Every day coming to school for the past two weeks, I’d had to read that sign. We’ve a modern school, and like many schools these days, ours has a marquee in front with “Rawlings Middle School, home of the Rawlings Raiders” emblazoned on it and then an electronic bulletin board on the top where they scrolled messages. The message since the beginning of February had been, “Send your Valentine a Valentine’s Day message. $1 at the front office.”
A lot of kids were doing it. Boys and girls who’d already taken the scary plunge and announced to each other and then the world that they liked each other and were a couple—they signed up, so the school sort of double dipped on them, one dollar apiece. I didn’t mind that. We didn’t have sufficient school supplies to get through a single month, and if this raised a little money for the school, I guessed it would just mean we’d have paper to use a couple of days longer this way, not running out before the last week as we did now.
Some kids were sending notes anonymously, paying a dollar to the lady in the office in charge of this: Mrs. McNicols. Then, on V-Day, when we were all having lunch in the cafeteria, Susan would receive a note saying, “I love you. Your Secret Admirer” or Bryce would get, “Your sexy hair really turns me on. M.”
The bold ones would say something like, “You’re the cutest girl in the school. I sit behind you in American History and can’t pay attention to anything but you in class. I want to go out with you. Robert Hastings.”
Me? Well, I wanted to send one. Really bad. And I wanted to sign it, too. But I didn’t have the nerve.
See, there was this boy, Antony. He wasn’t like me at all. I’m very outgoing with loads of friends. I’m lucky that I’m decent at sports and always had played both Little League baseball in the spring and Pop Warner football in the fall. I was on the school basketball team, too. It’s easy to have friends if you’re athletic.
I sit with some of the popular kids at lunch every day. This being middle school, there was lots of talk back and forth about who liked each other. The girls started it, mostly. I was 13, and so were most of the kids at that table. A lot of the boys hadn’t started dating yet, and so no one seemed to think it was strange that I hadn’t either. I did go to the school dances. They had one about once a month—in the afternoon after school. But you could just go to those without asking anyone to go with you, and you could join in the dancing, which was mostly just everyone out on the floor together, moving around, arms and bodies twisting and turning, shaking and shimmying, and most of us did that.
So no one knew that girls, while some were cute and some were really pretty, just didn’t get me that excited.
Boys did. And especially one boy.
His name was Antony. Without an ‘h’. And as I said, he was a lot different from me. He was shy. I guess that’s what it was because he didn’t talk to anyone unless they talked to him first. And even then, he hardly talked at all. He just answered with a few words and then looked away. He was always looking down at the floor, too, and never meeting anyone’s eye. He was new this year and as far as I could tell didn’t really have any friends.
Oh, there’s one more thing about him. He’s beautiful. Really beautiful. He has very dark hair, and it’s amazingly full and glossy, and it’s in sort of a bowl cut, shaped like his head with the ends kind of turned under, just a little, and when he turns quickly, his hair sort of follows a second later but then settles back gently just the way it was before. I so want to touch it, to see if it’s as soft and fine as it looks.
His face is a just a bit darker than some, not like Jose’s, but just a slightly darker shade than most of us. I think I overheard someone say that his family was from a country on the Mediterranean Sea or in that vicinity—not that they really knew—but if it was true, maybe that’s why he’s a tad darker. But whatever the reason, it makes him look somewhat exotic and maybe a little mysterious, a little different, and adds to his appeal.
His skin turns me on as much as his hair. It looks soft and warm and smooth, really smooth. He doesn’t have any of the little blemishes most of us are getting. His skin is perfect.
I’d like to touch that, too.
I’ve never really seen him smile. He usually looks… well, sad isn’t the right word, but he doesn’t smile. Not the way I do, and all the rest of us. We smile a lot. He has all sorts of expressions, like confused and frustrated and angry and concerned and apprehensive—I’ve seen that one a lot—and, sometimes, occasionally, lonely. But smile? No, I’ve never seen that, never seen him with what I’d call a happy face.
He does sometimes have a small grin. Not often, but I’ve seen it. One corner of his mouth turns up, just a little, and there’s a bit of a sparkle in his eyes when that happens, his really dark and intense eyes. It’s as though he’s seen or heard something, kind of like a joke, and he gets it while none of the rest of us do. Like his own private joke that’s just gone right over the heads of the rest of us.
I love that look. His face sort of comes alive then. The grin never lasts long, though. I’ve wondered what he was thinking on those very few times I’ve seen it.
He’s smaller than I am. Looking at him, you’d think he’s 11 or maybe even 10, but he isn’t. I know he’s 13. When we were in our math class and were talking about average and median and mode, we had to say how old we all were and then work with the numbers. Most of us were 13. I listened when he spoke, and he said it so softly I could barely hear him, but he did say, “13.” So I know how old he is. He just doesn’t look it. He’s small—slight— and, well… he’s beautiful.
I love looking at him. Maybe I do it too much. I probably do, but when he’s around I can’t seem to help myself. I hope no one’s seen me staring. I especially hope he hasn’t.
