It isn’t easy being 13 and lacking confidence.
Somehow, the strong survive. But, again, it isn’t easy.
You ever ask a girl to a school dance? It should be easy. You walk up to her and say, ‘Hey, you want to go the dance with me?’ Why is that so difficult? I’m a girl, and maybe I’m sort of cute, and I’m waiting, and waiting, and all these boys are around us girls all day, and mostly they don’t meet our eyes, and they’re always goofing with each other, and for some reason I’ll never get, they all seem to think their life would be over if they asked one of us to the dance and we said no.
Like we’re about to do that! Well, some of us would. The stuck-up kind. But most of us aren’t like that. We’d be excited to be asked, and even if we weren’t because of who it was that was doing the asking, we wouldn’t let on that that was the reason. No, we wouldn’t be rude or dismissive. Mostly we’d say yes, mostly because we were happy to be asked, and maybe, once in a while, we’d say yes just because the boy was so nervous and we would know just how hurt he’d be if we said no. And then, well, hey, it’s only one evening. It isn’t the rest of our lives. So why are the boys so antsy about it?
I guess they all have egos the size of Montana or in some cases, Rhode Island. Either way, those boys would be crushed if they got rejected. But that’s just crazy. I think what it comes down to is most 13-year-old boys have the self-confidence of a deformed snail when it comes to girls. Or less. They think very highly of themselves when it come to farting on demand or running fast or being able to get away with things when the teachers’ backs are turned. Not so much when it comes to dealing with girls.
A few of us have already been asked. Even a couple of the stuck-up ones. Why? I have no idea. Those girls only care that they were asked—and by the popular boys. The popular boys are about as nice as the popular girls. In other words: NOT! Those boys and girls are made for each other. All they care about is looking good and having an attractive boy or girl of the opposite sex on their arm, which apparently makes their day and their night. And bragging rights the few days before and after. Those guys are big on bragging. The rest of us roll our eyes. We all know that they couldn’t care less if the person they go to the dance with likes them, or even if they can put three words together in a cogent sentence. Dumb but beautiful or handsome is fine with them. Their only concern in the world is how they themselves look and that people admire them. How vapid is that?
My mom keeps telling me not to use words like cogent and vapid. My mom was a popular girl; that’s how she thinks school still is. And I guess she’s right for some. Their whole world turns on an axis of popularity. But a lot of us think popularity is stupid if it means you have to hang with kids you don’t like, wear the right clothes, say the right things, like and dislike the right things, sit with the right people at lunch, scoff at anyone you think is a pretender—the list goes on and on. It must be exhausting to be popular.
I’m not like that, and I’m sure everyone enjoying that status has to think I’m disappointed about that, but I’m not. Really. I’m not. I like myself, like being who I am, and I wouldn’t fit in at all with the popular crowd. For one thing, I have a brain; I’m also independent; I say what I want to say, and none of that works for the popular crowd.
Of course, that might be one of the reasons no one has asked me to the dance. I hadn’t thought of that before. But, maybe being independent and outspoken scares those ego-challenged boys. That’s probably it.
I’m sitting in the library after school. I always do that because my parents don’t get home till an hour and a half after school. The library stays open for an hour, and it takes almost a half hour to walk home, so it works out fine.
Some girls are shy about walking home alone after school. Hey, I’m a healthy, strong, self-reliant female. Some butt-ugly man with a beer belly and whiskers wants to kidnap me, I can take care of myself. I know not to talk to him and be nice. I’m not falling for the ‘help me find my lost puppy’ routine, or the ‘your mother asked me to pick you up, she’s in the hospital’ nonsense. I know how to run, and I know I’d be faster than any sleazebag pervert; and if I can’t, I can certainly get my pressurized can of mace out of my pocket while running and give him the biggest surprise he’ll ever have when he catches me. First the mace, then . . . well, he’d better be wearing an athletic cup, that’s all I have to say about that.
Anyway, that’s beside the point I’m trying to make here. I’m just a modern-day, normal, middle-school girl sitting in the library, wondering why boys are so skittish about asking girls to the freshman dance that’s coming up this Friday night. It’s the first one of the year, a sort of get-to-know-each-other dance, and I’d like to go. But it’s awkward going alone. I could go with a bunch of other girls who haven’t been asked, also, but it would be more fun with a boy. The problem isn’t me; it’s the dumb boys who go to this school.
There she is. Just sitting there, looking like she’s daydreaming. She usually has a book open. Not today. She’s just sitting there.
This means it’s the perfect time for me. I should just go up to her, sit down across the table from her, wait till she looks at me, and then say, “Hi, Katy, I’m Josh, and would you go to the dance with me Friday night?”
I mean, I could do it. I know I could do it. Somehow, I can’t get my feet to move, though. I’ve never asked a girl to go to a dance. I’ve never really even spoken to one unless she’s spoken to me first. So, this would be something new, and I’m not real good at new. New is scary.
The fact is, I’m not much good at anything. Nothing. That’s what I’m good at—it’s what I am, really. So why would she say yes? I don’t think she would. Which is probably why my feet refuse to move. My feet are protecting me. Way to go, feet!
She’s pretty, so why would she want to go to the dance with me? She’d want some handsome or athletic or popular boy to ask her. Maybe someone already has. Maybe she’s already said yes.
I won’t know unless I talk to her. So, in what way would she say no to me? I don’t think she’d laugh or sneer at me. I don’t know her well—not at all, really—but I’ve never seen her be mean to anyone. She’s kinda like me: quiet, thoughtful, not a group joiner, not a clown or a teaser or a bully or a cutup. She’s just there. Like I am. I think. I mean, well, I don’t really know her. I just like her looks.
I wouldn’t have the courage to ask her if she were popular. Well, I wouldn’t want to ask her if she was one of those kids, either. But she’s not. She’s just a normal girl, one who’s kinda cute and seems to have a nice personality. I think she’s probably smart. The girls she seems to spend most time talking to are smart. I know some of them; they went to my elementary school, so I know they’re smart. Katy went to a different one, which is why I don’t know her. But she looks nice to me. And like maybe we could be friends. I’d like that. I watch the kids eating lunch, and the tables where it looks like the kids are having the most fun are the ones with a mixture of boys and girls. I sit with a couple of other shy boys. We don’t have a lot of fun; we don’t even talk all that much. Sitting with some girls, friendly ones, smart ones, and friendly boys, too—that might be more fun. If I could ever be brave enough to do it.
More fun. I just thought that. More fun. Some of the boys here would have used a different word: funner. I learned in elementary school not to correct them when they made mistakes like that. Back when I was young, I thought they’d appreciate my helping them by telling them the correct way to say things. They didn’t. I don’t do that now that I’m 13.
She just looked up. I looked down. I don’t think she saw me looking at her. If I’m going to do this, I don’t want her to see me coming. If she watched me walk all the way over to her table, her eyes on me all the way, I’m pretty sure I know what would happen: my feet wouldn’t stop at her table but would keep going, carrying me all the way past where she was sitting to where I could find a book in the stacks. Then I’d tote it back to my own table. I certainly wouldn’t have the nerve to sit at her table if she were watching me. I know my feet.
Can I do this? I want to. I want to get to know her. She just looks like someone I could be friends with. She has light- brown hair with streaks of blonde, worn loose instead of in the popular ponytail, and she dresses nicely. Most of the girls wear jeans and tee shirts, like we do. Some wear slacks and blouses. She’s one of those. It makes her look different, somehow. Nicer. I can’t say exactly why, but it does. I notice her.
I dress like all the other boys. Jeans, sneakers, tee shirts. A few boys wear chinos and polo shirts. I think their mothers must buy their clothes for them. It’s best, if you’re a boy, to look like the other boys as much as you can. Boys who dress differently can get pushed into their lockers by bigger boys walking past in the hallways or can get singled out outside on the school grounds. For kids my age, school is all about learning survival techniques. What you wear is one of them. How you behave in class and on the playground is another. A good one would be asking a girl to a dance. That would make the other boys aware of you. Maybe not so much just the asking, but the going. Getting one to go with you. That’s the thing. That’d get you noticed but in a good way.
I think I’m going to do it. If she doesn’t look up. I can’t if she looks up. Maybe she won’t.
The boy walked toward where the girl was sitting, and she noticed but didn’t pay much attention. The stacks were located on the sides of the room and behind the tables where the kids sat, and without giving it much thought, she figured that’s where the boy was headed. She thought his name was Josh but didn’t know him. Just another boy. Not bad-looking, kinda nice, really, but nothing special. Longish but not-too-long medium-dark brown-hair, a little smaller than other boys in their class, slender like most of them were, nothing really special about him unless you liked the shy-boy look he wore like a glove. Maybe, seeing him as he got closer, thought, she needed to revise her thoughts about his looks. He wasn’t just average; he was better than that; his eyes had a bright gleam in them that showed intelligence, and overall, he qualified for almost cute. Very nice-looking indeed.
