We are clustered around a series of circular tables in the St. George Catholic High School cafeteria. At every seat debaters in second-hand businesswear twitter about with nervous energy. There’s pecking of keyboards, flapping of papers, chittering of voices. Against the back wall the St. George Future Farmers of America are selling instant coffee and kids flutter back and forth to it and come back clutching open cups to their chests with their elbows out for stability. The cafeteria is sort of the central nervous system of the tournament, not just because of the caffeine (which, not the only stimulant on the market here), but because the tabulation room’s here, too. Every time someone goes in or out a dozen heads bob up and down.
“Are we ever gonna get to round?” Abby asks.
“Y’know I’ve never been to a tournament where the tab ran on time?” Carson says.
“…actually?” Ella asks.
“You’ll understand when we're hosting and you have to do it,” I say. “Last year I had a guy turn in his round eval with no names or comments, just a smiley-face by the winning team. And you know coach’d kill me if I didn’t at least get speaker points from him, so I had to track him down and physically get on my knees and beg.”
“I’m sure you did,” Carson says, and there’s erumpent laughter between us. Abby and Ella affect disamusement but you can see right through them.
They are novices, new to this world of legal pads and gel pens, and Carson and I are their mentors. Privately I think of them as my girls. I haven’t gotten over seeing them in pencil skirts and blazers yet, watching them stumble in heels. They’re so young and malleable; not just in character or personality but literally in their faces. It’s not pudginess, exactly, but amorphousness; when Ella narrows her eyes and bites her lips in concentration I can see the embryonic woman within. There’s something jointly terrifying and thrilling in knowing that to some degree we can mold them. I’m mostly tenderhearted towards them, but sometimes there are other things, bad things, stewing about in my stomach. A rush of sour feelings.
And they try not to show it, but they’re hungry. Ella especially. You can see it the way they hang on our words, literally hang; they lean in and cock their ears like they’re afraid to lose it in the squawking. They want to leave teams sobbing, obliterate them, sweep them. They want to win.
“Hey, Felix,” Ella says to me. “What does Effie think about all this?”
“Ah, y’know,” I say, and grin in a way I intend to come off as bashful. “She doesn’t love that my weekends are all tied up, but she puts up with it. Understands it, I mean. We make it work. Debate’s really important to me.”
“It’s important to me, too,” she says, and looks right at me. Holds eye contact.
The hallway tile is gleaming, checkered Irish green and white, and keyboard clicks and notification dings and shoe clacks all reverberate off it in a threnody of anxious scholastic anticipation. Through the window doors of each class you can watch the other teams pontificate and the judges scribble evals. Outside, in the recessed spaces between the doors and the main thoroughfare of the hall, more teams wait for matches. Some partners talk to each other, some do not.
We’re waiting for our octos to start. Last set of the day. Not elims, that’s tomorrow, but your opponents are determined by your performance so far. It’s just past eleven. We had square cafeteria pizza for dinner and energy drinks for dessert. There are no windows in the cinder block hallways here, on account of tornados, but the fluorescents are more glaring and artificial and contrived than when the sun was up. Carson and I are 4 for 0. He’s doing last minute prep, tuning our cases around the args we received in our last round. I’ve been overcome by spastic tension and, consequently, am drumming my hands in my lap. We got a bye first match and flipped the coin for the affirmative side three straight rounds and have yet to argue our negative case.
Effie texts me asking when I think we’ll be done tonight; I tell her best guess three and not to stay up too late. She says Oh and sends me a picture of her tits.
I’m not really sure when we started dating, or if it was even a conscious decision. I knew her sister, Alex, first; I was over at their place all the time to drink and play poker. Effie was a year younger than us; she butted in and begged beers off us and was generally a pain in the ass. But eventually we started giving her the runt end of a six pack and it wasn’t a huge leap from there to sitting in on a game or two, and then one night we all got massively wasted and I woke up entangled with her. She cried when she came to and said I would have never been with her sober. I headed the morning-after caravan to Sonic and blasted Beach House to stay conscious. She tagged along in my Golf and bullied me into buying her an order of onion rings and when the carhop brought them out he had to bang on my window to break us up.