OK, maybe that’s not what I really hope. The honest truth is, what I sort of wish is, when I make up stories in my head, he has seen, has figured out what my staring means—that I like him—and it’s OK with him. And, that maybe he likes me, too. But that’s just a fantasy. It’s not likely to be real.
I want to be friends with him more than anything. That’s mainly what I dream about. About us being friends. Not the kind I have now, where it’s mostly about wrestling with each other and telling bad jokes, and mock-insulting each other and each other’s families, and seeing who can run the fastest or throw a ball farthest. I’ve got a bunch of friends like that. Friends I can play basketball with in their driveway or watch a movie with. I don’t seem to have any that I can sit down with, privately, and just talk. Talk about what I’m feeling, what worries me: that I don’t like girls and am pretty sure I never will and how can I ever tell my mom about that, and what it means—you know, important stuff. Private stuff.
I want a friend like that, someone I can share private stuff with and he’ll be understanding and supportive and somehow, I don’t know how but somehow, I feel intuitively that Antony would be that kind of friend. Actually, I just know it.
Or do I just want it so bad I’m making myself know it?
But it’s funny, being so sure he’d be that kind of friend, because I don’t know him at all. Other than to watch him.
I do watch him and try to learn about him. Actually, that’s how I know it’s Antony without an ‘h’. See, at the beginning of the year, when we were all new to the teachers and they were trying to learn our names, one of them, Mrs. Gilkensen, told us she was going to call out our names and we should answer “here,” so she could see who everyone was, and if she pronounced any of our names incorrectly, to let her know. That’s when I really looked at Antony for the first time, when she called his name. And, well, Wow! But anyway, she called him Anthony August, and he said, “Here,” and she kept going.
She came to my name and said, “David Bowman,” and I said, “here.” Then, at the end of the class, when the bell had rung and she’d dismissed us, I saw Antony go up to her desk rather than leave the room. I was already watching him; I’d just begun, in fact.
I was curious what he was going to say, and I wanted to hear his voice, and so decided I needed to tie my shoe, up near Mrs. Gilkensen’s desk, close enough so I could hear what they were saying. Of course, I had to untie it first while they weren’t looking.
“Mrs. Gilkensen,” I heard Antony say, softly, only meeting her eyes briefly before looking away, “my name is Antony. No ‘h’. I just thought you’d like to know.” And then it looked to me as if he blushed a little.
Mrs. Gilkensen smiled at him and said, “Thanks for telling me. I like to get names right. But, why didn’t you just tell me when I called your name in class?”
They were looking at each other, or mostly she was looking at him, and he was risking a glance back up at her every so often, so I dared a peek at him, hoping it would go unnoticed. When he responded I saw that he was shocked. “Oh,” he said, “I’d never tell a teacher she’d made a mistake in front of other kids. That would be so rude!”
Mrs. Gilkensen looked surprised and then smiled. “Thank you, Antony,” she said, her voice very warm indeed, and she pronounced the name correctly. He nodded and threw me the briefest glance as I was still tying my shoe. Perhaps he was wondering why it took me so long to do that.
But, anyway, that’s how I knew he was Antony. Without an ‘h’.
I didn’t have many classes with him. Just a few. The one I was most excited about was one I discovered I was in with him on that first day of school, just after I’d seen him in Mrs. Gilkensen’s class. Our next class was gym, and I saw him walking to it with the rest of us who had gym that period. I was excited, seeing he’d be in that class with me because I knew from talking to the guys that we were all supposed to take showers this year. We’d learned in sex ed about how when puberty hits, that we start to stink when we exercise, and that’s why they were demanding showers this year of us 13-year-olds. And Antony was going to be in our gym class! I’d get to see him naked! And when I realized that, I also realized how much I wanted to see him naked.
We didn’t dress out the first day. We all sat on the floor in the gym, and Mr. Tyler, the teacher, told us about what to wear, the everyone-showers rule, what we’d be doing in gym, rules of behavior—all sorts of stuff, all related to us in the gruff manner he had. And then, at the end, when he’d dismissed us and we were walking off and I was watching Antony, I saw Antony walk up to Mr. Tyler and hand him a note.
Now, you have to know something about Mr. Tyler. I’d had him last year for gym, and he’d been our basketball coach, too. He was the type of adult that enjoyed being in charge and letting us know he was in charge, letting us know he didn’t think much of us at all, too. I guess he thought we’d work harder if we were a little afraid of him. He thought that was motivational. It wasn’t for most of us. Most of us hated the way he acted, especially the part where he enjoyed humiliating us in front of our peers. But it was his way, and we didn’t have much choice but to put up with it.
Anyway. Antony gave him a note as the rest of us were walking out, and I stopped. I thought I might tie my shoe again, but that might seem suspicious. After all, he had seen me tying my shoe just a short time earlier. How many times do shoes need to be tied every day, unless you were six and didn’t do it well? So instead, I dropped my backpack, making sure it was upside down when I did it, and then had to collect all the things that had fallen out. So I heard what Mr. Tyler said. It was easy to hear him. He’s loud.
