High school is part wonderful, part wrenching for most everyone.
Along the way, for the lucky ones, personal growth occurs.
I walk away from the trophy case. Walk away from my freshman year as well. Sort of naturally, I guess, with the way my mind has been working, I think about the highlights of my sophomore year.
Jake and I were kicking back in my bedroom. He was on the bed. He always stole the bed when he came in. I still thought how beautiful he was stretched out there, but he wouldn’t let me to say anything about that. I’d learned to keep those thoughts to myself. Besides, that had been kid stuff, and if I still found him desirable, that desire was mostly supported by lustful memories of what we’d done when we were younger. It wasn’t all that long ago! But that was all it was: memories. I’d been in love with him then, the kind of love kids have, burning intensely hot for a while, then consuming itself with its own heat.
That feeling for him had passed, replaced by a deeper feeling of friendship. He’d made it a rule—I wasn’t to mention my feelings for him now that he liked girls and was going to start asking them out. He’d been empathetic but also very firm. He told me he understood how I felt, that we were still friends, best friends, but things were now different.
His rule had been hard for me to follow at first, but as time passed, as I’d grown older, those feelings had dissipated. However, I still liked looking at him, and I couldn’t help it if now and then I felt a twinge of the desire that had been so strong back then. But the rule was still there; I still paid it heed; mostly, it was no longer needed.
Even though I still found him way attractive.
I could talk to him about anything else, though—I mean other personal things—and I did. I asked him about something I’d been thinking about. Just curiosity, really. Not because I was looking for him to change.
“What do you see in Lanny, Jake? You’ve been going together for a year now.”
He didn’t bother to sit up—just wriggled a bit to get more comfortable. He never minded having his head on my pillow where my head had been, and I liked it because I could faintly smell his hair after he’d been there. (That may be giving the wrong impression again. I liked Jake and liked remembering the things we’d done together when we were younger. I wasn’t in love with him, though. Not any longer. Really. God knows I wasn’t gay. I don’t want to be misleading about that. But Jake and I did have a history. Smelling his hair on my pillow reminded me of that. It was a good memory.)
“I really like her, Whit. She makes me feel things I’ve never felt before. I think of her all the time. We’re kind of on the same wavelength, just like you and I are. Like she knows what I’m thinking. She loves me, Whit, and I feel the same way about her.”
“Are you having sex? Is that why you feel that way?”
Jake laughed. “There’s a whole lot more to us than having sex. There’s more to our intimacy than sex. Sex is one aspect of a relationship; it’s only one part, and feelings and emotions can run very deep with or without it.”
“You didn’t answer the question. You suggested an answer, but you were just being sly. You didn’t give me a direct answer.”
His voice was filled with humor. “You asked; I answered. We’re done with that.” And the laughter broke out for real.
When he stopped, I asked, “So what do you feel? I mean, specifically.”
“Why are you asking?”
“Because I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way you do about her with anyone. I’m just wondering about it. Where the feeling comes from and why you have it. And by the way, you used to tell me everything. I did, too.”
This time, he sat up. This time, he didn’t laugh. “I think it comes when you’re ready for it to come and you meet someone whose personality and looks and behavior and background and hopes all mesh with yours in a way that’s never happened before with anyone else. I don’t know for sure; I’m one person, and I’d guess everyone is different to some degree. It happened for me with Lanny. The more time I spend with her, the more I love her. I think at our age, sometimes you love someone right off, and then as time passes, you begin to get a little tired of them. That hasn’t happened with us. That’s one of the reasons I think this is love.”
He lay back down again and continued. “But for the rest of what you said? You haven’t felt it because you haven’t met the right person. Love is more than finding someone attractive. It’s finding the whole of the person attractive. And Whit? The rest of what you said?”
“No, you didn’t tell me everything.”
