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.
We parted ways with Donnie heading for his house and me mine. I had a lot to think about. Me hanging around a nerdy gay kid, at least three years younger than me—how it was that going to look? I had a rep to maintain! Well, in my mind I did. All the friends I had were jocks. What they really thought of me, I had no idea. Jocks aren’t known for deep thinking and certainly not about other boys. Jocks just accept them and do what’s best for themselves. ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ was a question usually answered by ‘Where’s the party going to be?’ and then the talk would turn to which girls would be going and how much they’d put out. Then they’d boast about who’d banged which cheerleader, when and how often.
We were friends because that’s how we all were. But being a jock in high school sort of meant you had to be like that. You could still be on a team, of course, even if you didn’t act that way, but you wouldn’t be part of the group to the same extent. And I’d always been part of the group. It was my identity.
For me, anyway, it was all talk. Some of the jocks actually did the things they boasted about.
Watching over this Brent kid like a mother hen was certainly going to take me out of my comfort zone.
But then, hadn’t I just been looking at myself, at how my teammates were looking at me, what the coach had said, and regretting not only what I’d done but the way I was? Part of that way was living up to the jock ethic. I’d already decided I needed to change. Maybe doing what Donnie had asked of me could be part of that. Doing so at the very least would be a change.
I wondered what Brent would be like. One thing I did know: I had to meet him before making a judgment. My dad had a rigid idea of how gay people were, yet now that I knew Donnie—and Whitmore, too—I knew the stereotypes didn’t always fit.
They didn’t for me, either. I got average grades because the other guys on the teams I played on did, too. I could do better if I wanted. I was actually kind of smart. I got it from my mother. She had a college degree. My dad had barely finished high school. He’d been a jock, too, although he rarely talked about his time in high school. But I did know he’d been a year older than his classmates, and he’d met my mom at a party when she was a freshman at the college in town. I don’t know if he got her drunk or what—she was much different from him—but somehow they got together that night, she became pregnant, and they got married. I don’t know how happy they were about that. They didn’t talk much about it. In fact, they didn’t talk to each other much at all, at least not when I was around. I’m 17; they’d been together 18 years.
My mom’s mother and father took care of me a lot during those first few years while my mother finished her degree. My father had a laborer’s job at a local mill. Now he’d worked his way up to assistant foreman. Still at the same mill. My mother was an accountant; she’d got a CPA license and worked for a firm in town.
She was the reason I was smart. I knew that. So did both my parents, I was sure. I think my father resented the fact he had a wife who was smarter than he was. She never showed him up, though. In fact, she rarely spoke when I was with them. But sometimes, when he made one of his strongly judgmental or even belittling statements, he’d take a quick glance at her with sort of a challenge in his eyes. She’d simply look back at him with a blank expression.
When I was alone with mom, she’d talk. I knew she loved me, which was an important constant in my life. My dad ran hot and cold with me, usually depending on how I’d played in my last game. He wanted me out for all the sports I could manage. I liked sports, and I liked the kind of kids who played them, so I’d have been a jock even without Dad’s encouragement. I was big and strong, so playing sports and getting knocked around doing it was fun for me. But if I didn’t perform as well as he’d have liked, I heard about it. It had bothered me a lot when I’d been just a little kid, still in elementary school. I’d gotten used to it, however, and though it had made me angry sometimes, there hadn’t been much I could do about it then. For the past few years, however, since I’d been in high school actually, when I’d gotten angry with him, I’d shout back. He couldn’t do much about that. I was bigger than he was.
I walked home wondering what he’d say if he ever found out I was helping a gay kid survive high school.
I thought about Donnie and Whitmore. I was getting to like Donnie. He was very even-keeled and had a no-nonsense attitude. He was also honest and spoke his mind. Most of us weren’t like that. He didn’t show a lot of emotion. He had a lot of confidence but wasn’t a showoff at all. I’d never really met a jock like him before.
But, he’d told us all he was gay, and now I knew he was boyfriends with Whitmore.
I considered that. Thinking of those two together didn’t really bother me. If I thought of them doing sexual things, yeah, that was different, but I didn’t think about that. I thought about them being close friends, talking to each other, supporting each other, and somehow, with those two, it seemed OK. Right, even.
