by Lil’ Octopus
He was never a very talkative person. He usually kept to himself. It’s awkward when we’re together. It’s awkward when I try to make conversation with him. Maybe he got the impression that I was a creep. Little details, small things, can really make the big picture, or at least how you perceive it.
I first met him in the locker room of our ninth grade gym class. When I looked at him, three details stood out clearly to me. The first two were very unflattering. He was chubby. I know it sounds like a judgment I’m making, but it isn’t. I didn’t mind, it didn’t bother me. Little did I know that it would turn into something worse over time. He was heavy, and as I eyed him while changing into my shorts and gym shirt, I noticed that he was very self-conscious. Not only that, but he was also very nervous. He couldn’t decide between allowing his eyes to wander over the other boys or letting his chin drop to his chest.
“Yo kid, what’s your name?” one of the guys there asked him gruffly. We were all in the same grade, so by saying ‘kid’ this guy was obviously both demeaning him while trying to act tough. At that precise moment, I noticed that every other kid in the room stopped what they were doing and looked at the two of them. He had everyone’s attention. Some of the boys had smirks on their faces. Others watched carefully from the corner of their eyes, wanting to get out of there as fast as possible.
“…Guy,” he mumbled hesitantly, reluctantly. His body stiffened, growing more and more tense and uncomfortable as a hush descended over the room.
That was when the second detail really came out loud and clear. His voice was really gentle. It was delicate. It was effeminate. And I wasn’t the only one who picked up on it.
“Guy?! Really? Are you sure?” Two or three other kids laughed. Twice as many looked on with interest. One or two quietly slipped out of the room after having changed. They didn’t want to get involved.
Guy, as I now knew his name to be, didn’t respond. He nervously fumbled with his shorts. He still needed to change into his gym t-shirt, and with all of the attention he now had coupled with his self-consciousness, I saw the colour drain from his face as he stood there, his body rigid, his arms plastered against his sides.
I was disgusted. I was disturbed. But still I watched as four more kids left the changing room.
“What are you, shy? You know you need to change shirts, right? C’mon, let’s see you take it off,” the kid said with a nasty grin. He turned and flicked his head at the other guys behind and next to him. “C’mon boys, let’s see what this gay guy looks like underneath. I hear they like showing it off. What’s the word? Flamboyant? Showing pride?” he sneered. Another few kids hurried out.
I felt a lurch in my throat. My nerves seemed to fly out in every direction, and without even realizing what I was getting myself into, I reached out my hand and patted the guy’s arm to get his attention.
“C’mon man, just leave him alone. We’ve gotta get going,” I said, trying to sound calm, calmer than how I really felt inside.
“Why? Who the hell do you think you are?” he jerked his arm away and glared at me, challenging me. I was terrified as I daringly looked back into the menacing pools in his eyes, but I instinctively masked my fear with a look of confusion.
“What? About almost everyone is gone and already in the gym. We should get going before the teacher gets mad,” I said, hoping to get him to let it drop. He didn’t.
“What are you, the teacher’s pet? His lap dog? If you’re so scared why don’t you go on first? No point in getting your scrawny ass involved with something that’s none of your business, twig,” he hissed dangerously as he slowly advanced towards me until I was up against the door. He gave me a rough shove and I stumbled, flinching.
“Beat it, kid.” He didn’t give me much of a choice. The other guys looked at me, snickering, and I was embarrassed in front of Guy, knowing he knew I was trying to intervene but was too weak and instead made a fool of myself playing the rescuer. He pushed me out of the way and pulled the door open.
“Go on, get out,” he motioned with his chin. I was made to feel less than, and I felt even worse when I wordlessly complied. But I knew that this was where I would get the upper hand, although indirectly. I quickly turned and ran down the hall to the gym and spotted our teacher.
“Hey, where are the other boys? You guys are taking too long in there,” he said to me as I approached him.
“I’m sorry sir, but I think someone might get hurt. One of the boys there, he’s getting picked on and they won’t let him go,” I said rather frantically as I tried to catch my breath.