But he was just another boy, just another one who probably was afraid to ask a girl to the dance, she thought. She was surprised when he pulled out a chair across from her and sat down.
She looked up, and he took a deep breath. She could see him fighting with himself to maintain eye contact with her.
He’d been hoping she’d ignore him, open a book and give him time to settle down a little. Now he was breathing a little faster than normal, his adrenaline was kicking in, and he was afraid his voice might be two octaves higher than he wanted it to be. He didn’t have a deep voice to start with, and it tended to rise higher when he was nervous. He was afraid he might sound like he was six years old.
She was looking at him, though, and it felt like it was now or never. His courage wouldn’t last long, and small talk wasn’t something he was good at.
“Hey,” he said. Well, that was how you started, wasn’t it? He wasn’t sure. He’d never started a conversation with a girl he found attractive before. Certainly not one he was planning on asking out. Damn, he wished he’d never thought of that. Asking out. That was serious stuff, wasn’t it? A big deal, certainly.
She got a funny look on her face, but it wasn’t a contemptuous one, so he thought maybe it was okay. No way he could read it. “Hey,” she said back.
Now what? It was his turn again. Rats! She wasn’t saying anything else. It was up to him.
“Uh, well . . .” And that’s where he stopped. Stopped and blushed.
She was watching him. What she saw could be easily labeled: Nervous, Timid Boy. She didn’t know quite how to react. Kind, she thought, kind and low key, or he might die of fright, but that wasn’t it exactly. Encouraging, that was it! She needed to be encouraging. It seemed to her most boys needed to be encouraged.
“Yes?” she said, her tone of voice very pleasant. Actually, it sounded encouraging, he decided, like she was interested in what he had to say. Like she was interested maybe in him. It made it easier for him to continue.
But it was nowhere near encouraging enough for him to just come out with it. No, he still wasn’t sure he was capable of that. But she had made it a little easier, at least, to say something. And if he didn’t, if he just sat there looking at her or the table, he’d look like a doofus.
“Well, I wanted to ask you something.”
“Oh. Well, sure then. Go ahead. Ask.”
Her tone of voice was different that time, he thought. Not nearly so encouraging. There was more of a tinge of challenge in it. That’s what he’d heard. A challenge. What? Did she think he couldn’t ask without being dared to? Or was she the sort who wanted to compete with boys and was always wanting to challenge them? That wouldn’t work for him. Not at all. Maybe this was a big mistake.
She saw her blunder just as quickly as she said it, saw his face change. She quickly changed her tone and said, “I’d really like to know what it is you’re going to ask me,” and she said it very beseechingly and without a bit of challenge.
He looked at her, trying to read her face and her eyes, and got nowhere. But she did seem eager for him to ask, and so with a little more life in his own voice, he said, “Well, it isn’t all that easy, you know? Asking a girl something. I’ve never done it before, so, well, uh, it isn’t easy.”
“Yeah, so you say,” she said, but not in a mean way at all. She said it with a smile—and almost a giggle but not a giggle at him, more with him. Like she was sharing a joke with him, sharing the problem of asking a girl something.
If he read it any other way, like she was making fun of him, he’d have gotten up and walked away. No doubt about that. But it didn’t seem like that. It seemed like she was on his side almost and realized the situation was sort of funny. The situation, not him.
Still, he was the one having to do the asking, so whether she was on his side or not, it still wasn’t easy. And he rather wanted to say that again just so she’d understand, but he couldn’t. Not if he thought she was smart, and he did. Think that. But she’d already heard him say it and so would already understand it wasn’t easy, and saying it once again would be a little insulting, wouldn’t it? Yeah, it would, so he couldn’t say that. He had to say something else.
“Okay, we’ve established that,” he said. Then he looked down at the table. He’s trying to think what to say next, she thought. Can I help? Well, yes, I could, but he needs to do this, whatever it is, on his own. I can see that. That’s pretty clear. He’s trying to think what to say, and he’s also gathering his courage. That’s pretty clear, too. I should let him do it on his own so he can feel good about himself after he does it.
So she didn’t say anything, and he felt a prickling of sweat, and his breathing quickened, and he was sure his voice would rise in pitch when he spoke again, and he hated that. Hated it so much he got a little angry. Only a little. But it was enough to allow him to speak. Anger can help bolster courage.
“I, uh, that is, I want to, uh, well—” And then he chickened out. There was no getting around that, no other way to look at it. Chickened out. He just stopped talking.
“Want to what?”
Oops! What, she was getting frustrated with him? It sorta sounded that way. And if she was frustrated or even angry or impatient, she certainly wouldn’t say yes to going to the dance. Not with him, anyway. Why would she want to go to the dance with a kid who was so nervous just talking to her that he annoyed her? She wouldn’t. Not in his lifetime at least. Best if he quit while ahead. Just get up and walk out; that’s what his feet seemed to be telling him to do. And it wasn’t only his feet. His brain got into the act right then, too. ‘I need to leave. NOW.’ That’s what it was telling him.
She saw the gears crunching in his head, saw his body language, and realized she’d better do something or this kid was hitting the highway, and he’d be accelerating all the way out the library door.
“You know, you don’t have to be nervous. It’s just the two of us sitting here; we’re just talking politely to each other. We’re in the library, and they only let the monsters loose at night when all the kids are gone. Why anyone would be nervous around me, I have no idea. You’re Josh, aren’t you? You’re in my history class. I’m Katy.”
There. That ought to get him talking. And if it doesn’t, there’s no hope for this kid, she thought.
“I know who you are.” Then, in a moment of spontaneity brought on by the panic he’d been feeling, he continued with, “You don’t know me at all, though. You think I’m someone who has the courage to just walk up to a complete stranger and start talking to them? Huh? To a pretty girl? You might know my name, but you sure don’t know me.”
She caught that ‘pretty’ and suddenly felt pretty good. Good enough to want to keep the conversation going. “Well, you did walk over here and sit down. I’m not sure I’d call doing that courageous, but quite apparently you do, so I guess in that way, you did have the courage. Good for you. Facing scary old me and all.” She said that in a laughing way, and gave him a big smile, and what could he do after that? He had seen she was someone he could talk to without going all ape.
But he had no idea what to say now.
Katy saw that and said, “Why don’t you tell me why you were brave enough to come over here? There had to be something on your mind.”
“Well, yeah. I wanted to ask you something. And I told you it wasn’t easy.” There. He’d said it a third time, but he was proud of himself for working it in so smoothly. She was looking at him funny, though, so maybe it hadn’t been as unnoticeable as he’d hoped.
“Go ahead and ask,” she said.
He swallowed, realizing he’d put this off as long as he could. What was the saying, shit or get off the pot? Well, it was time. He just hoped he didn’t stink up the place doing it. That thought, so out of the blue and so unlike him, made him giggle, a very nervous giggle, but that was all he was capable of right then.
She didn’t say anything, and so he finally blurted it out. “I came over to ask you if you’d go to the dance with me on Friday.”
She was both relieved and frustrated. She’d been asked to the dance! Just what she’d wanted, hoped for. But too, this was what she’d been thinking about before he’d come to her table: why were boys like this so reluctant to ask? This one had been almost petrified. She didn’t get it. It made no sense at all. But then, maybe she could get the answer right here, right from this boy sitting in front of her. Well, why not take advantage of that? Why not ask him? No reason not to.
“Why was that so hard?” She saw the look on his face, but she on the starting blocks, starting on a roll and wasn’t to be distracted. “I don’t get boys. You guys find it so hard to ask a girl to a dance, and yet we girls love to be asked, wait to be asked, want to be asked. But you find it almost impossible to do so. All it is is asking! No big deal at all. You just did it. You see how easy it was. Not hard at all! But you fell all over yourself and took forever doing it! You can see that now, can’t you, see how easy it was? I didn’t bite your head off. Most girls won’t. I didn’t make fun of you. Girls want you to ask them. So why is it so hard? You told me it was me over and over. But then you did it, and it wasn’t, was it? So why be scared or nervous or need courage? Why?”
He was looking at her as she railed at him, and his nervousness was dissipating, and some of that earlier anger was coming back. For the first time since sitting down, he wasn’t nervous. He wasn’t mad enough to jump in and stop her; he had nowhere near that amount of courage, but he was able to talk to her now, and he did. He didn’t answer her question, though. There was no reason to do that. But he felt like he was on even ground with her now. That was, in itself, a giant leap forward. They were equals, boy and girl, and not a medieval stable boy talking to a queen and hoping she wouldn’t cut off his head for being so presumptuous.
Equals. Who’d have thought that could happen? But it had.
He sat up straighter and met her eyes. “Hey, you’re being very unfair, you know?”
She heard the change in him. He sounded less nervous, less tentative, and much more sure of himself. She saw it in his eyes, as well. Well, good, she thought, this is better. I can deal with this. “What do you mean, unfair? What’s unfair is that we girls have to wait for you guys, and you’re all mostly too scared to ask us. You want to explain that?” Okay, she was coming on strong, probably too strong for this kid, but this was who she was, and she hadn’t liked hiding that when speaking to him.
