Foreword

Presenting this story without expressing my appreciation to my editors in advance would be to minimize their contributions. They are a surly and bodacious bunch, but certainly know how to whip my wandering words into some semblance of shape and make a story out of them.

For their time, effort and expertise, I will be forever grateful. You should be, too!

C.P.

Middle School

1 – Gym

I hated gym class. Everything about it was wrong. It was especially wrong for a boy who thought he might be gay, and who wasn’t athletic. Which was me.

First, all the other boys are so rough-and-tumble and alive and crude and coarse and shouting and that’s just in the locker room. Where all the undressing and dressing happens. You’d think that undressing and dressing might be nice for a boy who thinks he might be gay and has the chance to enjoy the scenery, but it isn’t. It’s a nightmare. I had to avoid the scenery, keep my eyes on the floor and the lockers and the bench and not on Chad, who stood next to me and made me feel funny inside when I looked at him. He had sandy hair and freckles and the wickedest eyes and was usually laughing about something. I couldn’t look at him. Not while I was undressing. Oh, my god. I couldn’t look at any of them; it wasn’t only Chad. Not because I’d spring one. I didn’t think that would happen. I was too scared for that. No, I couldn’t look because of the possibility of someone seeing me look, and calling me on it. That didn’t bear thinking about.

Then there was the class itself. We played games like basketball or dodge ball or ran team relay races across the gym floor, or sometimes wrestled on the mats we’d have to drag out onto the floor. We’d play volleyball or badminton sometimes, or sit in a big group and listen to the gym coach talk to us about something. Something like the rules of the next game we were going to play, which I could then worry about because whatever it was, I’d be no good at it, and if sides were chosen, I always got picked almost last, which I’d got so used to it wasn’t even embarrassing any longer, except it was.

I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t good at anything, but there were only a few of us. I at least tried. Some of them didn’t.

In the locker room after gym, it was more of the same. At least I didn’t have to shower. It was optional, and some of us didn’t. The coach, Mr. Simmons, one of those times when we were sitting on the floor and he was talking to us, told us showers would be mandatory when we moved up to the high school. He told us it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get used to it now when we knew everyone, like we all did, and while we all looked about the same, in the showers. He was a pretty nice guy, not one of those coaches I read about in all those stories about kids my age. Like, when we had to climb ropes, all the way to the ceiling, he watched me try, but then told me that if I made it halfway up, that would be really good, and to try to do that, that I should make that my goal for right now. He told me the proper climbing technique, too, and I did try, and eventually one day I did make it halfway. He congratulated me for it, too. But I didn’t take his suggestion about the showers. Neither did some of the other kids, so I didn’t stand out at all.

Chad was one of the ones who did. He’d shower, then come back all dried off with the towel wrapped around his waist. If I looked at him even when he was wearing the towel, it was pretty exciting and could get me in trouble because it would be hard to look away. He had really beautiful skin, his chest sort of veed down to his waist, which wasn’t all that usual with a 13-year-old, and he had some muscle definition in his arms. I had to be really careful not to look. For a maybe gay boy, seeing a perfect boy my age up close and personal nearly naked was something I was better off denying myself. He’d come back from the shower, all pink and glowing. He’d open his locker, and then drop the towel. And I’d be sitting on the bench, usually tying my shoes. I was so aware of him standing there. Just barely on the edge of my eyesight.

Then, one time, I was tying and he was standing, and he said, “Marc, you did good today.”

I had to look up. He hadn’t really ever talked to me before. He was sort of a jock. Not on the football team or basketball team or anything, not that sort of a jock, but he was really good at everything we did in gym, and he had muscles, more than I did, and I just thought of him as sort of jockish. In a perfect sort of way. I didn’t really have the courage to talk to him. The coach had assigned lockers, which is why we were next to each other. I shouldn’t have been surprised he knew my name, we all did as we’d all been together since about first grade, but it still sort of shocked me, hearing him use it.

But he was talking to me, and I had to respond. I had to look up. And there he was, not much more than a foot or two from me, wearing a smile and that was all. Just standing there like it was nothing, looking at me, his eyes just as smiley as his lips, his whole nature very friendly, just like he always was. He was perfectly OK with me seeing all of him. Not showing off, just being natural.

“Thanks, Chad. I try,” I said, my eyes on his. Very, very much on his eyes.

“I know you do. And you did well today. I just wanted to tell you that.”

I was still looking at him, and I began to blush. He turned to his locker and took out his boxers and slipped them on. I was still looking at him, and he noticed, and didn’t seem to be bothered by it, one way or the other. I turned away. I was really blushing now. I had to hope he thought it was because of the compliment.

The next time we had gym it was wrestling. That was the worst. The very worst. First, I was kind of weak. Second, I was kind of scared. Third, there were a couple of boys in class who loved to hurt those of us who didn’t like to wrestle. I didn’t always have to wrestle them, but sometimes I did. The coach always watched us, and tried to pair the bigger, rougher boys together, but sometimes, sometimes, with all that was going on with all us kids there, it just didn’t work out that way. I hated wrestling. If I’d known in advance we were going to wrestle, I’d have managed to break an arm or have pneumonia or gonorrhea or something and would’ve had a note from home to prove it. I had a sympathetic mother. That day, I didn’t know about wrestling in advance.

We got out on the floor and when the coach told us to start dragging the mats out, I was wondering if I could pull a muscle or something, and which one to pull, but I was still thinking about that and how I was supposed to act to sell a groin injury—are you supposed to limp? Can you walk at all?—to the coach when we were ready to go.

