High school is part wonderful, part wrenching for most everyone.
Along the way, for the lucky ones, personal growth occurs.
I leave Mr. Tolliver’s classroom and make my way to the cafeteria. I walk over to the table I sat at for four years. ‘Our table,’ we called it. Only people in our small lunch group sat there. Funny, thinking of that now. We never turned anyone away. There seemed to be an aura of respect flowing our way. That’s odd for high school, although it does happen. Some of the really mature, smart kids, for example, never seem to get hassled. Some kids are above the fray. Not many, but some. I guess for some reason I still don’t understand, we were like that, too.
Maybe it had to do with me.
It was three weeks after my first-day confrontation with Mr. Tolliver, who soon thereafter became Coach Tolliver, or more usually, Coach T. I was the first one of our group in for lunch that day and sat down after going through the line. Beth soon joined me. Beth was a girl who lived two houses down from mine and across the street. We were the same age except for the one week she had on me, and Beth never let me forget I was just a kid and she was practically grown up. She began doing that when we were five! Being the boss of me. She was still doing it.
Next came Jake. Jake Ashbury was my best friend and had been for about forever. Seeing him that day, however, brought a lump to my throat. It shouldn’t have. I already knew about Jake. It wasn’t even disappointing to see him come in that day with a girl. I knew it would happen. Still, I did feel some angst. I couldn’t forget the onset of those emotions. They started way back when: a bus trip in 7th grade.
I always rode the school bus with Jake. I’d be thinking about it in the morning even while eating breakfast. Dad would already be gone by the time I came into the kitchen after spending time in front of my mirror in the bathroom. Funny how that worked. In elementary school, I’d never cared how I looked. Now I cared, even cared that I had a clean shirt and that my jeans weren’t dirty. Now that I was 12, what hadn’t mattered then now did.
Anyway, I’d fix a bowl of Cheerios and, if I wanted to be fancy, make a piece of toast, and I’d eat while reading the back of the cereal box and thinking. Lately, that thinking was usually about Jake, whom I’d be seeing in a few minutes. I’d finish up breakfast, lock up the house, then make my way to where the bus would pick up a few of us at the end of my street, near my house. I’d get there early enough so I had to wait for it, then look back to where it would stop at the top of the street to pick up a few other kids. Even at that distance, I could tell if Jake was there or not. Jake was taller than most other middle-school kids, even the 8th graders, and was easy to see way off in the distance, his head sticking up past all the others. I liked knowing he was getting on the bus each morning, and that he’d save a place for me.
I always looked at Jake as I walked down the aisle each morning, seeing him there smiling at me. I didn’t quite know why, but for a short time now I’d been getting a feeling low in my stomach, an excited sort of feeling. This had only been happening recently—for about a month I guess. Maybe about the same time I’d started looking in the mirror at myself each morning. Lots of things were different now.
I liked that feeling, and I actually did have some awareness of what it was, what it meant.
Jake said that every morning. He had that same crooked smile when he said it, too. I loved that smile. I didn’t love what happened that morning, though. That morning the feeling I had down below was a lot stronger, and Jake’s smile made it so much more. Jake had an almost pretty face, a boy’s kind of pretty. Saying it was cute didn’t do it justice. He had jet-black hair that was always a mess, but his dad made him keep it cut short so it didn’t sprawl all over the place. His dad wanted Jake to be an athlete, which I thought funny because his dad was about 40 pounds overweight.
Jake wasn’t overweight at all. He was slim, like I was, and tall, almost as tall as his old man already even though he was only 12. I’d asked Jake if that meant he’d be short, and he’d laughed and said that his dad’s brothers, all three of them, were skyscrapers, all well over six-feet tall; his dad was the runt of the family. Jake thought he had the family genes, not his dad’s, because he was already the tallest one in our class at school.
I was next!
Anyway, his black hair was a mess, but a tidy mess; it didn’t come down to his shoulders or anything like that. His ears stayed close to his head—no protrusion at all, and no piercings, either, unlike another boy in our class who had an earring. We weren’t sure what to think about him.
Jake’s nose wasn’t long or short, big or small; it was just perfect, and it fit his face which wasn’t one of those round, Charlie Brown types; Jake’s was slightly long, long and narrow, and it was just the right shape for him because of his slender build and long body.
He had full lips that were always smiling and perfect white teeth. He’d occasionally get a sort of devious-looking grin, his very dark, blue eyes that looked like they were black under most lights would twinkle, and you’d get the impression he knew something you didn’t and that there was no way he’d ever tell you what it was, but you’d wish he would. He’d just change the subject when you asked, and you never would find out.
You hoped whatever it was, it was about you.
