New town. New life. Opportunities afresh. Only thing is, you’re still you.
The summer following my senior year was nothing like the previous one. Roger got a job working in a drugstore in town. He’d decided he wanted to be a pharmacist, and working in that store allowed him to rub elbows with a guy and a lady doing that work. When he wasn’t stocking the candy racks and replacing last week’s magazines with this week’s, he’d be back in the pharmaceutical section of the store, watching and listening, talking and learning.
Without him, our basketball group was broken up, and everyone of us found other ways to pass the time. I spent most of my days with Chip. Most days, we worked out, just the two of us, in the barn. Chip shot thousands of jump shots, and I rebounded for him and threw the ball back. I also marveled at him, at his prowess, but at him, too. He was just an incredible human being.
As June turned into July and July into August, the time became bittersweet. I’d be leaving at the end of August. It was just about unbearable. And of course, meaning to do the right thing, I just made it worse.
I’d given it a lot of thought. I’d be going away, and the only times we could possibly be together in the next four months would be short periods at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’d both be surrounded by other kids during those months, me at college, him in high school, and Chip deserved to be free to interact with any and all of them freely, without any burdensome restrictions.
I loved him. He loved me. But we were both so young. We were both so inexperienced. Could he find someone else to love? Could I? How could I answer that? But I did know that Chip should have the chance. He’d have this last year in high school, then be off to one of the colleges with a top basketball program, one of the best in the country. Not where I’d be going. I’d attained good SAT scores and had been admitted to a good college, but it wasn’t the sort of school Chip would be recruited by. I had no idea what I wanted to major in. So, I’d be taking a normal, liberal-arts program, hoping some course I took would throw a bright light onto a path I’d like to follow. I could find a generic liberal-arts options most anywhere; I’d chosen a good school but not a top one because, while Dad had the money to pay for my education, I didn’t see why I should bankrupt him doing so when I still didn’t even know what I wanted to do. I so envied those who had their future so well-established in their mind.
Chip would go to a good school with a topnotch basketball program and coach, a school like Duke or North Carolina, Virginia or Kansas, Kentucky or Syracuse, and he had a great chance at a pro career after that. So, another year of high school while I was away at college, then four more at a college I wasn’t attending, then maybe the pros. When would we be together again? When? No. We needed to make a break, and the earlier we made it, the more time Chip would have to get over the hurt the separation would cause. I knew it would hurt him. I knew how much it would hurt me.
There was another reason for my decision for us to go our separate ways. Again, it was mostly that I was thinking about Chip. Neither of us had thought we were gay before getting together. Even now, we both were unsure. We were sure we loved each other, but don’t gay guys get turned on by a whole passel of cute guys? Aren’t they looking at every male who passes by? Checking their face, their hair, their bodies, their, well, you know. And neither Chip nor I was into that. We had each other. That’s where the chemistry was. Neither of us had any interest in the boys who were around us.
So I was thinking, if Chip wasn’t involved with me, might he find a girl to fall in love with? And wouldn’t that make his life in athletics much, so, so much easier? He’d be in the limelight for years to come, and a pretty girl on his arm would help make him a major celebrity. Bring in more of those big-bucks endorsement opportunities as well. Wouldn’t that be better for him than dragging me along, hidden behind him somewhere? And would I even be happy, being the dragee?
Lots of questions, all with answers I didn’t like. But as much as it would hurt losing him, it seemed the right thing for him that we part. And so I told him. I told him why, too. I didn’t try to hide the fact I’d be hurt by this as much as he would. But I tried to convince him this was the way it should be, it had to be.
I didn’t ever convince him. So when we parted, it was bittersweet. Or maybe not even sweet at all. But he was there when I’d packed my stuff. He was there when I loaded the car. He was there when I pulled out of the driveway. So were Mom and Dad, so we both had to suck it up and not cry. I waved and was off. That chapter of my life had ended.
＋ ＋ ＋ ＋
I should have been excited. Missing Chip as much as I did put a damper on excitement. But—I now wore a new label: College Freshman! Big new world, everything different, everything a new experience. I settled in as one does. I had a roommate in the dorms. His name was Evan, and he was an engineering major. He was a pleasant-enough guy, but anxious about things, not laid back like I was. He worried a lot and was afraid he wasn’t smart enough to be in engineering. He studied a lot, way more than I did. I never did get to know him all that well. We were much different people.