“What’s this, then? An excuse so you don’t have to take gym? And it’s not even signed by a doctor! I don’t have to pay attention to this! What, you’re kind of puny, so you don’t want to take gym? Gym will help you get bigger and stronger. You don’t need to be afraid; most of the guys here won’t hurt you much.”
Antony was looking down, of course, not meeting Mr. Tyler’s eyes, and he was blushing like mad. But when Mr. Tyler was through, he looked up very briefly. “It isn’t that, sir,” he said softly. Then, sounding reluctant and hesitant, he said, “I’m not afraid. But I can’t take gym. I’m sorry, but I can’t talk about it. The principal knows all about it. If you have any questions, please ask him.”
“Oh, no you don’t! I’m asking you, not him. What’s this all about? What gives, anyway? Everyone takes gym. It’s mandatory.”
Antony was about to answer him when the bell rang. “Oops!” he said. “I’m going to be late. Please talk to the principal.” And then he ran off, leaving Mr. Tyler sputtering. No one ever walked away from Mr. Tyler while he was talking to them. But before Mr. Tyler could finally say something, could change the sputter into words, Antony was long gone. I wasn’t so quick and ended up late to my next class. And all I could think of, while that next teacher was scolding me, was that I wouldn’t be seeing Antony in the showers.
I did speak to Antony once. It was a few weeks into the term. I kept watching him as surreptitiously as I could. I wasn’t one hundred percent successful in that. In the past couple of weeks, there’d been times when he’d caught me looking. I’d hurriedly looked away and then realized how suspicious that must have appeared and told myself not to do that again. But I also forced myself not to look at him so often. I did that for a while, too. For about two days.
But it was after that that I was glad I’d gone back to watching him because it was watching him that resulted in being able to speak to him.
I know, I know, I was in middle school. What was so hard about just saying hello, about just talking? Kids do it all the time. We all know everyone else’s name, and we are about the same ages, and if you want to talk to someone, you just do it. You smile at them and say, “Hi, you’re”—and then you say their name—“aren’t you?” And then you go on about something, anything you have in common: a teacher, or something that happened at school that everyone knew about, or, well, just about anything. It was dead simple, really. I can talk to anyone, and there’s no embarrassment at all. I do it all the time.
Except with Antony. With him, I didn’t seem able to do that. I could picture myself, saying, “Hey, Antony….” And then just stopping, and blushing. I knew he wouldn’t say anything to me. He didn’t seem to talk to anyone unless he had to. So, I’d stand there like an idiot and finally just walk away. That’s all I could see, all my imagination could come up with.
So when I had a real opportunity to talk to him, one which came from watching him, I took it.
We were both walking down the hall. I was behind him. Well, duh! I couldn’t very well be watching him if I were in front, now could I? I made a point of being behind him in the halls when I could pull it off.
So I was walking down the hall aft of him as already said, and I saw him drop something. Well, actually, what I saw was a piece of paper fall out of his backpack. He’d forgotten to zip it up, and as he wasn’t very big, it always seemed a bit of a struggle for him carting that thing around. He had to lean forward to manage, and with his zip not done up, the stuff inside was jostling around some, and this paper fell out.
My chance! I saw it. I quickly bumped a couple of kids out of the way and grabbed the paper off the floor. Then I took off after Antony.
He wasn’t hard to catch. He had trouble navigating the halls because he was shorter than many of the kids streaming through them, and he had that heavy backpack to contend with. Also, kids our age generally aren’t terribly nice. They see a smaller kid, they don’t step aside or say, “Here, let me get out of your way. And could I perhaps carry that heavy load of yours to your next class for you? Would that help at all?” No, what they do is generally just bump into a smaller kid, bump him aside, and not even notice. It can be an adventure, an oftentimes rough adventure, walking in a school hallway between classes if you’re small.
So catching up with the smaller Antony was pretty easy. He tended to walk along the walls where the stream was gentler, not in the middle with the rapids and boulders. He had to stop whenever he came to some kids chatting, wait for a clearing in the stream, then jog around the gossipers and keep going.
I caught up with him and said, “Hey, Antony.”
He stopped, looked around, and saw me.
“Here, you dropped this.” As I was handing the paper to him, I glanced at it. It was a printed flyer of some kind, and the word at the top that jumped out at me, caught me off guard, was ‘ballet’. Ballet? Huh? Why did he have something that said ‘ballet’ on it?
“Oh, thank you,” he said, mostly while looking over his shoulder away from me, watching what he was doing as he stuffed the paper in his backpack.
I was desperate to say something else. And I had to hurry or he’d simply turn and keep walking. So I said the only thing in my mind. “Ballet?”
Remember when I said that he sometimes assumed a sort of bemused, half-smile? That’s what he got just then. He actually looked up at me, and that great, cute, enigmatic grin appeared for just a second. And he spoke again to me, actually meeting my eyes when he did.
“Yes, ballet. I, uh, I take lessons.” He was speaking to me!
Except when he said ‘ballet’, he didn’t say it like I did. I said it with the accent on the ‘ay’ part. He somehow put the accent on the ‘bal’ part, and it sounded sort of neat that way.
