Being different from your peers can be a nightmare for a teenager.
Billy Bordon arose that morning in an ugly mood. His mother noticed it when he slammed into the kitchen, bumping the table hard enough to knock the salt and pepper shakers over and send the napkin holder to the floor.
He just ignored her, scowled his way to the cupboard, yanked the Cocoa Puffs box out and managed to catch it on the edge of the cabinet door. It flew out of his hand, sending brown nuggets flying all over the room.
“Fuck!” he yelled, causing his mother to gasp. She’d never heard anything like that from him before.
Billy looked at the mess, then yanked the back door open and ran out.
It was cold outside, in the high thirties, as early March this year hadn’t shown much enthusiasm for welcoming spring. There were still a few dirty piles of snow lingering in shaded areas. Early daffodils had yet to appear, and the trees remained naked. It was a dismal morning, and a heavy mist hung in the air.
Billy didn’t notice, even without a coat. Wearing only a thin tee, his sleeping shorts and untied sneakers, he ran from the house and continued running down the sidewalk, going in the opposite direction from the school. Running hard. His mother had moved to the living room and watched from the front window as he disappeared from sight. She sighed, a puzzled frown on her face, then went to where she kept the broom and dustpan. She stopped, however, and reached into her apron pocket for her cell phone.
Billy ran. Not going anywhere. Just running. Letting his emotions have full sway. Finally, having burned off some angst, he slowed to a jog, feeling the full effects of the cold for the first time. Billy wasn’t a large boy. He was slight of build, thin and small-framed, and the cold seemed to penetrate into his soul. His jog became a walk, and he immediately began shivering. He was in a residential area, but even if there had been stores around to duck into to find warmth, very few would have been open this early. It made no difference, however, because there were only houses. Many had lights on, but what good did that do him? None.
He thought about turning back. “Fuck!” he repeated, although less passionately and more despondently this time. He looked around, and seeing nothing he wanted to see, he slumped down onto the curb. This early there were very few cars on the street. He was alone, cold, and distraught.
He sat still, the mist dampening his clothing, his head full of thoughts, none of them good. The cold didn’t help. Soon he was shivering badly. He crossed his arms over his knees, and his head sank onto them.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but when the voice pulled him out of his detached trance, he realized just how cold he was.
“Billy?” the voice repeated.
He tried to raise his head, but the stiffness in his neck made the action slow and awkward.
“My god, Billy! You’re blue! Get in the car. Quickly.”
Billy tried to stand but stumbled. His joints didn’t seem to be functioning well at all. His head was muzzy, too, his thoughts slow to come and dull.
He heard a car door slam, and then someone was there, grabbing him, helping him stand, helping him take the two steps needed to get to the passenger-side car door. Then, after a moment he felt a jacket being slipped around his shoulders before the car door was opened and he was manhandled onto the car seat.
The door was slammed shut behind him. The warmth in the car felt like an oven to him. It made him shiver even worse, but soon his thinking seemed to find some semblance of focus. He looked up as the driver’s door opened, and he saw who it was entering the car.
“Tyler,” he said; he realized how slowly the word had come out, how strained it had sounded.
“I’ll get you home,” Tyler said. “What were you thinking?”
Billy didn’t answer. He simply sat slumped in the seat, shivering so hard his teeth were threatening to chip themselves.
His mom opened the door, and Tyler helped him into the house. She took one look at Billy and said, “Upstairs. A warm shower. Not hot. Warm. Tyler, he look like he’s suffering from exposure. I’ll start some cocoa. It’ll be ready when you come down. When he’s OK.”
She left for the kitchen, leaving Tyler the task of getting Billy upstairs and into the shower. That last task, Tyler thought, would be something. He wasn’t sure how Billy would react to being put in the shower. Billy had a long-standing hangup that could make this a challenge.
Tyler had never seen Billy naked. Not that that was strange, and for a couple of reasons. First, Billy was 15 and he was 18, so in the normal nature of things there’d be nothing unusual about having seen him only when clothed. Second, the reason he knew him at all was because Billy was Tyler’s kid brother Ben’s best friend; he didn’t know him personally very well at all.
But in another sense, there would have been nothing at all strange about having seen Billy naked. Tyler and his brother Ben came from a household where modesty wasn’t an issue. Their parents were very open about their humanity and sexuality, and both boys had grown up where nudity in the house was normal and carried no shame or censure.
Both Tyler and Ben were outgoing boys, both had friends over to their house often, and, there was a deal breaker—they had a swimming pool. It was normal for Tyler and Ben’s parents to swim naked together with their sons; the adults said it was good for the boys’ education to see firsthand that their bodies were nothing to feel ashamed or protective about. There was no need to hide them. Bodies were bodies and everyone had one, was their motto. Their boys quite naturally carried that tradition over when their own friends came to use the pool. Neither Tyler nor Ben ever wore a bathing suit in the pool unless there were adults around who were offended by their practice. And so, it had become tradition for their friends to swim the same way.
It had been this way forever. Many of Tyler’s friends, as they entered their mid-teen years, began to feel a bit more modest, embarrassed about the changes they were experiencing as puberty hit, embarrassed about what others could see, and they were the ones who began wearing trunks. But many of his friends weren’t shy and enjoyed being able to swim naked and were so used to doing so at Tyler’s house that they, like Tyler, continued the practice.
Ben was three years Tyler’s junior and had no misgivings at all about nudity. Never had. His outgoing, lively and engaging personality coupled with his assured confidence all resulted in most of his friends going along with him in whatever he did, and so the number of young teens who were naked in the pool hardly diminished as that group went through puberty. There were only a few who started to prefer wearing something while swimming. Billy had been one of those. At twelve and a half, he’d started wearing swim trunks.
