Joyland

a hub for short fiction

I Was a Teenage Minotaur

At the mall a lady offers me a free sample of zit cream and I’m about to be all sarcastic, like “Look, lady— I’ve got a giant bull’s head. No one’s going to notice a few zits.”

But there’s something about the way she’s smiling at me, not a plastic fantastic artificial airbrushed smile like all the ladies on the magazines, that draws me up short and makes me smile back at her (have you ever seen a bull smile? It took me years of practice to get my lips to curl just right) and yeah, I know she’s been trained in the fine art of zit cream sales but either she’s the best actress in the world or she’s the nicest person in the world and either way my heart just melts. Zits or no zits, suddenly I know this year is going to be different.

*

“You’re sure you want to do this?” my mom asks, piling my plate with spaghetti and drenching it with sauce, just the way I like it.

“I’m sure,” I say, thrusting out my jaw all determined-like. I would never say so because I don’t want to break Ma’s heart but the sauce is a little bland.

“Last time we didn’t have much luck.”

I rummage through the cupboards, searching for spice. “Yeah, but that was elementary school. This is different. This is high school.”

As the years grind by the memories recede. It’s like it all happened to some other person, not me. Your body’s cells change completely every seven years (or so I’ve read) so really it’s true. I wasn’t me, I was someone else, I was Li’l Minotaur peering through the slats in our fence as the other kids tumbled from the school bus and ran laughing through the streets. Li’l Homeschooled Minotaur begged and pleaded to go to school with all the other kids until finally his parents relented and he rushed for the front doors so excited, untied shoelace thwapping on the school house steps, oversized Superman back pack stuffed piñata-full with binders and pencils and paper and pens.
Inside the school, kids screeched to a halt. One washed-out little blonde girl’s lower lip trembled before she burst into big terrified sobs. A little brown-haired tousle-headed boy in a red and white striped shirt turned tail and booted it down the hallway while an older kid, a hall monitor, boomed after him with the voice of grade six authority: ‘No running!’ Then the hall monitor turned and spotted Li’l Minotaur and he, too, shrieked and took off running.

Special assembly, man, that shit was embarrassing. Some well-meaning teacher with a droopy mustache and a winter landscape on his fuzzy sweater got up in front of the entire school to talk about how ‘everyone is different and differences are what makes us beautiful’ and even at the time I knew that was all jibber-jabber and jive. I felt more ugly than ever, trying to shrink down small so my horns would be swallowed up by the wooden auditorium seats.

After assembly I was hauled off to the guidance councilor who said, “Now, Mitch, this is just a precaution, I’m sure your parents discussed this with you at home” and then he stuck corks on my horns— corks!— and my face burned hot beneath my fur. Then I slunk back down the hallway tugging on the straps of my too-big Superman backpack with corks on my horns and yeah, I must’ve looked ridiculous because some loudmouthed asshole stared at me as I shuffled past and then burst out braying hardy donkey guffaws.

But that was then.

Dad looks over the top of his newspaper. “And you’re sure this is what you want?”    

“Man, why do you guys keep asking me that?” I know he means well but all this touchy-feely-new-age-what-about-his-feelings- crap is really grinding me down. I’ve been homeschooled for years and it’s time for a change. It’s been almost a decade of Dad’s voice droning on and on about Napoleon this and right angle that and tomorrow we’re going to go on a field trip to the Natural History Museum--Won’t that be fun? Yeah, that’ll be fun all right, except the last time we were there two security guards followed us into the stuffed bird room, past the dead ducks and the giant albatross dangling from the ceiling and now and then they would whisper to each other and I couldn’t shake the feeling they were wondering how I had escaped my cage.

Those guards didn’t know me and these high school kids don’t know me. I could be anyone. I’ll always be a Minotaur but now I have the chance to be the best damn Minotaur I can be. A Hippy Minotaur. A Gourmet Pizza Chef Minotaur. A Badass Secret Agent Kung-Fu Minotaur. A Tap-Dancing Disco Priest Minotaur. Whatever.