I wondered what Brent was like.
At lunch on Monday, Donnie pointed out Brent to me and told me I should go sit with him.
I shook my head no. “I think I’ll watch him first, maybe join him tomorrow. I want to see how he interacts with kids around him.” I was sitting with the other football players, as usual. It was way noisy, also as usual, and we had no problem speaking to each other without being overheard by the others.
Donnie nodded, gave me a quick glance to be sure I wasn’t just goofing off on my promise, then started talking to the guy on the other side of him.
I watched Brent, which was easy to do because he was sitting by himself. I looked at him and looked away and kept doing that. I didn’t want him to know I was watching him—or anyone else to know, either. Then I got so I wasn’t looking away so much. The thing is, I knew he wouldn’t see me watching him, and I began not to care if anyone else did.
He wouldn't see me because he never looked up. At anything. He kept his eyes down on his tray. Kids would walk by; sometimes it even looked like someone would say something to him, someone with a smirk on their face, but his eyes never left his plate.
As best as I could tell, with his face mostly unseen, he was an ordinary kid with nothing special about him. Brown hair, cut medium length, sort of curly and falling down over his ears. It looked OK. From what I could see of his face, that looked nice, too. He had glasses on, and they seemed to go with his face, not awkward looking or strange. Bronze-colored frames that matched his hair shade.
There was nothing I could see about him that made him look gay. In fact, I’d never have guessed that. Shy, maybe. Uncomfortable in his skin, maybe. A lot of freshmen seemed like that to me, and he definitely looked like a freshman. Small; thin; young.
I finally did get to see his face later. But when I did, I saw he was better than average-looking. Most kids are average. They’re neither very attractive nor ugly. They’re all individuals, and all have things that look good and things that don’t quite fit, making them unique. It’s unusual to see a really handsome or cute or pretty person, either male or female. But when Brent looked up, I could see he was more that halfway to being cute. Better looking than average.
I didn’t usually look at boys this way and couldn’t remember ever having said to myself before, ‘this guy is cute’; but I hadn’t assessed a boy like I was doing with this one before, either. I didn’t find it awkward thinking of him this way because there was a reason for me to do it. I wanted to get a feel for Brent before meeting him.
His clothes were what we all wore: an untucked tee shirt and jeans. Sneakers. Nothing unusual. My mom, when complaining about what I wore, always told me she couldn’t tell a thing about any teenager from their clothes. Maybe that was a reason we all dressed alike.
Anyway, I watched him and got a strong impression that this was not a happy kid. He was sitting by himself, he never looked up at what was happening in the noisy lunchroom where kids were wandering around talking and laughing with other, and he never smiled. Not once. He was isolated in the midst of minor bedlam, and he acted like he wasn’t aware of any of it.
And then I got to see his face. He looked up because someone came to his table, stood there looking down at him and spoke to him. Brent looked up, and I saw recognition on his face, and then something else. Something that looked a lot like fear. Fear that he tried to hide.
I felt my anger rise. The kid who’d approached Brent’s table, well, I knew him. He was a teammate of mine. He was a piece of work, this kid. His name was Rocco Marello. He was a cornerback on the football team, a senior, and he had a reputation. He liked to hit kids harder than necessary in practice. He especially liked blindsiding them and hitting them while they were reaching out for a pass and were vulnerable.
He was large for a cornerback, about five-eleven, and solid. If he played college ball, they’d probably make him a safety, but he was fast enough to stick with the receivers in our league.
He wasn’t well-liked on the team because of his attitude. He’d hurt some of our own receivers in the past, and he didn’t care. The coach was on him all the time. He didn’t seem to care about that, either.
Now, he was confronting Brent, and I didn’t like the body language of either of them. Instinctively, I started to get up, then remembered where I was. This was the school lunchroom. Nothing was going to happen here. At least, nothing violent. Still, I didn’t like Rocco anywhere near Brent. I didn’t like how Brent was acting now that Rocco had shown up. I didn’t like Rocco. He wasn’t a nice person.
