With their burgers and shakes in hand Antonio led Delaney past the inside tables to the courtyard patio in back of the Shake Shack. There, at a table against the back fence, the girl managed a bite or two before she set her burger aside and returned to her questions.
“Well, are you going to tell me? You said if I waited until lunch you would.”
“What’s to tell?" Antonio answered. "Marco and I had a little talk. That’s all.”
“That’s BS and you know it,” Delaney complained. Was he going back on his word, she wondered? If so, she was not about to settle for that. “That was not a conversation I saw. It wasn’t the two of you talking. It was you talking and him listening. That’s what it was.
“Antonio Calle, you just saved me from something seriously scary. I’ll admit that I had no idea you could do that, but I appreciate it very much. On top of that, I hear that I’m your girl friend now. So now I’m wondering how I’m supposed to repay you. “
“Repay me? What does that mean?”
Delaney was laughing at the sight of his questioning frown. Though big, pushy guys might not intimidate him at all, it seemed that her blatant attention had him running for cover.
“It means," she continued. "If I was still one of those brassy Venice Beach broads, the ones I know pretty well, I’d probably be thanking you with a big ole wet kiss.”
The boy's jaw dropped as he surveyed the adjoining tables to see if anyone was listening. “A what?” he asked softly.
“You heard me.” Reaching across the table she patted his hand. “But that’s only if you’re willing to help me understand why Marco bailed out like he did. He seems to be a pretty intimidating guy.”
Pausing, Delaney was reminding herself that she had not told Antonio of her earlier Marco episode. “He’s big," she nodded. "And I think he’s used to having his way. But he was flat out afraid of little ole Antonio Calle. I could see that in his eyes.”
The girl was pushing him toward a place he had tried his best to avoid. More to the point, Antonio was not at all sure how to explain the inexplicable moment when his life had been turned upside down....changed forever by a slightly-embarrassing and totally-unexpected chain of unintended consequences.
“Why is that something you need to know?” he asked. “It really doesn’t amount to much.”
This time she kept hold of his hand, forcing him to face her insistent interest. “Because I want to know you better. There are people out there saying you’re my boyfriend. By the time school starts everyone in the place will know that.
“Yet it feels like you’re keeping a secret. Whatever it is, it’s an important part of who you are. I saw how the other kids were watching you when we walked away. Whatever Marco saw when he looked back at you, they were seeing that too.”
“And you want to know what that is? For a kiss?” Antonio was grinning, perhaps imagining that first-of-a-kind trade. “My whole life story for just one kiss?”
“Maybe two, if you’re story’s good enough.”
“And if I added a few extra frills....would that be good enough for three?”
When he finally looked up at her he had apparently turned serious. The tables next to them were empty now, so he leaned forward to ask his one favor. “You’d have to promise not to laugh.”
“You mean it’s funny?” That struck her as a strange possibility. “Do you think I’d laugh at something like that?”
“It was never funny to me,” he said. “Not ever. But I know a few guys who were laughing out loud, at least at first.”
Glancing around the patio, without focusing on anything particular, Antonio was wishing instead for a way to avoid what came next. Yet, the longer he stalled, the more impatient his curious friend was becoming.
“Well,” Delaney finally demanded. “Are you going to tell me?”
He was nodding even before he said a thing. Pushing his empty glass to the side he took a deep breath and asked, “Do you remember the other day at my place? Back in the TV room? You were asking about my martial-arts stuff. The outfit, the trophies, the belts.”
With nothing more than an affirming nod from Delaney he continued. “The thing is, I’ve been taking those classes for a long time. In the beginning it was my mom’s idea. There wasn’t a dad around to look after me, and I was kind of a puny kid. She thought I needed something like that. Anyway, over time I got pretty good at it. I learned some things, won some junior competitions, earned a few belts.”
“That must have made the guys take notice, eh? Was that what had them steering clear of you?”