He didn’t back down. “Sure, we’re nervous. Not scared. Nervous. We have to lay ourselves open, asking you girls out. You just have to sit there and get to be in charge of our feelings. Guys have feelings, too, you know. Not all of us. Some guys, you shoot them down, they just laugh it off and go ask someone else. They’re full of themselves and can’t get hurt. But that isn’t the majority. Most of us have precarious feelings, and if we ask a girl out, it’s because we’re attracted to her. Asking a girl out means showing them we like them. So, it’s risky to ask someone we like out, giving them the power to hurt us, taking the chance on them not liking us at all. If they say no, it’ll hurt. That’s why we’re nervous, and it’s reasonable to be nervous. No one wants to be hurt.”
He didn’t stop there; he forged ahead. “But you’re smart. I know you’re smart. I’ve been watching you. I can’t imagine you don’t already know this. Why are you acting dumb? That’s what I want to know. And also, why, when I finally get the courage to ask you to the dance, how can you not even give me an answer? That’s disrespectful!”
That caught her by surprise, and she realized he was right. She hadn’t told him she’d be happy to go to the dance with him. She’d thought it obvious, but he had no way to read her mind, and he had to be wondering. She’d screwed that up for sure.
“I’m sorry,” she said and meant it. Her voice became much softer, much less challenging. “Thank you for asking me, and I’d love to go with you.”
She thought his face would light up in a big smile. She was disappointed and confused when it didn’t.
Josh was having an enlightened moment. He realized he’d lost his shyness for now, that he could say whatever he wanted to this girl. He’d never felt that before as long as he could remember. He was shy with adults, strangers, boys he didn’t know well and especially girls. But now, he felt he could say most anything at all. This girl had spoken rashly, even rudely, to him, and he felt the ability to give it right back to her. What a liberating feeling!
“You seem so sure of yourself. How can you be? I assume you’re 13, just like I am, and this stuff has to be as new to you as it is to me. Yet you act so confident, like you’ve got it all figured out. And you don’t. You don’t know me at all. How can you think you know what I’m feeling? You don’t even know why I was nervous asking you. You thought you knew, but you didn’t. And I’m thinking I may have made a mistake. I was hoping you’d be more like me—shy, a little reserved—and we’d get to know each other. I was thinking if we were alike, we could be friends. I liked the idea of going to the dance with you and becoming friends, but I wasn’t sure what you were like and was nervous I might have read you wrong. See? My nervousness wasn’t what you thought it was at all.”
“Hey, I’m nice. Okay, maybe I come on a little strong. Most girls are demure and act shy and diffident. I’ve never been like that. But I’m still nice.”
“And you’re smart. Just like I’d figured. Using words like that. That’s one of the things I thought I’d like about you. I like smart kids. It’s another thing I thought we’d have in common. But you’re way more outspoken than I am and not a bit shy.”
“You seem to be doing all right now.”
Josh snorted. “Yeah, and I don’t believe it myself. I don’t know how long this’ll last. I’ve never talked to anyone like this before. But you know, after a rough start, I’m enjoying this. It’s fun.”
“Well, if we’re going to the dance together, you’ll get used to me. I always talk like this, and now know you can, too. I talk about whatever I’m thinking. I guess you keep everything inside. That’s no way to live.”
“It feels right to me, hiding my feelings and thoughts.” Josh shook his head. “It’s for self-protection. What if I say something wrong or embarrassing, just blurt things out? I embarrass easily. I guess you missed the embarrassment gene.”
Katy smiled. “You should have seen me in Sex Ed last year. I was the only one not embarrassed. I asked questions. None of the other girls in there could say the word ‘penis’. Why not? You can say arm and toe; why not penis? It’s just another body part.”
Josh was trying hard not to blush. He had a hard time using that word out loud, and here a girl was doing it. With him!
“I could say vagina, too, and no one else in the class would even try. That was a great class. I’ll bet you were too shy to say a single word in there or ask any questions, either.”
Josh grinned. “I talked. Our teacher made us say all those words out loud together. I did feel funny doing it, though.”
“Well, going to a dance with me, you’ll probably get rid of some of that nervousness. Maybe even learn to say those words. And it might be the best thing for you. Look at it like this. You said you asked someone pretty and smart that you were attracted to, which means you like me, even if I’m not exactly who you thought I was. That means you’ll want to kiss me, and on our second date do even more. And you’ll probably do what the teacher said you’d do: your penis will get hard. But it won’t matter because you’ll be too embarrassed to do anything about it unless you spend a lot of time with me and get over all this unnecessary shyness.”
Josh couldn’t believe he was enjoying this conversation as much as he was. Why wasn’t he getting up and running away? Somehow, as outrageous as Katy was, he felt something for her. Perhaps it was the freedom she was evincing along with the thought that if he was with her, he could be the same way, sort of like he was being right then.
He felt good, good enough to try to tease her, which was entirely unlike the Josh he’d ever been. “I don’t think so. Boys only get like that—okay, I’ll say it, hard—when thoughts of sex are running through their heads, and why should I think that way with you? I said what I wanted was to be friends. Remember? Sex had nothing to do with it.”
“Sure it did. You found me attractive. That means you don’t only want to get to know me, you want it to go farther than that, don’t you? That’s what they told us in Sex Ed. They told us how horny you guys are and talked about all the stuff you guys want to do with us.”
Josh had to think how to answer that. With this girl, it seemed like ‘anything goes’ would be the right tactic. The problem was, Josh wasn’t an anything-goes kind of guy. Still, what did he have to lose, and if he was stretching his horizons, that was a good thing, wasn’t it?
So, he took a deep breath and asked, “Did any of those things they talked about sound like anything you wanted to do?” Then he surprised himself further by raising his eyebrows suggestively. ‘What in the world am I doing?’ he asked himself.
Katy laughed. “Of course. Sure they did. I’ve never done anything—well, anything with anyone else, I mean. Yeah, what they talked about excited me. I want to try those things.”
Josh blushed again. “Sounds to me like you’re going to be really, really popular, at least with the boys.”
“Well, don’t you want to do those things, too? That just makes us teenagers. I’m sure you do that one thing at home alone, too. They said all boys do.”
Josh was getting tired of having such a red face. “How can you talk about that?” he asked, both embarrassed and a little annoyed she could even be thinking something like that, something he did but hated anyone else knowing about. That this girl could think that, could possibly even picture him doing. No, it was too much. He looked down at the table rather than reply.
“Well, that’s what they said. I can’t believe you’re the one boy who doesn’t. You have to. I’m glad I’m a girl, though. It has to be expensive, buying all that lube.” Then she cracked up.
He looked up at her laughing, and it was a combination of embarrassment, anger and the sense of liberty he’d felt a moment ago that caused his lips to move and words come out he didn’t think he was capable of. “Probably less expensive than buying new batteries every week.”
He saw her jaw drop, and then the twinkle in her eyes come back full force. “Good for you,” she said. “Really, good for you, Josh. I thought you were too embarrassed to talk about it.”
“I think you’re a bad influence on me,” he said. “I can’t believe I said that.”
“Well, you did. You’re not as shy as I thought you were.”
“Not as shy as I thought I was, either,” he replied. And then watching her laugh, he couldn’t help it. He joined in.
She reached out and put her hand on his on the table. “I think you’ve already done what you said you wanted to do. I think we’re friends now. Only friends talk like this. And look. Friends trust each other. You probably don’t want me telling other kids what we talked about here, what you said to me, and I don’t want that, either. Can I trust you not to do that? You can trust me.”
Josh realized that, even with his embarrassment and sometime anger, he felt more alive than he could remember feeling in a long time and a lot better about himself, too. He was enjoying this! As strange as this whole conversation had been, he was enjoying the hell out of it!
He was feeling more sure of himself than he ever did, and it was because of her. Looking into her eyes, he saw what he was feeling in them. She was enjoying this, too, and she was asking him to be her friend.
“Yes, you can trust me. And because of that, and because I can trust you—and I do—then I’m going to tell you something I never planned to do. But if you’re going to trust me, I have to be honest. You do, too. Will you be honest with me?”
She nodded and squeezed the hand that was under hers. She didn’t speak, not wanting to break the mood.
He opened his mouth, thought better of what he was going to do, hesitated, then spat it out. “I asked you to the dance because I liked what I’d seen of you. I’m a little surprised to find out you’re much, well, livelier that I expected. What I’d seen was someone who was friendly, intelligent, congenial, but along with that, someone who seemed happy to be in the shadows, like I am, someone not trying to be noticed and popular like so many girls want to be.”
He was sort of hoping she’d jump in then, but she didn’t. She stayed quiet, as if she knew he had more to say and that he needed her to be still if he was going to get it out.