It was just as I pictured it in my head after that. I looked at him, sort of dumbfounded or mute or village-idiot-ish or something. And when he glanced up at me, his little grin came back, he nodded and turned and walked away. But, I’d spoken to him! I’d said all of seven words, but I’d said them, and he’d answered.
I was watching him walk away when some kid bumped into me, and I stumbled, and he said, “Watch it.” And I said… well, what difference does it make what I said? I don’t even remember, really. I remember feeling sort of like maybe I’d just shot up with heroin or something like that, like I imagine that must feel if people are dumb enough to actually do it. I was on cloud nine. My heart was beating a little faster than normal, my head felt light and almost dizzy, and there was a feeling in my stomach like I’d never felt before. And I realized, watching Antony walk down the hall, that there was something I’d not seen before or realized I was seeing. Maybe it was because of that word, ballet, that was in my mind. But watching him, I could see a sort of gracefulness in his walk, a lightness to his step that I’d not noticed before.
But the thing I was concentrating on mostly was that we’d spoken to each other.
So, anyway. It was driving me crazy watching kids go into the school office, knowing they were handing in cards and dollar bills to get their cards delivered to their intended Valentines. It would all happen in the cafeteria on February 14th. All the cards would be delivered. I wanted to send one to Antony. I wanted him to open it, read it, gasp, then search the room till his eyes found mine. And blush. I could see it so clearly in my head. I’d actually gone out and bought a card. I’d written on it, under where the words ‘Be My Valentine’ were already printed, “and can we be friends?” and then I’d signed my name. David Bowman. It was in my backpack. But I didn’t have the nerve to take it into the office, hand it to Mrs. McNichols and pay her one dollar. It would have to have his name on the outside of the envelope. And she’d look over her glasses at me, like she did, and I… I… I couldn’t do it.
And it wasn’t only my fear of Mrs. McNichols. What would Antony do? Or think? Would he be shocked and then disgusted? Would he stop looking back at me? Even worse, would he tell people and show them the card?
No, I couldn’t do it. No matter how much I wanted to, I didn’t have the nerve.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
It was Valentine’s Day. And I was in the cafeteria. And no, I hadn’t accumulated the guts to do it. My card was still in my backpack, and teachers were milling around, handing out the special-delivery cards the kids who did have guts had arranged to be sent.
I wished I’d had the nerve, I really did. I mean, I was OK with myself in most things. I was fairly popular, athletic, and even got decent grades, especially in English, probably because I read a lot and liked writing. I was open and friendly with the other kids. I don’t think anyone disliked me. Most people thought I was all right. I had a lot of confidence and generally was proud of the way I carried myself.
But I sure wasn’t proud about this. I should have had the nerve. Other people did. Well, I’m not sure other boys had the nerve to give cards to other boys. I knew I couldn’t be the only boy who had a crush on another boy. It was a large school. And to me, the boys were, for the most part, a lot cuter than the girls. Other boys had to feel like I did.
And then I realized maybe I was wrong. Maybe other boys did have the guts I lacked. Maybe other boys were getting cards from boys. How would I know?
I looked around. A lot of boys were getting cards. And I quickly saw a lot of them were smiling and not telling their friends who the cards were from. So some of those could have been from other boys. Some of them probably were!
Rat farts! I should have done it. I couldn’t now. It was too late. The deadline was this morning at 10. It was now noon.
Being noon, and too late, made me think I could do it now. I think it made me feel that way because I knew there was no way it could be done. Mrs. McNichols was a law-and-order, rules-will-be-followed sort of person. If the deadline was at 10, then you had to have your card to her by then. So now thinking I suddenly was brave enough might have been because I knew I wouldn't have to test myself; I knew I didn’t have to worry about whether I was, in fact, still chicken.
I was watching, and Mr. Ambrose, one of the math teachers was wandering around, looking here and there, and then his eyes met mine. He smiled, and walked over to me.
“You’ve been sent a special-delivery card, David. Congratulations!” And he handed me a card.
Me? I wasn’t expecting this. I was popular enough, but no one had ever given me an inkling that perhaps they had designs on my hot body. Or even that my body was anything over tepid. Everyone at our table oohed and ahhed, although some of them had already gotten cards, and others were looking around at the teachers, hoping they’d get one. I wondered who mine was from, and wondered if I should open it. It was probably from one of the girls at our table. I looked up, and both the girls—girls who’d spent the year so far flirting with me rather halfheartedly—were watching me, their eyes sparkling.
Well, I thought, I’d better open it. So I did. It was a typical middle-school type card, not too mushy, but just a little bit romantic. Junior grade romance, I guess. On the front was a picture of a couple sitting on the grass in a park, backs to the camera, their arms around each other, watching the sun set. I opened it up. Inside it said, ‘For a special friend.’ But that wasn’t all. After the ‘friend’, the period had been changed to a question mark.
That wasn’t what I was looking at yet, however. The first thing I looked at was the signature. And there it was: Antony. Without an ‘h’.
