When the hurricanes hit that summer, the three of us were kids in the sense that we were violently hopeful. We walked to the flooded basketball court. We pulled at its metal lock, kicked at it, threw rocks. We climbed the fence and splashed down, sat with our legs splayed on the cracked concrete. We soaked in the dirty water, spat into it. We twisted our pruned fingers into the green chain-links behind us. Sweat ran down our faces, each of us bearing a smirk that matched ourselves—our way of showing who we were, and that we did exactly what we wanted. But in truth, we were a ragged bunch—a brown kid, a white kid, and a black kid—and someone looking at us would have said we looked like a collection of things disinherited.
Before the hurricanes came, we lived outside. None of us had much money. Everyone in our Central Florida neighborhood got by, delicately straddling middle-class and poor: each family was only separated from the next by the oldness of their clothes and shoes, the condition of their car, the number of bedrooms they squeezed into. But when we stepped outside, we forgot.
The basketball court was our bodega. Games ran all afternoon long, a steady soundtrack of noise: basketballs thudding on the concrete and clanging against the metal rim, kids shouting scores. Around the court hovered the middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, mostly brown kids and black kids—standing or sitting, inside the fence or out, with bookbags slung over their shoulders—not even interested in the score of the game, but content to just be there. BB guns got waved around. Cigarette butts were smashed into the ground. Paper plates of rice and beans got eaten too quickly. It’s where I spent most of my afternoons, and where I first met Julius and Austin.
Each of us was deeply American in our ways. I was a poor brown kid, twelve years old, the only one in my family who couldn’t speak Spanish. I spent my childhood moving from home to home, all around the city, ashamed of my Puerto Rican family and our unending money problems. I wanted nothing to do with them or where we came from. I reveled in people mistaking me for black.
Julius was seen as too dark and too smelly by everyone. He took joy in his brute aggression, bullied others with his words and hands to draw attention away from his skin. And then there was Austin, our only white friend. People thought of him as trailer trash, and when he wasn’t being called weak and soft, they called him a faggot. He wanted to fit in badly, and tagged along with whomever would have him. That summer, it was us.
The three of us spent our precious daylight hours outside by the basketball court, where kids smoked, gossiped, and taunted one another, where they argued who was the smartest, who was the toughest, who was the poorest, who was the gayest, using one another to test out their developing ideas of manhood. Small fights would start—shoves and wrestling and slap boxing—and we’d gather around, shouting and laughing, until they died down, leaving in their wake young kids with bruises and cuts, the debris of damaged egos.
We lived in these small eruptions of violence until the end of the day, when we’d stare out at the darkening streets and apartments—our faces flushed hot and red, smeared with dirt and dripping sweat. We were quietly disappointed. Those bright Florida afternoons never failed to settle into a tired evening, orange like the streetlights right outside our bedroom windows.
A series of hurricanes had torn through our city. Charley, Frances, Jeanne—they’d battered our apartment complex for more than a month. We’d stayed locked inside for most of that time, with no clue that the storms caused billions of dollars in damage. And we knew nothing about the nearly 100 people that died in other parts of Florida—killed by flying debris, drowned in their cars, crushed inside their homes. All we knew was our neighborhood, destroyed, that we stepped out into.
The first day back outside, after the storms had blown through, the neighborhood’s kids were walking through the debris, kicking the sandbags thrown onto the road, fighting each other with branches and shingles. They pulled at the uprooted bushes and the overturned street signs in awe. Our parents were stunned. They mourned the wreckage as defeat, while we saw it differently, more hopefully. Here was proof of the efficacy of destruction—real, tangible proof, something we could grasp in our hands.
It was also the first time the three of us had hung out again. We met up in the parking lot by the basketball court. The air smelled faintly of gasoline. Julius cruised up to me on his bike, while Austin trotted goofily behind him on foot. Julius pretended he was going to run into me before slamming on his brakes. I flinched, and he grinned.
He wore the same shirt, always—dark blue, bruise-colored, and two sizes too big for him. He knocked his kickstand down and looked behind.
Hurry yo’ ass up, he shouted.
Fuck you, Austin shouted back. Julius laughed to himself, pointing his thumb back at the kid we called the goofy white boy. Austin did everything slowly and awkwardly, too young for his big body.
Once Austin caught up, Julius pointed at a caved-in roof, collecting rainwater. Shit! Look at that.
Shit! That’s fucked up, Austin said, breathing hard. It’s fucked up, right?
Looks like it’s about to pop, I said. They both grinned at me. Their shoes were caked with grass and mud. Their eyes were bloodshot. Beads of sweat stuck to their faces. I smelled the weed on them. They said they’d checked out all the neighborhoods nearby.
Why? I asked.