“I liked that reticence in you. See?” He stopped to smile. “I know words, too. I read a lot. I’ll bet you do, too. I find comfort in books. They’re not threatening. School can be, sometimes. Anyway, that’s why I asked you. I already told you I wanted to see if you could be a friend. We all need friends in school, and you looked perfect to me. Of course, I had other reasons as well, but I’ve said enough already. More than I ever thought I could. I never talk this much.”
He stopped and breathed. He didn’t feel he’d actually done that for all the time he’d been talking. He knew he must have but didn’t remember doing it at all.
Katy was studying him, which wasn’t quite as bothersome as he usually found it when someone did that. She looked at him with serious eyes, then said, “If there’s more, I want to hear it. Honesty, remember?”
He hesitated. He’d already gone much further than he thought possible. Still, he was enjoying this, and he did feel safe. “Okay,” he said, “but you might not like the rest of it.”
“Try me,” she said, and squeezed his hand again. “I’d like a friend, too, and having one who’s a boy would be even better. Especially a cute boy.”
Katy burst out laughing. “You, idiot. Don’t you know you’re cute?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Well, you are. Sort of a combination of cute and handsome. So there. Now tell me what I don’t want to hear.”
Josh shook his head. “Now I’m afraid to, because right now you like me a little, and after I say it, you won’t.”
“You don’t know that. There’s things about me you probably won’t like, too. We all have secrets we’re afraid other kids will find out. Usually they just accept them and move on. Anyway, you want to tell me; I can see that. So, find that courage again and tell me.”
Josh grimaced, then said, “Okay, but you’re going to hate it. See, I asked you to the dance for me, not for you. I needed someone to go to the dance with me to show everyone I’m not a nerd, that I wasn’t afraid to ask a girl out, and that I’m not the big nothing everyone thinks I am—that I think I am. I do think you’re pretty, and I do like your personality even if it’s not quite as . . . as what? Repressed? Maybe soft . . . at least as soft as I thought it was going to be. You’re fun talking to. But now you know. It wasn’t because I liked you that I asked you, though I did feel an attraction. I asked you because I wanted to improve my status at school. And, hopefully, maybe make a friend in the process.”
“Killing two birds, huh?”
Josh looked up. “You’re not angry?”
“No. That sounds like a good plan. You were using me, but not to my detriment. Sorry. My mom tells me not to talk like that.”
“I like the way you talk, the words you use. Detriment isn’t detrimental.” And then he laughed. He’d thought she’d be mad, and it was a relief that she wasn’t.
“You know, in a way, I was wanting to be asked for the same reason, so I could go to the dance, be seen with a boy, and not look like such a loner. So, we’re both guilty of the same thing, and it’s probably something a lot of kids there will be guilty of. I do have a question for you, though.”
She smiled at him. “Tell me who’d you have liked to ask.”
He wrinkled his forehead in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” she said, emphasizing the ‘mean’ as though he might be slow in the head, “we all have crushes on other kids. Might not be kids we know, but we look around and see kids and find some of them very attractive. You said that about me and asked me. But that was more of an attraction of someone who could be a friend. Who attracted you more? Who do you have a crush on? It’s someone you were afraid to approach, maybe because it would have hurt more if they’d said no. It wouldn’t have hurt that badly if I’d said no, because romance wasn’t what you were thinking about with me. Who do you like that way that you didn’t ask?”
Josh’s mouth fell open. “Hey, you can’t ask me that!”
“Sure I can. We’re friends now. Friends tell friends who they’re crushing on.”
“Ha! I knew it. Don’t feel bad. I have crushes, too. I’ll tell if you will.”
“Un-uh. No way.”
“Because? Now you sound like you’re five.”
“I’m leaving,” Josh said and pushed back in his chair.
“Okay, okay, hold on. Don’t go. I didn’t mean to upset you. I thought it would be fun, sharing who we’re crushing on. But I can see the idea wouldn’t be fun for you at all. I have an idea why, but if I say it, that’ll upset you, too. So, I won’t.”
Josh pulled his chair back to the table, still upset, but not wanting to leave, either. He’d never had someone like this to talk to before. He looked up at her, looked into her eyes, and saw compassion. No teasing at all.
“Why do you think I don’t want to tell?” he asked, sounding very timid, the confidence he acquired in the last few minutes suddenly gone.
Katy hesitated. Then she laid her hand on Josh’s arm again. “The only reason I can think of why you wouldn’t want to tell me is because you’re crushing on a boy. Hey, Josh, that doesn’t bother me. In fact, I kinda like it. Having a gay friend would be cool. So, if that’s it, don’t worry. I won’t tell a soul. It’ll be our secret until you’re ready to come out. You look worried. Don’t be, please.”
Josh was worried. More than worried, really; he was scared. He’d never told anyone what he felt. Now someone was guessing his darkest secret, and it was this girl he didn’t know at all. He lowered his eyes. His heart was beating too fast again.
Katy was silent, just watching him. Finally, he looked up at her. “I don’t know if I’m gay or not,” he said. “But I do get crushes on boys.”
“That’s what we were told was normal, Josh. I know I get crushes on cute girls as well as boys. But what I guess you’re saying is, you might be gay, but you’re not sure?”
“Well, who’s the boy you’ve got the crush on?”
Should he tell her? What if she told him? Or anyone, for that matter. But then, he realized, she already could ruin him. What difference did it make if he told her? The good thing about doing that would be he could talk about it. He’d been holding it in so long.
“Zach Sanders,” he said, looking at her to see her reaction.
“Oh, he’s cute. Really cute. But he seems awfully shy. More than even you. He went to my elementary school. You know, it’s possible he’s gay, too. We all speculated about that. I think he is. He doesn’t talk much, I’ll say that.”
“I think that’s why I’m so attracted to him. He’s like I am. I think we could be good friends, and then, if he’s gay, well . . .” Josh blushed, and Katy laughed.
“You know, boys are supposed to experiment. You two, if you experiment and find you both like it and like each other, well, maybe that’ll help you decide if you are gay or not. And I know the best way to find out if he might like you, too.”
“Well, you’re taking me to the dance, crush or no crush. You asked, I accept, and it’s a done deal. Carved in stone, now. But, when we’re there, if this dance is like the ones we had in elementary school, at least some of the dances will be group dances, and if you get next to him, you can pretend you’re dancing with him. If he likes you, he’ll see that and his face will light up, or he’ll blush, or he’ll get all nervous, and, well, I know you’re both shy, but you can at least talk to him then. When that dance is over, tell him you’re thirsty and ask if he wants something to drink. That’ll be the beginning. No one will know anything but that you two are getting a drink together. It’ll be perfect. But—and this is a big but—you’re taking me home. But get his phone number, give him yours, and call him afterwards.”
Josh couldn’t help himself. He began smiling. It was a plan. He’d had no idea how to get with Zach. Now he could see a way where he could.
There was just one problem. What if Zach wasn’t going to the dance? Josh’s smile faded.
“We have to find a way to make sure Zach goes to the dance. If he’s as shy as I think he is, he probably won’t be going.”
Katy thought for a moment. Then she smiled. “Leave that up to me. I have some ideas and think I can make sure he’ll be there. If he’s shyer than you, it’ll take some doing, but I can be devious if I need to be.”
“So, you’re pretty and smart, and you’re devious, too. I like that in a girl!”
Katy laughed and laughed, and Josh ended up doing so as well. He felt so much better now than when he’d come over, worried about talking to Katy. Now, he had what he thought would turn out to be a good friend and a chance, a good chance, he might find a way to have much more.
I walked into the classroom, raised my eyes enough to see where Terry and Jim were, then took a route to the back of the room where I wouldn’t have to pass near them. They were saying something to Gloria, something she was ignoring just as she was pretending that they weren’t even there. Of course, that just encouraged them but helped me. They didn’t notice me, which was my focus. It was often my focus: being invisible. That worked best for me.
It was English, freshman English, and while most of us hated learning about sentence structure and parts of speech and rules of punctuation, I enjoyed it. That made me weird, of course, but I was already known as a weird kid, so this was just one aspect of that. I liked math, too. That wasn’t quite as weird because several kids enjoyed math, but it still didn’t put me out of the majority. I don’t think I was in the majority with most anything at school.
My main area of difference, of course, was that most of the kids were straight. I wasn’t. I hadn’t told anyone that, but I had the feeling most of them suspected. They certainly understood I was different in many ways. Maybe some of them had connected the dots and thought that I was gay, too. If so, though, no one had accused me of it. But then, I did operate mostly under the radar. Probably no one thought about me much at all, which could mean no one had gone far enough thinking about me to wonder if I might be gay. No one cared enough about me to wonder that. Which was fine with me.
