Michael Christopher had a mouth like a sewage volcano. He knew how to swear in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Turkish, and Japanese. And thanks to the two weeks I'd spent hanging out with Deaf kids in summer camp, he know knew how to make ten dirty hand movements in American Sign Language. "You're a lot cooler than you were in elementary school." He said.
I was grateful for his approval. Mostly because in sixth grade, he'd made it a semi-weekly habit to beat the everliving shit out of me, for no other reason than beating the shit out of me was much more entertaining than not beating the shit out of me.
Somehow, in middle school, he'd transitioned from unpopular bully, to extremely popular bully. He'd earned the nickname The Saint, because he only beat up people who deserved it. It was kind of an honor to have him smack you upside your head. But, despite the fact that I was smaller, weaker, and had the social skills of a shaved rabbit in a beehive, he went out of his way to be nice to me.
A few weeks into the school year, his mom asked him to move a couch from the basement to the living room on the second floor. I had no concept of why he called me to help him out. I suspected subterfuge. When I got there Michael and Bird Dick were giggling up a storm. I suppressed my fight or flight instinct, and asked what they wanted me to do.
"I am so fucken high right now." Michael said. "We just" giggling "we just" giggling "oh, man, so fucken high."
I grabbed one end of the couch while Michael and Bird Dick grabbed the other. When the job was finished, Michael hugged me. "Thanks, deeeeeeeeeeewd, we totally fucken owe you one. We're gonna go out on the powerline paths and smoke some more sticky stuff. Wanna join us?"
I remembered that commercial where little Gary Coleman says "Say no. Then go. And tell." But I couldn't remember whether that was about drugs, sex, or getting into cars with strangers.
"Yea, but I've got a doctor's appointment tonight, and I can't go stinking of pot, you know?"
"That's cool." Michael said.
I waited for Bird Dick to make a comment, but he was too out of it to speak.
Michael giggled out a "Later deeeeeeeeeeewd."
Later that week, we had gym together. It was still warm enough that the teachers were making us go outside and play soccer or run track. We were supposed to come to class wearing our school clothes, change into shorts or sweatpants for class, then shower, and change back into our normal clothes when class ended. Only losers wore sweatpants in ninth grade, so we were expected to show up in shorts. Usually, I packed a clean pair in my backpack, but on this day, I'd forgotten. But, I remembered, Saint Michael 'owed me one'. "Hey, Saint, I forgot my shorts at home. Do you have a pair I could borrow?"
"Sure," Michael said, pulling his off, "take these." I turned away as quickly as possible. His ass was exquisite.
"Stop looking at his ass, you fucken cocksucker." Said one of Saint's sidekicks. "I'm going to pound the fuck out of you."
I balled up my fists. I knew I couldn't take them, but I was determined to fight as long as it took to save heterosexual face.
"Yea, Bruno." Michael said. "My ass is no entrada, viado."
Oh, they weren't talking to me. Bruno was a kid named Liam Brunelli who'd moved to Cranberry Lake from Chicago at the beginning of the school year. He was chubby and red faced. His head was too large for his body. And, at the moment, his too large head was being slammed into a locker by a member of Michael's meatheaded fan club. I decided to risk detention by wearing my jeans, and ran out of the locker room before anyone remembered me.
That weekend, my father decided to play a round of golf at the local country club, and I screwed around at the putting green and the driving range while he played. I was on the green when I saw Michael drive by on a cart. "Hey, Saint!" I shouted.
He drove the cart toward me. "What's up?"
"Not much. I didn't know you worked here."
"Yea," he said, looking in the direction of the clubhouse, "my dad owns it."
"Cool." I said. "Listen, they closed the boathouse at Davis Pond for the winter, and Kevin Harris and I were thinking of breaking in next weekend and having a party. I was thinking, if you wanted to come and bring some beer or whatever..."
Michael looked at the ground. "Look." And then he paused doom. "You're a lot cooler than you were before you went away to military school or wherever, but. Look. You've got to stop hanging out with that Harris kid. Jeremy says he's a total fucken froot loop who used to, like, grab Jeremy's junk when he was just a kid. I mean, you do plays and shit so, you know, I get that you're probably a fag, too, but you're at least cool about it. But if you spend any time hanging out with Kevin Harris where people can see you... I don't know how much longer people will talk to you."
