Sometimes things happen that you think you’ll never be able to live down.
But is that really true?
I realized after I’d asked that, it wasn’t very nice of me. He’d gotten up the courage to ask me a question that was hard for him, and here I was shoving it back in his face, making him take all the risk. And I could see how uncomfortable it made him. He sort of squirmed, and I watched, and when he opened his mouth with a scared expression on his face, I stopped him.
“Darryl!” I said, and even held my hand up, like a policeman in the middle of the street running traffic control.
He stopped, and I said, “That’s not fair of me. I need to answer your question.”
He looked relieved. Then grateful. I could see him relax, and then he grinned at me. But now I was back under the gun, and now I found how difficult it was trying to return that grin.
“Uh,” I managed.
“Yes?” He was still grinning.
“OK,” I said. “Yes, I was looking.”
“Oh,” he said. Then he looked at me, and I looked at him, and then a shy grin formed on his face, and soon I was grinning back, and we eventually both dropped our eyes. My heart was racing. Neither of us said anything else. We both got involved with the pizza, and it was a few minutes before either of us said a word. When we began talking again, we both ignored his question and my answer; nothing more was said about my wandering eyes, and before long we were laughing with each other again about the sort of nonsense we teenagers often laugh about, things that adults don’t seem to understand at all. Even while laughing, however, I kept seeing that shy grin in my head.
We eventually left the pizza place, and I ended up walking him back to his house. I’d walk home alone after that. At his door, we both said goodnight, but somehow, it didn’t seem enough. I wanted to say some things I wasn’t quite ready to say, and he looked like he wanted to say something, too, but didn’t. We looked at each other, and it was difficult for me to turn and walk away, but finally I did. As I turned, he reached out and touched my arm. Just a quick touch. Then he was inside, and I was walking home.
As I considered everything that had happen that evening, later in bed before falling asleep, my head was full of thoughts. I thought about the fact he hadn’t pressed the point about me looking at his bathing suit, and neither had I. He had been curious about me, and my answer sort of implied I was gay, but I hadn’t actually said so. I was still curious about him, but the way he’d responded to my admitting what I’d been looking at made it pretty clear he didn’t mind my looking, that maybe he’d even liked it.
It was clear that neither of us was ready to commit yet. But also, I thought we were both interested in each other, and that I had a lot to look forward to. I went to sleep that night feeling very happy, and very content with my present circumstances, and Darryl very much in my mind.
When I got up the next morning, I had a surprise waiting for me.
I showered and after drying off, brushed my teeth. Even though this was routine now, I still realized how different this was than where I’d lived all my life, where the bathroom was across the hall and had always been shared by everyone in the house, where I was always being rushed, where I had to be extra careful not to leave any trace I’d been in there or the yelling would go on and on about how disrespectful I was of others.
Here, I had my own private bathroom connected to my bedroom. I could leave a mess if I wanted, or stay in there for hours with no yelling to get out so someone else could use it. It was mine, and mine alone.
On a practical basis, I’d lived my whole life keeping my own room tidy and cleaning the bathroom after I’d used it, and so had become accustomed not only to doing those things, but enjoying those rooms being clean and neat. So, I didn’t leave the bathroom a mess, I didn’t leave towels on the floor or spat toothpaste in the sink, and I made my own bed and put my dirty clothes in the hamper. It just was so ingrained in me now, I didn’t even think about it.
Mrs. Jenks had commented on it once, comparing my behavior to Gary’s, but then had seen how embarrassed that made me and had never mentioned it again.
Anyway, I was brushing my teeth, and while doing so, looked at myself in the mirror, and that’s when I had my surprise. I saw I was growing a mustache!
I’d never shaved. I’d never had to. I didn’t really need to now, except for my lip. I looked at it a little longer, feeling funny seeing it there, both a little proud and a little anxious, then walked into Gary’s room. He was in the bathroom, too, with the door open. I saw he wasn’t doing anything embarrassing, so joined him.
“Look,” I said, and pointed to my lip.
He looked, then came closer, then closer still, and then squinted.
“OK,” I said, faking being pissed. “What, you need glasses now?”
“No, I’ve got a buddy who takes care of that for me so I’m scared about going blind.”
“Ha ha ha.” I scowled at him, and he grinned, then said, “You can use my electric razor. Then we’ll have Mom buy you one.”
“I’ve never done it before.”
He took his off the charger next to his sink, turned it on and handed it to me. “Just pass over the hairs, gently. You’ll learn real fast how hard to press.”
I tried it, and found out how easy it was. I handed it back, grinned, and thanked him while looking in the mirror.
“Any time you want to use it, you know where it is. Just don’t go trimming your pubes with it.”
