Two Wheels and the Truth

The Night My T-Shirt Let Me Down

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(First read at Howlin’ After Dark at Howlin’ Books in Nashville, September 5, 2014)

On the day in seventh grade that I learned I’d been accepted into the national junior honor society. I walked home at lunch, went up to my bedroom and put on Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” With my hands in the air, I danced around triumphantly. I had paid no dues, time after time. I had done no sentence, for committing no crime. Bad mistakes, I had made a few, but not enough to prevent me from getting an A average and into the honor society. I could go on, on and on.

The music of Queen has been the soundtrack for most everything in my life since. Victories, defeats, loves won and lost, it’s been there to comfort and console. Queen to me are what the Red Sox are to Jimmy Fallon’s character in the film “Fever Pitch,” but whereas the Red Sox may have never loved him back, Queen has always been there for me.

Except for that one Jersey City night in the summer before my freshman year of high school.

Fans of Queen in the 1980’s know very well the difficulty in declaring your allegiance to the band. There were no Queen T-shirts, hats or pins. It was really a much better time to be an Iron Maiden or Van Halen fan. So that summer I had my own shirt made at one of the airbrush stands on the boardwalk on the Jersey Shore. I somewhat designed it myself, with the name of the band, the words, “A Night at the Opera” and a crown. It was great, even though the airbrush artist drew a king’s crown — much like the paper Burger King ones we all remember — instead of the more bulbous queen’s crown. But what did he know? He was probably a Judas Priest fan.

I was very proud of this T-shirt and wore it all the time in my neighborhood, much to the good-natured abuse of my friends. I started dating Jennifer late in the summer. She was cute, a couple of years younger than me, and a gymnast. Her ex-boyfriend, Michael, was not happy about this. As far as I knew, they were broken up, which meant it was perfectly acceptable for us to share a bag a chips, or hold hands or spit into a bottle of Coca-Cola and ask the other one to drink it to prove their affection.

Michael wanted to kick my ass. And he had a black belt in karate.

After a week of mumblings and veiled threats in the neighborhood, he confronted me. I tried my best to talk my way out of it, but by this point, with tensions high, the neighborhood kids wanted blood. My only chance at success was to throw the first punch, and with an airbrushed crown and the words “Queen” emblazoned on my chest, I felt emboldened.

I connected. The punch threw Michael backward into a car. I pounced, throwing and connecting punches recklessly to the head and body, until some of the other kids pulled me off and declared it over.

I grabbed Jennifer by the hand and walked away. I made it all away around the block — circling the neighborhood in some kind of victory lap — when a friend caught up with me. Michael wanted a rematch. Minutes later. A rematch? There were no rematches in street fights. I refused, but Michael had now assembled a gang and was determined to get his way. He wanted to meet at the local baseball field. All I could think about was the Happy Days episode where Fonzie has to fight the gang leader at the baseball park. It was ridiculous then, and even more so now. But I had no choice.

It was dark now, and with the neighborhood kids all along the outside fence, Michael and I stood in right field. I had heard that a black belt could only use their skills in self defense, but out here, who would know? I desperately tried to talk my way out of it, knowing that this time, I truly had no chance. Oddly, Michael agreed with me.

“I just need a shot to get back at you,” he pleaded. “I don’t care about Jennifer.”

He wasn’t angry. He needed to save face, and felt I owed him an opportunity to redeem himself in front of the neighborhood. The rematch was a formality.

Before I knew it was happening, he spun around and roundhouse kicked me in the face. I was down, blood gushing out of my certainly-broken nose. And so was Michael, but he wasn’t on top of me finishing me off, he was apologizing to me.

“I’m so sorry,” he was whispering. “I had to do it. I’m so sorry” He was using his hands to try and stop the bleeding. He was frantic.

I started laughing, almost uncontrollably. Looking back now, it’s possible that I had momentarily become delirious. Or perhaps it was relief that the whole thing was over. But then I looked down and the laughing stopped.

“My shirt,” I said. “My shirt. My Queen shirt has blood all over it.”

“We can get a new one,” Michael said.” “No, you don’t understand. It’s one of a kind.” He got up, knowing the charade had to continue, and walked away triumphantly. Jennifer ran to me. “Look at your boyfriend now,” he said to her.

None of it was worth it. I never got the blood stains completely out of the shirt, and while my nose wasn’t broken, it was never completely straight again either. There was something romantic about the whole thing, I guess, fighting for a girl. I could say “I did it for love,” like Freddie Mercury sang in “It’s a Hard Life.”

It’s possible that Queen did let me down that night. But thinking back, I don’t remember how long I dated Jennifer. Or what happened to Michael. What I do know is that you can buy Queen shirts at Target now. And almost thirty years later on my wedding day, it was a Queen song that played when my wife and I were introduced as husband and wife. They’re still my soundtrack.

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