Being invisible meant I was a loner, but that was all right as well. My main thing, what I liked doing more than anything, was reading. Reading allowed me to escape from myself. Allowed me to take the role of hero in adventure tales. Allowed me to defend myself capably when I had to. None of the guys in the books just rolled up in a ball and waited for the punching and kicking to stop when they were being bullied. They never were bullied. No one called them names or pushed them up against hallway lockers or knocked their books out of their hands. None of them were scared when they were walking home from school. No one laughed at them. And for a while, I got to be them. I liked reading.
I read other kinds of books, too: histories and biographies and wildlife stories, sci-fi and fantasy. I wished I could find romantic stories about gay kids in school, kids like me, but the school library didn’t have any of those, and I didn’t have any way to get to the main library downtown. Maybe they didn’t have any of that kind of book there, either.
I wished we had more money. It was only Mom and I. My dad left when I was six. He and Mom were always arguing, some of the time about me. I guess I liked to play with dolls then. I had dolls to play with because my mom got a kick out of buying them for me, along with other toys like dollhouses and tea sets and such. Dad got livid seeing me play with them. At least Mom never had me dressing up in girls’ clothing or putting makeup on. I think he’d have come unglued if she’d done that.
But it wasn’t her fault that I’m gay. I liked playing with those things, but I didn’t feel like a girl. I would have been embarrassed wearing girls’ clothes. No, I was a boy and knew I was a boy, and I liked being a boy. I just wasn’t really good at doing boys’ things. That made it hard to make boy friends. They liked doing rough-and-tumble things, and I didn’t. They were good at sports, and I wasn’t. I gravitated to the girls in kindergarten and first and second grades. By third grade, the sexes in school seemed to separate. The girls started just being with the girls, which left me with the boys, and I didn’t fit in well there.
That’s when I got to be a loner. I didn’t like being alone at all at first, but trying to do what the boys did usually left me getting hurt and then belittled for being so bad, and that’s when the teasing started, along with stuff worse than being teased. Boys can be bullies at all ages. It started for me in third grade.
But I survived. Most kids, even the bullied ones, do. I learned a valuable skill: invisibility. It involved not making eye contact, knowing which kids to avoid, knowing which kids to stay close to in the halls for protection, learning how not to have to visit the boys’ room during the day by not drinking much, not wearing conspicuous clothing, not saying much in class, not joining conversations, that sort of thing.
Gym was the worst. It’s hard to stay under the radar there. Your differences seem to show up the worst there. But you learn strategies there, too. They’re not 100% effective in keeping you out of harm’s way, but they’re better than not having them at all. Making friends with the gym teacher is high on the list; you can do that, even if he’s a grouch, by showing him you’re trying to do what’s asked, even if you’re not succeeding, and by asking him for tips on how to get better. Getting to know a couple of the bigger kids in the class helps, too.
Lunch is also difficult. But there are always shy kids, nerdy kids, kids that are also different, and you can sit with them.
So, I got by. At 13, it looks like it might be harder now. The bullies have gotten better at bullying, for one thing, and they’re always looking for victims. Terry and Jim are the worst. They’re a team and come at you from two different sides at once. One will talk to you, draw your attention, and the other will attack from your blind side, doing whatever the two of them decided to do this time. They’re good at attacking when no one is around, at least no one who might care. They’ve done all sorts of things to me already, and the school year is only a couple of weeks old. For one thing, I learned not to wear jeans without a belt, and to wear underwear that’s hard to pull down. And that screaming as loud as I can scares them away.
But that was something I learned the hard way. I’d been walking to the computer lab in the basement not long ago. I was late, it was almost time for the late bell because I’d been avoiding someone in the hall, taking time I didn’t really have, and now I was one of only a few people left in the hall: a couple of girls and one boy. The door to the classroom was in sight, and I was going to make it when a voice yelled, “Hey, kid. You with the funny shirt!”
I made the mistake of stopping and turning as the shout had obviously been directed at me. Most boys wore tee shirts. I always wore shirts with collars. Just another way I was different. But I liked to look good, and tee shirts to me were a bit ugly, plain, unstylish and not at all me.
I stopped, and there was Terry. “Look at this,” he said and reached into his backpack. That was when Jim came up behind me and, in one fell swoop—fell being the operative word—yanked my jeans and briefs down, all the way down to my ankles.
It isn’t that easy pulling that stuff up, especially if you’re trying to do it with one hand, the other hand being busy covering your junk. It was impossible with no hands, and that’s the condition I was suddenly in, because Jim put his foot on what he’d yanked down and his hands on my elbows, pulling them back. There was nothing I could do but what I did. I thought, ‘the hell with this’, and screamed. I was close enough to that classroom door that I knew I’d be heard. They knew it, too, and both of them skedaddled. Then I pulled up my pants as well as I could, and, while doing so, saw the two girls looking at me. At the parts of me that are supposed to be private.
I guess in the grand scheme of things a 13-year-old boy’s equipment isn’t all that impressive, and I must say, that’s one area where I pretty much match my peers. Unimpressive to the max. Those two girls gave me a good looking over. I could see they weren’t impressed. They looked, they didn’t look away, but there was no gaping or swooning or shortness of breath. No blushing, no eyes half closing in sexual rapture. No rushing up to me to ask for my phone number. But my invisibility helped as it always did: had those two girls been fascinated by my equipment and wanted to get to know me—and it—up close and personal, what would I have done then, being gay and all?
Of course, Terry and Jim had laughed as they were scurrying away like the rats they were. And I was suitably embarrassed and angry. But I learned to make my pants very hard to dislodge and my parts suitably unviewable.
I was late to class, and the teacher started chewing me out as I walked through the door; he hadn’t even bothered to see what the scream was all about. He probably thought my red face was because of his nattering at me, if he thought about it at all; I didn’t bother to explain that it wasn’t from his fussy chitchat.
So, okay. I was different, I was a loner, but I was getting by like I always had. I was beginning to notice a problem, though, one that I hadn’t had before. I’d been quite comfortable with myself. The gay part hadn’t bothered me. I mean, if you’re left-handed, does that bother you? The few left-handed kids I’d met were happy, proud even, that they were special in that way. I knew a kid who had a hazel eye on the left and a green eye on the right, and he went to lengths to show you and talk about it. Neither of them was embarrassed; neither of them hid their differences, either. Well, I wasn’t a bit ashamed that I liked boys. It was who I was, a part of me. I did hide it, though. To me—a timid kid who didn’t like confrontations and had no idea how to fight—it wouldn’t have been sensible to tell people I was gay when I knew people didn’t treat that the same as they did different handedness or different eyedness,.
No, the problem I was experiencing wasn’t that I was gay. I actually thought that was pretty neat. I had crushes on boys, and no one noticed because all the boys were busy looking at all the girls, not at me. But the problem was those crushes. I hadn’t felt the need to do anything about the crushes before this. Now, at 13, I guess the hormones we’d been told about were playing the tricks they were famous for. I felt the need, now, to move out of my shell, to actually get to know someone I had a crush on. That, of course, ran diametrically opposite to my desire to be invisible.
I had no idea how to do anything about this. But as the days went by, as were the cute boys going by, it was causing me a problem: just a small part of it being the fact I was getting tired of having a sore wrist every morning. I wanted some other boy to get that sore wrist with me. But I hadn’t the foggiest clue of how to accomplish that.
I discovered that the table at which I usually ate lunch was full when I went into the cafeteria. Dammit! It’s hard to be invisible when you’re eating by yourself. But I didn’t have much choice. I was too shy to barge in on a group of kids where there was an empty seat. That left an empty table, and while the thought of skipping lunch occurred to me, I was a normal teen in one respect: I was starving by the time lunch rolled around. My stomach was letting me know if I denied it food, it would go into a full-scale rebellion.
At least I could pick a seat with my back to the rest of the room. I’d be seen but still be pretty much incognito. I found a place near the back that would serve that purpose and plunked my tray down. I hadn’t even started eating before another tray was set on the table. Next to mine. I looked up.
“Hi, I’m Katy,” she said, smiling at him. He looked up only long enough to see who it was, recognized her as one of the hundreds of girls at the school who were unknown to him, then dropped his gaze back to his tray. He didn’t speak.
“And you are . . . ?” She let the question hang pregnantly in the silence. She waited. Nothing.
“Oh, come on. If you were mute, everyone would know about you. So, you can’t be mute. You must just be shy then. That’s the only reasonable explanation for not answering. But you’re in good hands here. I get shy. I understand it. I know shy kids. And let me tell you, I always get them to talk. Sometimes by being outrageous enough that they forget themselves and respond. Sometimes by being loud; shy kids hate loud because of the attention it brings. And sometimes, well, it’s mean, I know, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So, on those occasions, when nothing else has worked and I’m growing frustrated, I’ve been known to become the tickle monster. No one can endure that without opening their mouths either in a giggle or a guffaw or a shriek. Any of the above work, because then they’re mad enough to forget to be shy. So, which of those should I begin with? Huh? Huh?”
Then she laughed, trying to take the sting out of what she’d said, hoping for a verbal response.
