Greg is driven to succeed on the football field.
What begins for him as a simple attempt to win a starting position on the team
ends up as a journey to discover who he really is.
I walked into the hospital room behind Donnie. Not that I needed his protection or anything, it’s just that hospitals creep me out, and I’d been feeling tentative since coming through the front doors. The smells, the officious nurses, the old people teetering through the halls in gowns that didn’t always cover their backsides—eew!—pushing IV poles, looking like extras on a zombie movie set. Hospitals were creepy. The pale-green walls didn’t help, seeming like they were pressing in on us as we walked miles to get to the room, all the time with loudspeakers paging Dr. Michaels, Dr. Michaels, call your office, stat; Dr. Uratzi, Dr. Uratazi, you’re needed in ER, module 2, Dr. Uratzi…
We finally got into the room, and after Donnie moved to the side, I saw Whitmore lying in his bed. It was a two-person room and the guy in the other bed looked to be about 65—gray hair and face, kind of pale, watery eyes looking to see who’d come in, a TV set high on the wall in front of him turned on but with no sound at all. He was small, while Whitmore was a football player, a big kid.
Except Whitmore didn’t look like I remembered him. He’d been this hulking, blond, energetic guy who smiled a lot and cracked jokes even more often. Now he looked smaller somehow and didn’t have good color. He had one of those gowns on, too, the ones that didn’t cover the back entirely, but as he was lying on his back, I didn’t have to look at that. There were things attached to his chest looking something like in the movies, except this was real. Both patients had wires attached which ran to instruments that were giving off beeps and were running jagged lines on small screens. There was a smell in the room, too, which may have been the old man.
Whitmore had an IV dripping into the back of his hand and looked pale. He smiled when he saw Donnie, then his eyes moved to me, and the smile disappeared.
“The fuck you doing here?” he asked. His voice was scratchy, like he needed to clear his throat.
I took a half-step back. Donnie spoke up. “Kenny, I told you he was coming. You said you’d hear him out. Come on now.”
I saw Whitmore’s eyes soften when they turned to Donnie, but they hardened again when they returned to me. He didn’t bother to speak. He just glared at me.
“Uh,” I started, then stopped. The intensity of his look and the anger in it make this much harder than I’d expected.
I took a deep breath and tried again. “Uh, I came, well, I wanted to apologize, to say I was sorry. I told the team what happened, that I’d been mad, and that I was trying to show you up, to win the starting position. But I never intended for anything like this to happen, and I’m sorry.”
I stopped, still staring at him. It sounded pathetic to me, so it probably sounded even worse to him. I was telling the truth, but I didn’t really know him or even like him much, and so I couldn’t get any real warmth, any empathy into what I was saying. I guess what it came down to was, I was here more to make myself and Donnie feel better than I was for Whitmore.
He was watching me, studying my eyes, and I had the awful feeling he could see what I was thinking. I knew it didn’t make me look good. But then why should it? I didn’t feel good about any of this. I didn’t even feel good about myself.
I guess I wasn’t very good at apologizing, maybe because my dad had brought me up to be competitive and not to feel much of anything about other people. I’d been encouraged to just look after what I wanted and what I felt. This whole thing, apologizing, felt very uncomfortable. It hadn’t been this bad apologizing to the team. That hadn’t been as personal. This was.
You know how sometimes you seem to be able to stand outside yourself and look at what’s going on around you when you’re in the middle of it? Well, I was doing that now, and I could clearly see how shallow Whitmore thought I was. And what hit me was how true it was. Ever since talking to Donnie on the bus, I’d been looking at myself critically, and I hadn’t liked what I’d seen. This was more of the same, something very real to not like about myself. But I had no idea how to simply change who I was. I’d been uncaring and disdainful about most everyone else for a long time. Now, with Whitmore in that bed, looking up at me, I could see how screwed up that was. I could see how other people’s feelings were just as valid as mine, that I wasn’t anything special and that I certainly wasn’t any better or more important than they were, even if my dad had been telling me I was ever since I could remember. Telling me it was me versus them, and I’d damn well better see that I came out on top.