“Oh geez,” he groaned with displeasure as he tossed his clipboard onto the floor. “You guys stay here,” he instructed the other boys sitting on the benches. “What’s your name?” he asked me as he made his way out.
“Jason,” I replied.
“Alright Jason, come along. Do you know any of their names?”
“Only that the guy who’s getting picked on is named Guy. I don’t know about the others.”
“Okay,” he said. As we approached the locker room I could hear cruel laughter and frightened yells. Our teacher threw the door open.
Guy had his shirt yanked off. He had just been shoved to the floor. The leader of the group of four boys had his arms crossed as he cornered Guy. He was taking extreme pleasure out of tormenting him and while gaining the attention from the others.
“MALIK!! YOU THREE! THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!” our teacher roared angrily. All four of them jumped in terror as they were caught unaware. “First day and I already have to deal with you bunch!” How he knew that guy’s name, I didn’t know.
“Muh-Mr. Heath! We weren’t doing anything, I swear!” Malik squeaked while the rest of the boys nodded wide eyed. Guy’s face was furiously red. I could tell he was fighting a losing battle against threatening tears.
“Bullshit! You four get out and sit in my office.” Turning to me, he instructed, “Go look after Guy over there.”
Malik led the way to the door, and as he did, he shot a threatening glare at me.
“Don’t think you could get away with laying a hand on Jason here, or you’ll find yourselves dealing with some very serious consequences. Now move!” he barked.
They quickly made their way out with Mr. Heath behind them. He looked back at me and nodded. “I’ll be back,” he said. I returned his nod with one of my own.
Taking a deep breath, I turned away from the closing door and looked at the awful sight in front of me, feeling my throat tighten up. “Hey…Guy, are you okay?” He winced but didn’t respond. “Umm…never mind. Stupid question,” I mumbled as I jogged over to help him up.
He shamefully wiped his cheeks and stood up. “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them sooner. Those jackasses are gonna be in for it.”
Still he didn’t respond. I looked at him worriedly. “How…how are you holding up?”
He shrugged. He then pulled on his gym shirt. When he saw me looking directly into his eyes, he looked away.
I sighed inwardly. I felt awful. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to handle this. I didn’t know what to do, and if what I had been doing was even right.
The door opened again. Mr. Heath came in.
“C’mon, let’s go,” I said quietly.
And that’s when the third detail came to mind. He was silent. Not the peaceful kind, but the empty kind. The depressing kind.
That was grade nine. I remember sitting that year in the cafeteria during lunch breaks. I sat at a table of people like me – just a bunch of ordinary and plain kids who didn’t seem to fit in anywhere else. When Guy needed a place to sit, I invited him over. He sat with us a few times, but he never showed interest in any of our conversations. Even when it was just the two of us I would try to talk to him, to make him feel less…alone. I tried to show him that I was interested in getting to know him. He didn’t feel the same way. He might have taken me for a creeper. I guess he just needed someone like him, and I wasn’t that person.
That year we had one uptight teacher who seemed to take a certain disdain towards him. She was vocal with her irritation of his miserable state of isolation. But that wasn’t all. I would fume heatedly as I watched her purse her lips with disapproval whenever Guy spoke, whenever he dropped his wrist, whenever he crossed his legs ‘like a girl’, and whenever he flicked his hair to the side. She gave him a hard time with her ambiguously snide remarks, and he knew it but was powerless to do anything about it. I felt somehow responsible for not getting involved, so I tried to do the least that I could. I tried to do the small things. I sat next to him. I said hi and smiled at him. I, as I’ve mentioned several times, I tried to be as friendly and welcoming as I could.
He must have been really happy to not have to take gym class after that year was over. But by now in the tenth grade he gained even more weight, and I noticed that that wasn’t the only thing that was different. He became a perfectionist. He worked hard in school and became oblivious to everything else around him. His mannerisms, effeminate but natural, were deadened. He was using all of his energy and talents to build a wall around himself. His used his weight to hide who he really was underneath – to let others make fun of his size because it hurt less, because it was just the outside. He used his academic advancement to create a reputation so as to deter and distract others from seeing what he did not want them to see. It seemed to work. Malik now called him ‘Fat Guy’ instead of ‘Gay Guy’.
