Cantaloupe by Cole Parker

Kids: confrontations, consternation, complications, confusion and confabulation.



“Hey, Cantaloupe!”

I cringed.  Then frowned.  This could be bad.  Really, really bad.  Nicknames have a way of sticking, and you don’t want to get one that you don’t think will fit you at all.  Cantaloupe would be a horrible name for a shy kid with orangish hair!  It was really darker than that, but still orangish, and it embarrassed me in the way most anything that’s different from what’s normal about yourself embarrasses any 13-year-old boy.

I had to stop that name, and stop it really fast!

I approached him.  He was smiling at me.  He smiled at everyone, all the time.  I didn’t really know him well.  Sometimes the class- clown types are difficult to get to know.  Especially for a guy like me.  They’re always making jokes, laughing, getting others to laugh, and if you’re the sort who’s quieter than that, who doesn’t like the spotlight, who much prefers the background, being at the edge of things rather than in the center, well, what you do is stay away from that sort of kid.  You don’t want to get pulled into the pandemonium that surrounds them.  That they’re causing and enjoying.

So I didn’t really know him.  I didn’t know what was behind that perpetual grin, those eyes that were merrily twinkling every day.  But I guessed I was going to know him a little better in a minute or two.  Because ‘Cantaloupe’ just wasn’t on.  It couldn’t be.

“Hey, Eric,” I said.  Which caused a momentary lapse of that smile.  His name was Eric, but no one called him that. They hadn’t for a long time. Not even our teachers.  He was tall, one of the tallest kids in eighth grade, and so, naturally, someone had stuck the moniker ‘Socks’ on him. 

Why Socks?  Because he’d gone through several growth spurts, and during those times, he’d grown faster than his mom could buy him new trousers, I guessed.  I didn’t know him at all, as I said, and had no idea about him or his family’s financial situation.  He dressed like we all did, jeans and tee shirts.  Most of us, however, got new jeans when the ones we had were too short.  He did, too, eventually, but not soon enough.  There were several times where his socks were easy to see.

He loved his nickname.  I’d have been too embarrassed to come to school if it had been attached to me.  I didn’t have a nickname.  My name was Logan and it wasn’t easy to shorten that, and no one had.  I was just another kid in class, nothing at all special about me and no one had a reason to make up a funny nickname.  That was just as I liked it.  Logan, under the radar.

He liked ‘Socks’ so much he only responded in class if the teacher used that name for him.  I guess he thought having been given a nickname was a badge of honor!  Even if it was a bit disparaging.  He was a hard kid to peg.  He was polite and funny and made fun of himself, but there had to be some steel in him because if a teacher got mad at him for not answering to his real name, even if they really got pissed and threatened to send him out of the room—which meant an automatic detention—he’d joke and laugh about it but still be stubborn.   And so, because it wasn’t worth it to them to let one student in a whole class get them all flustered over something so easy to avoid, they all learned to call him Socks, and everyone was happy.

I wondered why he’d suddenly pick on me.  I’d always avoided the limelight he longed for, and so he’d ignored me.  So why the name, called out across the school yard loud enough so a lot of the kids who were milling around outside before school started that day could hear him.  Loud enough so those kids could all turn and look at me.  Why pick me out for that? 

To me, this felt like a make-or-break moment at school.  I knew I could easily be Cantaloupe for the rest of my school career.  And I knew I wouldn't be able to handle that.  I’d suddenly be the butt of jokes, of derision, and I’d have no way to deal with it.  I didn’t have the quip ready at hand to defend myself with.  That just wasn’t me.

As soon as I heard it, I started walking toward him, wanting to reach him before he could call it out again.  I needed to talk to him.  Needed him to forget he’d ever said that.  So I spoke before he could call me that again.  Used his name—his real name.  Startling him.

“Eric?” he said.  “No one calls me that.  You know that!  How do you even know what it is?”

“We’ve been in school together since kindergarten,” I said, trying to sound as stern as I possibly could.  “Why wouldn't I know your name?”

That slowed him down.  He had to stop to think, something rare for him.  He was one of those people who always had a reply to anything.  Really quick mind, quick conversationalist.  Never lacking for words.  I had to think out what I wanted to say.  Not him.  But right then, he hesitated.

