I punched a dead boy.
I don’t remember why.
And I can’t understand how a pussy like me
so freely socked him
flush on his cheek,
fist launching forward as if I weren’t
a timid freshman,
a surprising strong-arm that was anything but
a planned tactic.
He wasn’t dead when I swung.
That would come summer after senior year.
A violent single-car wreck where the splendor
of his naturally red hair matched the blood
staining his skin.
I wore long sleeves in ninety degrees
to hide the shame gutting my scrawny frame,
as if excess clothing padded jutting bones
and hid the crumbling
of my self-confidence.
A shy boy, voice pieced together by whispers,
potential words no one heard,
like taunting 9th grade ghosts.
It was during P.E., running laps
when he didn’t swing back.
A fresh welt forming on his face,
he simply stared at me as if
he were willing to be my
pubescent punching bag.
As if he were prepared to take
a stiff jab to the lip, condemning
all the pretty girls whose tongues
would never mention my name.
As if he could withstand an uppercut to the gut
to ease the angst of eating lunch alone
because I lacked the stomach
to simply speak
to my peers.
And maybe the reason I hit him is because
I knew he wouldn’t try to fight me.
Maybe I knew he wouldn’t defend himself
because he understood he wouldn't live to be an adult,
and that taking one for the team is par
for the teenage course.
I wonder if his mom ever learned that
one day, while he was running a timed mile,
he turned the other cheek to be the release
of someone’s shitty life and he
and kept on running.
I wonder if she ever visited the tree
where his teenage body became infused
with bark and metal.
I wonder if she dropped a rose on her son
as he were being lowered down into the earth
and lamented the amount of red
I do my best to forget those days.
Blocking out echoes of slamming lockers,
Shushing the murmur of lunchtime chatter.
But sometimes I slip.
Make the mistake of looking in the mirror
seeing atrophied wrists
and balled up fists
still swinging at spirits
that aren’t really there.
Daniel Romo is the author of When Kerosene's Involved (Mojave River Press, 2014) and Romancing Gravity (Silver Birch Press, 2013). His writing can be found in The Los Angeles Review, Gargoyle, MiPOesias, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and is the Head Poetry Editor for Cease, Cows. He lives in Long Beach, CA and at danielromo.net.