Beth was dropping by a lot, too. She never sprawled on the bed like Jake. I suppose my room was like many teenage boys’ rooms: more than a bit messy and unorganized. It wasn’t as bad as some I’d seen, but it certainly wouldn’t get any Good Housekeeping awards. The only reason I kept it halfway picked up and presentable was my dad. Since I didn’t have a mom, my dad acted in both capacities, but he did the mom part a whole lot differently from how my friends’ moms did. They tended to be bossy and strict and lay the law down, and they hated messy bedrooms. My dad was never like that. He was cleverer about getting me to pick up mine. He’d come to speak to me when I was in there doing homework or reading, glance around, sort of shake his head as though he were sad at what he saw, and walk out without saying a word.
I adored my dad. I hated more than anything to disappoint him. I knew he loved me, and that his love wasn’t fragile; it wouldn’t fade if he were upset with me. But I still hated to give him any reason to feel that way. So, I kept my room somewhere between the ordinary, teen-boy atrocity and a neat-freak obsessive standard.
My slovenliness for the most part included an unmade bed. That didn’t bother Jake in the slightest. Beth, however, always managed to wrinkle her nose and sit on the edge of the bed rather primly.
I always got a kick out of this because she wasn’t a prim girl. She was more like a boy than a girl in her mannerisms and opinions and the way she talked and acted. Maybe that’s why we got on so well. Girls still made me a little nervous, even as a sophomore. It was like they were a species unto themselves.
I was pretty sure her disdain for my lack of tidiness was more a statement than a true feeling. She liked to try to control me. This was an example of how she went about it.
“There’s a party Saturday, Whit. I’m going. And you are, too.”
“No, I’m not. I don’t go to parties.”
“I know. You do everything you can to avoid people.”
“I do not. I just don’t think I’d like it. There’d be drinking going on, and I don’t drink. Same with smoking. Everyone would want to talk about our last game, and I get enough of that at school. Some of the girls would flirt with me, girls I don’t even know—some older ones, too—and I never know how to respond to them. I get embarrassed.”
She was staring at me now, and I felt a little like a specimen on a microscope slide. “That’s all supposed to be fun, Whit. I have it on good authority that there’ll be more than that going on, anyway. Someone was talking about kissing games.”
I shuddered, and she saw it.
“Have you ever kissed anyone, Whit?” Before I could answer, preempting me, she said, “I don’t mean a relative or an adult. Have you kissed a girl?”
“You’re getting awfully personal, asking things like that and expecting an answer.” I thought acting affronted might get her off the subject. I doubted it would, though. Not Beth.
“So you haven’t. Boys boast about things like that, even things they haven’t done but wish they had. Boys all lie. If you haven’t kissed a girl, then you haven’t made out or had your hands all over one. Or gone all the way, either. I didn’t think so.”
“My lips are sealed,” I said, a little aloofly.
“That’s what I came up to fix. See, I’m taking you to that party for your own good. And you’ll end up kissing a few girls. But because you’ve never done that before, you’ll suck at it. So, I’m going to show you how to kiss so the girls won’t be making fun of you afterwards. This is for your own good. To teach you about not sealing your lips.”
Yeah, right. But I couldn’t tell her that. Beth on a mission was a force of nature. She had me sit down on the bed next to her. Well, really, she grabbed my arm and pulled me down so I was sitting next to her. She was stronger than she looked. Then she kissed me.
They say your first kiss is awkward and confusing and something to get done with so you can move on to your second kiss, which will be better because you won’t be so nervous. We didn’t move on to a second kiss. Not right away. She had to critique that first kiss first. Had to talk about softening and moistening my lips and parting them slightly, not keeping my mouth so rigidly closed, and to soften my posture, too, and try to enjoy it.
Just to satisfy her, I did all those things when she moved in for the second kiss. And she was right, it was much better that time.
“Some of the girls will want tongue. Let’s try that next.”
And so she did. And that was really interesting. What wasn’t so good, however, was that I noticed something. Something that surprised me. She was getting turned on. I could see it; her face was getting flushed; her breathing was more rapid; her kissing itself was getting more intense.
I didn’t know what to do! She was a friend, a good friend. But I had no romantic feelings for her. I wanted this kissing to stop. But I knew, somehow or other—just a feeling but one that seemed genuine—that just stopping and pulling away would really hurt her. It would be like I was rejecting her. No, I had to stop but not let her think I wasn’t enjoying this as much as she quite obviously was.