I took advantage of it.  “I want to tell you something, and you need to hear it and not take it as a joke.  This is serious.  Do not call me Cantaloupe!  Ever.  Never ever.  You understand?”

He grinned.  That’s something like saying the sun came up in the morning.  He always grinned.  But I didn’t know what the grin meant, and it was important to me that I did.  So, I stood up a little taller, wanting to reach at least a height of a full five feet, which I couldn’t do even when I tried.  Standing the tallest I could, he still had more that a couple of inches on me; he had several at least.  But I still stretched, and I said, “This isn’t a joke.  Don’t call me that.”

His grin gradually made way to a look of puzzlement.  “That sounds like you mean to add ‘or else’ at the end of that.  Do you mean it that way?”

I didn’t answer.  I simply looked him straight in the eye, looking up while he looked down, and nodded.  I gave it a second then turned and walked away.  I was hoping against hope not to hear something like, “Sure thing, Cantaloupe!” or even something worse.  But I didn’t hear a thing.  I didn’t turn back to see his expression.  I knew what it would be.  He’d be grinning, while I was pretty close to trembling.  I’d basically challenged him to a fight.  I wasn’t a fighter.  Wasn’t big enough and didn’t have the inclination.  I couldn’t remember him ever being in one, either.  Fighting wasn’t tolerated at our school and we didn’t have many; some years there were none at all; they were that rare.  But he sure looked like he could handle himself better than I could.  I was hoping he wouldn't call me out, wouldn’t challenge that implied ‘or else’.

He didn’t.

The rest of the day went without incident.  We were in the first few weeks of our last year of middle school, eighth grade.  We had classes all over the school and different kids were in different classes.  Socks was in four of mine.  I’d never had any involvement with him and the guys who he hung close with so didn’t expect I would that day, either, and I didn’t.  I did catch him looking at me a few times.  That wasn’t usual.  Of course, I’d never spent much time glancing at him before, so I couldn’t swear that that was true.  He might have looked at me now and then in the past and I simply hadn’t noticed.

He was in my gym class.  He was a fairly popular kid, but wasn’t a bit athletic.  Usually the best athletes are on the top rung of the popularity ladder, but somehow he was able to reach those heights while still being less coordinated and agile than even I was.  I think it was his height, outgoing personality and self-confidence.  Having those last two was crucial to popularity, and he had both in abundance.

We tended to rinse off at the sinks after gym rather than showering.  My dad always scoffed at that, saying everyone had showered when he was in school, and what was the big deal?  So the other boys saw you nude.  You saw them, too.  So what?  You were all just boys.  Well, I don’t know what boys were like back then, but I did know that none of us nowadays boys wanted other boys to see us naked.  I felt the same way.

So I was rinsing off at the sinks, drying myself and walking back to my locker when there he was, right in front of me, walking toward me.  Socks.

I think I got a little scared.  I was in my boxers; he was wearing boxer briefs.  His were snug enough that it was obvious there was stuff inside.  Mine were loose fitting and gave no evidence at all that there was anything within.  There wasn’t all that much there, of course, but I was 13 and no one would expect much to be there.  Socks was also 13 as far as I knew, and he had at least something. 

But I saw that only with a casual look.  What was much more apparent was how much more mature he was physically than I was everywhere else.  Broader shoulders, some muscle definition in his arms, a wider chest, stronger-looking legs.  Knowing what had happened earlier that day when I had pseudo-challenged him physically, it wasn’t surprising I felt some fear.  I stopped and backed away.  I don’t know what my face showed, but he looked surprised.  I walked on by, way over on the side of the aisle as I passed him, hurried to my locker and dressed.  I didn’t see him again that day.

I was restless during the night. I usually slept like the world had ended, but that night I did a little tossing and turning.  What would happen tomorrow.  Would I hear ‘Cantaloupe’ shouted at me?  How would I respond?  Would everyone be looking at me, having been informed of what had gone on yesterday and anticipating the drama which would unfold when Socks called me that?  How could I slink away with everyone watching?  But how could I face him?