And I was still called twig. That year I had started joining a group at school to use the weight room. The group was called something stupid like ‘Boys to Men’. I didn’t know what I was doing in there for the first year. Weight training was something foreign to me.
Grade eleven came. I grew. I grew a lot. I was taller and bigger, and Malik and his goons were more cautious around me. I was strong. I was confident. I was happy.
Unfortunately I could not say the same was true with Guy. I almost never saw him again during our lunch breaks. And when I did, I found him wandering the halls on his own. I’d ask him if he had anything to eat yet. He would tell me he wasn’t hungry. This was the typical response every time I asked him this question. I thought it odd. Perhaps he was on some sort of weird diet. Maybe he was trying to lose weight. If it was, then I never figured out how that was brought on, why he suddenly decided to make this his goal. A few months passed by and I noticed that he had indeed lost a lot of weight. In fact, he was the very opposite of what he looked like last year. Day after day he grew thinner and paler.
On an unsuspecting day, I spotted him sitting by himself in the cafeteria. He was eating. He was actually eating. He had at least six slices of pizza and a large bottle of water. I was hesitant to walk over and join him. Instead, I sat and watched. He was ravenous. When he quickly finished, he chugged the entire bottle and made his way out. I sat there with a confused look on my face.
A few weeks later the same sort of thing happened again. I watched him make an exit through the doors as I stood by the trash can after having thrown out some used napkins. I then tool a long drink from the water fountain. Moving back to my seat, I plopped myself down and made small talk with a few of the regulars at my table. After several minutes, my bladder was full. I stood up, excused myself, and headed to the washroom.
I stood in front of a urinal and relieved myself. I heard a bit of panting from behind me and turned my head curiously. One stall was in use with the door locked. I looked away, but then turned to look again. I noticed a strange thing. From the position of the person’s legs and feet, he wasn’t sitting on the toilet bowl, nor was he standing in front of it. Instead, he was kneeling in front of it.
I finished, zipped up, and heard a muffled lurching noise and gurgling, followed by the sound of chunky contents spewing into the water of the toilet bowl. Someone was throwing up.
With a concerned look on my face, I went over to the sinks and washed my hands, every so often glancing over my shoulder to the occupied stall. I heard a flush. I took a few towel papers in my hand, wet them, and wiped my face. I then heard another flush, but it didn’t seem to pass through completely. I looked at myself in the mirror to readjust my hair, combing my fingers through them. I heard toilet paper being pulled off the roll in large amounts, over and over again. What exactly was this guy doing in there?
Finally, as I was finished and about ready to leave, the stall door opened and to my surprise, it was Guy. He quickly saw me and his eyes widened. He was mortified, and so was I.
“Guy…are you alright?” My eyes flicked to the toilet behind him and back. It was clogged with copious amounts of paper.
“Y-yeah. Yeah, everything’s fine,” he said still quite stunned, averting his eyes from me. He tried to walk past me to the sinks as I moved towards him, and then the smell hit me. I staggered back as he quickly washed his face and mouth. He took something from his pocket and, turning away from me, he brought a cupped hand to his mouth.
“Mint.” I stated. He turned around, pretending not to hear me, trying to pretend I wasn’t there. He tried to slip past me but I sidestepped in front of the door.
“It all makes sense now…” I said quietly.
“Let me go,” he said, getting slightly annoyed.
“Guy, this is serious.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“I’m not going to stand by and let you destroy yourself like this.”
“What does it matter?! Why won’t you just let me go?!” he yelled. He raised his hands in reluctant defeat as his face contorted. He gasped suddenly and started to cry. “Don’t tell anyone. Please…” he begged miserably.