“Who’s it from?” And then that was almost echoed by the other girl looking at me.
“Uh, I don’t know,” I lied. “They didn’t sign it, it just says, ‘A secret admirer.’”
“Let me see it!”
“No, me. Give it to me first!”
Oops. But I was clever enough to handle this and could think fast. Not when I was talking to Antony, but this was easy. “Oh, no you don’t. This is private. And I think one of you sent it. Which one of you did?”
That got them retreating. Neither of them had sent it, but each wanted me to think she had, and they couldn’t be too curious if they were the one who was supposed to have sent it. So assertive suddenly became demure and I was off the hook.
During that brief squabble, I chanced a quick glance at Antony, sure he’d be looking at me, gauging my reaction. He wasn’t. He was sitting at a table with people I never saw him talking to, and he was just looking down at his tray. This was one of the times he looked lonely to me.
I had to stop and think for a moment. I was supposed to be the brave one. I played sports, I talked to all the other kids, I was very sociable, and I got along with everyone. He was the one who was supposed to be shy—timid in fact—and maybe intimidated by all of us. Yet he’d had the nerve to do what I hadn’t. But then, he didn’t seem to have the nerve to look at me, to see what I thought. Hmmmm.
I looked at him, and he didn’t look happy at all. And I thought about that card still in my backpack. I looked up at him and saw a couple of other kids at that table looking at cards they’d gotten and talking to the other kids about them. No one was looking at or talking to Antony at all.
OK, maybe it was time I stopped being chicken. Yeah, the risks were still the same. The spot I might be putting myself in was just as dangerous. But… well, I needed to respect myself, and I didn’t want to go home tonight with the vision of Antony sitting like that, alone among a bunch of kids, not daring to look up at me. Yet still having had the courage to do what I couldn’t do.
I got up, dropped my lunch tray off in the window and left the cafeteria.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
“He’s got to get it today. Right now, actually.”
She looked over her half glasses at me; she did that a lot. She was old, old enough to have gray in her hair and was thin as a paperclip. She wore old-fashioned skirts, mostly down to her ankles. She always intimidated us, even though I didn’t think she was mean. Just very proper, very severe, without any semblance of a sense of humor. It was hard for me to do this. She’d seen from the envelope who the card was for. She’d looked over those glasses at me. I couldn’t tell anything about what she was thinking from her expression. You never could.
She lowered her head, as she did sometimes, and stopped looking at me over the top of her half glasses. She looked through them instead. “It’s well past the deadline, you know.” She stopped and appeared to be thinking, maybe about the fact I was sending the card to a boy. Then she sort of cleared her throat in an authoritarian sort of way and asked, “And why is this so important?”
I could tell she wasn’t about to budge. She really was the sort who made the rules and followed them. She didn’t let little things like embarrassment or emotions or feelings or stuff like that interfere.
So I had to have something special for a reason if I was going to get this to work. The only thing I knew that might work was to lie; telling her the truth was out of the question. Scary as lying would be, it was that or nothing.
“Mrs. McNichols, do you know what it feels like to be picked last in gym every day? To sit at a table in the cafeteria but never get spoken to? To sit on the bus and never have anyone sit next to you unless there aren’t any empty seats? I mean, none at all? Have no one even meet your eyes while you’re walking down that bus aisle yourself, and to know, just know, everyone is hoping you don’t sit next to them?”
OK, so I was making a lot of this up. But she didn’t know that, and it sounded pretty convincing to me.
“Have you ever been the one that’s not invited to a classmate’s birthday party when everyone else is? Or been the only one not getting a Valentine’s Day card?”
I was on a roll. “He didn’t get any cards today. I was watching. He didn’t get any. There were some others that didn’t, too, but he didn’t get any, and he looked so… so lonely and sad.” Then I stopped. And I looked down. “That’s why I was so late. Seeing him like that….”
If that wasn’t enough, then nothing would be.
She was looking at me intently, and I was sure it wasn’t going to be enough, but then I saw her expression change, a softness come onto her face, and she said, “Do you have the card?”
A feeling of relief came over me, and I said, “Yeah, let me find it.” I opened my book bag and hunted around and found it. I dug it out and handed it to her. Then, just as she was taking it, I pulled it back and said, “Oh, just a sec.” I opened it and grabbed a pen and added a word to what I’d already written on it, one word, and slipped it back into its envelope, then handed it back to her.
I turned to walk out, and heard a, “Hrrmph.” I stopped and turned back. Mrs. McNichols was smiling. I don’t think I’d ever seen that before. It made her look, well, younger.
“Yes, Mrs. McNichols?”
“Do you know how many years I’ve been the school secretary?”
“No, I’ve no idea.”
“Well, too many, actually. But for a long time, and in that time I’ve talked to kids your age every day. Now, do you want to guess how many of them have lied to me?”
I felt hot all of a sudden and hoped I wasn’t blushing. Blushing was the worst thing I could do right then. “No, ma’am, I have no idea.”