Mom saw I was worried about something at breakfast, but I couldn’t tell her what.  That would be as bad as my classmates seeing me walking away.  In both cases, I’d be revealing myself as something I didn’t want to be.  I’d never been challenged before.  I’d never had to wonder about what I’d do if that happened.  Now, I was wondering, and afraid I might not respond well.

That was it, of course.  I wasn’t sure what I’d do.  But I was pretty sure I was going to find out.  Socks was a clown, but he liked attention, and he certainly knew a way to get it, calling me a funny name, then just waiting for the fun to begin.  For him, that’s what it would be: fun.  For me, it would be awful!  In my mind, maybe even tragic.

I rode my bike to school like always, parking it in the racks where everyone left their bikes during the day.  Some kids locked them, some didn’t.  There’d never been any problem with any of the bikes.  Still, I locked mine.

Socks was waiting for me.  I’d resigned myself to that.  I’d also prepared myself for what would happen.  He’d shout out, “Hey, Cantaloupe!” and I’d walk up to him and take a swing at him.  With him being as tall as he was, I’d have to reach up to hit him in the jaw.  That’s what you did, wasn’t it?  Aim for the jaw?  They always did on TV.  Of course, having to reach up to hit his jaw, he’d have no trouble at all either swiping the blow away, or just leaning back a bit, making me miss altogether and giving everyone a real laugh.  Then I’d just stand there waiting for him to hit me.  When he did, I’d fall down, let everyone laugh again, then wait till they all walked off before I got up.  I hoped it wouldn't hurt too much.  It certainly wouldn’t a couple of days later.  The alternate would.

Maybe from then on everyone would be calling me Cantaloupe, maybe not.  I didn’t know how to figure that one out.  At least they wouldn’t be calling me Cantaloupe the Coward.

Anyway, I walked toward him rather than away.  The sooner we got this done, the less I’d be worrying about it.  I walked up to him, my hands already in fists, surprised he hadn’t called out when I was a ways away.  By doing that he’d have been forced to yell the name louder and get more of an audience.  This way, we should be done before most kids realized what was happening and had gatherer around.

I walked up to confront him, and he just looked at me.  I was scared, of course, but resolved to get it over with.  I think that what he saw was the fear, not the resolve.  Maybe fear is more obvious.

He looked at me, and the perpetual grin he wore slowly dissolved.  He didn’t call me Cantaloupe at all, but did use my name.  He just asked me a question, sounding puzzled.

“Are you scared of me, Logan?”

“Uh, no.”

He still wasn’t grinning, so he looked different from usual.  His clown façade seemed to have disappeared as well.  He stared at me a moment, then said, “Well, you sure acted scared yesterday in the locker room.”

“No, I was just in a hurry.”

He went on as though I hadn’t even spoken.  “And you look scared now, and your hands are in fists.  What’s going on?”

What was going on?  He knew what was going on!  Why ask me?  Was he trying to rub it in or something?  Maybe he was waiting for me to walk away, so then he could call out the Cantaloupe name.  Maybe that was it.

When I didn’t answer, trying to figure out his game, he said, “Look, you don’t have to be afraid of me.  Remember what you said yesterday, that we’ve been in the same school together since we were little kids?  Maybe we don’t really know each other, but we know some things.  I know you’re one of the smart kids, I know you don’t have a lot of friends, I know you stay by yourself a lot, I know you play basketball and soccer better than I do, I know you eat lunch with the other smart kids.  You know some things about me, too.  You’d have to.  You even know my name, and don’t use it, which I appreciate. But then, I can’t ever remember talking to you, and I can’t ever remember you using my name at all, so don’t know if that’s you just ignoring me, or being nice.”

He stopped and I must have been looking at him funny, because he said, “Yeah, I know.  What does all this have to do with the price of potatoes in Idaho?  Well, you’re smart, so when I say this, maybe you can find an answer.  You know me, and when did you ever, in all those years, see me teasing someone who couldn’t enjoy it, wouldn’t fight back in the sprit it was given, wouldn’t laugh and tease me in return?  When have you ever seen me be mean to anyone?  When?”

He only gave me a few seconds to answer.  When I didn’t, having no idea what to say, having no idea where this was going, he answered for me.  “Never.  You never have.  So why, after asking me not to use that name, would you think I’d do so?  And why did you’d think you had to be scared of me in the locker room?”