He was confident and cocky, but neither in an overbearing way. He just enjoyed being Jake. When he walked, it was in a sort of happy, bouncing gait, with his shoulders moving forward and back with his legs, almost a slouching sort of walk, except he was straight up and down. It looked a little sloppy and a little ungainly, but if you knew Jake, he was anything but either of those. He might have been the most athletically adept guy in the school. Anything athletic came easy for him. Walking like he did just showed he had more energy than he knew what to do with, and he liked to use up as much of it as he could by doing something as simple as walking.
I think half the girls in the school had a crush on him. I had no idea about what the other boys thought of him; we didn’t talk about crushes on boys. As far as I knew, I was the only boy in school who got those. I wouldn’t tell anyone about my crush on Jake in a hundred years. Not even forever.
Jake didn’t even seem to notice the girls. The boys, either, when it came down to it. He just liked to have fun and liked boys and girls equally; dating or making out, really anything to do with sex, just hadn’t seemed to have caught his interest yet.
Until this morning.
The bus was just like all school buses. It had two strings of seats running from the front to the back on the right and left sides of the bus with an aisle between them and a single row of seats that ran across the back of the bus. The seats were bench seats with room for two people on each. Jake always sat in the last seat before the back row on the driver’s side of the bus, always in the seat next to the aisle when he got on. Then, he waited for me and slid over next to the window when I walked to the back of the bus, leaving the seat next to him for me.
Except he didn’t that day. Instead, he stayed where he was in the aisle seat, watching me as I walked down the aisle.
As I said, seeing Jake in the morning was a heady experience for me. And this morning it was more so than most. As soon as I got on the bus and turned to walk towards the back, I spotted him and his grin, and the tingly feeling I got when looking at him became something much more; it affected me physically, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I mean, how is a boy supposed to walk down the fairly narrow aisle of a bus with kids sitting in most of the seats while he’s passing inches away from them with his hands folded over his crotch? He can’t do that. You do that, you might as well be wearing a sign around your neck with a huge arrow pointing down saying, ‘Hey, look! A BONER!’
So, you don’t do that. You just walk like always, like you do every morning and hope most people won’t notice a thing. They’re usually talking to the person in the seat next to them and so not looking at you anyway. Besides which, at 12, most of us don’t show all that much when we’re hard and have jeans on.
And I got away with it—almost. Who I didn’t get away with it was Jake. He was sitting in his seat but hadn’t shoved over. Instead, he was sitting still, his eyes glued to my midsection. His eyes were wide open, and his grin was larger than usual.
I had to stop when I reached him, and he finally looked up at me, his eyes gleaming, and then he did something unusual. Instead of sliding over to the window, he stood up and nodded that I should sit where he usually did this morning. He sat down next to me, taking my normal aisle seat, with his glance now alternating between my face and my crotch.
I sat down as quickly as I could. I had nothing to cover myself with other than my hands. I’d left my backpack at school, and as it was warm, none of us had a jacket. But I did have my hands and draped them where they’d do the most good, being just as casual as I could possibly be.
Jake was giggling. “You’ve got a boner,” he said, speaking softly into my ear. At least he wasn’t announcing it to the bus!
“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. This was the sort of thing that Jake, were it his problem, would have handled with aplomb. It was also the sort of thing I had no idea how to pull off. I wanted to hide my head under a pillow. But there was no pillow.
Jake was delighted. But he was also my best friend, and he knew me well. I didn’t have either his confidence or his sense of adventure.
But now he was in a fight with himself, wanting to take my problem to where it could go but not wanting to embarrass me. He ended up in a compromise.
“Let me see,” he said.
I had an easy response to that. “What?! No!”
“Oh, come on. I’ve been getting them all the time recently. Let me see.” And he grabbed my right wrist and pulled it toward him.
Jake was really strong. I was strong, too, but Jake was strong and motivated and had surprised me. He pulled my hand away. I couldn’t make a big fuss; I didn’t want to draw attention to us, so I let him do it. I wasn’t expecting what he did next.
He held my hand away, then reached with his other hand and grabbed my crotch. He wrapped his hand around it the best he could with my jeans and underpants in the way and squeezed a little, then said, still speaking so only I could hear, “Feels about the same as mine. I want to see it.”
“What?” I sort of squeaked, and only at the last second remembered not to turn the squeak into a shout. See it? What was he talking about? Was he crazy? We were on a crowded bus!
“Yeah, let me see it.” That absolutely wasn’t going to happen!
He kept gripping. I was still hard. I guess at 12, you can stay that way perpetually with only the slightest stimulation. Sitting next to Jake was all I really needed. The grabbing my crotch was just a bonus.
His breath was in my ear as he whispered again. “I just found out about this. Have you ever tried it?”