I am standing at the podium, one ink-smudged hand clutching my sheath of scribbled notes, the other poised at a right angle to my shoulder, index finger slightly curlicued. My mouth is parted just enough to draw air, which I suck over my teeth to ground myself, and to remember: the words come from there.
We are in 218A. Outside tournament time it appears to be a social studies classroom— poster-hung, placard-mounted, projector screen-protracted—but there’s also a crucifix fastened to the wall. I had good fun contrasting the normal discussions politiques here—all cut up and censored—and the international relations and feminism kritik we’re running. I had poked Carson during prep, waved my hand at everything, and whispered: yo, you think Jesus is chill with us respecting women? and he had done that wry little corner mouth upturn that meant I was funny but not so funny as to break his concentration. I can stiffen up and project stodginess come elims, but this early in the weekend I like to keep it loose, have fun.
Four faces focus upon me as I feel out the pause. They belong to this round’s judges and our two opponents. The first judge is an obvious ex-debater type, an Adderall-addled college kid who keeps hitting his pen out of his hoodie sleeve; the other is the requisite lay judge, who had introduced herself as Mrs. Samantha and asked us to just please not talk too fast, which, well. Then it’s Riley Harsch and Grace Levin (H/L 36), North Norman, which fields great teams in policy and PF particularly, and whom Carson and I have lost to more times than I would like to admit. Riley and Grace’s performance so far this round has oscillated between competent and crushing; Riley seems to be much cleverer, and as second speaker, she’s my problem during cross.
Carson is clacking away at his computer, searching for the fem IR kritik file in question. My mistake in misplacing it; I loaded our tourney flash drive around four this morning during some rather languid phone sex.
“Alllll right, so. Okay. Just to give an off-time signpost, we’re gonna introduce a kritik, read some blocks, go down the aff flow, and then, time permitting, rebuttal. Okay. Cool. Everyone ready? Judges?”
“What are, uh, critics?” Mrs. Samantha asks.
The college kid rubs his temples; at this motion his forehead fat folds over, which, not the most flattering look. “Just roll with it,” he says, and brings his sleeve to his mouth.
“So, ready?” Nods and mutters of assent all around. Grace looks unenthusiastic, during first cross she’d confused the IMF and the UN and Carson had rightfully trounced her on it.
My tie is straight and tight and flat and it lays evenly under my navy sweater. My arm is poised at a right angle, finger curlicued. I suck in the air. The words come from the mouth.
“BA1 The aff’s understanding of international relations is profoundly gendered as it situates the uh state as the center of power relations and objectifies everything outside the uh, uh, blinders of predictive security discourse and judge this calls into question their entire political strategy: Ruiz 05 states ‘most of the key players in IR and academic professionals are males who come from patriarchal political backgrounds IR remain[s] largely constrained by [a] lack of consideration of women’s roles in international politics IR is gendered to marginalize women’s voices and current IR gender understandings result in policymaking that is actively detrimental to women.’ The impact of this worldview is extinction which is the root cause of all other impacts and judge note that extinction outweighs everything else in impact calculus this impact is summarized by Nhanenge 07: ‘The androcentric premises protect the ideological basis of exploitative relationships militarism colonialism racism sexism capitalism and other pathological ‘isms’ of modernity get legitimacy from the assumptions that hierarchy are inevitable or just. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which nature and community simply cannot survive patriarchal values dominate oppress exploit and kill patriarchal power has brought us acid rain global warming military states poverty and countless cases of suffering the ultimate results of unchecked patriarchy is unchecked ecological catastrophe and nuclear holocaust.’”