“Not really. That was still in middle school, I was learning junior-level stuff. Not many of the guys knew anything about it. Besides, one of the first things they taught us in class was not to show off or act like a tough guy.
“Thing is, like I told you before, it’s basically an exhibition sport. We never actually hit anyone very hard, except when the instructor is wearing his big ole pads. We’re taught that it’s a ‘discipline,’ one that includes a lot of self control....over our emotions and our actions. It’s not about beating up anyone.
“So anyway, I kept getting better. Then in the ninth grade I won a regional competition in Portland. It must have been a slow-news day here in town, because that got written up in the Tanner Times.”
“And that’s what had Marco backing off?” Delaney asked. “He must have known that you could deal with him.”
“Nah. That wasn’t it. A few guys told me they’d read about it. But a big dude like Marco wasn’t going to be put off by that. We were still in middle school and little guy like me wasn’t going to scare anyone, no matter what the papers wrote.”
Antonio’s grin was giving way to a broad smile as he prepared for what came next. “Then in the spring of my sophomore year at Southside High, I turned out for track. I’ve always been kind of fast, so I wanted to be a sprinter....though it turned out I wasn’t fast enough.
“Anyway, we had an away meet in Lawrence. We traveled down there on a school bus, the boys’ and girls’ teams together. After the meet we showered, then headed back to the bus for the trip home.
"I was coming out of the dressing room when one of the seniors, Eric Branwell, got on my case. I was a rookie, a lowly sophomore. He was looking for someone to carry his gear to the bus, while he hung out with some chick from the girls’ team.”
“And you told him to stuff it?” Delaney was still intent on getting to the good part.
“Not exactly,” Antonio replied. “Eric was a big guy, our best shot putter and discus thrower. He was carrying a twelve pound shot and two or three discuses in his duffle bag. It weighed a ton. I picked it up, felt how heavy it was, then set it back down and walked off to the bus.
“Well, that had Eric moving pretty damn fast for such a big guy. He wasn’t going to have some rookie show him up in front of the girls. He caught up with me, grabbed my shoulder, and kind of pushed me up against the bus. It hurt a little bit and sort of pissed me off. But most of all it surprised the hell out of me. Before I even realized what I was doing, I was pushing back.”
Delaney was leaning forward, trying to imagine Antonio standing up to a husky shot putter. It was hard to picture her mild-mannered friend in that role, until she replayed a similar stand-off with Marco, scarcely an hour before. “Did you show him what you could do?”
“Not exactly,” he answered for the second time, grinning more than ever. “At least not on purpose. You see, my instructor has always been big on kicks as a way to defend yourself. He thinks they’re safer than using your hands, because you don’t have to get as close to the other guy.
“What he teaches is a side kick, where we slam the top of our foot into the outside of a guy’s knee. Do it right and it slows him down real fast. You can do the same thing aiming for the hip and get the same results. I’ve always been good at that. It seems to come naturally for me. I usually get high scores for my kicks.”
A loud sigh signaled Delaney’s impatience with his drawn-out explanation. She wanted to get to the action, to what actually happened.
“So,” he continued. “There was Eric, holding me by my shoulder....trying to make his point. I slipped away for a second and when I turned back he was coming at me. I can still remember the look in his eyes. He was mad as hell, ready to make an example of me. And right then I did exactly what I’d been taught to do. There was no stopping to think about it. I just aimed for his hip and kicked.”
“Did that stop him?”
Antonio was laughing, not at the humor of it, but remembering again the next few moments. “Yeah. It stopped him. But not the way I expected. You see, he saw the kick coming and he turned away from it. I suppose it was an instinctive thing.
“Anyway, if he had turned to the right I’d have nailed him square on the butt. He’d have felt it, but wouldn’t have done much damage. But he didn’t turn to the right. He turned to the left. So instead of hitting his hip, my kick caught him square in the.....in the crotch. It was a good kick too. The judges would have liked it a lot. But a second later, there was Eric on his knees, moaning, about to cry.”
“You kicked him in the.....the......?”