I didn’t know how to answer.  I’d been ready to fight, and lose.  I’d been ready to be humiliated.  I’d chosen what I figured was the lesser of two evils.  Now, I saw I was totally wrong about the entire thing.  But I was still filled with adrenalin.  My mind was having a problem processing the change from anticipation of being laid out in front of the entire school population to having just had a simple private discussion.  My body was shaky.  My mind confused.  I didn’t know how to respond to him, so I did the only thing I could think to do.  I didn’t answer him at all.  I simply turned around and walked away.

 

 

I didn’t glance at him even once in any of my classes that day.  I mostly kept my eyes down.  But we’d have gym later that day, and he’d be there, and he’d probably approach me.  I didn’t want to face him.  I didn’t know what to say if I did.  This was as hard as the aftermath of a fight would have been!  Whatever I said to him, I didn’t see how it would make any sense unless I went into my having seen him as only the class clown.  I hadn’t allowed for any sensitivity he might have had.  I’d never seen any, and had just taken him for what he’d revealed of himself.  In other words, I’d been very shallow.

I had a hard time dealing with this.  If I was one of the smart kids, then I had an identity, and was somebody at the school.  I wasn’t overly proud of that label, or that I was smart.  I hadn’t had anything to do with achieving that status.  My parents and their parents deserved the credit.  But I accepted the label, and before this, I’d thought it fit.  Now, I was being forced to face the fact that I’d not used those smarts when it came to other kids in school.  I’d accepted the stereotypes that flew around.  I’d compartmentalized kids from just surface traits.  I hadn’t really got to know any of them.

My shyness was part of that, I knew.  To make friends, you have to put yourself out there.   You had to take the chance of being rejected.  You had to speak up, join in.  I didn’t do any of those things.  Even at lunch, I probably spoke less to the other kids than anyone at the table.

I thought about this a lot and was struck by a question that probably should have occurred to me earlier.  I was a social outcast, I realized.  No one went out of their way to talk to me because I presented a closed-off image to them.  They had me stereotyped as much as I had them.  So, the question: why had Socks called me Cantaloupe across the schoolyard in the first place?

It made no sense unless he was trying to ridicule me.  Did it?

I realized I did need to talk to him.  But not yet.  I needed more time to think about all this.  I wasn’t ready.  Facing him?  Speaking my thought to him?  No.  Not ready yet.

So I went to the nurse just before gym and told her my stomach was upset, I’d been running to the john ever since lunch, and it would be best for all concerned if I didn’t have to jump around in gym class today and make a mess on the floor.  I’d never asked for a pass before, so she was kindly and understanding and wrote out a library pass for me.  Maybe blushing when speaking about the runs helped.  I spent the class time reading a book.  It was much better than facing Socks when I was unprepared.

I thought hard that evening, that night.  I thought about just one question: why had Socks called out ‘Cantaloupe’ to me yesterday?  Why had he yelled ‘Hey, Cantaloupe,’ across the school grounds.  I’d thought at first it was Socks being Socks, having fun at my expense.  He’d known it would embarrass me, he’d seen the chance to make a spectacle of me, and what fun that would be!  Except he’d strongly denied that, and done so without a smile on his face.  So, if I decided for the moment to believe him, then why had he called me like that?

I spent some time, chewing that over.  And I came up with the only thing that made sense.  The next day, I decided to find out if I was right.

 

 

I dropped a note in his locker the next day.  There were air vents at the top, and I slipped it through them.  I’d written in on bright red paper, then folded it up.  I thought it would be pretty hard for him to miss it.

For lunch, I went out into the courtyard.  Most kids ate inside; they liked the noise and camaraderie there.  I usually ate there, too, so I could be with the kids I always ate with.  Calling them my ‘friends’ was stretching the point.  Maybe ‘associates’ would be a better term.

There were large and small tables outside, and usually only half of them had kids at them.  I chose a table away from everyone else, a table for only four kids.  It was the smallest table they had.