It’s the first day of high school and I’m strutting down the hallways rockin’ some brand-new threads: white jacket with the sleeves rolled up,  turquoise t-shirt, acid-washed blue jeans, high-top sneakers with graffiti-style airbrushing that I did myself in the backyard.

“Is that dude a Minotaur?”

“For real! And did you see those shoes?”

And so it begins. The taunts and jeers and jibes, ripped ketchup packets on my chair, ink sprayed from snapped pens, punched in the stomach almost as an afterthought as a bully walks by. If I don’t fight back, it’s open season on Minotaurs. If I fight and some kid gets gored, I’ll be hunted with torches and pitchforks and driven into the sea.

I shuffle toward the cafeteria, deflated like a dollar store balloon. I don’t know why I thought this time would be different.
In the cafeteria a guy from my Social Studies class– Bill? No, Dave– clanks down his tray and sits down beside me.

Dave leans back, all leather jacket cool. “Why are you eating alone?”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have a giant bull’s head.”

Dave slurps milk. “So?”

“What do you mean, ‘so?’”

Dave shrugs. “Everyone’s got something.”

The cafeteria is a cauldron of hormones and hairspray. All eyes are on me. “It’s my jacket, isn’t it?”

Dave smiles. “Dude, you could be wearing a garbage bag splattered with rat blood and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.”

He’s wrong. We humans— and yes, I am human, thanks for asking– are visual animals. The small details add up to the big picture. Good grooming is important. Before every special occasion I brush my fur and wax my horns.

Dave says something else but I don’t hear him. Walking towards us, hair flowing, is a beautiful girl in ripped denim. Her jacket is a patchwork riot scrawled all over with pen and paint.

“This is my girlfriend, Jenna. This is­–“

“Mitch. I’m, uh, I’m a Minotaur.”

She has the biggest brown eyes I’ve ever seen. She smiles and shakes my hand. Her hand is warm, so warm.

She smells like cinnamon.

Have I ever dated? Yeah, right. Oh, I’m sure there’s some freaks out there into the whole barnyard thing but let’s get serious.

There was that one girl, Andrea, back at the homeschool Halloween party. She was drinking and running her hand along the muscles in my arm. She pulled me into the pantry and looked up at me with half-lidded eyes. “Take off that mask and kiss me.”

 I hate Halloween.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve never thought about plastic surgery. I know what you’re thinking--Oh, but Mitch! How could you turn your back on your proud Minotaur heritage? To which I reply, What heritage? Mom and Dad aren’t Minotaurs. I’m the only Minotaur I know. What do you think, some focus group is going to call me up to get a handle on the valuable teenage Minotaur demographic?--Say, Mitch, what did you think of that movie Titanic? It sucked.

Once I tried hitch-hiking to this plastic surgeon I had seen advertised on the back of a bus. I thought Mom would be happy. My mom never says so but I can tell she’s— what? Not ashamed of me, exactly— maybe embarrassed in front of the bridge-club-braggers. My little Susie is a hang-gliding marathon-running PhD Rocket Scientist from Yale. My boy Mitch is, uh… a Minotaur.

She caught me four blocks from our house. Instead of being happy she looked so sad.

“Get in the car, Mitch. Now.”

I got in the car (cracked vinyl seats, stuffy air smelling slightly like spearmint) and we drove home in silence.

*

It’s a full moon tonight. Dave and Jenna smoke pot in the playground, lying atop a wooden pirate ship-style climbing structure, looking up at the stars.

“What if you’re not really a Minotaur?”

“Oh, I’m a Minotaur, all right.”

“What if this is like some Matrix-style False Reality?”    

“You mean, what if I’ve got a body with a human head tucked away in a Sci-Fi tube somewhere and this Minotaur body is just my avatar?”

“Man, you’re really hung up on this whole Minotaur thing.” Dave sits up and takes a drag on the joint. “So you’ve got a bull’s head. Big whoop.”

“There’s more to it than that. Minotaurs are legendary.”

“THE Minotaur was legendary. A legendary loser. Didn’t he get his head chopped off?”

“Well, yeah, but—“

“You’ve never even been to Crete. Am I right? You’re no maze monster.”

“If you want to get technical, it was a labyrinth, not a maze.”