Two hundred magniloquent words and less than forty seconds into speech time, which, not too bad. The first lines are rough, but then I slip past the stutters and stumbles. The words are coming from my mouth; I’m not thinking them or even reading them, it’s glossolalia; my speech entirely autotelic. It’s like a runner’s high—your feet pounding out the same rhythmic cadence, lungs burning and arms pumping, but in your head you’re floating above, watching yourself. I am both giving performance and sitting in the audience. I reduce words to sounds and elevate aphorism to datum. I draw from outside myself—wells of burdened politspeak, half-baked rhetoric absorbed from newspaper editorials and online screeds. It’s all been said before and I’m only conducting it.
I exit the K and transition to contention-specific attacks on the affirmative; I lambast them for supporting Chinese imperialism and reinforcing anti-Black colonialism and giving gifts with strings attached—“the affirmative is only invested insofar as they can reap a reward all the time and money the EU would pour into this endeavor would be in cynical hope of currying influence later on or even resource extraction judge there are no charitable motives here no matter what they tell themselves this is exploitation pure and simple.”
When I conclude my speech the Addy-judge nods and makes agreeable gestures and scratches unintelligible marks on his eval sheet. Mrs. Samantha seems to have lost the thread somewhere; she’s staring at the space just over my head and not blinking, which, I’m not surprised. H/L 36 are fuming, as we expected. The four of us stand for grand cross, and all throughout their cheeks burn as Carson and I rail them over and over.
After our win Carson runs to the bathroom for a purgative post-anxiety piss, as is his custom. I wait outside, perched against the wall. I scroll through my notifications, six of which are from Effie, and which I opt to read later. The hall, earlier bursting with pre-round onanisms, is now near silent. There’s the distant ruckus of over-caffeinated freshmen peacocking from the cafeteria, but distance diffuses it to white noise. In my mind I’m replaying choice moments from the round.
“That was a prick move.” It’s Riley, just out of 218A, cheeks still burning, debate paraphernalia wedged in her armpit. She carries no bag.
“What was?” I ask.
“You fucking know.”
“I really don’t,” I say, “but I’m sorry anyways. Where’s your partner?”
“Talking to the judges, trying to get your shit overturned.”
“Because of your fem K, dumbass. It was nonsense. You don’t think it’s kinda messed up and cynical to argue the aff is sexist when you’re debating two women?”
“Not to sound like a braindead conservative or anything, but I didn’t want to assume your gender. Besides, aren’t debater demographics sacrosanct in-round? Beyond purview?”
“It’s an abusive argument! We’re forced to argue our personal femininity to refute when we should be defending our actual case. It’s not ev-based, it’s not framework based—it’s just a prick move!”
“If you don’t like the fem K then attack it, don’t just let it flow through and then act surprised when it bites you in the ass. If we had lost the coin toss and ended up aff you could have run the same strat against us, and it would have worked brilliantly. It’s a good fucking tack to take. And even without the K you still dropped our entire third contention on EU/US relations vis a vis the BRI so why don’t you try working on your emotional instability instead of trying to re-litigate a settled round?”
“Listen, motherfucker. We’re not in round, you don’t have to spread. Just talk to me. Like a man.”
“Okay, fine. It’s not my fault we argued and won and you argued and lost, okay? It happens.”
“Be like that, then. I’m gonna go talk some sense to the judgeship,” she says, and heel-turns. “Go impose your phallus somewhere else.”
“Oh, fuck off,” I say, but she doesn’t hear me.
Outside the air is like wet wool, warm and dense and sticky. In the distance thunderclouds are roiling, occasionally illuminated by brilliant snatches of electric light that explode between them. No rain has fallen, but it will: you can see the potential in the air, which is so brimming with atomized water that there’s a fine diaphanous sheen over everything. The sodium parking lot lights sometimes catch eddies and swirls of particulate; it’s like the fizzing spray over a fresh-poured carbonated drink. Carson and I are sitting in the open trunk of his ’94 Cherokee among steering fluid jugs and miscellaneous power tools. Portions of the bed are rusted straight through—you could drop a coin through to the ground—and to me the roughly symmetrical splotches of floorlessness call to mind Rorschach inkblot tests. I ask Carson what he sees in them and he says pavement.