Delaney's struggling question had him laughing. Nodding his affirmative reply, he planted his elbows on the table, ready to end his explanation. “Long story short, Eric was hurt pretty bad. The guys were laughing about it for a few days, but in fact it was kind of a serious thing.
“He was in the hospital for a couple days, while they figured out if there was a rupture, or just a bruise. It turned out to be a really bad bruise, the kind that takes a long time to heal. There were even rumors going around school that the doctors had told him he might never be able to have kids. Turned out that probably wasn’t true, but it had a lot of guys thinking.
“In the end Eric ended up missing three or four meets and never did get back to full strength. He didn’t even qualify for the state meet, where everyone expected him to do real well.
“So,” Antonio said, ready to end his uncomfortable disclosure. “There was Eric Branwell, this big time stud who’d been messed up pretty bad. And every kid in the whole school knew who’d done that.”
“But it was an accident,” Delaney offered. “You didn’t mean to do that.”
“Of course not. It surprised me as much as him. Except it hurt him a lot more.”
Antonio paused, before turning to the last piece of his story. “Then a couple months later I earned my Black Belt....first degree of course. The paper had a picture of my coach presenting it to me. After what had happened to Eric the guys seemed to pay more attention to that bit of news. ”
“So that’s what had Marco running for cover,” Delaney said. “It must feel pretty good to know that he can’t hurt you....and you can hurt him, if you want to.”
There she was again....still thinking her ‘Bruce Lee’ thoughts, not understanding the reality of it.
“Don’t kid yourself,” he replied. “Marco is a tough dude. And he’s sure as heck big enough to hurt me. If he ever got hold of me, or hit me real good, I’d be in big trouble.
“The thing is though, I do know how to protect myself. More than that, Marco and the others have some idea of what might happen if it ever came to that. In fact, I suppose that’s been my secret weapon. The guys know what could happen, because they’ve seen it happen before.”
Never before had Antonio offered so much detail to anyone. His mother had been told, of course. She worked at Southside High. Once she started hearing the colorful rumors there was no way to avoid telling her. In the end, without ever intending to hurt or intimidate anyone, his split-second, totally-instinctive reaction had spawned a reputation he had never gone looking for.
“When it was all said and done,” he continued. “I’d learned that what I’ve been taught can do real damage. Which means I have to be careful how I use it.
“Anyway, after that ‘Eric’ escapade none of the guys at school wanted to find out if I could do it again. Every time I’d win a competition or earn a higher belt word seemed to get around, even if it wasn’t in the paper. All that, after what happened to Eric, had folks kind of backing off....leaving me alone. That was okay with me, because I’ve never had a lot of close friends anyway.”
Standing, Antonio pulled Delaney off the patio bench and nudged her toward the door. Once outside he paused to elaborate. “And you can bet I’ve never had a girlfriend either. You need to know that. I don’t want you thinking I’m going to hold you to some silly ‘boyfriend’ thing, just because I wanted Marco to believe it. Okay?”
“So I just got demoted. Is that it?” she asked, trying to look hurt. “Now I’m an ex-girlfriend. That didn’t last long. I was hoping I might have some say in that. Seems like my opinion ought to count for something.”
“Come on. You’re a California girl. Remember?” He wanted her to hear the hint of humor he was not sure he felt. “You know all about guys. You’re certainly not the kind to settle for some geeky Tanner guy who walks everywhere.”
“If you knew more about California girls," Delaney countered. "You’d know they’re the kind who like to decide those things for themselves. They choose their own boyfriends. Though sometimes they have to wait until the guy finally tells them the whole story.”
It had taken longer than expected, but Delaney had finally pried the truth from him. With that accomplished, they started back up the hill toward the Padgett home.
Walking hand in hand she was taking time to consider a last piece of unfinished business....seeing that Antonio received his promised reward. She must have found a way to make that happen. By the time they reached her grandparents’ home he had claimed his kisses, times two, or maybe more.