“You mean that David Bowie movie with all the puppets?”

I look over Dave’s shoulder. In the parking lot, two black pick-up trucks circle like wolves.

Truck doors slam. At my side Dave remains cool, nonchalantly propped against the wooden wall of the pirate ship.

Four bros with beers stride into the playground. “Hey, Jackass! What’s with the Halloween mask?”

And here we go. I give that one a 2.5 out of 10. Not very clever or original and believe me, I’ve heard ‘em all.

*
Shit People Say to Minotaurs:
Do you use, like, human toilets?
*Snaps Red Towel* Toro, Toro!
Do you eat people food?
Do you eat people?
So, you must be pretty good at mazes, huh?
Do you fuck cows?

*
Dave leaps down from the ship. His face is twisted and vicious. “If you want him, you have to go through me.”

Here’s the part in the playbook that calls for more puffed-up posturing and then fisticuffs but instead the bros stomp back to their trucks and rev away.

Dave, normal again, saunters back to the pirate ship and lights another joint.

In the morning Mom and Dad knock on my door and peek into my room. “Mitch? May we come in?”

“It’s a free country.”    

“Mitch, we’re concerned about these new friends of yours.”

“I thought you wanted me to make friends. Remember the homeschool girls?”

In order to stave off social isolation, all of us homeschooled kids got corralled together once a month. We’d emerge blinking into the light to stand awkwardly in the corner of parks and unfamiliar homes. Because our moms were friends I was always forced to mingle with these two sisters. They liked to play dress-up and dangle Christmas ornaments from my horns. It wasn’t all bad, though. In the summertime they had a homemade Slip n Slide made from a black plastic tarp and a garden hose (initial hose-blast hot, standing water summer-baked inside) and that shit was tons of fun.

Dad stares at me over the tops of his bifocals. “You’ve changed, son.”

“Nope.” I tap my horns. “Still a Minotaur.”

That night I walk back to the park. It’s deserted except for Jenna, looking lonely on the swings.

“What’s up?”

“Same old, same old.” Jenna looks away. “Waiting for Dave.”

“Have you and Dave been dating long?”

“Seems like forever.” Jenna’s hair blows backwards. She pushes a few stray brown strands away from her face. “Do you ever think about the future?”

I tell her that I think about it a lot. Where will I be in ten, twenty, thirty years? A crazy recluse on the hill, bull-fur growing grey by a crackling fire? Or will I be quivering on a cliff-edge surrounded by torch-waving villagers? Deep down I know it’s not going to end well.

Jenna dangles from the swing and drags the toe of her Doc Martens through the dirt. “You don’t really think that.”

I shrug. “Why not? It’s not all fun and games being a Minotaur.”

Jenna scowls, suddenly fierce. “You think you’re the only one with problems?”

She leaps from the swing and storms away.

 I stand there like an idiot and then I run after her.

In the parking lot a black Camaro rolls past me and I get ready for the inevitable splattering of soda but then the driver’s side window rolls down and there’s Dave grinning behind the wheel.
“What’s shaking?”

I point to Jenna’s retreating back. “Jenna–“

“I’ll handle it.”

Dave guns the engine and rolls out. I watch him go and think, maybe I should buy a leather jacket.

That night I have that dream again. The one with the villagers and the pitchforks. My head on a wall. Caged behind bars. Shot ‘by mistake’ in the forest. I’m so tired of being afraid.

The next day at school Coach calls me down to his office.

“You must be the Minotaur.”

“What gave me away?”

Coach ignores my sass and I grin because I can guess what’s coming.

"Mitch, have you ever seen the movie Teen Wolf? And to a lesser extent, Teen Wolf Too?”

Oh hell yes. I can see me now, strutting down the hallway in my varsity jacket, cheerleaders with short flapping skirts running toward me, Jenna smiling as I push them aside and take her in my arms.

Coach keeps talking. “I know things are different. You’re a Minotaur, not a Werewolf. We’re talkin’ football, not basketball. Middleton has a strong football tradition. We were district champs back in 1972. Remember?”

“I was negative ten.”

“Anyway, Mitch, we want to rename the team. The Middleton Minotaurs! How does that grab you?”