I froze. Bird Dick. That stupid, crying, faggy...Bird Dick. I started to say "I'm not gay, you know." when I realized that Michael was already halfway to the clubhouse, and he didn't look too pleased with himself. A look I wore later that day, when I told Kevin Harris I wasn't going to break into the boathouse with him.
On the ride home, I became convinced that we were going to be in a terrible accident, both of us killed by a tractor-trailer speeding down the wrong side of the highway. When my mom came to identify the bodies, and collect our things, she'd tell the nurse how sweet I'd been, how I'd never cried as a baby, and how I was so smart that I'd been attending private school. And when she got home, and started leafing through my backpack, she'd cry a bit at my tattered Tolkien, she'd cluck her tongue at the blank sheet of graph paper in my algebra book (I was supposed to have finished my homework that afternoon) and then she'd see the Wall Street Journal, and marvel at what an intelligent boy she was raising. A few seconds later, when the porno fell out, she'd realize what a complete sexual deviant I was, and she'd cut me out of all the family photographs.
Luckily for my family, there was no terrible accident between my dad's work and our house. I ran upstairs the moment we got home, and stuffed the magazine under my mattress. During dinner, I realized that my father kept his porn beneath the mattress, so, clearly, my mother would know that that's the first place to check for those kinds of things. I asked to be excused. I ran back upstairs,and began frantically looking around the room. The desk was out, as I'd known for years that my mother liked to go through all of my drawers while I was at school. I couldn't hide it in my closet because my mom had once found a turtle I'd been keeping in a shoebox in there, and she had dug through it once a week, ever since. Under the gerbil cage! Perfect. I hid the magazine and returned to dinner. After dinner, I leisurely watched four minutes of TV before heading back to my room. Under the gerbil cage was a terrible place. What if my mother decided to clean the cage while I played with my friends? Or what if Rhoda or Ralph (the gerbils) decided to make a bigger nest, and moved enough wood chips out of the way to expose the magazine's glossy cover? Doom! I decided that under the mattress was the best I could do for the moment, and decided to go to bed early to protect it.
The next day, my parents let me stay home. I searched the basement for an appropriate hiding place for my new treasure. Under the carpet? Inside the jacket of my old Mousercise record? Every possible spot seemed too conspicuous. The magazine was just too thick. There was no safe place for it. I was a wreck. There were only four hours before my parents came back from work, and I had no idea what to do with it.
I had a small heart attack when the phone rang, and my mom asked me what I was doing. "Playing....Nintendo." I said. My hands were shaking.
"Ok, hon, see you soon."
Soon? Oh, God. Not soon. Anything but soon. I had to do something. Something must be done. Drastic measures needed to be taken. And that's when it hit me. I didn't need the entire magazine. Most of the articles didn't make any sense to me, and I had no use for the pictures of just women. I ran up to my room, took out a pair of scissors, and cut out my favorite fifteen pages of the magazine, which I tucked between the covers of my Where's Waldo books. Then, I brought the rest of the magazine downstairs, tore it into tiny pieces, and used it to start a fire in our charcoal grill. After about twenty minutes, there was nothing left of the magazine but ashes, and my fifteen favorite pages.
But what if my mom picked up the Waldo books while she was dusting, and the pictures fell out?
I went into the basement, swiped a roll of my father's electical tape, and attached the top of each page on the inside covers of all four of Waldo books, so that they were secure, but I could still flip them over to see the other side of the pages. I was clearly well on my way to becoming a criminal mastermind. I longed to tell someone about my evil genius. But who? Jennifer would be grossed out. Scott was treacherous scum. I couldn't risk showing the Waldo books to the other kids in school, lest a teacher discover my secret.
Kevin! Kevin would appreciate my burgeoning life of crime. I tossed my Waldo books into my backpack, and walked down the street to his house, and knocked on his door. He was in his room, playing Ninja Gaiden with Jeremy. When we were done marvelling at the graphics of the game, I opened up my backpack, and made them both swear not to tell anyone about what I was going to show them.