Even though I wasn’t. It felt okay to kiss her, but a little strange at the same time. Like I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, at least not with her. Maybe this was what incest felt like.
I had to do something, though, and so I did. Her lips were on mine, her tongue was searching my mouth, and slowly, she was lying backward onto the bed, at the same time pulling me with her so I’d be on top of her.
“Ouch!” I yelled, and put my hand behind me, pressing on my back.
“Huh?” she said.
“My back! I was trying to keep my weight from coming down on you and got a cramp in my back. Ouch! I need to stand up and stretch it.”
I got up, stood very straight, twisted a bit, and said, “I think it’s loosening up a little. But hey, I think I get the kissing stuff. I think I’ll be ready. What’d you think? Will I cut the mustard with a girl?”
She just glowered at me. Maybe she thought cutting the mustard had more than one meaning.
I didn’t mind disappointing her like I did with my father. We’d grown up as kids together and knew each other as well as two kids can. She might have been disappointed, but I was sure she wasn’t surprised when later I found a way to miss the party.
I am headed for the art department. I had a class there each of my remaining years at the school. Art was an elective I could get an A in, and A’s looked good on my record and kept my GPA high. Funny how, walking in that direction, I had the same feelings come back that I’d experienced walking there as a student.
I hadn’t got A’s in art because I was a great artist. The opposite was true. I did have great admiration for those kids who could draw and paint really well, who had the ability to create real artwork. They had a vision and talent I could only dream about. I tried, I really did, and my work emulated that of kindergarteners. I just had no talent at all in that room.
So why the A’s? Mr. Inoue, our art teacher, liked me, and that helped. He liked that I tried hard with each project he gave us. He also loved football. He said some of my passes were works of art. Go figure.
When I was hopeless with a project, he saw my frustration and gave me other stuff to do. He also talked about the team, and I was okay with that because he didn’t spend any time at all talking about me. He seemed to know I didn’t like that. But he talked about plays and other players and I was fine with that.
He also asked if I’d be willing to sit as a subject for the other students to sketch. I thought that was pretty embarrassing, all those kids looking at me, but I did it. Just twice. I found it harder to do than I’d thought, holding a pose as still as I could. And not blushing.
Beth was in my art class my sophomore year. She was a pretty good artist. Not one of the really fine ones. We had a few of those. One was a boy named Curtis. Curtis was slight and slender, small and shy, and man, could he ever draw. I saw that right away and found him fascinating.
I liked to watch him work, but somehow, for some reason, that seemed to bother him. I think just my size, maybe my masculinity, intimidated him. I didn’t want him to be scared of me. I wanted him to like me. Well, I felt that way about most of the kids, but I’d have liked to be friends with Curtis. Beth always said I had a strange way of showing my friendliness. Maybe so. I guess I wanted people to like me on my own terms. That didn’t always work all that well.
But I was drawn to Curtis. His talent was extraordinary. And I had to admit, he was pretty attractive in his own right. His shyness appealed to me and made me want to break through his shell.
So I set out to do that. I tried being very nice and not intimidating or obtrusive at all. He ignored me. I could see that my presence made him uneasy, no matter how soft I was. I tried being funny to make him laugh. I didn’t even draw a smile. I tried asking him for help with my own drawings; very softly with eyes on the floor, he told me he had to work on his own piece; it wasn’t good enough yet.
I was going to try other ways but then noticed Beth was watching me. She’d been watching me all along. I didn’t like the look in her eyes. So, I forced myself to step back from Curtis in class. One didn’t want Beth getting wrong ideas about anything.
A few days later, when I was on my way to lunch, I needed to make a stop in the john first. When I walked in, there were three guys there; there also was the kind of tension you feel when everyone has suddenly stopped what they were doing. I knew I’d walked in on something.
I recognized the smallest of the three immediately. It was Curtis. The other two guys I recognized as sophomores. Curtis was a freshman; he was only taking second-year art because he was way beyond first-year level projects, maybe even those of sophomore year. The two guys with him were jerks, the type you have at every school in the world. First-class assholes who make life difficult for everyone smaller and weaker than they are.