I never had made friends easily, and, except for Chip, never had a really close one. Always been something of a loner. There’d only been Chip.
I signed up for and took the standard, first-year, liberal-arts courses. I chose Spanish as my language because that’s what I’d taken in high school. Most of my classes involved lots and lots of reading. That was fine with me. I’d always been a reader. The only annoyance was that these books were a lot drier than the ones I usually read for pleasure. These weren’t fun at all.
The school had several gyms that were open to students for their use. I found quite a few had pickup basketball games going at all times of the day, and I got involved in some in my spare time. The games were much rougher than the barn games had been. The boys were generally bigger and quicker than I was used to, but I was gaining some weight and had grown another inch. I found I didn’t mind the rougher play, and I was pretty evenly matched with most of the guys who’d play. Even better than many of them.
The school’s basketball team, a Division II team, was pretty good and had reached the semifinals of the national tourney last year. They had open practices, and I went to watch them whenever I could. I was about the only spectator, and after some time, one of the assistant coaches approached me. He’d seen how often I was there and asked if I had any interest in working as the team manager. I jumped at the opportunity. Anything having to do with basketball, I was in.
A team manager in college is something like a ball boy in high school. You take out the racks of balls at the beginning of practice and turn on the lights and have towels out for the players to mop up their sweat, and at the end of practice put everything away and pick up the locker room, throwing dirty towels and uniforms in the laundry hamper. I didn’t have to wash them or set them out. Maybe the managers did that in Division I. I didn’t have to bother with it.
Anyway, that was the work part of the job. The fun part was, I got to sit in on the coach’s talks to the team, sit on the sidelines during practices, listen to everything that was said, buck up the players coming off the floor during the game, and in that small way be part of the team.
I was walking back to the dorm one evening after a late practice, my head overloaded with thoughts as I walked, thinking about how pleasant life was on a college campus, thinking about how I’d have to start choosing a major soon—something I’d made no progress with. I was still waiting for the light to go on illuminating the path I’d take toward what I’d love doing—thinking about the practice I’d just seen, how I liked being involved with optimistic, enthusiastic, athletic young people, when it struck me. I did know what I liked. I liked basketball. I liked each and every part of it, but especially teaching it. Teaching it to young men.
The next day, I found the coach in his office and asked if he had time to talk. He worked at a Division II school, so he wasn’t one of the firebrand types whose name every basketball fan knew. He was an older man, had been at the school for years, and he coached with a soft touch. The kids on the team loved him and thought of him as a father away from home. He was easy to talk to.
I told him about myself, how much basketball had meant to me and what I’d accomplished in high school, working with Chip’s team, and asked what it took to become a coach.
The long and short of it was I became an unpaid assistant coach, working with the school’s coach and the team. I loved it and knew now what I wanted to do with my life. Believe me, when a young man figures that out, it’s a heavy load being lifted from his shoulders.
The coach taught a class in basketball coaching. He said that because it was still early in the semester and I had extensive knowledge already, I could join the class immediately. I did. It was the best class I had that year. I also started working with the team and found that many of the guys, because they were good athletes, hadn’t really had to master the fundamentals of the game in high school. They’d just used their athleticism to succeed. I started working with the ones who needed that help now that they were facing other good athletes who had the knowledge they themselves lacked. I taught them proper footwork, proper one-on-one positioning, zone concepts, how to move, how to talk to each other on switches. I learned as much as they did. They learned basketball. I learned how to motivate, how to inspire, how to get along with arrogant kids who thought they didn’t have to work hard just because they were who they were, how to get shy kids to open up, how to do so many of the things successful coaches must know.
So, with classes, pickup basketball games in the student gyms, basketball with the team, and of course studying, I was keeping busy. I needed to do that. When not keeping busy, I spent too much time missing Chip. I couldn’t believe how painful that was. There aren’t words enough—or if there are, I don’t know them—to describe how it felt, having been with him for about a year and then losing him. I’d lost part of myself when I’d lost him.
I hadn’t written to him, nor he to me, since I’d started college. I’d told Chip a clean break would be best for both of us. He’d cried. Well, I had, too. But we’d promised; I’d somehow gotten Chip to go along with not keeping in touch at all, and the vow was still being kept by both of us. It was supposed to have made things easier. Hah! So much for good intentions.