I watched till it was my turn, wondering if I could get away with claiming a case of the runs, but I waited too long and just by the luck of the draw, I got put with Marv Turner. Marv Turner was about six inches taller and weighed at least 50 pounds more than me. I was 5’ 3” and 120. After a full meal. Marv was also a little stupid and had really hairy armpits. I didn’t have any hair at all, to my embarrassment. I tried to keep my arms down, but in gym class you can’t always do that, and I’d sometimes forget, so everyone probably knew. I had to console myself with the fact no one knew I didn’t have any hair anywhere else, either.

Marv looked at me and gave me a sort of sadistic smile. I looked back and tried to keep my fear out of my face. The coach blew his whistle and Marv started advancing. It’s not considered good form to run away, and the humiliation for doing that is worse and lasts longer than the pain of being taken down hard. I’ve felt both so I know. I ran once last year and it was quite a while before people forgot about it. I hadn’t run this year, accepting the pain of being slammed to the mat and my limbs being twisted in directions they weren’t designed to be twisted.

The coach had told everyone that if a guy yelled, “STOP!” the guy doing the damage was supposed to stop and the match was over. That was so no one would get hurt, and if anyone didn’t stop right away, he had to run laps for the rest of the class, or if it was at the end of the class, all the next class. So, most of the time, the guys winning did stop.

Marv had had to run once or twice already. He didn’t like to stop when kids yelled.

Now the look in his eyes told me he was working out what to do with me as he was moving toward me, and I was considering whether running again might be my best option, when it was too late and I was on my stomach on the mat with a heavy sweaty weight on top of me without quite knowing how I got there and not of a mind to think about it right then because the wind seemed to have been knocked out of me and I couldn’t quite get it back, and then my arm was being forced up behind my back and my shoulder was on fire. I tried to say, “Stop,” but with no air in my chest, I couldn’t.

My shoulder felt like it was going to explode because Marv kept pushing my arm higher and higher and I heard a high pitched squealing and realized it was me, and then suddenly both the weight and the worst of the pain were gone and I was just lying there, my shoulder still hurting but not feeling like someone was doing unanaesthetized surgery on it, my arm still up behind my back but no longer being forced up, still there simply because the thought of pulling it back down was frightening. I was trying to regain my breath. That seemed most important of all.

I heard shouting and other noises, but breathing was all I was thinking about. Trying to do it.

Then the coach was leaning over me and asking me if I was all right. I didn’t answer. I thought maybe another hour of just lying there trying to will myself to breathe would be good. Talking was out of the question.

Mr. Simmons asked again, and I wasn’t being stubborn or rebellious or anything, it was simply that it wasn’t easy to talk without enough air in my lungs, my shoulder still was hurting and it seemed the less I moved at the moment, even my lips, the less likely it was that the pain in my shoulder would flare up again, so I simply lay there. I wasn’t faking, and I really didn’t dislike Mr. Simmons. I just wasn’t up to doing much of anything at the moment, no matter who was asking.

At least I could hear what was going on around me. Mr. Simmons said to someone, “Better go fetch the nurse.” And another voice, worried, said, “Maybe you should call 911. His back might be injured.” The voice seemed familiar, and I thought it might be Chad’s.

Little by little, my breath was coming back. Tentatively, very tentatively, I pushed my arm a fraction of an inch lower. The pain in my shoulder decreased immediately. Thinking that had worked a charm, I slowly pushed it down further, then all the way so it was no longer behind my back.

I cautiously rolled over onto my back and straightened my legs, discovering they were sort of contorted, one bent under me, the other splayed out to the side, sort of like I’d been through the spin cycle on a clothes dryer. My breathing came easier then. Mr. Simmons saw me and immediately crouched down next to me. “You all right, laddie?” He was from Scotland, originally, and some of that still showed up in his speech, especially when he was emotional. He sounded emotional right then. Worried, you know?

“I think so. Had the wind knocked out of me and I’m not sure what else. My shoulder hurts. What happened?”

“That lummox Turner is what happened. I was watching the boys on the next mat over after starting you two and didn’t see it myself, but from what I was told, Turner seemed to think he ought to try to twist your arm off and Wilkinson thought maybe someone should stop him. He did.”

I looked around, and saw Marv was on the edge of the mat I was lying on, holding the side of his face. Chad was standing next to me, cradling his right wrist.

I sat up. I was all right now. I stood up. In doing so, I pushed off the mat with my right arm and the shoulder told me not to be doing that any more just now. I winced. Chad looked at me, then turned away.

“All right, Wilkinson, you need to see the nurse with that wrist and hand, and I suppose Turner does too. Turner, we’re going to talk, you and me. Count on it. Now you two, go along. Pullman, maybe you better go, too. Get her to look at that shoulder. Want to make sure it’s OK.”

Marv stood up, glared at me angrily, mumbled something under his breath to Chad for him alone to hear that I couldn’t catch even though I was trying, and then walked off by himself. Chad looked back at me. I had a hard time meeting his eyes. I was embarrassed. But I did peek, and he was looking embarrassed too.

We walked together out of the gym and down the school corridor toward the nurse’s office.

“Chad?”

He didn’t answer. His body language was telling me he was uncomfortable.

“Chad? Did you really pull him off me? And hit him?”

He started walking a little faster.

I started to ask him why, but, for once in my life, my brain kicked in. He didn’t want me to ask that! He was embarrassed about what had happened, and would be even more embarrassed if he had to talk about it. That’s why he was walking fast.

I stopped and let him go on to the nurse’s office by himself. Then I followed. I had no idea why he was embarrassed, no more than I knew why he’d done what he’d done. But if he didn’t want to talk about it with me, then the least I could do was not push him.

I had a lot to think about. I’d spend the next few days doing that. But something had changed, for sure. I didn’t hate gym so much any more.