She was still smiling. That was good, wasn’t it? She said, “A lot. For one reason or another, I hear lies all the time. There are signs, you know. Those signs can tell you a lot. You can hear the lies in the voice, and see them in the eyes and the body language. You just know. It’s better to tell the truth to someone who’s worked with kids as long as I have.”
“I… I….” I stopped, not knowing what to say.
She continued. “It was pretty easy to tell this time.” She paused, then said, “If all that you said was true, why did you already have a card, and why would it already have been addressed to him and already signed?”
I think I went pale then. I know I started trembling. I was 13 but not that far from being a little boy. That little boy was the one who was standing there facing her.
She took pity on me. Her whole posture softened along with her voice. “I know this had to be hard for you, handing me this card, so I understand the fib. And the excuse itself that you came up with was brilliant—so fine, so sympathetic, and you sounded like it was so heartfelt, that, well…. But David, I was going to say yes anyway once I heard whom the card was for. He’s special. Do you know him well?”
“I don’t know him at all. But I want to.”
She nodded—and looked very pleased. “Good for you, David. Good for you! I’d better hurry,” she said. “Lunch’ll be over in a few minutes. Why don’t you go back and sit down again?”
I tentatively smiled back at her and left. Being caught lying had never worked out so well for me before!
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
When I got back to the cafeteria, some kids were starting to take their trays to the window. I quickly looked to where Antony had been sitting. I exhaled a deep breath when I saw he was still there. Some of his tablemates were gone, making him look even more lonely, sitting with his head down staring at the table.
As I watched, Mr. Humbolt approached him. He said something, and I saw Antony look up. His face was very sad. Mr. Humbolt spoke again and then handed Antony a card. My card.
Antony looked very surprised. Mr. Humbolt smiled at him, briefly placed a gentle-looking hand on his shoulder, then moved away.
Antony started looking around the room, and I quickly averted my eyes before his gaze fell in my direction. I waited long enough, I thought, then risked a quick peek back at him. He wasn’t looking at me; he was opening his card.
I couldn’t help myself. I just watched, not trying to hide it. He slowly took the card from the envelope, looked at the front, then opened it up.
I said to myself the words he was reading. “Be My Valentine” and then, “and can we be friends?” I also read the word I’d added, “Too?” I’d underlined it. Because, while I wanted us to be friends, I wanted him also to know that I wanted him to be more, to be in fact my Valentine. I wanted both. Together. And I wanted him to know it.
Antony read the card, and then his eyes jumped upwards. He didn’t scan the room. He looked directly at me. And, he smiled! It was the most brilliant smile I’d ever seen. It transformed him. He’d been beautiful before. Now he was simply gorgeous, spectacular, glorious!
I stared at him, and he stared back at me. And then, he pointed at the card, then looked back at me and nodded, his smile growing even bigger.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
We were sitting on the grass in the park. We were cross-legged and close enough that our knees were touching. It was Saturday, three days after I’d given him my card. We hadn’t been able to talk at school, and he was always gone when classes were done for the day. I didn’t know why, but I could never find him then. So, I waited for Mrs. Gilkensen’s class to be over on Friday, and then raced down the hall after him. I caught him just before he went into his next class.
“Antony!” I said, a little out of breath, both from running after him and from knowing I’d be talking to him.
“David!” he said, matching my tone of voice exactly and giving me one of those peculiar and adorable grins of his. He didn’t drop his eyes this time.
“Here,” I said, and handed him a slip of paper. “My phone number. Please call me.”
The bell rang, and he smiled and nodded at me, then went into the classroom. I was going to be late again.
But he did call that night. I wanted to talk to him forever, but he said he couldn’t. He did say he could meet me in the park the next day. That was exciting and something to fantasize about. I so, so did while I was falling asleep that night.
He was there when I rode my bike to the park. I rode up to him and got off and then just looked at him. He looked back at me and smiled again, his eyes alive and warm. We walked together out onto the grass, away from where anyone was, and sat down facing each other. He wriggled closer so our knees were touching.
There were lots of things I wanted to say, but it was probably the questions I had that were most urgently on the tip of my tongue. Things that didn’t make sense to me. I was looking into his eyes, which were also looking into mine without any hint of embarrassment, and maybe that was the place to start.
“Antony, you’re shy! But on Valentine’s Day—and now—you don’t seem shy at all. I don’t get it. You can’t turn that on and off. You’re shy or you’re not. And I remember with Mr. Tyler, too, on the first day of school. He was yelling at you, and you looked at him and spoke right to him. But most of the time, you don’t do that. I don’t get it.”
I was to find out starting right then that Antony had several smiles. The one he gave me then was soft and gentle. “I can explain. It’s sort of a long story.”
I loved his voice. It was still soft but very mellow and rich and had the hint of an accent, and also some hint of far-off lands, colored with exotic overtones.
“In the country I came from,” he said, “the culture is much different from here. We were taught not to look adults in the eyes when we spoke, and we had to be very, very polite and obedient.”
“The country you came from?” I said, puzzled. “You’re not from here? Your English is perfect, and you hardly have any foreign accent at all. If you’re not from here, why wouldn’t you have more of an accent, and how could your English be so good?”