Well, that Chip-had-gone-along-with-it part was maybe stretching it. I’d decided. He’d argued, but I’d been firm. No contact at all. No phone calls, no emails, no letters. They’d just extend the period we’d both be in pain, and there was no way either of us could figure out how we could have a life together again. That discussion had been as terrible as anything I’d ever had to deal with. It had hurt more than I ever imagined it would.
Part of what I’d done preparing to talk to Chip was telling myself I was going to college now and that what we’d been calling love might have just been a really serious crush, a high-school crush, and I’d meet people at college, maybe even a girl, and I’d fall in love, and it would be different, the feelings would be different, and Chip, too, could find what he really wanted without what we had had muddying the waters. This would be best for him, too. He needed the freedom to be a high-school senior without the problems I created for him. He needed to live a full life without me.
I was following his senior year by subscribing to the Otterbridge newspaper. I got it a day late, but that was okay. I got to read about his exploits. He just about filled the entire sports pages on the Thursdays before his games with pregame talk, then on the Fridays when his games were played and the Saturdays after the games when he was interviewed. There’d be articles during the week, too. The team was undefeated as Christmas break approached, although the bulk of the season was still to come. After only a handful of games, Chip was averaging just under 40 points a game. He had scouts from all over the country either already visiting or scheduled to visit. He’d even begun getting scholarship offers.
It was certain the team would be in the post-season sectionals, and every expectation was they’d go to the regionals and then the state tourney. There was even talk they’d win the state title in their division. The school’s teams had never gotten out of the sectionals before in its history.
I’d emailed Chip before I came home for Thanksgiving that he shouldn’t expect us to meet up. That had been hard, too. It had been especially hard when he didn’t answer the email. I didn’t know why, and my speculating hurt as bad as anything else. I didn’t see him during the weekend I was home. Maybe he’d moved on. That would be good for him, I told myself. Bad for me. Good for him. Much better than the other way around. Much better.
Christmas was even worse. I needed to see him. I had to. Yet I hadn’t. I felt awful; I went back to college right after Christmas, not waiting the extra week. I was so near to him at home, and it was just too painful. I did drop off a Christmas present for him, leaning it against their front door, ringing the bell and running. I felt like I was 11 years old.
He never wrote to thank me. He was doing better with our pledge than I was.
I did get to see him play one game. They had a pre-Christmas tournament, and I sneaked in and watched him from the back of the bleachers where I wouldn’t be seen. He was marvelous. He owned the court. Scored 38 points and didn’t play in the fourth quarter because the team was so far ahead.
That was the only time I’d seen him since August.
＋ ＋ ＋ ＋
On the Thursday before school was recessing for Spring Break, as I was walking to the student union for a quick lunch, I checked my phone for emails as was my usual practice. What I saw stopped me in my tracks. I had an email from Chip.
An email. Just before I’d be returning home. I saw it was from Chip and just stood still, a hundred different thoughts running through my mind. Finally, I decided to wait till I got back to my dorm room to read it. I wasn’t going to chance doing so out in public. I needed to be alone. The thought that was hardest to ignore was that the email would tell me that he had a girlfriend now, that he’d be spending his break period, which coincided with ours, with her, and for me not to expect us to meet if I was coming home.
I could hardly pay attention in classes the rest of the day, knowing I’d be reading his email as soon as I was through with them and back in the dorm.
The first thing I did when I reached my room was to drop my backpack and lock the door. I didn’t need Evan bursting in on me if I was crying my eyes out. Why should I cry? This was what I’d wanted, wasn’t it? I wanted him to be happy.
Okay, maybe that was silly; no matter what I’d said and done, knowing I’d lost him would hurt more than I thought I could bear. I really needed to be alone for this. My heart was hammering in my chest, and it wasn’t because I’d run all the way back to the dorm. Well, okay, maybe a little because of that, but only a little.
Was he officially dumping me? Well, I guess I’d dumped him, so could he dump me? Technically? I wasn’t in the mood for semantics. I’d told him we needed to end what we had. He’d fought and never agreed. Now, though, perhaps he’d found someone and was just notifying me. Not dumping. Notifying. I thought the chances pretty high that was what the email was all about. I told myself I would be happy for him if that was it. Awfully unhappy for me. It would be a major hurt, but I was expecting it to happen at some point, and at least I’d now know for certain what was what. I could try to move on then.
With my head a little funky because of all the blood pounding through it, I sat down, opened my laptop and the email.
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