But I sat and watched. And what I saw was Rocco speaking to Brent and Brent not meeting his eyes. Then, when Rocco had finished, Brent picked up his backpack from the chair next to him, fiddled around in it, and brought out some sheets of paper and handed them to Rocco. Rocco snatched them away and quickly stuck them in his lap and said something sharply to Brent that made him pull back in his chair a little.
Rocco did something with the papers because when he stood up I couldn’t see them. He leaned over to say something else to Brent, got into his face really close, then turned and walked away. Brent let his head hang down for a minute, then stood up, collected his backpack and tray, and walked off. He’d eaten only about half his lunch.
I got up after a couple of seconds, picked up my tray and followed him to the trash barrels and the tray-deposit window. Because it was early, we were the only two leaving right then. I was three steps behind him when we hit the doors.
I followed him without being obvious about it. Followed him down the hall, through one of the school’s side doors, and then watched as he walked to an area where there were benches set up but only a few scattered kids present. Brent slumped onto a bench all by himself and then simply sat there. I was far enough away that I couldn’t read his face, but I could tell he wasn’t smiling.
I felt for the kid. This wasn’t normal for me. I didn’t spend time feeling sorry for anyone. Donnie and Whitmore had awakened something in me. Maybe it had already been there. I’d been unhappy with myself even before talking to Donnie. But the things they’d said to me had resonated with something in me. And now I was watching Brent and feeling things emotionally I either hadn’t felt before or had repressed.
I’d had enough watching him. I sauntered over to where he was sitting and stood in front of him till he looked up at me. When he saw me, I could see the effort he made to keep his face blank, but he couldn’t hide all of the fear in his eyes. It was the same thing I’d seen when Rocco had approached him.
I spoke quickly, but softly. “I’m not here to give you any trouble. Really. None at all. May I sit down? Please?”
The fear seemed to lose some of its immediacy, though a lot of caution remained. I tried to smile. Some people have told me I shouldn’t do that in the presence of women or children, that it doesn’t improve my appearance any. I like to think they were teasing. But I did know how I looked. I was big, and I had a sort of imposing presence with a hard jaw and large features. I’d never be a centerfold for any of those women’s magazines. Did they have centerfolds? Maybe they did. And maybe I could be their centerfold if they had an issue for female apes…
I kept looking at him, and he finally asked, “Why?”
I nodded. “Fair question. I’d like to sit down so we can talk a little. I saw what happened in the lunchroom and I didn’t like it. I wanted to talk to you about it so I can understand it better. Maybe I can help. I’d like to if I could.”
His look changed from caution to sarcastic disbelief. “Why would you want to do that?”
“Well,” I said, and tried to chuckle to lighten the mood, “we could discuss that if you’d let me sit down.”
“How in the world could I stop you?” he asked.
“Just by saying no,” I answered. “Not all of us are assholes.”
He thought about that for a second, then almost looked like he wanted to smile before he nodded at the bench next to him. I sat down.
I had the opportunity to really look at him then. He was cuter up close than from a distance. He was a good-looking kid, and his glasses actually seemed to complement to his appearance. He had fine features, a thin nose that fit his face, clear skin, straight white teeth, thin lips, all on a well-shaped face. His eyes were a greenish-blue hazel, darker than usual for that color mix.
If there was some rule—like my dad seemed to think—that gay kids looked and acted different from everyone else, this kid broke that rule. What I saw was a fairly attractive, very normal kid. One who, going by appearances, could be just one of the crowd—nothing different, nothing unusual.
One thing did set him apart, however. He carried himself in a very defeated sort of way. His shoulders were slumped, he didn’t stand straight and, when he walked, his gait was anything but confident. He simply exuded a general air of discomfort. Like someone expecting bad things to happen. Like one who was a stranger to happiness. I could see why he’d affected Whitmore like he had.
It didn’t appear he was going to say anything. I wasn’t sure what to say, either, but at least I had a place I could start.
“What’s the deal with Rocco? You didn’t look happy to see him at lunch.”
Brent looked up at me very briefly before dropping his eyes again, and again I could see that same mixture of fear and caution in them. What I didn’t see was any hope. When he spoke, it was to his knees more than me, and his voice was soft. “Are you a friend of his? You’re on the football team, too, aren’t you?”