“It wouldn’t do any good for me even if I did,” I said. He stepped back and leaned against the wall with his head lowered in shame. “Guy, why are you doing this to yourself?”
He was silent for several moments as he stiffed and took laboured breaths. “Can’t you tell?”
“I need you to tell me.” I stood there waiting patiently. He shook his head back and forth in frustration. “Tell me Guy. Why are you doing this?” He clenched his fists and pulled his arms tightly against his sides.
“I’m fat, okay? I’m fat and I’m ugly. I…I hate myself and I just…I can’t do this anymore. I’m…I’m so…so confused,” he struggled. And then he cried even harder.
I bit my lips together, trying to formulate my thoughts into words. “If you’re trying to change the way how you look and feel about yourself, then you’re doing it wrong. You’ve got a lot more power to turn yourself around than you think you do. You need to believe that.”
“You don’t understand…I don’t know what to do…”
I paused for a moment, then lifted my head and spoke. “Start by readjusting your attitude. Tell yourself you look good in the mirror. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses. I know you’re great at school. I know you’re smart.” I paused once again to collect my thoughts and gauge his reaction. He remained there in silence.
“Someone once told me,” I continued “‘A lion that swims is still a lion. He’s not a fish. An eagle who limps still rules the skies.’”
“Metaphors,” he whispered.
“Clichéd pieces of wisdom,” I added.
“It’s not that simple.”
“It never is.” I was quiet for a moment before I continued. “We have weaknesses for a reason. They’re small things that can help us be better and keep us humble. But you’re letting them blind you. You look at your limp and forget that you can fly.”
He was silent as I spoke. I just hoped he was listening.
“As for the fitness side of things,” I said, changing course, “you need to stop starving yourself. Of course I know it’s much easier said than done.” I moved to stand beside him, leaning against the wall. “Eat a little less, but don’t starve,” I continued. “There’s no need to restrict the foods you love. No fad diets, no starving, no living off of four hundred calories a day. Take a walk around the block every morning for an hour, every day or every other day. If you get bored, put in earphones and listen to eBooks, podcasts. You’d be surprised at how much you could learn every day. Just small things like that.” I made it sound so easy, so simple. But I knew, in his situation, it wasn’t. “But…on a more serious note, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see someone who could help you take care of what you’re going through. Professional help.”
Guy wiped his face and stiffed. He took a shaking breath, turned to the sinks, and washed his face once more. He didn’t say anything, didn’t even look my way. I sighed to myself. Maybe I just need to shut up with the advice giving. Who do I think I am anyway? There was no reason for me to stay here any longer.
Before I stepped out, I turned my head to get one last look at him. He was staring at himself in the mirror.
“I’d be careful if I were you,” I said in a low voice next to his ear from behind as I watched Guy walk down the hall to his locker.
“Don’t bother. I wasn’t gonna do anything to your little princess,” Malik said, turning to smirk at me. It was now my turn to give him a challenging look as he took several steps back without wanting to risk turning his back to me. Once he felt he was at a safe distance, he flipped the finger and hissed “Fag lover,” before making a quit exit. Some people just never change, do they?
I looked back at Guy and watched him grab the textbooks he needed that night for homework. Another year had gone by and we were now in our last month before summertime. He looked much better, definitely healthier too. He was still quiet though, still withdrawn. I could see that he was still suffocating in this environment. He was still hiding, suppressing his mannerisms, never freely expressing himself.
I didn’t talk much to him anymore, not that I really did a whole lot of that before anyway. We were never close, and probably never will be.
Our final exams finally came, and I was exhausted from the amount of studying and fighting with sleep and boredom that I had to do. My English exam was the last, and I breathed a sigh of relief after laying down my pen that morning. It felt great to be sitting by the window with a bit of breeze and sunlight both warming and cooling my skin. I would look over my writing in a minute or two. That could wait for a bit. I wanted to spend a short moment staring out the window. I realized that this was going to be the last time I’d spend my days in a high school classroom. I looked at the lively and bright greenery and I knew that freedom was here at last, waiting to meet me on the outside. I grinned widely and shook my head, then picked up the pen and went back to reread my essay.