I laughed. “As if I need to!”
Gary told his mom I needed a razor, and she told me she’d pick me up after school and we’d buy one. Man, this was easy. I’d have got a lecture from my mom about how expensive everything I wanted was, how hard it was for her to keep up with my needs, why didn’t I get a job and help out some, why didn’t I use a blade when it was so much cheaper, when would I stop being such a burden, blah blah blah. Mrs. Jenks just said, “Meet me in the side parking lot.” That was it. Simple. Man!
She did pick me up, she was waiting there when I came out of the school door that afternoon, and we headed out to a store where she said she’d bought Gary’s razor. We talked on the way, and I answered all her questions about how I was doing in school. She had a way of asking them that didn’t put me on the defensive, and so she got a whole lot more information out of me than my mother ever did. Of course, Mrs. Jenks was more interested in what was going on with me than my mom was. Which was kind of sad, when I thought about it.
I thought about it some more on the way back after buying the electric razor, which was much more expensive than I’d imagined it would be. Mrs. Jenks didn’t seem to care at all. I sure thanked her enough so she’d understand it meant a lot to me, even if it didn’t matter to her.
I noticed we were driving through my old neighborhood, and in fact would soon be passing my old house. I looked, and then, I suddenly felt a tightness in my stomach that I’d felt so often in the past.
A For Sale sign had been stuck in my front lawn.
I didn’t cry this time, but my stomach certainly knew something was wrong. It was so tight it was hurting by the time we got home. Mrs. Jenks had been trying to comfort me, telling me we’d find out what was happening and not to worry, but for once, it wasn’t helping.
I was a mess until Mr. Jenks got home that evening, and then we went to his den and I poured out all my fears to him. I told him she was selling the house and hadn’t called me to let me know what was happening, and I knew she didn’t love me but was she abandoning me? Was she planning on living in San Diego without even telling me about it? Was the job in San Diego falling apart and had she found another one, somewhere else, and was she going to drag me to that one? Would I have to leave the Jenks? I guess, after all that, what bothered me most was she hadn’t even bothered to call me. I’d had no contact at all with her since she’d left other than when I’d called her, and that hadn’t worked out well at all.
I went on and on telling him my fears, and he sat next to me with his arm around my shoulders and let me talk. Talking should have made me feel better, but all it did was wind me up tighter. Finally, I began to slow down. I sniffed a couple of times, but I didn’t cry. I wasn’t going to let myself.
He was quiet and allowed me to settle myself. When my breathing was calmer, he gave my shoulder another squeeze and took his arm away.
“Keith,” he said, “You’ve got a whole lot of worries there. But that’s all they are, worries. The problem is, you don’t know what’s really happening. It could be something to be upset about, but maybe it isn’t. Worrying doesn’t do anything but make you feel bad. What we have to do is find the answers to those questions you asked. Those are good, legitimate questions that you need answered. You have the right to know what’s happening that will affect your life.
“So, how about you let me find those answers for you?”
I tried to smile. “Can you do that? If I call her, she’ll probably just hang up on me again. I know I’d never find out all I want to know. I don’t even have a phone number for her other than her work number, and she doesn’t want me calling there.”
I was frowning by the time I’d said all that, as my circumstances had become clearer to me. It appeared they weren’t very good, but it was the uncertainty that was killing me.
“I can find out what’s what. It might take a couple of days, but I can do it. You know what I do for a living, don’t you?”
“Sort of. Gary said you were the head of a service company. That your company provides services for other companies.”
He laughed. “Sounds sort of boring, doesn’t it?”
“Well. . . .” I said, then laughed along with him.
“I guess it can be, when the services are to provide loaner computers for a start-up venture, or to cater a teaching seminar, or provide transportation from the airport to a convention center for folks attending an annual meeting, or provide construction trailers for a jobsite. We do all those things. But we’re a large company, and have several divisions, and do other things as well. We have a legal division, and a security division, and both of those share an investigative unit. We have people that are experienced and expert in just what you need: gathering information.”
I hadn’t known just what Mr. Jenks did. Now, I realized he was a lot more important than I’d thought, and why they had, as Mrs. Jenks had told me, more money than they’d ever need.
Mr. Jenks patted my shoulder. “I’ll know something in a day or two. In the meantime, Keith, tell yourself not to worry. Whatever we learn, we’ll figure out what needs to be done then. OK? Can you just keep your cool for a day or two?”
I couldn’t help myself. I’d worked myself into a state, and here he was not only calming me down, but making sure I felt OK, too.
I didn’t answer him. I simply threw myself at him and hugged him, hard. He returned it. It didn’t feel at all like one of Mrs. Jenks’ hugs. It was different, firmer, bonier, but in its own way, it felt just as good.