‘Cause, Austin said. He held his hands up in the air as if he were holding what was left of the storms. We wanted to see how fucked up it was!
This guy, Julius said. He shook his head. He asked if my place was okay.
Yeah, we got lucky. I said.
Ha, me too, me too! Austin jumped in.
Shut the fuck up, Austin, Julius said, shoving him back. We don’t care about yo’ white ass. We laughed at him.
Whatever. Fuck you guys.
I told them I had to go back inside, but that I’d see them later. We slapped hands and Julius turned his bike around.
Let’s go, he said to Austin. We’ll see you later.
C’mon. Why don’t you let me ride on your pegs?
I already told yo’ ass, no, Julius said, and rode off down the street. Austin and I looked at each other for a second, then we shrugged. We both knew that was just Julius. No use in getting mad about it. I turned to leave.
Hey, Austin said, and I looked back. He walked toward me and I moved back a little.
Relax, he said. Even though he always stood hunched over, he was a big kid. He grabbed me by the shoulder. I’m glad you’re okay, he said. I looked up at him—his big, toothy smile, his faint, teenage mustache, the only one of us who had one.
Thanks, I said. He nodded, and lumbered off after Julius. It was a brief moment, uncomfortably warm. And it bothered me if only because being heartfelt seemed to lie outside the confines of our neighborhood, was an expression saved for those who needed comfort, and we spent our days convincing ourselves we needed no such thing.
As I watched him trot off awkwardly, I smiled. Austin, I remember thinking, is too soft. I wanted to teach him a lesson, to cause him pain. I was too young to understand my meanness, its connection to past memories. I had lived in the suburbs for years before being evicted, and what I remembered most were the white kids. Whispering that I smelled while we sat on elementary school benches. Making fun of my weird-sounding name, teasing me to find Puerto Rico on a map. Shoving me into the dirt during recess because I ran too fast. Pointing and screaming and spitting through the fence of my backyard, telling me I lived in a dump. Things had changed now. Austin was the only white friend I had. He wore the same ragged clothes that I did, and was kind to me. But nothing could have meant less to me then. Nothing meant as much as the promise of my formless anger.
I was twelve years old and had just seen a series of hurricanes uproot trees, flood lakes, knock out power grids, wipe out buildings and homes. It was clear that violence could change the landscape of things. I wanted to do the same.
That afternoon, we sat on the flooded basketball court and listened: to the drip of overflowed rain gutters, the wind rattling the trees, the distant police sirens and ambulances. We hadn’t said much of anything to each other. We looked at the bowed palm trees and conifers, bent to the brink of snapping, and we watched the city workers cover people’s roofs with tarp. Power lines had been torn down all around the city, leaving communities with no electricity. Trucks carrying generators drove up and down the main roads. School was canceled until further notice, and we thanked God for that. We guessed whose houses had been destroyed, who we’d save, and who we’d forget about.
None of it bothered us, we told ourselves. Everything could be laughed at, poked fun at: the wrecked homes, the ruined streets, our flooded court, even each other. We got by in our small apartments, crammed in with our families. Living paycheck to paycheck, wearing hand-me-downs, smoking: all we knew were thresholds. Despite the damage done by the storms, it all felt familiar and ordinary, like the shouting and laughing at family gatherings. Things going wrong had become a space we had learned to live in.
Julius started it. We’d been sitting there in our dirtied t-shirts that clung to our musty, sweating bodies. We had too much time on our hands, seemingly forever.
He smiled and sprang up. His shorts were sopping wet. He pounded his basketball into the ground, splashing water and laughing to himself.
Austin and I covered our faces, shielding ourselves from the spray.
The fuck are you doing? Austin said. He always sounded forced when he copied Julius’s phrases, like he was unsure if he’d said them right. This made Julius laugh harder, which made me laugh.
The words tumbled out of his mouth. Yesterday… this guy… Julius said, nodding in Austin’s direction. He shitted himself!
Austin looked at me to see my reaction. I didn’t have one, or I hadn’t decided what I wanted it to be. For Julius, the truth never mattered. All he cared for was volatility. But the story seemed believable, the kind of thing that would happen to Austin.
Fuck you. No, I didn’t—you’re lying, Austin said. Julius bounced himself off the fence, laughing hard.
He did, he said, struggling to catch his breath. I snuck up on him yesterday, walking. I scared him so bad, his ass ran home with shit in his drawls.
What, no. No. No, you didn’t. He’s lying, Austin said, looking at me. I knew he was afraid that we were going to tell the whole neighborhood about this, adding to the long lists of things kids bullied him about. I had realized by then that kids liked me because of how I approached most things: detached, never overly reactive. Austin was the opposite. He was kind, and had trouble hiding it. His attachments were always visible for everyone to see. And he was white. Julius and I, along with everyone else, always reminded him of that. All his faults—his sloth-like movements, his jolly face, the naïve things he said—we blamed either on his kindness or his whiteness. In our neighborhood, neither had much currency.
