tears with her sleeve, she saw that Moth was gone.
She started laughing again.