In school the next day, I was in the halls when I tripped. No one did it, I just tripped over my own feet. “Shit,” I yelled as my books and papers went flying. I looked up and saw an older kid looking at me strangely. I guess he wasn’t used to seeing kids fall down for no reason. I shrugged my shoulders at him and he laughed, shook his head and walked away. I wondered if I was growing too fast.
I gathered up my papers, and when I had everything, I turned around and there was Mr. Johnson, his usual scowl on his face.
“You’ve got a detention tonight for that. One hour in the detention hall.” He glared at me, but I could see a glint of triumph in his eyes. He figured he’d finally got me, and was delighted about it.
“For what?” I asked, because why should I be punished for accidentally falling down? That didn’t make much sense.
“For using obscene language in the halls.”
I had to think, and realized what I’d said. “But Mr. Johnson, kids say that all the time! Worse, too.”
Just then, down the hall, I heard a boy’s voice saying, “Get the fuck off me, you queer!”
Mr. Johnson briefly looked in that direction, then back at me. “You broke the rules. Detention. If you don’t show up, we’ll make it a week, and if that’s a problem, then a suspension.” He didn’t bother to keep the triumph out of his look this time.
I dropped my eyes, then turned and walked away. I was doing a better job of standing up for myself, but I wasn’t ready to take on Mr. Johnson. I could have pointed out how he let the kid down the hall say something much worse and didn’t do anything. I could have pointed out that words like that were bandied around all the time at school, especially in gym class, and extra-especially by his football players. I could have pointed out that he was discriminating by picking on me. But, just by his presence, he intimidated me. He was an authority figure, a very large and angry one, and I’d had a lifetime of backing down from confrontations.
I was getting better, but I wasn’t nearly strong enough yet to face him down.
I was late to detention. I was on my way there when Gary came up to me and asked where I was going, and I explained it to him. He got so mad he started off to see Mr. Johnson to tell him off. I had to grab him and talk to him before he finally calmed down, but it took so long that I was late to detention.
OK, I wasn’t very late. There was a bell that rang seven minutes after the end of school and marked when anyone sent to detention was supposed to be there. I knew this because I’d asked someone. The bell rang just as I was opening the door. But I wasn’t inside yet, and Mr. Johnson was.
“You’re late, Perryman.”
“Sorry. I got held up. But I’m here, and was even inside before the bell stopped ringing.”
“You’re late. You need to be in your seat before the bell rings.”
“Sorry. I didn’t know all the rules. This is my first time here.”
“But not your last. I’m making it a week, now, so you’ll learn some respect and how to follow the rules. There’s nothing special about you, Perryman, even if you think there is.”
I just dropped my head, went to a seat and sat down. No one laughed or even snickered. They knew Mr. Johnson, and how he could nail them if he wanted to for something as trivial as that.
I spent the hour doing homework and feeling sorry for myself, then took the late bus home. As ‘home’ was now in the affluent section of town, and as kids living there generally didn’t get in trouble much, I was the only one going in that direction, so the driver didn’t take me home till I was the only one left on the bus. The ride home, which usually took fifteen minutes, was now in rush hour traffic and took well over an hour. I just sat by myself, looking out the window, bored up to my eyebrows.
Mr. Jenks was already home by the time I got there. Gary’d told him why I’d be late. He asked me why I was very late, though, and I told him about the bus, and said I’d probably be this late for the next four school days, and why.
He was the calmest man I knew. It was one of the things I so admired and appreciated about him. But now, I could see he was getting upset. He told me he thought he should probably have a chat with Mr. Johnson.
“You don’t have to do that. He’s been out to get me ever since my mother chewed him out and threatened to sue him. Now he’s gotten me. I think if I just serve the detentions, it might be over with.”
“But it isn’t right, Keith! It isn’t right for him to selectively enforce the rules. He can’t give you detention for something he allows other kids to get away with. I think I need to explain that to him. I’ll come at 10:00 tomorrow morning. Meet me at his office. Can you do that?” Although he was still perfectly in control of himself, I could easily see his anger, which of course upset me.
“Yes, I can get out of class then. I have a study hall at 10.”
He nodded, and, taking his cell phone from his pocket, turned to walk away, but I stopped him and asked if he’d learned anything about my mother yet. He said he’d spoken with some people, got something set up, and should have some information tomorrow, and if not then, the next day. “Don’t worry, Keith,” he said, and smiled compassionately at me. “Sorry, but I’ve got a couple of phone calls to make right now.”
I was glad he wasn’t angry any longer, even though he had been upset on my behalf. I hated being around angry adults.