I’d already laid out my sandwich, carrot sticks and container of butterscotch pudding.  I’d picked up a carton of milk, too, and that was also waiting.  After five minutes had passed, I was wondering if he’d show, thinking maybe he wouldn’t, but he did.  He walked right over to my table and sat down.  He looked at me with a straight face, no smile, and asked, “Are you ready to answer my questions?”

I nodded.  “I will. But only if you’ll answer one of mine.  Truthfully.  Just one.”

His grin came back.  The twinkle in his eyes he so often had was there again, too, making it look like he didn’t take anything seriously.  The one that I mistrusted the most.  How could anyone not take life seriously?

“Sure!” he said, as if that would be the easiest thing in the world.  I didn’t think it would be.  “You answer first,” he said, still grinning.

I could do this.  It wasn’t that hard, really.  “OK.  Ask them again.”

I wasn’t sure he’d even remember what he’d asked me because he’d been emotional at the time, but he did.  “You thought I’d still call you ‘Cantaloupe’ after you asked me not to.  Why’d you think that?”

Some of the twinkle was gone.  He really wanted a straightforward answer. 

“All right.  I’ll answer, and I’ll tell the truth, even if it embarrasses both of us.  I know what you’re like.  We’ve been kinda together for several years.  You like to tease people.  You like to stir things up.  I knew that from watching you.  I got the idea that you weren’t that concerned with what people thought, you just liked to make mischief.  That’s what I thought you were doing with me.  I thought you saw me as a target, knew I’d react badly, and you could have some fun with that.  Maybe you were right when you said that I should have noticed you only picked on kids who’d go along with it, but you were giving me too much credit thinking that, I guess.  I hadn’t noticed that.  And because I hadn’t, I didn’t know you’d stop if I asked you to.”

His grin was gone now, too.  “And the reason you were scared of me?”

This one was easier.  “You’re a lot bigger than I am, and that was really obvious yesterday in the locker room.  And, I thought maybe you were mad at me.  From that ‘or else’ thing we did.  I’m not used to confrontations, and this looked like the second I was having that day with you, and there you were, you looking strong and fit and me looking puny like I am.  I was afraid you’d either call me ‘Cantaloupe’ again or maybe bump me or more.  So I avoided you.”

He was staring at me intently, and for some reason, looked disappointed.  I must have been reading that wrong.

“Now my question,” I continued.  “And I want a full answer: why did you call me ‘Cantaloupe’ yesterday?”

He dropped his eyes from me.  I expected that was because he was going to lie.  I had a good idea why he’d called me what he had, and the only explanation that made any sense would have caused me to lie, were I in his shoes now.

After a moment of silence, I spurred him on, saying in a very goading voice, “Weeelllll?”  When he still didn’t speak, I said, “Why don’t you just make a joke out of it.  That’s what you do, isn’t it?”

He looked up at me then, and his eyes were anything but merry.  He seemed upset.  I suddenly felt mean.  This wasn’t me at all.  Why was I doing this, embarrassing him like this, acting all superior?  I guess I still felt some anger at being called ‘Cantaloupe’ like I had been yesterday, but I’d gone way too far.

But he made his decision, and I saw it in his eyes.  What he did was just what I didn’t want him to do.  He simply stood up and left.  He walked out on me!  Just as I’d done to him the day before.  Without saying a word.

 

 

I felt bad.  It made me wonder about myself.  I’d never been mean.  Doing what I’d just done was mean, especially if I’d been right about why he’d called me like he had.  Why had I done that, acted as I had?  I really didn’t know, but I was sure that acting as I had wasn’t really who I was.

I was upset the rest of the day, but did figure out what to do about it.  It might not work, I realized.  I might have done something that couldn’t be fixed.  But I had to try.

What I did was, I waited till after dinner.  That was a time most people did homework.  Did Socks do homework?  I had no idea.  No idea whether he was smart, got good grades, anything like that.  He been almost a non-person to me, mostly because he represented a world that I didn’t inhabit, one where you were free to act however you wanted, free to interact with other kids, to be spontaneous, carefree.

I was going way out of my comfort zone, calling him.  But I felt I owed him that.  I just hoped an apology would be enough.

I got his number through the school directory and dialed it.  It was a home number, not a cell phone.  His dad answered.  Well, a man answered, so that it was his dad was a good guess.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is So—, is Eric there?”