Zach was thinking. That was one of the reasons Katy’s soliloquy had run as long as it had. She’d prolonged what she had to say to give him time to think and hopefully give him time to build up enough courage to speak.
It worked. All the threats she mentioned would be awful, much more awful than giving her his name. “I’m Zach,” he said, speaking softly.
“Hah! It worked. Always does. Now, you probably remember me from elementary school. I remember you; I already knew your name; I was just loosening you up. Anyway, you probably stayed far away from me at school back then because you knew how I was. Well, I still am, but I’m older and more sensitive, and I need to talk to you without you running away. So, if you can, please trust me. I may be outspoken and at times outrageous, but I’m also kind and compassionate. And I need you to talk to me. Can you do that?”
Zach gave her a quick look, didn’t see any reason to talk but realized that, Katy being who she was, he wouldn’t get away with ignoring her. So, he answered without speaking. He nodded, then picked up his fork.
“Dang, I knew you were smart! I could just tell, and nodding proves it. To me it proves you’re smart and a wee bit assertive; a meek and mild kid would have just said yes and let it go at that. You were tweaking me a bit, and I deserved it, so the score’s now Zach 1, Katy 0. Good job.” She raised her hand and said, “High-five, and if you leave me hanging . . .” Then she growled menacingly while letting her eyes twinkle.
The twinkling did nothing because Zach’s eyes were on his food, then at Katy’s raised hand, then back at his food. The gears in his head were going a mile a minute, though.
He’d never high-fived anyone in his life. That was boy stuff and often had to do with some athletic achievement, and so he’d never had the opportunity. But it always looked both happy and fun, and, well, here was a chance. So, not looking at Katy, he reached up and slapped her hand, then blushed.
“That was great, Zach.” Katy’s voice changed when she said that. Now it was softer, less aggressive, more compassionate. “And I’m sorry for butting in like this. I do have a reason, though. You’re not going to like it much, but, well, you know me, both before and now, and I know you, and I’m much more harmless than I probably seemed. But I need a favor from you. One you’ll say no to: no way, absolutely not, forget-about-it no. But it’s something I can guarantee you you’ll be happy you said yes to in the end. And I’ll probably nag you till you do say yes, so it’s best if you just agree right away. Okay? Is it a yes?”
She knew he’d have to respond to that, and he did. “Yes to what? You never said.”
“That’s right, I didn’t,” she said and slapped her forehead, though she’d left out explaining for just this reason. “Silly me. Okay, but remember, while you’ll hate the idea at first, you have to think about it, and you will enjoy yourself if you say yes. I want you to come to the freshman dance Friday night. It’ll do me a favor because I’m afraid not too many boys are coming. I’m trying to ask all the ones I think might not come. You’re one of those. But the dance is so people get to know each other. Freshmen get to know other freshmen. Zach, it’ll make your first year here so much better if you at least know who your classmates are and they know who you are. Freshmen who go to the dance will have much better street creds than those who don’t. You’ll get to see all the other cute kids who are there, too. Yeah, I said ‘other’ because you’re cute, too. You might not even know it, but you are. And you won’t be alone. I’ll be there, and I’ll dance with you even if it’s just so you don’t spend the evening sitting against a wall.
“The dance will be for a lot of people who are as shy as you are but are making an effort. Wouldn’t you like to be known as one who made an effort? Come on. Please? I want to make sure there are boys and girls at the dance. If nothing else, it’ll give you a chance to see kids in a different mode than their school-going posture. And maybe you’ll be able to get a crush or two on some of them. Crushes are great fun. But I probably don’t have to tell you that. So, would you make someone—me in fact—really happy and say yes?”
Katy was 100% sure Zach would say no. This was a scouting foray, a get-to-know-the-enemy initial skirmish. When he said no, the nagging and encouraging and browbeating would commence. She was sure she could wear him down. But she had a couple of aces up her sleeve to try before resorting to any of that. They might do the trick; if he had any gumption in him at all, they should do the trick. If not, her final confrontation, the day of the dance, would be to tell him if he didn’t come, she’d continue the onslaught every day till the next dance. She was sure he’d prefer most anything to that.
Zach had had plenty of time to think while Katy had been in the middle of her inveiglement. He’d realized, over and above all the negative, fearful vibe his entire body was sending him, that this could lead to the solution to the problem he’d been having. This could indeed do that, could put it to bed. All he had to do was move out of his comfort zone. Yeah, that would be hard, but it would start with one fairly easy, first little baby step. A step into the school gym with a bunch of other freshmen. What would happen next, well, who could tell? He was 13, and dreaming was a big part of his life. So he decided to say yes as she blathered on.
When she stopped, when it was his turn, he nodded his head, met her eyes, and said, “No.” He surprised himself, but that ‘yes’ just didn’t want to come out. He just couldn’t do it. His shyness was too well entrenched. With all the positive thinking he’d just done, he still couldn’t do it.
Katy could see the turmoil Zach was feeling, read it in his eyes. He kept meeting her eyes, then dropping his, over and over, and gave the impression of someone squirming in his chair, even though he wasn’t actually moving. She watched him for a moment, then decided it was ace time. Time to use both aces, in fact.
“You want to say yes, don’t you?” she said in her empathetic voice.
“I think so, too. Look, I know you a little. From elementary school. You were shy back then, too. But you’re cute, way cute, and the girls all talked about you. Some even flirted with you; you acted like you never even noticed, and maybe you didn’t. We decided you were probably gay. I don’t know one way or another, but if you are, you have to be wondering how you’ll ever meet another boy who’s gay, seeing how shy you are. But that has to be on your mind. Well, you don’t have a chance of meeting anyone if you don’t get out and mingle with other boys. This dance is a chance to do that. You don’t even have to dance. Just show up. Be there. Be seen. Then your opportunities are improved. Get out on the dance floor and they’re improved even more. That’s one reason, a good one, to go.”
Zach was looking at his lunch tray and not saying a word. Okay, thought Katy, now for my last ace.
“And if that isn’t enough, I’ll give you even greater incentive. You’re the one who got pantsed a couple of weeks ago, aren’t you? The one Terry and Jim have been tormenting. They do something every couple of days. Well, how about this? I get them to stop, to leave you alone, and you’ll show your gratitude by coming to the dance, which is something you want to do anyway. How about it? Deal?”
Zach sat up a little straighter. “How would you do that?”
She ignored the question. “Deal?” she repeated.
Zach hesitated, but not for long. The thought of those two leaving him alone was too good to turn down. “Okay,” he said, “but I don’t think you can do it.”
“Watch,” she said. “I’m going to talk to them right now, and I’ll have them nod at you, meaning they agree to stop with the harassment. First, though, tell me the last time they did something, what it was, and how many other kids were around.”
“It was yesterday. In the hall between 3rd and 4th period. Terry knocked the books I was carrying on the floor, and Jim yanked my hands behind my back and used plastic wrist-restraints to secure them there. Then they laughed and walked away. It only took them about five seconds. There was nothing I could do. I was helpless. There were other kids walking by. Most of them either ignored me or laughed and ignored me. One boy who looked to me like a senior was nice enough to stop. He managed to get me loose.”
“Okay. That’s perfect. I got this now.” She got up, looked around the cafeteria, located Terry and Jim, and took off walking toward them.
They were sitting with two other guys, guys on the football team. All four of the boys were older than Katy and quite a bit larger, neither of which was a concern to her. She walked up to their table, pulled out a chair and sat down. She was facing the two boys, they were facing her, and so their faces were visible to Zach, who’d turned around and was watching Katy.
Katy stared at the two boys. The entire table was silent, none of the boys sure what was happening. “Okay, I have a deal for you two idiots. You do know that there’s a zero-tolerance policy here for bullying, don’t you? Sure, you do; you signed the form like we all did. So you know if there’s proof of bullying, you’re out the door. And if there is proof of one incident, what will happen if all of them were to be exposed?
“I’m talking about Zach here. That little deal where you exposed Zach’s privates will be brought up, and that may be determined to be a sex crime. You do not want a sex crime on your record. But if a school administer hears about one, he’s required to report it to the police.”
She let that bounce around in their heads for a moment before continuing. “Well, guys, I have proof you’ve been bullying Zach. Just a coincidence, but sometimes you get lucky. I got a new phone a few days ago and am still learning what it can do and how to do it. Yesterday, I found out how to take videos and was testing it by taking one of my friend Zach in the halls, walking toward me. What I recorded was you guys bullying him.”
She stopped to let that sink in, which she saw happen as they turned to look at each other. Then she said, “Zach’s shy, as you know. He doesn’t want to go to the vice principal with this and then have to be involved in all that would follow. So, because of that, I have a deal for you. For me, I’d rather get you guys kicked out. You’re scum. You’re picking on a guy like Zach who can’t fight back. But I’m going to let you off the hook. All you have to do is leave him entirely alone from now on. No contact, no notes, no name calling, no bullying by proxy—nothing. You do that, I don’t show the video to anyone. You pick on him again, inside or outside school, the video goes live. You have five seconds to decide. Deal or no deal?”