The second half of octos is ongoing; Ella and Abby should be mid-round against S/J 12. The cafeteria was stifling, metaphorically and literally, permeated with the turbulent emotions of wins, losses, and ties, and the buttressing of bodies against each other in that space. So we wait outside, shoot the shit. I don’t tell him about Riley, or that she filed a complaint with tab.
We have lapsed into a neutral silence and lay reclined in the trunk clutter watching the storm clouds flatten and distend and bed the sky like a huge dark blanket. Lightning whiskers between. The wind is picking up; I watch it carry the first tentative fallen leaves around in a semi-conical whirlwind; the sound is of quiet moaning and twigs skittering against the concrete.
I check my phone. There’s another series of messages from Effie, sent six to seven minutes apart. I roll my eyes, but this time I read them.
hey are you awake
im really sorry. i know youre probably having fun with your friends right now
i dont want to bother you
it happened again
im so so sorry
call me if you can
The rain comes pelting down in big fat droplets. It’s slow enough at first that you can discern the rhythm of individual beads hitting pavement, but it grows in density and frequency until it’s all one dull roar, and the wind rises and whips the rain against the Jeep, big splattering droplets that tunk on the metal. The girls run squealing from the school and crowd into the trunk and Carson scoots back to accommodate them but I don’t move except to subtly draw myself closer to them. Ella is sitting in her skirt with her legs tucked under her and close enough that I can feel the warmth of her thighs near mine. I ask them how their rounds went and their faces tighten.
“Two to two,” Abby says. “Could have been better, could have been worse.”
“You win some and you lose some,” Carson says. “But it makes you better.”
“Wait wait wait. You lost? On aff or neg? To what team? What judges? How the fuck did you lose?” I say, my voice becoming more strained. Abby startles at my swearing; I don’t intend to sound so forceful and I make a face that’s supposed to say I’m just surprised because you guys are so good.
“We lost each once. Some older Putnam and Deer Creek teams,” Ella says. “They were okay, I guess. Well actually I guess they were good, because they beat us pretty easy.” She traces the outline of a rust hole with her finger as she speaks and Carson gently lifts her hand away and shakes his head.
“I don’t believe it. I seriously don’t believe it. You guys worked so hard at this—I mean, Ella, your spread alone is ten times better than a month ago. You can spread. Do you know how few novices can do that?”
“Well,” she says. “Whole lot of good it did.”
“I don’t believe this,” I say again. “What did the judges say? Did they do RFDs?”
“Yeah. Our first one was some ancient lady who assistant coaches at Hawthorn private. She just shook her finger at us and said that we said a whole lot of nothing. It was overwhelming, she said. Like we were trying to get by on talking fast instead of making real arguments.” Ella looks up at me. “Which we were.”
“What about the other round?” Carson asks.
“Same thing, more or less. Except this time the guy said, ‘leave the theory shit out of PF.’ We didn’t even know what he was talking about, though. What’s theory?”
I wave my hand. “It’s just a way of doing debate. It’s so fucked for him to just dismiss it like that.”
“Well, Felix and I did wonder if this would happen,” Carson says. “The K’s and disclosure args are usually national circuit type-stuff.”
“A good strategy is a good strategy. I’m just shocked. I’m sorry guys, you didn’t deserve to lose today. It wasn’t fair. But don’t worry—we’ll practice hard this week, you can come over, put in some extra hours, and you’ll crush them next weekend.”
“Wait, I don’t understand,” Abby says. “You didn’t set us up to fail, did you?”
“Of course not—” “Because that was humiliating. Those older kids destroyed us, and then the judges did too. Mallory even heard about it and she came and gave us shit.” Ella’s hands ball up. “And what we just want to know is if you set us up to fail.”
