Intricate Rituals

After Barbara Kruger

When I was in high school the older boys played this “game” in the showers
after lacrosse practice where they’d turn the lights off and make us freshmen
hop around in the darkness while the water heated up till it hurt. I know:
not actually a game and not very fun. Boys at other boarding schools
threw flaming mattresses out their dorm windows and beat us at lacrosse for fun.

On the bus back to school, retreating from our loss, we’d fall asleep atop
each other’s sweaty pads. A midfielder in the back removed his headphones
to ask an attacker for help removing the athletic tape from around his foot.
The eye black grease paint he’d been given was flowing down his face,
so he wiped it away and began to unwrap the boy.

You should’ve seen how they painted each other’s faces in the bathroom.
How they almost forgot about the violence stirring outside the door
as they removed their gloves to hold a teammate’s face. When the defender cupped
the goalie’s cheeks while tracing the bones of his face, the defender’s hands shook
like a rope suddenly full of tension, bound to an unfamiliar animal that may
or may not try to run away. When their quiet work was done they both looked in the mirror
and promised to protect one another.

Going to the bathroom meant you might’ve been missing something like the biggest guy
in the senior class standing naked and laughing, wearing his big red hat and overtaking
his own rap playlist. Saying something that no one fought through the laughter
to challenge. Because it was funny. It was. Older boys doing stuff they learned when
they were younger boys and could reliably pass down to build a legacy that lasted
for years like a copper pellet under your skin.

They taught us how to hurt each other. One day, after the two players made contact
during a ground ball drill, the attacker scooped the ball and jogged away and
then looked back at the defender who was writhing on the Astroturf.
First it was just a boy on the ground clutching his shoulder, the team lined up
like statues waiting for him to stand and for it to be our turn, but then there was the coach
kneeling as he rips off the player’s gear, poking at the tender skin on the defender’s collarbone,
whispering through the helmet that he’s okay. The attacker turned away, as if
it was the last time he’d ever see another boy, or himself, like this.

I remember all this now, while my body is pressed against yours
in a dark room, only because I am trying to forget it.

Dan Carroll is a writer and student at DePaul University. In 2019, he graduated from Kingswood Oxford School in Connecticut. He has fiction and poetry in Crook & Folly and creative nonfiction in Polyphony Lit. You can follow him everywhere @dancarroll__.

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