We stumbled down the cobblestone street, arms around each other, moving as a lurching mass. In front of us, the woman stood on her front stoop. The sky and the clouds were turning the same shade of mellow blue as the sun slowly made its way behind the red-tiled roofs.
“Marco!” she yelled, her voice carrying through the thin evening air.
“Polo!” Mike yelled, making everyone laugh. I felt him slip his hand into my back pocket.
“Marco!” she yelled, not looking at us. Our steps were so out of rhythm with each other that we were careening back and forth, not going anywhere fast. Our cheeks were red and breath sour.
“Polo!” This time, Jen and Carl yelled with Mike. Mike’s hand squeezed. I pretended not to notice.
“Marco!” she yelled.
“Polo!” Sammy joined, too. Their laughter got quiet and intense, snickering, gleeful, like teenagers who had put a “kick me” sign on the back of a less popular student or a whoopee cushion on the substitute teacher’s chair. Mike’s hand traveled up and slid under my shirt and onto the small of my back. I pushed it away.
“Marco!” the woman yelled. She was impatient now.
“Polo!” they yelled.
A boy ran up the street and inside the house, dropping his skateboard beside the stoop. His friend ran past to another house. She closed the door.
They laughed louder, Jen laughing so hard she had to stop and lean over to catch her breath, hair falling in front of her face. Mike smiled, proud at having been the ringleader, again. He slid his eyes to me, put his arm firmly around my waist, and pulled me close, his hip jutting uncomfortably into my stomach. I pushed him away again, harder this time. The force separated me from the group.
He grabbed my belt loop and pulled me back in. “Don’t be difficult.”
“I’m not being difficult. I just want to walk by myself.” I leaned away, but his grip on my belt loop was firm.
That’s all we said. We didn’t fight, not then, and wouldn’t for about two years when I finally realized that calling me difficult was insulting and really just a way for him not to listen to anything I said when he didn’t want to hear it. Even then it took me a while to really stand my ground and he complained that I led him on all those years. But for now, his hand moved from my belt loop back to my waist and his body was there again, and he didn’t look away until I did, until he knew he won. No one else noticed anything was going on.
Earlier that day, Jen had sprawled across my bed at the hotel, flipped on her back, and fluffed her hair out around her head like a halo. Then she said what everyone always said to me in those days. “You’re so lucky to be with Mike.”
Caroline Swicegood is a writer and teacher living in North Carolina. Her fiction has appeared in several literary magazines, including most recently Upstreet, Prick of the Spindle, and Ampersand Review. She is currently working on a book manuscript of loosely connected short stories and vignettes set in Venice.