“What’s going on here?” I asked. My voice wasn’t exactly friendly.
Curtis looked scared. He also looked like he was about to cry. Or maybe he had already.
No one answered.
“I asked you a question, jerkoff.” I poked the largest of the two asswipes in the chest. “Answer me.”
“Uh, nothin’. We were just kidding around a little.”
“Curtis?” But I didn’t think he’d say anything. Not with those two standing there. And he didn’t. Then I noticed a bag on the floor, the type kids bring their lunches to school in if they’re not paying for lunch in the cafeteria.
I leaned over and picked it up. It was empty. It had a small grease stain on the side, something very common when lunches have been packed hastily and the sandwich hadn’t been wrapped well enough.
“What’s this?” The two jerks were practicing being mum. I looked at Curtis and asked softly, empathetically, “Curtis, is this your lunch bag?”
He didn’t meet my eyes, but he did nod.
“And what happened to it?”
“Curtis, what happened to your lunch?” Maybe it was good he was a little frightened of me. He saw how the other two were reacting to me, and that made him even more scared. So, he answered.
“They flushed it down the toilet.”
I grabbed the two of them by the shirt fronts, lifted them up so only their toes were on the ground and slammed their backs into the wall. “You two are dead meat. You know about the no-bullying rule at this school. You know it brings a suspension after the first time, then an expulsion, and guys like you, maybe you’ve both already served the suspension. Why shouldn’t I drag you to the office? Huh? Huh?”
Neither of them said a word, and my arms were starting to shake from holding them up. I thanked God for all the weight training the team was doing—and the extra I did in our basement by myself. I slammed them into the wall again and then dropped them. They landed awkwardly and ended up on the floor.
I looked down at them. Neither would meet my eyes.
“I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to give you an assignment. You’re going to stay away from Curtis, completely away, but if you see him being hassled by anyone, anyone at all, you come to his rescue. You see him walking toward you in the hall, you go to the far side and don’t look at him. If I hear you’ve even spoken to him again, I’ll find you and break your legs. You got that? You believe me?”
They both shook their heads yes, not wanting to say a word.
“Now apologize to Curtis.”
“And what about his lunch? Lunch costs $3. Now tell me, do you think it fair that he has to pay for it? Huh?”
I was surprised to hear Curtis behind me speak then. “I can’t pay for it. They took all my money.”
I yanked the biggest of the two to his feet, then grabbed one of his front pockets and with a hard jerk, tore it free from his jeans. Stuff fell out, but none of it was money. I did the other pocket and more stuff erupted, including a bunch of paper money and coins.
I stared at the kid, who was shaking now. I glanced at the other one. “You got any of Curtis’s money?”
“Get the fuck out of here,” I said to him, “and I’d suggest you stop hanging around with this jerk. He’s poison, and you can do better. Stay with him and you’ll go down with him. Now get.”
The kid didn’t look at his friend. He just took off running.
I turned to the other guy. “Pick up the money you stole and hand it to Curtis—plus $3 for lunch.”
While the guy was doing that, I kept talking. “I really want to take you to the office. Stealing money, bullying—you don’t belong here. I’m going to let you go, though. I’m hungry and still have business with Curtis. So, get lost. Just one more thing: you don’t want to get caught in my headlights again. You really don’t. Now scram.”
I turned to Curtis. He was staring at the floor again. I took all the adrenalin out of my voice when I spoke. “You okay? They didn’t hurt you at all, did they.”
He shook his head.
“Curtis, please look at me.”
He slowly raised his eyes to mine.
“Curtis, don’t be afraid of me. I admire how good an artist you are. I’d like us to be friends. That’s up to you, of course. But I’m on your side.
“Now look. I’ve noticed you eat alone in the cafeteria. That’s lonely, and most kids who do that are embarrassed that others will see that they’re loners. I’d love it if you’d come eat at my table today. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it again, but I think you’ll be happy there. We’re all nice people, except maybe Beth, and you already know her from art class. She’s not bad. I just like to tease her a bit. But, will you do that? For me? Eat with us? Please.”