Then she started counting. “One, two, three—”
“Deal,” said Terry. Jim just looked like he was going to be sick.
“Okay. To seal it, both of you nod at Zach, sitting in the back of the room. And if you even scowl, the deal’s off.”
Both boys located Zach and nodded to him. Katy got up and returned to the table where he was sitting.
Zach was looking like he’d just witnessed a miracle. Then he started eating his lunch. Katy watched for a moment, then started eating her lunch, too. After a few moments, she looked over at Zach, smiled, and said, “Now, about this dance, I do know that at least one gay boy will be there. That’s all I’m saying. Nothing about who he is. Just that he’ll be there and . . .” She let her voice fade, and Zach said nothing. The nothing, Katy noticed, included no denial that he was gay.
The school gym was festooned with balloons and streamers. Tables on each side sported punch and cookies and pastries. Lots of cookies and pastries. The party coordinators knew their audience.
The lights were dimmed and accented by red and blue spotlights that had been brought in and set around the edges of what tonight was the dance floor. There were chairs scattered around the edges, too, but not many. The hope was that the kids would spend the night on their feet, dancing and mingling.
The kids were noisy, full of energy and excitement. While no one was dressed in formal attire, the girls wore outfits that were nicer than their everyday school duds. Some of the boys dressed just like they did during the week at school: jeans, tees and sneakers. There were other boys who had dressed in better clothes. Zach wore his normal polo shirt, but one that was brighter than his normal gear. He’d dithered and sweated over this choice and finally decided with all the kids packed in that gym, he’d still be mostly invisible no matter what he wore. So, he’d picked a turquoise shirt that brought out the blue in his very dark eyes. He coupled the shirt with a pair of ironed chinos and lace-up leather shoes, shined. He’d brushed his hair back and then worried he’d spent too much time getting ready, too much time trying to look his best. His mother oohed and aahed and insisted on pictures before he left. She was shocked that he’d said he was going to the dance. And very, very pleased.
Josh, perhaps intentionally, perhaps only subconsciously, had chosen a shirt that was similar. He had several polo shirts but never wore them to school because most of the other boys didn’t. But for the dance, he’d chosen a dark brown one with white piping around the collar and the ends of the short sleeves; the shirt went nicely with his hair color. He chose light-tan slacks to contrast with shirt, and new, white sneaks.
Because the town’s population was waning, as was occurring in many medium- and small-sized rural towns, the city administrators in concert with the school board had closed the middle school and extended classes at the elementary school to include students up through the seventh grade, then sent eighth graders to the high school for the rest of their el-hi education. This saved the town the cost of maintaining a separate building, running more buses, having two separate cafeterias, more janitors than needed; all this made for substantial savings for the school district. It also meant the eighth-grade class at the high school was now the freshman class there.
There’d been some complaints from a few traditionalists in the school system; they wanted to keep the high school as a four-year program, and they used as one argument that having five years of instruction would necessitate the loss of the long-established class descriptions of freshman, sophomore, junior and senior. What would they call the extra class now that they were calling eighth graders freshmen, they asked?
This was the type of poser that confounded many but was solved easily by the principal, a man who liked to get things done and move on, especially when the things needing to be done were, in his opinion, frivolous. He settled the matter by naming the ninth-grade class—the class that had originally been sophomores—junior sophomores.
The kids filling the freshman class came from four elementary schools and so didn’t know many of their new classmates. The dance was planned to help get everyone acquainted.
Josh and Zach were both there. Zach was oblivious to what was around him, his eyes mostly on the floor; he was both excited and scared to be there. Josh had located Zach early on and knew exactly where he was. He’d stationed himself nearby, close enough to keep his eyes on him but far enough away that if Zach noticed him at all, he’d be just another kid in the crowd. Josh was shy, too, just not in the same league as Zach.
When the number of kids arriving at the gym had dwindled, an older kid wearing pressed jeans and a shiny, button-up shirt climbed up on a small stage, a platform just big enough for three or four people. He had a handheld microphone.
“Hey guys, welcome! Glad to see so many of you. I’m your DJ for the evening. My name is Steve Maynard, and I’m a junior here. We’ll get the music started very soon, but I want to say a few introductory words first.”
The kids on the floor quieted and all turned to look at Steve.
“I was one of you just three years ago. You’ll be amazed how quickly those three years have passed and even more by how you’ll be different people when they have. Three years ago, when I was a freshman like you, I was shy. I was very shy. That was the first year the middle school was closed. All us kids were your age, and we all came here not knowing what to expect. What we discovered was, well, it was great. You’ll find it great. During those years I went from a shy kid afraid of most everything to who I am now, a kid who can stand before a group like this and enjoy being here. This happened mostly because of all the kids I was with and also the teachers and activities the school provided.
“A teacher encouraged me and twisted my arm and got me to join a club, the audio-visual club in my case, and there I met a lot of kids with the same interests I had. I had a great time there, and that led to my joining other clubs. Once I knew a lot of kids, I learned we were much more alike than we were different, and my shyness started to fade. I hope that happens for you guys, too, because being shy sucks. I’m sorry if that word offends anyone, but it’s the right word. Being shy sucks.”
He stopped and looked around. The kids were all silent.
“If you’re shy, you probably hate it. And maybe you even hate yourself because of it. Well, I hope we can do something about that tonight. You’re here, and that’s a giant first step to getting over the fear and loneliness that goes along with the shyness. Hey, I know all about it. I was you three years ago. Now I can get up here and talk to you all. I couldn’t have done that in a million years when I was thirteen and shy. The trick is to meet people. Force yourself to do that. Do it and you’ll get better, you’ll be happier, and you’ll like yourself more.
“I just have one more thing to say. We have all kinds of kids at this school. You’re all many kinds of kids. And you’ll all fit in here. You’re all the same in one regard: you’re all freshmen at East View High School. Individually, you’re different. Some are white, some black, some Latino, some gay, some uncertain. You are jocks, art freaks, band nerds, and all those pejorative terms—‘pejorative’ means not so nice—we can throw out the window. Kids who play instruments and are in the band, they’re kids. Just like all the rest of you in many more ways than they aren’t. It’s the same with all those labels.
“I’m like you. I didn’t know that three years ago. Back then, I’d never spoken to a black kid. I had no idea that they were the same as me. But they are. My best friend now is a black guy who’s a fantastic artist. I suck at art. But he’d never get up and talk to you guys like I’m doing. So, we’re different in a few ways and alike in many more. He’s smart and funny and my best friend.
“Why am I going on like this? Because there are certainly some gay kids in the crowd tonight. Both boys and girls. And what I’d love to see, really love, is them dancing together tonight and the rest of you noticing but ignoring them, just in the way boy-and-girl couples will be noticed and ignored because they’re normal. It’s just as normal for the gay kids to be together. At this school, all kids are welcome. There really isn’t any ‘them’ here, just us.”
The room was still quiet, but now the kids were looking around, looking at each other.
“Okay, let’s get started,” Steve resumed. “We’re going to dance tonight! Even you guys that say you can’t dance, you’re going to dance, and you’re going to enjoy it. First, I’m going to play you a song you might know but probably don’t, as it was first performed in 1951. Yeah, that’s a long time ago! But it’s more appropriate than anything else I can think of for tonight and fits the theme of this dance. We’ll get started right after the song is through. Then, for the first dance, no partners. You’ll all be on your own, following me.”
With that, the lights dimmed more, and over the loudspeaker came the voice of Julie Andrews singing Getting to Know You.
The song was about a teacher getting to know her new class of kids, getting to like them and hoping they’d like her. About everyone learning who everyone was and the good feelings that came with this.
That was followed immediately by music much more familiar to the kids and with the volume turned up a notch. Booming bass and drums setting the rhythm, metal guitars and brass pushing ahead—all complemented by a thumping beat almost demanding the audience move with it.
Steve had the volume on his amplifier turned up so he could be heard over the racket. “Everyone, with me, follow me: raise your arms and shake them. Shake ’em!” He raised his and shook them like a crazy man. The kids in the room, smiling and laughing at what they were seeing, followed suit.
“Now, keep your arms up and wiggle your hips. Wiggle ’em! Like this!” And his crazy man act got crazier. Arms shaking, hips wiggling, he was a picture of, well, not dancing but having fun expressing his feelings.
Steve continued in that vein, but first, he pointed to a couple of kids on the floor and had them join him on the stage, telling them to do what he was demonstrating to the crowd so the kids could witness some of their own doing what they were doing and looking just as awkward as their classmates on the floor. Steve segued into getting one leg going, then the other, getting his hips to gyrate rather than wiggle, getting the kids jumping in place, first on one leg, then both, then turning around in full circles. Finally, the music stopped, and Steve shouted and clapped, and the audience copied him like they had the dance moves, setting up a roar in the gym that echoed, making the room even louder.