He sighed and lost his smile. “I should start at the beginning. See, I’m from a country where things are much different. But we all learn English in school. Our leaders want us to be able to live in the modern world, and English is the language of that world. So very early in what you call kindergarten, we start learning it. And we see lots of American movies and TV, and the teachers are strict about pronunciation and accents. We have to learn to sound like Americans.”
He stopped to take a couple of breaths. I just watched him.
“As I said, things are very different. I come from a country you’ve probably never even heard of, one of the ‘stan’ countries that broke away from Russia and became independent. For a long time we were part of Russia, and Russian things were part of our culture. Any boy who showed interest in or skill at dancing was pushed into ballet classes. It was identified early on that I had some skill at dance. So they started me on ballet lessons. I loved them.”
He smiled then, and this time there was nothing kept back. I loved that smile. I had to smile, too. His was infectious. I didn’t have a choice.
He had been looking somewhere over my shoulder while he’d been talking. I didn’t interpret it as shyness this time; it was obvious he’d been remembering his early youth. Now he looked directly at me. “One of the things that was different about my country, and still is, was homosexuality was illegal. They throw homosexuals in jail. Sometimes they kill them. They watch male dancers very closely, because in Russia itself, many male dancers are homosexuals.
“They watched us very closely, starting when I was about nine. We were very aware of what we weren’t supposed to be, or do. We knew all about it. But it didn’t change anything for me. About when they started watching was about the time I was realizing that I was what they were looking for—what they didn’t want ‘contaminating’ their dancers.
“I told my father. I loved my father and he loved me. Family was everything in that country. When I told my father, I wept. He wept with me. And told me never to tell anyone else. Then he began planning to get me and the entire family out of the country.
“We weren’t able to do that legally. Anyone with any sort of talent was restricted from traveling. And I’d shown some talent at ballet. Enough that I was going to be sent to a special school when I was fourteen. That’s when they separated boys with dancing potential like I had from our families and made sure we were turned into the best dancers we could be.”
I could see the tension on his face, talking about this, remembering this, remembering how he was to be taken away from his family at 14.
“So my father made plans, and last year, just after I’d turned 13, we escaped. That’s an even longer story, and I can’t tell much about that because people are involved who’d be tortured if anyone found out who they were. But we came here. My father started looking around for ballet teachers. He couldn’t use the best of the best because those might be observed by agents for my country. They were looking for us. Of course, there are only so many of them, and they didn’t know where in the world we’d gone, so we were pretty safe. But going to a top ballet teacher would be something they might check on, and we didn’t dare risk that.”
I moved forward slightly so my knees were pressed more firmly into his. Then I reached forward and put my hand over his, on his knee.
He smiled at me again, feeling the concern I was showing, then continued. “So we came here. Here because there is a teacher living in this city who knows ballet. He hadn’t been teaching. He’d retired. But my father knew of him and knew how he felt about things in my country. He agreed to work with me. He’s been teaching me ever since. It’s only been a few months, but he works me hard, he concentrates only on me—no one else is there but the two of us—and I’ve gotten a lot better. But no one knows he’s teaching me. No one knows my real name. Antony is sort of an Americanization of my real name. My last name, August, is one my family took. It’s the month we settled in this city.”
He paused for a moment, looking around the park. It was February, but the city we lived in was warmer than many in this country. I won’t say more than that. The weather was warm enough that we were both wearing only light jackets. The park was mostly empty. We didn’t have to worry about anyone overhearing us or for the most part even noticing us there on the grass.
“Some of the people at school know some of this about me, but not everything,” he said, going on. “My father asked them to keep as much information about me as secret as they could. They’ve been doing that. There are some very good people at your school.”
“It’s yours, too,” I said, but my voice sounded funny. I was hearing stuff I wasn’t prepared for. Hearing about jails and killing and torture, hearing about being watched and what would happen if your sexuality was discovered—I’d not been prepared for any of that.
I must have looked like I felt, too, because he turned his hand over and grasped mine. “See, that’s why I’ve been keeping such a low profile at school. I’m not really all that shy. I just didn’t want to be too involved in things until I knew how things were and knew for sure my accent and behavior wouldn’t get me in trouble, get me noticed. I wanted to watch and get to know how things worked before I jumped into them. Of course, when I talk to adults, my own culture gets in the way, and I do tend to act very shy. It isn’t shyness. It’s respect. We were taught to respect our elders in my former country.”
“And gym class?” I asked. “Why aren’t you taking gym?”
“This is a secret. I’m going to be in a ballet, an important ballet, in New York City. My teacher arranged a tryout, and I landed a major role. It’ll be a big deal. I’m going to get paid! There will be lots of people and money involved, and I can’t risk all that by turning my ankle in gym class. Besides that, the contract my father and I both signed restricts me from doing certain things that might cause me to be injured; gym class is one of them. Anyway, I probably get more exercise—work harder athletically—than anyone in that school already, so there’s no reason to go to gym class.”
“Really? You’re small, and Mr. Tyler said you were puny,” I said, teasing him. “Wouldn’t going to gym help with that?”