I had to change, to do better. I knew that. I didn’t know how, but knew I had to. Could I start now? Could I? I thought about what I’d just said to Whitmore, ran over it in my mind, and I realized something: what I’d said had been all about me, all about how I felt.
Whitmore opened his mouth to speak, but I beat him to it. “Hey, look, this is all new to me. I’m trying to change. It’s hard, but I’m trying. I don’t like myself very much right now and want to be better. Hurting you has a lot to do with why. But I really am sorry about what I did, and I would like to make it up to you any way I can. You’re lying here, and maybe I could help. Bring you something. Spend time with you if you wanted, but I don’t blame you if you don’t. But, is there anything, anything at all, I can do for you? I feel I should be doing something good for you since I did so much bad.”
Whitmore sort of scrunched his forehead, looking a bit confused. He turned to Donnie, who nodded. “See?” Donnie said.
I had no idea what that meant but didn’t ask. I was watching Whitmore.
He turned back to me, looked at me without speaking for a moment, and then I saw his eyes change. I saw a spark come into them, and then he was grinning.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. I know something you could do.”
“What?” I asked, suddenly feeling a little less certain after seeing his reaction.
Whitmore took a quick glance at Donnie, then looked back at me. “There’s this kid at school, Brent Adamson. You probably don’t know him. He’s a freshman and kind of a nerd. Most of the time he’s all by himself. He doesn’t seem to have any friends. Gets picked on. I noticed him and saw what was going on and was going to see if I could help him, but then you did this to me—” he pointed to his shoulder “—and now I’m in here and he’s out there. So yeah, there’s something you can do for me. You can take him under your wing. Make friends with him. Make sure the bullies leave him alone. Help him. If you really meant what you just said.”
Damn! I didn’t want to play nursemaid to some nerd! But then, I’d just told myself that I wanted to be a better person but didn’t know how. Maybe this was how. Maybe this would be what I was looking for. Maybe if I did this, really did it, it would be a start. I knew I needed to empathize with other kids, and doing something to help this Adamson kid would be a good place to begin.
I looked up at Whitmore. “OK,” I said. “I’ll do it. At least I’ll try my best.”
Whitmore nodded. “Good,” he said, not smiling, and then he asked me something that seemed to come out of left field. “Donnie said your dad is a homophobe. That right?”
I looked over at Donnie. He was looking back and me, his face unreadable.
“I thought our discussion was private,” I said. I was a little pissed. I’d told him on the bus when he’d asked what I had against gay kids that I’d heard it at home from my dad and had had no reason to doubt him.
“We never said it was,” he replied. “But I’ve only spoken to Kenny about it. And I told him that I wasn’t sure how you felt about gays. Maybe you were OK, and maybe you weren’t. I told him the impression you’d given me so far was that maybe you were like your dad.”
I stared at him a moment longer, then turned back to Whitmore. “What difference does that make to you?”
“Not much, except this kid, Brent, is gay. I need to know you’re OK with that.”
I opened my mouth, then shut it again. Before responding, I knew I should think about that. I hadn’t done much thinking about gay kids. I’d just sort of not had any use for them the same way I hadn’t cared much about a whole lot of kids. I’d probably accepted what my dad had said about them. But what did I feel?
One of the things I had to work on was honesty. Saying what was true, saying what I believed and meant. And these two who were studying me right now deserved that much at least.
So I answered, honestly. “I’m not sure.”
Whitmore was silent then, just looking at me. Then, finally, he said, “Well, I guess you’ll find out. But you’d better not fuck up with Brent.”
When we left the hospital, Donnie was quiet. I looked over at him, really looked for the first time, paying attention. Then I said, “You know, I thought you didn’t know Whitmore. You’re new; he’s a year younger; there’s no reason you should know him. But in that room, I don’t know, you two seemed almost to be talking to each other with your eyes. Like you’d known each other forever. Like you had secrets or knew what each other was thinking or something. I don’t get it.”
He glanced over at me as we were walking. Then he said, “I didn’t know him. But when I went into his room the first time, I was the only one there, and he was bored. I sat down, and we talked. He’s a really nice kid. Easy to talk to.”