The wind has shifted vectors and now directs the rain into the car. Abby, sitting near the edge, gets the worst of it; the back of her blazer has grown soggy. Carson lifts his hand to shield his eyes. But no one moves to close the trunk or run inside or even turn up their collars. Ella is breathing heavily and trying to hide it; her jaw is set in that adult way and I try not to dwell on it.
“Of course not. We want you guys to win.”
“Only because it makes us look good,” Carson says, but no one laughs.
Carson and I are in the cafeteria, again, grabbing evidence tubs and reference materials and forgotten laptop chargers. Most of the other teams have cleared out for the night already; there’s the olfactory ghost of public adolescent competition: sweat, fried food, Degree Ultraclear+. Greebles of crumpled notebook paper under plastic tables. A few other kids mill around, but as far as Eastman H.S., it's the two of us and Coach Mallory.
“Oh, the joys of team leadership,” Carson says.
“Tell me about it.”
Coach Mallory is looking through a dense rat’s nest of files—the complete printout of the outcome of every single match in every single event over the course of the evening. The documents vary wildly in color- most are white, but some are green, pink, yellow, all designating some sort of complicated (and boring) special meaning. She flips through it at increasing speed, individual batches of paper spread between fingers, sometimes pausing and backtracking a few flips to double check something. The overall effect is not dissimilar to the cyclical whirling of the leaves outside.
“All good, Mallory?” I ask.
She doesn’t even raise a stern eyebrow.
“Better. But no. Care to explain?” The classic line of an authority figure who’s got you dead to rights.
Carson sets down a Hefty 25 Gal bin and brushes his hands on his thighs. “We didn’t lose anything today, did we?” He walks over to Mallory to get a look at whatever information she’s got eyeballs on.
“No, buddy, we did not. A classic five-oh from God’s favorite PF team. Not shabby, if I do say so myself. And I do.”
Coach Mallory lifts a single sheet of red paper from her stack and holds it aloft. It is not a gesture prompting a careful, sympathetic reading of the text. She is literally pulling a red card.
“Here we’ve got an official complaint from. Let’s see. Norman North. Alleging some very unsportsmanlike conduct from Felix Gregon and Carson White.” Her eyebrows don’t raise now, either, but instead drop into the hunched look of a pre-play quarterback.
“If I had to guess, I think I know what this is all about.” I hold up open palms. “A total misunderstanding, to tell you the truth. Some disagreement of opinion.”
Carson fiddles with his wristwatch. “I’m a little surprised, actually. I didn’t know that. Actually, Ms. Mallory, do you mind if I get a look at that?”
“Why don’t you have God’s favorite debater over there explain it for you.” She points to me. “And please don’t spread, if you mind. I’d appreciate some depth.”
We are clustered together on the bus, but in separate rows. I lean my burning head against the window; it doesn’t seal all the way and occasional raindrops pitter down onto my face. In the total storm darkness of the night, passing cars leer out of the gloom like drunk boys at parties. Effie’s been texting me nonstop, but I haven’t read anything. Every pothole jostles my head against the glass. I feel a dull headache coming on but I stay where I am. Leaning against the window affords me a view of the space between the rounded seat edge and the bus wall. Two rows ahead Ella sits by herself. She’s slumped against the window, too, and the rhythmic rising and sinking of her back makes me think she’s asleep. I breathe in sync with her, watch her gossamer hair shift around her shoulders, think of her challenging me in the jeep. The first bright pangs of lust explode in me like fireworks.
are you awake
come back here
im sorry about how today went
sometimes this shit just happens
but i want to help you kick ass
i know it sucks right now, but itll be better
anyways you should come sit back here
She slides all the way in beside me.
“I’m proud of you, you know?” I say. “Jesus Christ, you can spread.”
“Really?” She looks at me with a shine in her eye that’s halfway hopeful.
“Jesus,” I say again. “You can spread.”
Zachary Jenkins is a student studying Computer Science and English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he is also the associate editor of Nova Literary-Arts Magazine. He is reachable on Instagram @zach.n.jenkins.