Franklin500x575Marty Manzoni’s mother was fat. We all knew it, and we all knew better than to ever mention it, but that day in the school hall before basketball practice we were waiting for Coach to show up, and we got to talking about girls, as boys do, and someone mentioned Heather, a girl with sandy blond hair who carried her bulk around on ballerina tip-toes and told me just yesterday, above the noise of the bus, that she liked me—a girl with whom, against my better sixth-grade-judgment, I had secretly agreed to “go out.”

Marty Manzoni, whose mother we all knew was fat, had been bouncing a ball in the hallway when he turned to me, smiling.

“She’s a fat girl,” he said. “Why do you like a fat girl?” And the boys around us laughed because my secret had gotten out that day, as secrets do, and they had all been wondering the same thing.

I might have said that Heather and I rode the same bus for years, that we both liked football and sang along with Boys II Men, that we shared the kind of easy, endless conversations that later in my life I would recognize as the first signs of a good, healthy crush. I could have said I liked the idea of a girl liking me and I could have said that he was ruining it all with his questions.

Instead I chased him, as he must have known I would. I chased him down the hall and out the school’s large double doors. I chased him for Heather and for my stupid, boyish pride. But mostly I chased him for the giggling boys around us who left me no other choice, for making clear what I’d already figured out, that I couldn’t love a fat girl, that no one can love a fat girl.

Marty ran across the parking lot and onto the school’s large, green lawn, finally stopping beneath the flagpole, basketball tucked under his arm. I stayed at the curb and watched him standing there, his chest heaving, and then I opened my mouth and said the only thing a sixth-grade boy could say in a moment like that. And before the words—“Not as fat as your mom!”—left my mouth I knew that insult would hang in the air, as insults do, and make the other boys gasp and shudder as it slowly settled into the ground around us.

Marty stood by the flagpole. Boys who’d spilled out of the double doors to watch chuckled. I turned, still breathing hard myself, and rejoined my teammates as if nothing had happened at all, as if my girlfriend wasn’t fat, and I hadn’t just breached some sacred boys’ club boundary. But Marty inched forward to the edge of the asphalt and lifted the basketball. It hit me on the ear so hard I fell to the ground, my head ringing, and I cried louder than I have ever cried anywhere—an indignant, fearful cry, a where-is-my-mother-cry—and the boys around me backed away, as if afraid they might catch something.

Then Coach pulled up in his car and stepped out, looked at me sprawled and bawling on the concrete, and then at Marty who walked past us both, picked up his basketball, and disappeared into the school. The other boys followed Marty in a mute procession past my body, and Coach held the door open to follow behind them. “Get up,” he said in a voice that meant, “You’re acting like a girl.”

I lay on the ground, half hoping that Heather might drive up with her mom and see me on the ground and screech to a halt, jump out of the car and come kneel at my side and take my head in her arms; and the other half of me was hoping she would never come to school again, that I might die right there on the asphalt, and this story along with me.

Joey Franklin’s essays have appeared in Gettysburg Review,  Writer’s ChronicleThe Normal School, the 2012 Norton Nonfiction Reader, and other venues. He is an assistant professor of English in the MFA Program at Brigham Young University.

Photography by Liz Wuerffel