A few days later, I found myself spending my Prom night by myself at a bookstore. I didn’t feel like going. It wasn’t my sort of activity. I much preferred to celebrate it in solitude, surrounding by things of my interest, being free to absorb myself in it. I went through a variety of reading material, looking for anything new and eye-catching – everything from mystery novels to Flex magazines, from romance novels to comic books, and from philosophy texts to motivational self-help books. I took a few books I liked, tucking them under my arm as I finally headed to the cashier.
I crossed a bridge on the way home under the night sky with the highway traffic below me. I stopped for a moment and watched the blurred lines of light zoom past like a thriving electric ocean, breathing in the cool night air rushing about from the traffic underneath.
When I stepped away from the railing and kept walking, I saw the building, the hall that my school had rented for Prom. It was a nice fancy place, with a nice fancy name. I wondered how many kids were there with dates, how many would later go to the after party, how many would get wasted, how many kids would lose their virginity for the first time – to someone they didn’t care or, in the rare case, to someone they loved.
I don’t think I was really missing out on much. I was pretty happy with my books.
As I neared the building on the path to my house, I walked through a patch of trees and looking up. I watched the sea of stars. It was so expansive, filling my eyes to the limit. I opened my mouth to laugh, to laugh with freedom and joy.
But then I heard something. I heard someone. A human noise. I stopped and looked for the source of the sound. I found someone sitting on a bench by a small pond. He wore a suit.
It was Guy. He was alone. He must have gone to Prom, since he was dressed up for it. I didn’t know for sure, since I didn’t think he’d be one to go. But Prom wasn’t over yet. Why was he out here like this?
I slowly walked up behind him, resting my hands on the backseat. He had his hands covering his mouth as he sobbed and shook quietly. He hadn’t sensed my presence.
“You shouldn’t be here like this,” I started. He jumped up at the sound of my voice, startled.
“J-Jason?!” he yelped. He pulled his face away from me, cursed under his breath, and whimpered into his hands as he tried to calm himself down.
“Why do I always find you at your worst?” I said quietly to myself. He gritted his teeth as his face grimaced painfully. He rocked back and forth, gasping every now and then. I really shouldn’t have said that. Why I never just leave him alone in times like these, I’m not sure.
“I’m always at my worst. Some days…I just…I just can’t hide it anymore. I’m a mess. I can’t do this anymore,” he said. Then he fell silent again.
“You won’t have to,” I replied.
“What do you mean?” he asked, confused.
“Well…as I’m sure you are well aware of, after this there’s something called ‘Commencement’. You know, graduation. Then the real thing will begin, and all of this…filler, in a sense, will be over.” I paused for a moment for effect. “After that, you’ll be free to be yourself. You’ll leave this place behind and go to a new school. No one will care anymore.” I laughed at myself, knowing that wasn’t entirely true. “You’ll meet people like yourself – people with the same interests, the same experiences; people who’ll care about you, like you for who you are. It’ll be better, much better.”
I shifted my weight onto my legs and took my hands off the bench and to my sides. With one hand still holding onto the bag I carried my new books in, I reached in and pulled out a book that had caught my attention while I was at the store. I reached out and handed it to him. He took his face from his hands and looked at it curiously. He looked at me with confusion, then back at the book.
“Could you hold this for me for a sec?” He lifted his hands to take hold of it. “It’s pretty old actually.” He looked at the cover which read ‘Am I Blue’. “I read a short in there and liked it. It’s not bad,” I smiled at him, turning to leave.
“Wait! I can’t take this from you,” he said, surprised.
“It’s not mine anymore. It’s yours now.” I continued to walk away from him. “And, in case you’re wondering, it’s not a self-help book,” I chuckled.
“Jason!” he called out. I stopped. He had stood up and moved away from the bench. “You know…I never said thank you.”
“You don’t need to.”