“Still…” I said. He hadn’t answered my question. Maybe if I just shut up and let him talk, I thought. So I did, and we walked a ways in silence. Eventually, that silence seemed to work. He started talking.
“I liked getting to know him.” His voice was lower, reflective, almost like he was talking to himself. “He was worried about the surgery, and I tried to talk him down from that. He came through it OK, but he was really sore afterwards, really hurting. They had him pretty doped up for awhile, and I sat there with him when I could. I was there almost every day after practice. I think he got to expect it. He’d come out of sleep or the fog he was in, look over, and I’d be there. We started to bond a little. Then…”
He stopped, and I took a quick look at him. It wasn’t like him to hesitate like that. He was the most together kid I’d ever met. He seemed as mature as I was, not a boy a year my junior.
We’d walked a ways before he finally continued. “Well, I was there; eventually he was all the way awake—they were lowering the drugs little by little and he was totally aware by then—and a nurse came in to give him a sponge bath. He wasn’t sure about that at all.” Donnie stopped to laugh, remembering. “But she just said not to worry, she’d given hundreds of them and seeing him would be no big deal; she was a professional. He said maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal for her, but it sure would be for him, and he wasn’t having any part of it. So she looked around, and I could see she was trying not to laugh, and then her eyes met mine and she joked, ‘Well, maybe you’d like your friend here to do it?’ I was sure he’d say no, but he surprised both of us. ‘Sure,’ he said, ‘we play football together and have been naked together in the showers lots of times. I have no problem with him doing it. Let’s do that. I don’t like the idea of strange women poking around down there.’ She said there was nothing at all strange about her, laughed, and agreed to the plan. She put everything on that little table that rolls around, winked at me and said, ‘Have fun,’ which I didn’t think was very professional of her, no matter how she described herself, but what the hell? Anyway, like it or not, I was supposed to give him a sponge bath.”
He stopped, and I would have sworn he was blushing. He had a pretty good tan from all the hours we’d spent in the sun during football preseason camp so it was hard to tell, but it seemed that way.
He appeared to have stopped, but it didn’t sound to me like the story was finished, and I only have so much patience and this was interesting, so I said, “Well, what happened?” Priming the pump.
He looked over at me, making sure I wasn’t laughing at him, which I wasn’t, then sighed and continued. “Well, I washed him, which was pretty neat. I’d never washed anyone else before, and I couldn’t believe how intimate it was. I did his face and neck and chest and all that, and then we came to the private parts still under the covers. I looked at him and he nodded, so I peeled down the bedclothes and, well, there he was. I gulped and reached out with the wash cloth, and he suddenly started to get hard. I pulled my hand away, but it didn’t stop him any. In no time at all, he’d got a full-on, big-time boner. I looked at it, then at him, and he was blushing redder than a fire truck. I looked at him and the blush, and he said, ‘Well, now you know about me.’ I fell in love with him right then.
“That was the first I knew he was gay. He was looking at me and must have seen something change in my face, seen some of how I felt, realizing he was gay. He noticed the way my eyes were looking at him, and he said, ‘I like you, too.’
“I didn’t finish the sponge bath. It was too embarrassing. And it wasn’t the way I wanted our first time together to be, together that way, touching. But we talked, and I found out he’d been perving on me ever since he’d first awakened a few days earlier. I knew I’d already fallen for him, but now it felt different. It’s funny: it wasn’t the hard-on that did it; it was the blush. It made him look vulnerable, but brave, too, because I knew he could have stopped me from pulling down the sheets in the first place. He didn’t, even knowing what probably would happen. I thought about all that, but that was later. It was just seeing the blush that decided me. Before I left the hospital that day, we’d already decided to be boyfriends.”
We walked in silence then, and I thought about what he’d said. Then something occurred to me, and I started grinning. “So, I guess this means I’m the one who caused this. Without my unintentionally sending him to the hospital, this probably wouldn't have happened!”
He looked at me suspiciously for a moment, then laughed. “I think we’d probably have found a way. He said he was attracted to me when I was making my little speech to the team. I think we’d have gotten together without your ‘help’. Maybe not quite so soon, but it would have happened.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I like my version better. I’m taking credit for it.”
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