I was really nervous about what I’d find out about my house being up for sale, about my mom and her job, maybe about why she hadn’t called me. Mr. Jenks’ meeting with Mr. Johnson was something else to worry about. I couldn’t help but be concerned about all that.
So that night, what with everything I was fretting about being on my mind, I slept with Gary. I guess I was more upset than I’d thought. We didn’t do much, just enough that I could relax and then he held me, which allowed me to get to sleep easily. I didn’t wake up with any nightmares, either. I’d only ever had one of those at his house. I used to have them all the time.
The next day, I got a hall pass from my study hall teacher and went to Mr. Johnson’s office at 10. Mr. Jenks was standing in the hall waiting for me.
We went in, and he told the secretary that he’d made an appointment with Mr. Johnson. She said she’d check and went into his office, then came back and asked us to wait, saying he’d be with us in a minute.
He wasn’t, and when it was quarter past, and he hadn’t come out yet, Mr. Jenks was mad again. He did a good job of not showing it, but I knew him by now, and I could tell.
Finally, Mr. Johnson came out of his office, a smile on his face, until he saw me. He looked at me, then Mr. Jenks, then me, and stopped smiling.
We went into his office and sat down. There, Mr. Jenks said, “I want to talk to you about Keith, and his detention.”
“You’re not his father, are you? You said your name was Jenks.”
“No, but I have temporary custody. I understand you’re disciplining him for something many students do on a regular basis, often in your presence. Is that true?”
“Definitely not. When I hear someone cuss anywhere on school grounds, I give them detention.”
Mr. Jenks stared at Mr. Johnson, not saying anything, until Mr. Johnson began fidgeting in his chair, and finally asked, “Is that all?”
“No it isn’t. I was just figuring out how to deal with you. You’re lying. I have the names of several kids who my investigators spoke to last night who have told me what you just said isn’t true, that they’ve witnessed many incidents where you’ve allowed your football players to swear, in practices and in the hallways, with nothing done about it. So, in Keith’s presence here, you just lied to me. I’m deciding what I should do about that.”
Mr. Johnson’s face flushed bright red and he stood up. “Are you calling me a liar? To my face?”
“Yes, I am,” Mr. Jenks replied, very calmly, “because you are one. And if you’ve got any sense at all, what you’ll do about it is sit back down and shut up, except for apologizing to me. Then, you’ll tell Keith you’re sorry for giving him a detention and that you’re quashing the remaining days.”
Mr. Jenks looked at me, then back at Mr. Johnson. “And if you don’t do both those things, right now, I’ll collect those witnesses I mentioned, and Keith, and we’ll meet with Principal Jacoby. As a matter of fact, I’ve already made an appointment to see him as I figured you might be a horse’s ass. I’ll tell him what’s happened, that you were arbitrary and discriminatory against Keith, and that I want you disciplined, up to and including discharge, because you punished a student wrongly, then lied when asked about it.”
Mr. Johnson was still standing. He was looking at Mr. Jenks, and saw Mr. Jenks take out his cell phone. Mr. Jenks switched it on, then started punching buttons. As he did so, he said, “I’m also calling the State Board of Ethics. I’m on a committee that has oversight of government bodies. Schools fall under our purview. I’m going to start an inquiry into your activities. You’ll be investigated. I assume I’ll find many abuses of power. If you’ve ever stolen a paperclip and it’s been recorded, we’ll find it. If you ever had one of the female students in your office alone, we’ll talk to her and find out exactly what happened. Exactly. If you’ve ever touched a student and a complaint has been filed, well, that’ll be there, too. Newspapers love this shit. Oops. I just cussed on school grounds!”
He looked at Mr. Johnson, who was slowly settling back into his chair. He stared at him until Mr. Johnson turned to me and said, “Your detention is withdrawn. I’m sorry.”
He hated saying it. He hated me. I could see it in his eyes.
“And for lying to me?” Mr. Jenks voice was very hard, a voice I’d never heard him use before.
“And I’m sorry for lying to you.” Mr. Johnson’s voice was pinched, his throat tight. His face was still red and his eyes were horrible. I wanted to run, but somehow, Mr. Jenks seemed cool and composed. Maybe running a large business gave him that type of control and self-possession.
“I never want you to have any further contact with Keith. If there’s any reason at any time that you should have contact, you’ll delegate that contact to someone else. Is that understood?”
“Yes.” I could barely hear it. Mr. Johnson said it in a hiss, hating having to do so.
“Then we’re done here. I’ll hold you to that. Good morning.”
He left the office, and I was so close behind him I almost stepped on his feet. But the idea of remaining alone in that office with Mr. Johnson had me moving without even thinking about it.
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