“All right, all right, that was great!” Now we’re doing something else. You’re all mixed together. I want you all to slowly turn around, all the way around. While doing that, you’ll come face to face with a whole lot of kids. Each time you’re facing someone, I want you to stick out your hand and say, “Hi, I’m Alice,” unless, of course, your name isn’t Alice. Whatever your name is, use it, because that’s what the kids you meet will remember. And boys, yeah, it’s all right to shake hands with girls. And girls, it’s okay to stick your hands out to be shaken. Okay, NOW! Go to it.”
The kids did, with lots of embarrassed laughing. When Steve saw they were about done, he said, “Okay, now we’ll have another group dance. No partners, just dance. You know how now, even you boys who say you can’t. You just did it a minute ago, so that excuse don’t fly no more. Here we go.”
The music started again, a popular song with a beat, song they all knew, and before they had a chance to think, they were all moving with the music.
Steve kept the mood light and the dancing fun. After two more group dances, he told them he was taking a break because he’d been working too hard, which got a laugh, and for them to hit the refreshment tables if they were so inclined.
Josh was disappointed. He hadn’t been close enough to Zach to be in the group he introduced himself to. When he was in line to get some punch, he saw Katy a couple of kids behind him. He moved back so he could talk to her.
She spoke first, though. “Did you speak to him?”
“No, darn it. But I’ll get closer next time. Maybe the DJ will do something else that makes us meet people, and this time I’ll be ready.”
“Okay, but if he doesn’t make it easy for you, suck up your gut, take the bull by the horns, find that spark in you that allowed you to talk to me in the library, and make what you want to happen, happen.”
The mood in the gym was light and happy. Steve had gotten that going, and the crowd had fed on it. When he got back on the stage and called the kids back on the floor, they all were ready for more dancing. “Okay guys, this time something different. Remember, this is a getting-to-know-you dance. That’s why we’re here. Have you been enjoying yourselves?” He held the mic out toward the room, inviting a response. He got one: a roar of approval.
“Okay, so follow through with this one and you’ll have more fun. Trust me. What I want you to do is dance like you’ve just been, all by yourself but with a group of kids around you. Then, when I yell, whoever is right in front of you, no matter what sex, dance with them. Tell them your name and dance. Each partner, put your hands on the other partner’s shoulders, look them in the eye, and dance! This is a slower number, so it’s not a jumping around and wiggling your posterior dance, it’s a shuffle your feet and be aware of your partner and a what-he-or-she-is-doing kind of dance. Then, when I shout again, switch with someone else that’s nearby, tell them your name, and we’ll continue on and on like that. Okay, let’s begin.”
The music started up, and the kids started jerking around, and when Steve yelled, “Grab a partner, they all did, and the music immediately changed to a slower, more gentle and melodic tune. He only allowed them to dance for a minute, then yelled, “Switch!”
Josh saw what was happening and moved closer to Zach. He didn’t get with him on the first partner switch or the second but did on the third. “Hi, I’m Josh,” he said, and Zach said his own name but wasn’t meeting Josh’s eyes. He seemed very nervous, which surprised Josh because he’d been watching, and Zach had seemed to be having fun before and not been nearly this nervous.
Josh could only think of one reason why he’d be nervous now. It was the same reason he was nervous now.
They danced way too short a time before they switched partners again, but the next time, Josh was ready. He stayed close to Zach, and on the next switch, he grabbed Zach again.
“I liked dancing with you before,” he said, and smiled at Zach. Zach somehow got the courage to raise his eyes, and he saw the smile.
Josh was a good-looking boy, but smiling, like many kids, he looked better, much better than just good-looking. He looked marvelous, and Zach gulped. He’d been noticing Josh all evening, and now he was with him, and he realized just how gorgeous the kid was.
Josh was thinking the same thing. He was thinking Zach was the cutest boy he’d ever seen. He was thinking that hard enough that he felt a tingling down below. The tingling became more than that, and he was very thankful that the next switch call interrupted what could have been disaster, and he was partnered, if only briefly, with a girl.
As he was turning away from Zach, though, he said, “Let’s dance together again.” Zach blushed but nodded.
The switching partners dance finally ended. The next dance was a slower one still, and Steve said it was for partners, then said, “A partner is someone to dance this one dance with. Guys, you’re not making a lifetime commitment here, and you’re not declaring never-ending love. You’re asking someone to have fun dancing with you. You’re telling them you want to have fun dancing and need a partner for that, and do they want to join you in having fun dancing? That’s all you’re doing by asking. Girls, ask girls if you want. Boys, ask boys if you want. This is for fun!”
And it happened. Friends asked friends, and quite often it was same-sex friends. Some couples were mixed-sex, but more than half were single-sex. Steve saw that and grinned. Excellent, he thought. Everyone can dance now.
Josh didn’t really have the nerve to ask Zach, did he? Well, he’d heard what Steve said; it was just a dance. But it meant more to him than that. Zach wouldn’t know that, and this way maybe they could get better acquainted. The only problem was, did he have the nerve to ask him?
He looked up and saw Zach watching him. Zach dropped his eyes as soon as Josh looked at him, but Josh had seen him looking. And that decided it. Josh walked over and said, as nonchalantly as he could, “Want to do this?”
Zach blushed, briefly met Josh’s eyes, and gathered the courage he needed to nod again. Josh put his hands on Zach’s shoulders, and Zach followed suit. They began moving to the music. Josh felt giddy. I’m doing it, he thought. I’m actually doing it.
They danced, and they looked at each other’s face, briefly, hesitantly, but repeatedly. When they’d been dancing for a few minutes, Josh waited for Zach to look at him again, and when Zach did, Josh said, “I was hoping to get to dance with you.”
Surprised, Zach actually spoke. “You were?”
Josh felt emboldened. “Yeah. I’ve seen you at school. I like how you look. I was hoping you’d come to the dance. I didn’t think I’d have the nerve to ask you to dance, but Steve made it easy. Well, easy enough.”
“Why wouldn’t you have the nerve?”
Josh smiled shyly. “I don’t have the nerve for much of anything. I guess you’re shy, too. You act like you are. It’s one of the things I like about you, because I’m shy, too.”
“You can’t be as shy as I am,” Zach said. “I’m probably the shyest kid here.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Look at you. You’re dancing with me. If you’re really shy, it’s in the past tense, because you just overcame that. At least some of it. I did, too. I’m proud of us!” He laughed, and Zach couldn’t help himself; he laughed, too.
They’d danced together several times before the evening ended. Josh told Zach he had to dance with a girl a couple of times, too. He pointed her out, and Zach said she was the one who’d got him to come.
“So, you know her?” Josh asked.
“Not really, but she got some bullies to promise to leave me alone after I agreed to come here if she did. Hey, wait a minute. Did you . . . ?”
It as Josh’s turn to blush. “I told you I’d been watching you at school. I wanted to come to the dance, and I asked Katy to come with me so I wouldn’t have to come alone. She’s got a wicked mouth on her and finally got me to admit I’d like to ask someone else rather than her but was too shy to. You’re the one I wanted to ask. Katy’s like a force of nature. After that, one thing led to another, and here we are. You’re not mad, are you?”
Zach had been losing some of his shyness all the time they’d been dancing. Now, knowing that Josh must like him, he was brave enough to say, “I’ll have to think about it. Seems I was tricked, bamboozled, and played with. Should I be mad?” Then he grinned.
If Josh were better looking smiling, Zach was an absolute knockout grinning. Josh took a deep breath, seeing that, and started having the problem he’d had before.
“No, I’m happy, Josh. What you did worked fine. I think we’re going to be great friends.”
“I hope we can be more than that, Zach. I—”
That’s when they realized the music had stopped. The lights were brightening. And Katy was approaching them.
“Josh is taking me home, Zach. He promised. I told him to get your number.” She looked at Josh. “Did you?”
“Haven’t had a chance.” They traded numbers, then Katy said, “Zach, he’ll call you. Tonight. Won’t you, Josh?”
Josh was shaking his head in mock disgust. “Zach,” he said, “I created a monster. Now you’ll have to help me slay her. But a promise is a promise. I will accompany her home. But I’ll save the goodnight kiss she thinks she has coming for you.”
Zach smiled. “It’s a deal,” he said. “We’ll save it for the end of our first date.”
“Hey,” Josh said in mock surprise. “First date? Wow! What happened to the shy boy I was dancing with all night?”
Katy had to have the last word. “He’s like you; he finally grew a pair.”
Zach’s mouth fell open, and so did Josh’s. Katy walked away, laughing like crazy.
As always, my sincere thanks to my editors.
You do a marvelous and mostly unsung job.
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This story is Copyright © 2019-2023 by Cole Parker and the image is Copyright © by Colin Kelly; they cannot be reproduced without express written consent. The original images are:
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The right image (Zach) is Copyright © by Vyacheslav Chichaev | Adobe Stock File #224341176.
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