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Icebox Shadow Boxing

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The first time was impulse and shitty self-esteem and stupidity and your uncle's voice repeating everything you thought you figured out.

But the second time, the second time is asking your cousin what to do when you get your period. It's growing breasts, growing curves, and something becomes dirty when you are tackled, when you use your thighs to take someone down. You make the same compromises you've always made because no one taught you how to have both, and your dad is ineffectual in teaching you this, and your mom is just a memory you use to make both of you bleed.

You quit, even though this time there is nothing to quit. It's not a game that's bigger than that, it's not a stand you're too afraid to make, it's not for someone you want more than you want yourself. You have already been cut off, left adrift, because being better doesn't make up for what you - at your base - are. It shouldn't be a big deal, it wasn't a big deal, but really, it wasn't just you making it one. You are the best friend and their best asset and yet you have always been just a little apart, you have always been one step removed from them.

You are not girlie enough for your cousin and her friends and you're not enough of a boy for one of them, not the ones who are flawed in some way from being beautiful, not from the ones who hook onto interests that label them geeks or losers or dorks. You had their respect, once, or at least their belief, but middle school did more than teach you all the country's history, it taught you the divide, the separation of you and them. You are allowed to watch and you are allowed to cheer and sometimes in parks when it really doesn't matter, when no one else will notice, you are allowed to call out suggestions, but you are not allowed to be one of them.

When the team swarms hallways and push former friends into lockers, when they smile at girls who twirl their hair, when they chant their school's name, wear the mascot with pride and a sense of belonging, when they wear a uniform you were never allowed to wear, you have to tell yourself, breathing slowly with fingernails making half crescent moons into the palms of your hand, you were once better than all of them.

It is a hollow victory, but it's the only one you have.

**

In between the two dates your father and Patty Floyd went on after The Game (always in capital letters) and the moving van that took mother and son away a little over a year later, you managed to have your first kiss with Junior. What you remember most about your first kiss isn't the feel of his lips, softer and more hesitant than you expected, or how he said your name with the tail end of a grin when you broke apart, or how afterwards he shrugged uncomfortably and couldn't quite meet your eyes the rest of the day, but how you were wearing jeans and a t-shirt and mud on your shoes, how you still had a piece of twig in your hair and how dirt was another layer underneath your chipped nails. What you remember most about your first kiss is how for one moment you were positive he didn't care about any of that.

What you remember most is how much you still did.

**

"Ice Princess," Spike greets you, because he thinks he's witty.

"Buffy lover," you say, because honestly you're not much better.

He swings into the booth across from you, his gear carelessly tossed beside him, and steals your coke. You've pretty much disliked him from the first moment you met him, and he returns your favor. Spike looks tougher than anybody else in town, if only because his father has been training him since he was born to play football, be a man, serve his country and probably be arrested as a serial killer. He was always hard packed muscle but he shed any youth along with his look by the time he was fourteen, and now when he scares people away by simply staring at them it's not just asthmatic kids half his size. He still talks like a caveman half the time and calls you every nickname but the one you wanted to be called by and actually thought hand holding was physically disgusting, and you both hate each other enough to ignore the fact that somehow he may also be your best friend, because then one of you would have to die from the sheer fucked up embarrassment of it all. You couldn't hang onto guys you've been friends with since childhood, or became friends with during The Game, but Spike was always aware of the fact you were a girl. You growing breasts was not a surprise to him.

"Need help learning your multiplication tables?" you ask, because you can see his math book peeking out from behind his sweaty socks.

"You could probably get a boyfriend if you didn't ever open your mouth," Spike says, sucking down your melting ice cubes. If you still had food on your plate he would be all over it, so now you're happy you finished off the whole meal, even if the greasy fries aren't sitting quite right in your stomach. "But do you even know how to shut-up?"

"Don't be bitter because you can't add," you tell him, but maybe you didn't swallow all of your tears because he glances up from where he's fishing out the last ice cube with his dirty fingers and looks at you. You look back.

You can't run faster than him. You can't out bench-press him and you can't tackle him, not any more, you don't weigh enough to make him stumble. You can't out throw him and you can't out catch him and you can't beat him in the physical world, can't take him on with a careless challenge and come out ahead, but this, this you can do.

"Yeah, all right," he says, and you don't need to say anything else. 

**

Seven months after The Game your Uncle Kevin knocked on the door in a way you never heard before, quiet, soft, as if he didn't want it answered. His face was hollowed out and his eyes were red, and he slumped over with a bag at his feet. Your father guided him into the living room and asked you to leave and you sat on the top of the stairs and listened long into the night. Three weeks later your Aunt Karen and your two cousins left, and it wasn't that you never saw them again, they moved four hours away and you spent half your summers sleeping on their couch, but they never came back to Urbania.  

"It was always his town," your Aunt Karen tells you. "I wasn't going to take that from him too."

Once a week you sit in a diner and talk to your Uncle, try to make it clear you aren't your mother, you aren't your Aunt or his daughters, that he can count on you, but sometimes instead of making your heart warm it feels like a noose around your neck. Your dad will support you in whatever way will make you happy, but he never taught you how to avoid seeking his brother's approval for what you choose.

**

"Fuck," you mutter, trying to catch your breath in the crook between his shoulder and head, panting in short gasps along his neck. He isn't much better, hands still clasped to your hips in a way that will leave finger marks on your skin, the way you like, grasped tight enough when you feel like you can float away most days. He doesn't do anything like say something sappy or run his hands soothingly over your back or even offer compliments into your skin. He catches his breath and you catch yours and you both pull away, getting dressed without looking at bodies you just finished touching, like you don't want to watch each other's shame, and neither of you will admit in this you are each other's first and only. 

"Yeah," he grunts, pulling his shirt over his head. He's had a crew cut as long as you've known him, so one large hand swiping over his head and he's groomed, but you pull out your brush and start a ritual as old as your childhood. He sits in the driver's seat, hands clasped like he's going to start the car, and watches the empty field while you stroke out the tangles he made.

"You wanna talk about this afternoon or something?" he asks when you start to braid your hair, the usual signal for him to start his car and take you a street over from home, close enough for the easy walk and quick climb up through your window. Instead he's looking at you, fidgeting slightly, and you'd talk about your feeling just to watch him squirm but then you'd have to talk about your feelings.  

"Do you remember that day?" you ask instead, and even after all this time, there's still really only one day, just like no matter how many businesses close early on a Friday night to watch a high school team, there will only be one Game.

"Course," he says, but he's watching you carefully.

You remember a sky so blue it hurt, the smell of grass tickling your nose. You remember the starchiness in one uniform and the feeling of coming home in another, even though you never wore it before. You remember the sweat in the huddle and the feel of bodies giving way and the giddiness of winning. You remember the football, the feel of the leather in your hands, soaking into the skin of your palms, reading the fault lines that lay there, your love line cut short.

"Yeah," you say, and wait for him to start the car. That was the last time you played football, and you think one day you'll forgive yourself for that, for quitting twice, for giving it up at all.

Not today though. Probably not tomorrow either.