I kept my voice soft, as soft as his had been. “He’s on the team with me. But there are 65 people on the team. I’m not really friends, good friends, with any of them. Casual friends with some but not with him. I’m not sure any of the guys are. I don’t like him. He’s not a nice person.”
Brent threw me quick look again, but only for a moment. Then, “He hurt me.”
“What?! What did he do? When?”
Brent sighed. “A couple of weeks ago. I was walking home from school. He came up to me. I was alone. He asked if I was in Henderson’s freshman French class with him. I said yes, and he nodded, then said he’d flunked it once, he needed it for graduation, and he wasn’t planning to fail it again. He said I had to write the essay for him that was due that week, and it had to be good.”
He paused, but I didn’t say anything. I figured he’d go on without my encouraging him, and he did. “He scared me. He’s big, and he’s, I don’t know, tough, and his eyes... Anyway, I asked him why. He didn’t say anything, he just hit me. In the ribs—and hard. It felt like he’d broken them. I couldn’t breathe, or even stay up. I fell to the ground. He looked down at me as I was gasping for air and everything was spinning. He said, ‘That’s why. The essay is due Friday. Make sure I have it Thursday. You talk to anyone about this, I’ll find you and kill you.’ Then he pulled out a switchblade, clicked it open, and showed it to me. And then he just walked away. I lay there for maybe ten minutes before I could get up again. My ribs hurt for days afterwards.”
I could feel the blood rising in my face. I was more than pissed. I was angry as hell. Rocco wasn’t going to get away with this. But then I had a thought.
“Why are you telling me this? You don’t even know me. How do you know you can trust me? Aren’t you afraid he’ll find out about it and do what he said?”
He didn’t look up this time. But when he spoke, his voice was stronger. “I’m tired of being afraid. I’m tired of doing his work for him. What I gave him today, maybe you saw me, was another French assignment. I probably would have just kept on doing it, but then, today, he said something today, and that was the last straw. I came out here to figure out what to do. I have to do something. Maybe… maybe you’re telling the truth. You’re big enough to stop him. I can’t by myself.”
He really did sound like he was trying to gather some courage, although, looking at him, I still could see defeat. For a moment, I really did feel some compassion, a new feeling for me.
Then I remembered what he’d said. “Brent? What did he say to you just now?”
“He said he knew I was a faggot, and he wanted me to start giving him blowjobs.”
I just sat there, shocked and not knowing how to respond. Brent must have misinterpreted my silence. “I am. Gay. And if you want to, go tell him what I said. I don’t care anymore.”
“I knew you were gay. It doesn’t matter to me.”
“How did you know? I don’t know you at all. How do you know anything about me?”
“I’ll tell you that someday. Right now, this other stuff with Rocco—this is more important. Did you say you’d do it? What he wanted?”
Brent shook his head. “He doesn’t ask. He tells me. He told me I was going to do it. He doesn’t expect me to refuse.”
“Did he say when?”
“After school tomorrow. He said he wanted to give me time to think about it, to get ready for it. I think he enjoys seeing how scared I am of him. He probably thinks if I have to think about this all night, I’ll be even more scared and will do whatever he wants without any resistance at all.”
“Did he say where?”
“He said he’d meet me tomorrow outside the back door of the school by the storage sheds, to be there after the last bell. Then he lowered his head so he was talking right in my ear and said I’d better be there—or else. Then he just walked away.”
I reached out and squeezed his shoulder. He flinched, but I did it gently and held it for a moment, and he seemed to relax. I was so angry it was hard to keep my voice under control, but I did the best I could. “Brent, listen. We can stop the son of a bitch, and do it in a way where he won’t bother you again. You say you’re tired of being afraid. OK, I’m going to ask you to prove that. It’ll take some courage. But if you do it, that’ll be the end of it with Rocco. Will you do that? For yourself?”
Brent did look up at me then. He’d probably heard the emotion in my voice, and if nothing else, that may have convinced him I was on his side. But, in any case, he looked up, and then said, “You haven’t told me what I have to do.”
“Oh, yeah, right,” I said, feeling stupid. “What you have to do is show up there after school tomorrow. Walk out that door. And, trust me.”
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