“Yes I do. I want to. I hate how…how I was…” he took a shuddered breath, “…in too deep to really notice what you’ve done, all of these four years. You…matter to me. I just…never realized it. I want to thank you…and say goodbye, now that I have the chance.”
I breathed deeply and turned to look at him one last time. “I never mattered. It was the small things, I hoped, that did.” I turned away from him as he stood there clutching the book in his hands, and walked home with a sad smile on my face.
“Finally! I was falling asleep in that lecture! Could that man go any slower?” Keegan, a new friend of mine, exclaimed. I had left home and now began attending a university while living on residence. It was my first year. The atmosphere was totally different. Life here was so different from how it was back at home, back in high school. Everything was different.
“Now that’s rare to hear you say. Usually you’re far more…composed, trying to play it off coolly,” I teased.
He stopped in his tracks, turned to glare at me, and stood at his full height. He crossed his arms in front of him. He had a very imposing presence and was easily intimidating at first glance. “Would you like to repeat that?” his voice rumbled dangerously.
“What, that’s all you’ve got?” I challenged him, meeting his eyes while I mimicked the same posture he assumed. We glared at each other for a few seconds before we both lost it and broke out in laughter. He then swung his arm over my shoulder while trying to get himself under control.
“I have never met anyone who was so at ease with joking around with me. Well, except maybe this one girl in high school,” he said.
“Oh…was she special?” I teased him again. He cocked an eyebrow at me.
“Not in that sense, though she did have a best friend whom she always flirted with. She was a fun character. And smart. Very smart.”
“Sounds like you wished something more had happened between the two of you. She settled for someone else, I see,” I teased him again.
“Jason, you clever little–”
He reached out to tackle me, but I quickly slipped out from under his arms. We carried this on, laughing like children as we scampered and chased each other down and through the courtyard.
“Oh hey, what’s this?” I said, stopping our little silly game after stepping out from under one of the arches. I looked up ahead. It was some sort of gathering. They had a table set up with a variety of colourful pamphlets and brochures. I decided to check it out and see what the occasion was.
“Oh, just give me a second,” Keegan said, taking out his ringing cell phone. He answered it, made a few exchanges, and told me he had to meet a friend to exchange notes for a class that was missed.
“Alright. Is it a girl?” I asked.
“I don’t see why it would matter to you.”
“Well, I suggest practicing your flirting skills with your friend. Now’s the time to make up for missed opportunities.”
“Bastard!” he growled.
I grinned, winking at him. He shook his head and turned to leave. I’ve never been this lively before. There was something about him that brought out the best in me, and I’ve only just met him.
I returned my attention to the commotion out by the patio of one of the school buildings. As I approached the table, I noticed that the person who was standing behind it had a rather ambiguous gender. “Hi. What’s going on here?” I asked curiously.
“Hello,” she said. “We’re having an LGBTQ meet and greet. It’s one of the activities for Queer Orientation. Have you attended anything earlier on yet?”
“No, I…” I started, but my voice trailed off. Something caught my eye. With a curious expression, amongst the crowd I saw someone I thought I wouldn’t ever see again. I didn’t know he attended this university. He had a very different look about him. He had a new clean haircut with a streak of purple in the front. His clothes were form fitting – a fashionable jacket with a matching pair of trousers – along with a really nice pair of shoes.
But above all, he had a smile on his face. He was happy, and he seemed to be very engaged in a conversation with another boy his age.
And if I might add, there was a fourth detail, one that I could only see a hint of then but now was in full-bloom, one that I will not neglect to mention. He was handsome.
“I haven’t,” I finished after a long pause. “Anyway, thanks for your time. I should get going.”
“Not a problem,” she smiled.
I started walking away, but then decided to turn around and take one more look at him. The other guy had his hand on his shoulder, rubbing it affectionately. Guy was blushing and bursting with happiness. He was free to be himself. There was no more hiding; that time has now passed. His life now began.
He didn’t see me as I watched from a distance. He was finally beyond the small things. Here was the bigger picture. Now was the time for greater things.