A week later, every kid in my neighborhood had borrowed my Where's Waldo books. When they were safely back on my bookshelf, I breathed for the first time since I found the stupid magazine. No one had been caught.
By then, school was back in session, and life had returned to passably normal. I kept my Where's Waldo books in my backpack at all times. Nobody at school knew I had them, and there was never a moment when my mom might stumble upon them while she was cleaning.
On a Saturday night that seemed as docile and soothing as any Saturday night, my parents invited Jeremy Burdick's parents over for dinner and drinks. I knew that Mr. Burdick and my father worked together, but I didn't know they were friends. And I'd never seen Mrs. Burdick out of their house before. After dinner, while the adults sat on the porch, drinking cocktails and telling stories, Jeremy and I went into the basement to play Kid Icarus. I had just been turned into an eggplant when my mother opened the door to the basement. "Hon?" She called.
"We're getting a little bored of playing cards up here. We were wondering if you'd mind going up to your room and bringing us a couple of your Waldo books. We want to see who can find him the fastest."
My little eggplant eyes bugged out. "Uhhhh...Sure."
I ran upstairs and tore all the pictures out of the book, leaving noticeable rips. I asked Jeremy to fold up the evidence and hide them somewhere. Crisis averted.
I went back to the basement and tried to de-eggplant myself. Jeremy came down a minute later.
"Where did you put them?" I asked.
He smiled. "I'll tell you later. Our parents might be listening."
We played the game a few minutes longer, and then he said "How come all the pictures in that book had guys in them? You gay?"
I paused the game. "They had girls in them, too."
"Fag." Jeremy said. Then he went upstairs and told his parents he wanted to go home.
After he left, I scoured my room for my pictures. When I didn't find them, I knew that Jeremy had taken them home with him. Oh, well. I hoped his parents found them and grounded him for a year.
I never had a coming out. Melissa Etheridge never stopped by my house with a toaster. Alan Ginsberg never wrote a poem about my anus. I never even had a hokey after-school special sort of moment with my mom, telling her why I was suddenly so interested in the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. What would I have said at some mythical Coming Out party? There was never any light emanating from some guy's cock or ass pulsing out "You're a big homo" in Morse Code. I never got inappropriate erections when watching "Saved By The Bell". And I didn't wake up one day and say "I've always wanted to be persecuted for something I have no control over. And since I'm white and male, I suppose I should just start lisping and paying attention to fashion trends." My sexual identity came in a series of slow flashes.
The first one I remember is Kevin. A year younger than me. A lifetime older. We'd be playing basketball in my driveway, and he'd pull down his sweatpants and start stroking himself. When I visited his house, he'd keep getting dressed and undressed, bending over to pick things up while he was naked. When he was over my house, he'd sit just outside the bathroom door when I went in for a piss, and as soon as my stream of urine made contact with the awaiting toilet water, he'd rush in with my mother's camera, and take a picture. My mother kept wondering what she was doing wrong when all of her film came back exposed. I figured, better the film than me.
And that was the problem really, I was afraid of being seen as gay, because I had a friend who kept taking off his clothes around me, and taking pictures of me while I peed. I never asked him to take his clothes off. I certainly never posed for him. And most of the times that he pointed his naked ass in my direction, I'd look away. We were twelve or ten or thirteen, some age before hair and deliberate erections. I had a vague understanding of sex. Like Japanese porn. A bunch of naked people with the genitals blurred out.
"My sister invited me to an orgy." Kevin said.
This was most likely a lie. No sixteen year old girl, no matter how inbred and slutty, invites her ten year old brother to have indiscriminate sex with people she has to see on a social basis. Or would she? I'm an only child.
"Do you want to come?"
I tried to picture myself in a room full of naked people. I was eleven and fat, and I hadn't...bloomed yet. My hair didn't comb properly. I was perpetually bruised or skinned from falling off my bike on one of the dirt paths at the end of my street. I had seen exactly one naked vagina in my so-far life. I had been five, the girl had been three, and peeing. Sexy wasn't part of my vernacular. "No. I've got baseball practice."