“Yeah. But be quiet! We can’t talk about it here. On the school bus.”
“Great, isn’t it?” he whispered through his chortling. A quick glance showed his eyes alight with glee—and something else, something I hadn’t seen in his face before. It wouldn’t be long before I learned to recognize lust.
And then, suddenly, Jake stopped. I felt the motion of the bus cease. “We’re here,” he said, sounding disappointed, and he pulled his hand from my jeans and briefly sat back against his seat, uncovering me from the screen he’d provided, taking a deep breath. Yeah, like he needed one!
Jake grinned at me. “Time to get off,” he said, then jumped up out of his seat, the last one to get off the bus other than me. He walked nonchalantly up the aisle, never looking back till he turned at the door to exit. Then he glanced back at me, and I saw that wicked grin of his plastered all over his face.
I could see the bus driver’s eyes glaring at me in her rearview mirror. “Getting off?” she asked. She was a humorless woman, middle-aged, heavy. No one messed with her. How could I get off? I’d walk up the aisle toward her and she’d be watching, and my condition would be way too obvious, much more apparent than when I’d walked the other way. What if she told someone? The principal! What if I was called in to explain to the principal why I had a boner on the bus? What if he called my dad?
Still seated, the pole in my pants was apparent, and I knew it would be worse when I stood. I was back to the only recourse I had: hands over crotch, face as red as a beet. I couldn’t do it. Yet I had to. She was very capable of coming back and grabbing my arm and yanking me out of my seat, and spread out like that, there’d be no question of her seeing what I dreaded her seeing. So what choice did I have?
I was silently cursing Jake as I prepared to stand, erection and all, when suddenly, there he was, standing in the bus doorway. He spoke to the driver. “Hey, one of your tires looks really bad. Come on, I’ll show you.”
She forgot about me and left the bus with Jake. I pushed my embarrassment up so it was pointing at my chin and less noticeable trapped in my jeans that way, not pushing out too much now, and I walked off the bus. I still was feeling all tingly, but the feeling that I was about to explode into a million pieces was going away, leaving a sort of regretful feeling I didn’t understand. Not then.
But I would. And pretty soon, too.
I probably loved Jake back then. For a time, we explored the new and marvelous world of two boys fooling around with each other. Sex! It was wonderful. Then, eventually, it stopped. I didn’t want it to, but Jake discovered girls. That was when he decided that fooling around with me was little-boy stuff and he felt like he was a young man by then. By then he was almost 14, after all.
I’m sure I loved him, but I wasn’t sure what kind of love it was. I liked fooling around, and I liked Jake. He was my best friend. When he stopped, he was still my best friend, and I certainly loved him for that. That never changed. He had my back and I had his and that would never change either, no matter the circumstances. Just like on that bus that morning, with the driver. How many of us ever have that?
I wouldn’t have minded fooling around with him again if he’d wanted it. He never did. And my feelings for him never changed, but the love I felt for him wasn’t a mature, grown-up sort of love. I’m not sure you can have that at 12—or even at 14. For me, that sort of love would be a long time coming.
That memory causes a bittersweet smile to cross my face. Do we all remember our first sexual experience with someone else? I imagine we do. It happens for almost everyone when they’re young. That adds to the effect. Perhaps that’s what makes it so memorable.
I don’t know. I’m just in my head at the moment. The cafeteria brings that back. A lot of high-school memories begin and end in the cafeteria.
The day that Jake brought a girl to the cafeteria didn’t end with her coming in with him and then going to her own table. No, she sat down, and Jake introduced us to her: Yolanda, who he quickly nicknamed Lanny. She seemed to like the name. But maybe she’d have liked any name he called her. It looked to me like the thing she most cared about was Jake. He had that effect on everyone, but especially on her.
But if it was difficult to watch her make eyes at him, it hurt more and was harder to watch when he responded.
He caught me watching. He knew me so well. He saw the look in my eyes. His eyes dimmed a bit. The last thing he ever wanted to do was cause anyone pain, and he knew how easily I could be hurt. He seemed to float through life on a pillow of happiness, and bringing pain to anyone was not part of his ride. With me, looking at me, he knew he was doing just that.
Being Jake, he did what he did. “Hey,” he’d said. “Whit, tell us about practice.”
All the eyes at the table turned to me. I was getting more used to that. Still didn’t like it. But I knew what he was doing, pulling me out of myself, and I knew I needed that. What he was referring to wasn’t really at practice but afterwards when Coach T called me in for another meeting. I had a lot of those with him. He was always trying to change things about me. This was more of that. Jake thought it was funny. Of course, the coach never tried to change him at all.
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My thanks as usual for the work my editors put in pinching and punching this story into shape. A special word of thanks to Colin for supplying the artwork and supplementary material.