“Yes.  Just a sec.” 

I heard the phone being laid down, and then, “Eric, it’s for you,” being called out.

About a half a minute later, I heard his voice.  “Yes?”

“Socks, this is Logan.”

“Oh.”  His voice had gone from a friendly, inquisitive, ‘Yes’, to a very flat ‘Oh’, in a nanosecond.

“Socks, I want to apologize.  There’s no excuse for doing what I did, for the way I did it.  I hadn’t meant to do that.  I’d meant to see if what I figured out for your reason for calling me Cantaloupe was correct.  I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.  Well, maybe just a very tiny little spot, nothing like I ended up doing.  I’m not that way.  I’m really not, and have no idea why I did that.  I’m truly sorry.  I made a mistake.  I wish we could start over.  See, I thought I might have figured out why you called me Cantaloupe, and I was going to verify. . . .”

I suddenly stopped.  What was wrong with me?  I shouldn’t have said that last part.  I saw how I was setting myself up!  And he saw it, too.  He immediately jumped on it, leaving me in a mess!

“You figured it out?  OK, tell me.  Tell me why I called you that.  You know, Logan, you’re nothing like I thought you were.  I made a mistake, too, thinking I knew you a little.”

I could hear bitterness in his voice.  What I’d done had affected as much as I’d been afraid it had, maybe even worse.  I’d never known him to be anything but happy, smiling, cheerful.  He wasn’t that now.

So I plunged in.  “I might be wrong, but the only thing that made sense to me, after a lot of thinking, was that you were being nice!  You didn’t call me that, across the grass for everyone to hear just because you were trying to cause me grief—to have fun with me that way.  No, I think you were doing it to be nice.”

I stopped, hoping he’d say something.  Hoping he’d make it just a little easier.  Let me know if I was even close to being right.  This was hard!

“That’s what you figured out, huh?”

Well, at least he had responded.  Silence would have been much tougher.  And his voice had sounded at least somewhat better, somewhat less hostile, somewhat, well, interested.

“Yes.  The only reason I could see for you doing that was so I’d come up and confront you.  You weren’t being mean, though.  It was just the opposite.  I think you’d seen me every day hanging around on the outside of things.  You had to realize I was lonely.  And you probably thought, if you made me come talk to you, you might be able to get me more involved with you, maybe with some of the other kids.  Because, if you weren’t being mean, why else would you do that?  I think you meant to help me.  And I went and screwed it up, just like I do most things with other kids.  So I want to apologize.”

I stopped then.  I was embarrassed, and I didn’t know what more to say in any case.  He was the popular, glib, outgoing, funny kid.  I was the reserved, silent, introverted one.  I rarely had much to say in any situation.  Now, I had less than nothing to say.

The silence grew, and then he said, “You never thought there might be more than that, did you?”

“More than what?  More that you just wanting to be nice, getting me included in things?”

“Yeah, more than that.”  His voice had changed.  He sounded normal now.  I even thought I could hear the twinkle in his eyes.  I’d bet money he was grinning.  Well, that was good, wasn’t it?  I thought so.  I relaxed a little.

“No, I didn’t think of anything else it could be.”

“So it never occurred to you that maybe I was trying to get to know you, not just to help you, but because I wanted something, too.  Maybe because I wanted to get to know you?”

“Really?  Me?  Why?  I’m nothing there, and you’re one of the popular kids.  Why me?”

He paused, but I could just feel he was going to say more.  What he said wasn’t what I expected.

“You want to know why?  OK.  That’s fair.  But not over the phone.  Lunch tomorrow.  Same as today.”

 

 

I was there ahead of him again.  Same table.  Same privacy.  This time, however, when he walked in, he was grinning again.  Not a care in the world.  Socks, the free spirit.

He sat down and sort of took over.  I wasn’t surprised.  He was a self-confident, gregarious kid, and I was me.  He’d always be head and shoulders ahead of me when it came to us talking together.

“Hey, Logan.  I called this meeting today to—”  He broke it off there and laughed.  I didn’t.  I was nervous.

“OK, OK, no beating around the bush.  I guess we both tried that already and it didn’t work out for either of us.  Right?”

I nodded, and then thought that silly and said, “Yeah.  We did, and it didn’t.”