I think he really had a divided mind, but in the end, he came with me. I introduced him to everyone at the table. Beth gave me the eye, and I ignored her.
I don’t think Curtis said more than five words all through that lunch. But I was covertly watching him, and I had to smile. What I saw was Curtis constantly taking quick peeks at Brian, who was looking unusually cute that day and doing a lot of smiling as Jake was telling dirty jokes.
Hmmm, I thought.
Curtis wasn’t the only one to join us for lunch that year. Another was a boy I mentioned earlier; he was the boy we all thought was a little strange back in middle school, the one who came to school one day with an earring. His name was Noah, Noah Starr, and starting this year, he was the equipment manager for the football team. He was a freshman, and our last equipment manager had graduated. Noah came up to Coach T and volunteered. As no one else had, Coach T gave him the job. He was one of our team, in a peripheral sort of way, but one thing he definitely was not was a jock.
We’d learned in eighth grade why he wore the earring. He made no bones about it: he was gay. He was very forthright about it. He was gay, he wanted people to know that, and if anyone had a problem with that, to come talk to him and they’d settle it. What was funny was he was one of the smaller kids at school. He’d been so back then and still was, shorter at least; he’d put on some weight since then. I guess he’d had his growth spurt, too, because he wasn’t five-one any longer. He’d shot up to five-five or -six. But he still was feisty and opinionated and proud.
He wasn’t bad looking. He wore his straw-colored hair in the same messy style most of us did, and it wasn’t cut either long or short. He wasn’t a bit fat; I’d have called him either sturdy or stocky. You got the impression he was stronger than he looked. He never showered with us, so I had no idea what he looked like naked. Not that I cared. It’s just that I was a little curious because, well, I have to admit it, he was gay, and I’d never seen a gay boy naked. Just curious.
I’ve already said I found some boys attractive and that it didn’t mean anything. Noah was—was cute, I mean—and so he was attractive, but I found it fascinating that a boy a year younger than we were could have the courage to live his life how he wanted to, making no bones about it. Also, the way he carried himself and maybe just a little the way he looked—well, I often found myself watching him. I didn’t let anyone see that, but I did.
There were a few other gay boys at our school who were out, and he’d dated some of them, but Noah for some reason liked the guys on the team and sat at their table for lunch. That meant, if he had a boyfriend and they wanted to eat together at school, that guy would have to sit with the jocks as well. For the most part, the other gay boys weren’t the type who’d be comfortable among a group of raunchy, high-school jocks. But there was one who didn’t mind, because he himself was a jock. His name was Jeremy, and he and Noah had been dating for a month.
I was on my way to the cafeteria one day when Noah sort of showed up out of nowhere and grabbed my arm. “Whit, can I talk to you for a moment?”
I stopped, and we got out of the traffic heading for lunch. “I’ve got a favor to ask,” he said, and I nodded.
“See, me and Jeremy just broke up. I think he was using me. He really likes Donnie and wants to get with him, and thought if he dated me and got me to sit with him at lunch, he’d make Donnie jealous. I saw how he was looking at Donnie all the time and got in his face about it, and he admitted it.”
“Donnie Claussen? The soccer player? He’s gay?”
Noah smiled. “He’s not the only one. But no, he isn’t out, and yes, he’s gay, and when I found out what Jeremy’s plan was, I broke up with him. But Jeremy’s still sitting with the jocks. And I don’t want to sit there. So, could I sit at your table? I don’t want to sit alone, and besides, you guys are always laughing and talking and look so cool together.”
He stopped and looked at me hopefully. I was about to say yes, then had an idea. I frowned at him.
“I know what you’re up to,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. Both Brian and Curtis are cute as hell. You’re trying to pull a Jeremy here and get close to them!”
“NO! I’m not underhanded like that. And I didn’t know either of them was gay.”
I laughed. “I’m teasing, Noah. I don’t know if either of them is gay, either. And, of course you can eat with us. We’d be happy to have you there. You’ll fit right in with Beth. She’s self-confident, extroverted, opinionated, and speaks her mind. Just like you.”
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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.