I knew what I did next was important. If I didn’t react to what Julius said, Austin would avoid a wildfire, an embarrassing story that would’ve spread quickly. I could have let it die off with my silence, not feed it with my words. But our neighborhood’s cruelty had given me a deranged kind of hope. All those hours spent watching kids taunt and insult and hurt each other—about the color of their skin, their lack of money, their sexual identities—had taught me about the hope we all found in inciting fear and establishing power. Those hours had taught me about the supernatural ability of violence to change a hardened, immovable present. Violence, we believed, could break the strangleholds of race and class. It could make you feel less helpless, give you a taste of control. It could topple cities. It was a dream we had: in my neighborhood, the violence we did to one another seemed a promise about the days to come, a future less frightening than our present.
I looked at Austin, contemplating. Why let the moment fizzle, when I could shout, spit, push, punch, kick my way through it? Why not brute my way into a future I was desperate for?
I smirked. When Julius saw me smile, he ran toward me and slammed a laugh hard, right in my face. I started to belt out laughs, too—as hard as I could. I hugged my stomach because it hurt to force it. But I kept telling myself not to stop.
We laughed at him for a couple minutes, maintaining it as long as we could. Austin stood there, silently, the whole time. Still, to this day, I can’t forget his posture when we’d finished: his hunch was gone; he stood completely upright. His long arms hung at his side, his hairy white legs clumped with mud, his face flushed with anger.
I told him to relax, that we wouldn’t tell anyone. Julius tried to catch his breath, still chuckling.
Relax, Julius said.
It had gotten late, and I realized I should be heading home. I got up slowly. I brushed off my shirt and shook out the sogginess from my shorts. I tried not to seem like I was leaving in a hurry.
I looked at Austin again to reassure him. It’s okay, I told him. I kicked a few palm fronds floating in my way and walked toward the entrance, my shoes making wet slaps on the court.
Suddenly I heard mumbling behind me, which turned to shouting. I turned around and saw Austin shove Julius, making him stagger. He almost fell, catching himself on one hand. He looked up at me to see if I had seen what happened. I was surprised at what I had set into motion, pleased at what my formless anger could shape into.
I was again in the position of deciding whether to acknowledge or ignore what was happening. I could continue to egg Julius on, or I could end it all in a flash. I loved it. I smelled the gasoline of generators, felt the wet air on my face, tasted the iron taste of blood. This was power. The fact that I was what I was—an ashamed brown kid—made my choice easy. Re-inflicting fear and violence on the white kid in front of me felt not just right, but American.
I smiled, big. Once Julius saw this, he turned back toward Austin and mumbled something I couldn’t hear—the words he needed to say before doing what he did. He launched a punch from his waist side that crashed into Austin’s face, like an errant vehicle skidding across pavement; and to see it happen, the fleshly wreckage of fist against face, shot me with a surge of white-hot bliss that I had never experienced before. I shook in my stance from trying to contain it all. That was enough. I could have lived solely off that moment for a while.
But once Austin crumbled to the ground, the moment didn’t stop. Julius started to kick him repeatedly. Everything slowed down and constricted. And I watched. I watched Austin. His shirt rode up past his stomach. His pale white skin exposed. Each blow muddied and darkened and bruised him. Each one traveled inside him and came out of his mouth in yells and spit. I watched him shudder from the force of them. To see someone so big, so human—shattered, like all the things around us—made me frighteningly aware of my surroundings. The wet-coldness of the air, the dried mud on my calves and hands, the potholes on the court, and Austin’s large body, belly-up and writhing. I had to get out of there.
I ran. And I could hear Julius running the other way, his shoes slapping on the pavement. There was no future left on that court. There was only the awful present: our friend, well-beaten and pained. I couldn’t face him. Staying would have meant admitting that I had wanted the beating to happen to Austin, who was, in that moment, the most vulnerable. It would have meant admitting that I had wanted retribution for as long I could remember. It would have meant acknowledging that the violence I had encouraged—the sole tool I knew of, for escaping my shame—had terrified me.
I was unprepared for where my violence would take me, how it would lead to a wilderness inside myself. It left me confused and desperate, thrashing at my friends’ bodies in order to guard my scared, beating heart.
I ran, not knowing that that would be one of the last times I saw either of them. I ran, not knowing that my family soon would be evicted from our home again; or that I would continue, for many years after, to force my way into futures as children do, and would only grow up once I faced my own anger and resentment, my American present. I kept running from the wreckage, from our court, from the neighborhood where all of us were children.