He grinned at me. “Puny? You think I’m puny? Weak, and shy, and puny? I don’t think so!” And then, to my shock he sprang up. I don’t know how he did it. He was on the ground, all folded up with crossed legs and his hands on his knees, and in an instant, he was standing. “Come on, get up,” he said challengingly with his eyes twinkling. “See if you can catch me.”
It took me a bit longer than it had him to stand up, but I did so knowing it would be easy to catch him. I was considerably bigger and stronger than he was, with longer legs. I was very athletic and had played all sports for years. I tackled kids on the football field all the time. I was good at it. Of course I’d catch him. I just had to be careful not to squash him when I did.
He stood there, smiling, and so I just suddenly jumped at him, expecting to tackle him, but he wasn’t there any longer. He laughed, and I charged again.
He was incredible. He could let me get within a cat’s whisker of him, and then he’d make some trifling little juke or skip, and I’d miss him altogether. Once, I went to tackle him, a diving tackle, and I knew I had him, but he did a sort of jump, did the splits high in the air, and I sailed right under him, landing on my stomach, and I heard his tittering, musical laugh. I never got even a finger on him.
Finally, I was winded and stopped, my hands on my knees, breathing hard and laughing. He wasn’t out of breath at all. And while I was resting, he suddenly charged me and tackled me, knocking me down and landing on top of me, even though I was much heavier than he was. He grabbed my wrists, one of his hands on each of mine and forced my arms to the ground. Well, obviously he couldn’t hold me there. I guessed I probably outweighed him by 30 pounds, maybe 40, and was surprised he’d even been able to tackle me. So I forced my arms up. Well, I tried to. I couldn’t move them at all. He was incredibly strong, even if he did look like a shrimp. A cute shrimp, but a shrimp nevertheless.
He had me spread eagle on the ground, looming over me, and then slowly, ever so slowly, he inched his head down, lower and lower, and then his lips met mine.
I’d never kissed anyone before on the lips. No one. His lips were soft, oh so soft, but there was fire in them, too. There was a paradoxical mixture of hunger and yearning and soft sensuality. He lowered his body down onto mine, and he was as hard as I was. His heart was beating as fast and hard, too.
He let go of my wrists and then settled more comfortably onto me. “I’ve so wanted this,” he murmured. “The longer I’ve gone without making friends, the more lonely I’ve gotten.” Then he snickered, “It started getting much, much harder after that time I saw you not able to tie your own shoes.”
I stroked his back and felt how firm it was, how muscled. His clothes had covered it all. I could well imagine now that he had muscles like that all over. Not a weightlifter’s muscles, but a dancer’s muscles, long and lean and strong.
In the park that day he told me more about his life. We talked for a long time, and all the inconsistencies, all the puzzles I’d seen and felt with him were explained. He’d watched me as often as I’d watched him. He’d been hungering for me as I had for him. He hadn’t believed it possible I could be gay. He said my note with the ‘Too?’ at the end had made him realize I was, or at least that I was probably telling him I was. Now he accepted it as fact. He wanted us to be Valentines and was looking forward to being who he couldn’t be in his home country. With me.
We talked about that, too. We both wanted the same things, although I wasn’t ready to come out yet. I asked him more about his country and about how he liked living in America. One of the questions I asked was, “If you’re still in hiding, how can you be in a ballet? In New York? Surely they’ll catch on it’s you, even with a different name.”
He laughed. “I suppose there’s a little risk, maybe a teaspoon’s worth, but not much. See, if I’m a nobody, they can risk capturing me and getting me back to my old country, avoiding the authorities here. That’s what they want. But if I’m famous and the press knows about me and my story, which they will if I do well in the ballet, then they can’t really touch me without bringing suspicion on them, and they can’t have that. They want to enter the world stage, and kidnapping a boy and taking him from his family would be the last thing they’d want to read about in the newspapers. So if I do well in the ballet and get noticed in the press, I’ll be safe.”
Right then, he’d been sitting on my lap. I was plenty big enough, or he was plenty small enough, for us to be comfortable with my holding him like that. My arms were around him, and he was nestled in my lap. After saying that, he started to gently rotate his butt ever so slightly in my lap. This stuff was all new to me, this closeness, this affection, this intimacy, and especially this beautiful boy in my lap, and I sprang to attention the moment I felt what he was doing. He laughed. “And that’s the other thing. Being gay back home would have meant my completely ignoring or trying to reject my own sexuality or else suffering the consequences. But if I’m here and it becomes generally known that I’m gay, that would be simply another reason they wouldn't want me back. So when you’re ready, whenever that is, I don’t mind the world knowing. It already sort of expects that of male dancers.”
His movement in my lap continued until I reminded him we were outside in a public park and shouldn’t be doing this here, and he asked where and, well, that’s not really part of this story, now, is it?
Anyway. So I got what I wanted for Valentine’s Day. I got a friend, a friend who I could tell everything to, and who would be my best friend forever. And I got someone to be my Valentine. Too! I got both in one person. That was a pretty good Valentine’s Day, when I was thirteen.
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