I grin. That grabs me just fine. “One problem, Coach. It might be tough getting a helmet my size.”

“What?”

“You know, my horns. We’ll have to keep ‘em under wraps.”

Coach shakes his head. “No, no. You won’t be playing.” Coach points over to the corner where two halves of a ratty bull costume lean against the cinderblock wall. “You like it? I got it second hand from the Brownstown Bulls. The assistant coaches and I think, uh, it’ll make the fans feel more comfortable.” Coach pats my shoulder. “Don’t worry. You can be the head.”

“I don’t want to be the head.”

Coach frowns. “You want to be the butt? Frankly, Mitch, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

“I don’t want to be the butt, either.”

When I was a kid I dreamed about going to Chicago. Somehow I’d get there— hitchhiking, winning a free flight, climbing aboard a billionaire’s private railcar— and then I’d become the mascot for the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan and I would ride around in the Chicago Bulls bus solving mysteries.

Really, what other jobs are out there for a teenage Minotaur? Or for that matter, a middle-aged Minotaur? Minotaur middle management. An ol’ paunchy Minotaur waddlin’ after the morning paper before heaving himself into the front seat of his second-hand Toyota with a custom-built ‘sun roof’ so he has someplace to cram his fat bald head.

What else? Door to door salesman. No, that’s out. You look through your peephole and see a giant man with a bull’s head— are you going to open your door? No.

Restaurant spokesperson. I’ve thought about it a lot. Basically I’d go into a partnership with a dude who owned a barbecue joint. Then I’d stand out front to meet the people and be all like, Hey man, this BBQ'd meat is pretty good, and they’d be like, Well all right, let’s eat! But really that’s just me being a different kind of mascot and anyway Pop says the restaurant business is tough. Four out of every five fail in the first year, or something like that. I think it’s because being in the restaurant business is seen as glamorous. Four out of every five MRI clinics don’t fail because people don’t up and open an MRI clinic on a romantic whim. Oh, Richard! Let’s open our own MRI Clinic like the one we saw in Tuscany!

What else? Scary rodeo clown. Carnival freak. Undercover work’s out. I’m not exactly incognito. The dealers would catch wise pretty damn quick--Yo, don’t sell to the Minotaur.

Coach smiles. “So what do you say?”

“I’ll think about it.”

That Friday, Jenna and Dave and I go camping. On our way out of town, we pass grey-faced men outside the soup kitchen, weeds struggling up through sidewalk cracks. What would it be like to be mayor of this town? Come for the drag racing, stay for the meth. Prostitutes? Shuttered factories? Empty warehouses with busted-out windows? Hey, we’ve got ‘em!

We roll into the campsite. Bonfire and beer, orange and red sparks rising into the night. Dave rummages through the cooler, pulls out three beers and then drinks them.

“What’s eating you, Mitch?”

“Coach wants me to be a mascot.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He says it could really help lift the town’s spirits.”

“What did you say?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

Jenna snorts. “It’s going to take a lot more than some stupid football game to save this town.”
    
I follow Jenna down to the water.

“Are you okay?”

“Dave and I broke up.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It happens.”

“I’m still sorry.”

Jenna goes off to gather more firewood. Dave and I watch her go.

“She likes you, man.”

“Yeah, right. ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”

“She doesn’t care about that.” Dave smiles wryly. “She dated me, didn’t she?”

Jenna returns and sits down beside me. Dave passes out, legs tucked beneath his oversized sweatshirt like he’s ten years old.

*
We watch the moonlight bounce off the surface of the lake.

Jenna stands up. “Let’s go swimming.”

“I didn’t bring my suit.”    

Jenna smiles. “Neither did I.”

Sand crunches beneath our feet. Skin and sand and waves and wind. Why live in fear? Sure, I could end up a mounted head on a plaque in an oak paneled living room that smells like stale cigars. Or I could be a half-assed mascot for some crappy small town football team. Or I could own my own factory, glistening bottles of Minotaur Brand Hot Sauce rolling down the production line, crowds of happy workers heading off to cash their paychecks. Hell, anything could happen.

She smiles as she swims, cutting through moonlight.