His eyes lit up.  “See?  You are smart.  I knew you were.  You just haven’t been acting it.  I know you’re smarter than you’ve been acting.”

I nodded again, but then, defensively, said, “I’m not good when put on the spot like you did.  If I have time to understand the situation and what’s expected of me, I can do all right.  But take me by surprise and, well, you saw how that went.”

“Yeah, and that was my fault.  I wanted to do something like you said.  But my reason wasn’t just to be nice.  My reason was I wanted to be friends with you, and didn’t know how else to go about it.  I didn’t know you’d be so . . . so . . . .”  

“Much of a mess,” I contributed.

He laughed again, but it was a sympathetic laugh.  “You weren’t a mess; you were just surprised and a little angry.  What I didn’t expect was it would  make you so angry, but I thought about it and figured out why it did.  You were having the spotlight put on you, and you thought it might stay there if the name stuck, and you didn’t want that.  That was my fault.  There were certainly better ways to get to know you, but I was just being me, like you were being you.  So I’m taking the blame for the entire thing.”

He was staring at me, wearing a hopeful grin, and when he had that look on his face, I doubt anyone could just not go along with him.  I smiled, too.

“That’s better,” he said.  “Much better.  Now, the harder part.  You asked last night, why you?  I didn’t like what you said afterwards, that you were nothing, but let’s forget that.  Let’s get back to why you.  I just said, I want us to be friends.  Why?  Because I like you already.  You probably don’t like me because of the way I am, being way out there.  Maybe that’s part of why I like you: because you’re not on center stage all the time.  Well, never, really.  So, as I said, here’s the hard part.  Tell me, why do you think I am like I am?”

That was easy!  “Because that’s your personality.  Outgoing, outrageous, wanting everyone looking at you, liking the popularity that gives you, liking, maybe needing, to be noticed.  You act like you do so people will see and admire you.”

He was nodding his head as I spoke.  “Yeah, that’s what I’d expect everyone to think.  But, what if none of that’s right?”

He paused a moment, giving me a chance to respond.  I didn’t.  I couldn’t imagine him being anything but what I knew him to be. 

“See,” he finally said, “all you’re seeing is an act. Everyone is.  That isn’t really me.  Well, I guess the confidence I have is real.  It would have to be for me to act like I do.  But the need for popularity, the acting foolish and drawing attention to myself, the cutting up in class, that’s all an act.  A façade.  Now why do you think that might be?”

Well, I could answer that.  “People act different from how they are to cover something up, usually.  To hide something they don’t want people to see.”

“Exactly.  Right on the button.  I’m not shy, but I’m not really as extroverted as I make out, either.  I’m more like you than you can imagine.  Think about how you’d act if you had something you wanted no one to notice.  You’d either act the way you already do, or you’d go overboard and act like I do.”

He was on a roll now and kept going.  “I’ve been watching you for a long time, Logan.  And I see where you put on an act, too.  You intentionally make yourself look less than you are.  You try to make yourself into a nonentity.  You’ve done it for some time now, and have it down to a science.  You might not even realize you’re doing it sometimes.”

I was suddenly feeling nervous again.  When I get nervous, I get defensive, or simply retreat entirely into myself.  Now, I felt defensive, but curious, too.  “Like what?  How do I do that?”

“That’s good, Logan.  You asked for examples, but you didn’t deny it.  Well, let’s see.  This morning, before school, everyone was out on the lawn, groups of kids chatting away.  You were with Sandy and Vanessa and Jake walked up and joined you.  You sort of turned, just a little bit when he joined, and when he was saying something to Sandy, you turned away a little more.  You slumped your shoulders, making yourself smaller.  And suddenly, unnoticeably, you weren’t part of that group any longer.  Then you reached for your backpack, looked into it, and scowled like you were missing something, and without saying a word, shuffled away from those three guys.  But after doing that, you didn’t look in the backpack again, you didn’t look mad that you’d forgotten something, you didn’t go to your locker—it was obvious to me the looking into it had been a ploy so you could leave.