While I never asked whether or not he went to the orgy, I know he didn't. If he had, he'd have spent every afternoon for the rest of our friendship detailing the parts of women's bodies they only show on late night Cinemax.
Instead, life went on as typical. Me playing Nintendo or basketball, or riding my bike. Him following me around, occasionally exposing himself. He must have gotten bored of me when I turned twelve. He started hanging out with his next door neighbor, Jeremy, a professional wrestling fan who liked to reenact his favorite matches.
Jeremy Burdick and I had never had a strong connection. When my family moved to Cranberry Lake, I was five, and just beginning my ten year lust-affair with bicycles. I was riding around the neighborhood, looking for kids my own age, when I saw three year old Jeremy, playing in a patch of dirt with a stick. When I asked him what he was doing, he picked up a huge rock, hit me in the face with it, then ran off with my bike. I don't remember how badly my cheek was cut, whether I had a black eye, I just remember the confusion on my father's face when I told him I'd been mugged by a toddler. Two years later, I'd tried to befriend Jeremy again, inviting him to play baseball with me, Kevin, and a couple of other kids we'd rounded up. Jeremy agreed. When it was his turn to hit, he picked my baseball bat up off the street, walked to the curb, and dropped it into the sewer grate. We didn't seem destined to be friends. So when Kevin and Jeremy started spending their afternoons taking off each other's clothes and putting each other in headlocks, I decided to seek out new companionship.
After a few failed friendships with some of the more popular kids in the neighborhood, I came to the conclusion that Kevin and Jeremy were the best friends I could possibly hope for. So I started watching wrestling, and learned to pepper my conversations with words like "deeeeeeeeeeewd" and "oh my head". It wasn't long before I was sitting in my basement, watching Kevin and Jeremy pull each other's pants down and smack their asses. When it was just Kevin taking off his clothes, I'd wondered whether he was weird for doing it, or if I was weird for not doing it. Jeremy's existence in the world seemed to prove that I was the strange one for wanting to keep my clothes on. Still, something felt horribly wrong with shaking my ass to provoke someone. And putting my hand on another guy's ass wasn't on my top ten list of things to do. Yet.
The afternoon wrestling sessions were a completely different world from my school life. Since I was a year ahead of Kevin, and two years ahead of Jeremy, they failed to exist between the time the buses dropped us off in front of the school, and the time the last bell rang at 3:15.
Most afternoons, just after the bell rang, the teachers would march their students out of the classroom to the bus loop behind the school. At the loop, the teachers would take out their clipboards, and check off the names of all the students as they got on to their appropriate buses. First Bus One, then Bus Two, all the way through Bus Twelve. Sixth graders went out first, and took the back of the bus, then the fifth graders, and so on, until they lowly kindergartners took their place in the front two rows. While the ritual took place, the bus drivers stood on the far side of the loop and smoked.
Jeremy almost always sat in the seat in front of Kevin, and the two of them would smack each other with Trapper Keepers until the bus driver threatened to throw them off. One afternoon, between the fourth and third graders getting on the bus, Kevin called Jeremy an asshole, and Jeremy pulled down his sweatpants, stuck his ass over the seat and said, "No, this is an asshole." At which point, Kevin smacked it as hard as he could. One of my fellow sixth graders, Queen Popular Sarah the Second inhaled her top lip through her left nostril and said "Oh, my. You're such a faggot."
Were they? I'm twenty-six now, and while I can no longer stand musicals, and have never been one to wear makeup or read fashion magazines, I do enjoy having sex with men. At no point, however, have any of my dates mooned me or smacked my ass during a naked reenactment of a sporting event.
The afternoon that Queen Sarah called Kevin a faggot, I went home, and looked the word up in my dictionary. I'd heard her use the word a few times before. Once or twice to describe me. The only definition was "a bundle of sticks or twigs". The definition for fag was "to make tired". And since I was growing weary of my afternoons with Kevin and Jeremy, I decided that while they might be fags, I wasn't. And for a few weeks, I stopped hanging out with them.