“I’ve seen this sort of thing many times.  You can be in a group of two kids, sometimes even three.  When he gets any larger than that, you find a way to leave.  But there’s more to it than that.  You’re much more comfortable talking to girls than boys.  I’ve seen you walk away when it’s only one girl you’re with Jake walks up.  You seem really awkward around Jake.”

Now I was more than a little nervous; I was worried.  But he wasn’t done.  “I’ve seen that, and I’ve wondered.  But mostly I’ve wondered if you’re putting on that act for the same reason I am.  I’ve been hiding that I find boys much more attractive than girls since fourth grade.  I wondered if maybe you’ve been the same way.  And as for what you said, your being nothing?  Logan, you’re one of the smartest boys here, and one of the most attractive.  Really.  You don’t dress like it.  You don’t do your hair to be attractive.  Your posture isn’t as upright as it could be.  You sell yourself short in so many ways.  But I think you’re spectacular.  And that’s why I wanted us to be friends.  I want to be myself around someone, not the clown everyone sees me as, and I hoped, still hope, that maybe you can be that person.  No pretenses.  Just the real us.”

Oh my God!  He’d outed himself to me!  And he wanted me to do that, too.  He had no idea if I was gay.  No one did.  This was pure speculation on his part.  And what if this was a hoax?  What if he was making all of it up just to get me to say I was gay, and then he could spread it around?

I didn’t really believe that, though.  He sounded way too sincere.  and after all, what would be the point?  I really was a nobody at the school.  Outing me would be really mean, but pointless, too.  If I were somebody at the school, being outed would mean something, but it wouldn’t with me.  And he’d been right when he’d said he wasn’t mean, and that he’d never been.  So I had to take him at his word.  But what could I say?  What should I say?

He obviously was pretty insightful to see that I’d been camouflaging myself.  I hadn’t been doing that to the extent he had, but then, I didn’t have the confidence he had.  And I had been doing it for the same reason he had.  If anyone found out he was gay, he’d almost certainly be able to laugh it off.  It would be devastating for me.

I needed time to think.  One way to get that was ask him something. 

“Does anyone else know?”

“About me being gay?”

“Yeah.”

“My parents do.  I had to tell them.  I get in trouble now and then with the teachers due to how I act, and one time my parents got called in to talk to the principal.  He told them about some of my antics.  They promised to take me in hand, but when we got home, they just looked at me with questions in their eyes.  See, at home, I’m probably very much like you are.  At school, I’m someone else.  They didn’t know about that someone else.  I didn’t know how to explain it all to them other than the truth.  So I told them.  They took it well.  I’d thought they would, but you never know till you talk about it.  They were OK with it.  I think lots of parents are these days.”

My turn to speak again.  I still had no idea what to say.  So I went for the easy route.  “We can be friends,” I said, “but not at school if you’re going to keep on like you have been.  I can’t be in the middle of that kind of thing.  Can’t be part of it.  But if you want to talk outside school, just the two of us, get to know each other, that would be fine.”

His smile got larger.  “I was hoping . . . well, I’ve been hoping for a long time.  I’ve had a crush on you for years.  It got so bad, I had to do something, and I did.  I called you Cantaloupe.  It’s OK if you don’t want to say if you’re gay or not, Logan.  Just us being friends will make me happier than you can imagine.  Spending time with you.  Talking.  Of course, I have an advantage.”

“What’s that?”

He laughed again. And those eyes!  Man!  “I can talk all about being gay, and you can’t.  I can talk about all the other attractive boys around, like Jake Newhouse, and you can’t.  In fact, to keep your secret, you’ll have to talk about which girls do it for you.  But you’re a good actor.  It shouldn’t be that hard.”

Lunch was over.  He was laughing as he walked away.  I just sat there, wondering if this is what it felt like when a bomb when off near you.  I had a lot to think about, but the more I sat there, thinking, the better I was feeling.  Socks, huh?  He was cute.  I’d never paid him much attention because of his antics.  But . . . maybe.  I badly needed a friend, more than I even needed a boyfriend.  I now knew the first was a given.  Would it be long before I had both?

One thing for certain.  I wasn’t going to call him Socks.  He’d be Eric to me.  Somehow, I knew that would make him happy.

The End

 

 

As always, my sincere thanks to my editors. You do a marvelous and mostly unsung job.



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