He’d taken some teasing for that, as did the few others who’d suddenly become modest, but Billy had simply done his best to ignore that. He was a quiet, reserved and private boy, the complete opposite of Ben, which might have been one reason they were such good friends. They complemented each other. When Ben saw how the teasing affected Billy, he put an end to it as much as possible.
Ben was curious about his best friend, however, and thought Billy would be happier if he were less self-conscious, more open, more, in fact, like he was. But talking about it when they were twelve had got Ben nowhere. Billy had refused to discuss it, and so Ben had let it drop.
Back when they were preteens, Ben used to have many sleepovers, with several friends attending. At that age, these had been wild frolics, and getting ready for bed was one of the best times of all. It had meant all of them getting naked together while donning their pajamas. That meant naked boys running around giggling and dancing and enjoying the freedom nakedness inspires in young boys. Being nude was great fun. Even Billy had taken part.
The mass sleepovers had given way to more sedate single-person sleepovers as the years passed. When they were thirteen, well on to being fourteen, Ben and Billy had started only sleeping over with each other. But one thing hadn’t changed. That was that Ben, who by then was sleeping in the nude, as usual would undress right in the middle of the bedroom, not caring a hoot that Billy was watching. Billy would blush, then excuse himself and put on his sleeping shorts in the bathroom.
Then had come an evening when—and Ben had never known why—that shyness had bothered Ben so much that he’d spoken to Billy about it, as he had before, but with more insistence this time, with more sensitivity and concern. He wanted Billy to feel what he did, that there was nothing at all wrong with being naked in front of him, that his hangup wasn’t healthy, and that the sooner he got over it, the happier he’d be.
He was very persuasive, and Billy could see that Ben cared for him and wanted to help him. It was also true that Billy had been keeping the reason for his need for privacy to himself for a long time, and he wanted to talk to about it with someone; Ben was his one great friend and confidant, the only person he trusted with anything important. So, Billy had finally explained.
“I think I’m gay, Ben. But that’s only part of it. When I’m naked with all our friends, I get hard. I can’t help it. That isn’t so awful in itself. Some of them get hard, too, and we all laugh, and that’s all there is about that; it’s no big deal. But they’re not gay, and I am, and if I get hard, and then they find out I’m gay, well, I just don’t know how they’ll take that. And I know I’ll get hard. I have for quite a while now—since I was twelve. I even get hard seeing you naked. If I’m wearing my boxers or a swimsuit, it’s easy to make sure no one notices. That’s why I feel more comfortable not being naked.”
Ben was surprised but not upset. “I don’t think they’d care that you’re gay. I sure don’t. Lots of boys are coming out now that they’re 14 like us. It doesn’t matter any more, not like a few years ago. Times have changed.”
“I know, and I’ll probably come out soon, too. But getting hard in front of them? I don’t know. I just don’t know how they’d react, and I don’t want to have them all acting funny around me. I don’t want them covering up when I’m around because I spring one. It’ll just change things, make me different, and I don’t want that. It’s easier for me if everyone just thinks I’m shy or peculiarly modest.”
“I don’t care if you’re gay or even if you get hard looking at me,” Ben assured him. He grinned. “That’s a compliment, isn’t it?”
Billy wasn’t to be mollified. “But not everyone is like you, Ben. You heard how I was teased before you stopped it. That teasing really hurt. I’m probably too sensitive, but I hate being teased, and I think it would get much worse if every time our friends got naked, I did, too, and they saw me get hard looking at them. Think how bad it would be if guys who aren’t our friends found out, and they probably would. I’d get ridiculed. I’d be a laughingstock at school. Being different is difficult at our age, and being different in a way that has to do with sex would be the worst.”
Billy had come out at school a few months later, with Ben and his brother Tyler supporting him when he did. Times had indeed changed. Gay kids were readily accepted by other kids, and with political correctness in vogue, kids in general were taught to be proud of who they were. Billy didn’t see any reason not to be proud of himself.
So he’d come out, and there’d been no problems at all with the kids at school. Some adults looked at him differently now, but his world was kids and his parents. His parents didn’t make a fuss about it at all. They accepted him as he was.
Billy had continued covering himself around other boys when they had occasion to be naked. Even in gym class, he showered wearing boxers, but so did more than half the other boys. Their parental units these days to be overprotective for a variety of reasons, one of them being the media reports that overblew the number of child-abuse victims, and another from the fact that with both parents working in most homes, mothers often felt guilt for not being home when their children got out of school each day. Both these factors led them to fill their boys’ ears with cautionary tales, to tell them they needed to be aware of adults who had sex on their minds and would find young boys’ bodies too hard to resist; that their bodies were innocent temples to be protected from such predators; that they shouldn’t let anyone see their nether parts.
Billy had welcomed the fact that he wasn’t the only one covered in the showers and locker room. He told Ben that. Tyler knew this because he and Ben talked all the time about everything, and Tyler had always been fond of Billy, a kid who was easy to like and one Tyler had felt the need to protect since he’d known him. Billy projected a certain innocence, a certain naivet, a certain vulnerability that appealed to Tyler’s instincts.
These thoughts were going through Tyler’s mind as he helped Billy upstairs. He was supposed to put him in the shower, but as Billy seemed in a fog and could barely stand on his own, there was only one way Tyler could see to do that safely, and that was if he went in with him and held him upright.
He had to get Billy’s damp clothing off first. Maybe Billy was overly modest, Tyler thought, but this was not the time for such sensitivities. Now was a time to get busy warming Billy up, and embarrassment could wait till that had been done.
He turned on the shower to let the water warm up, then sat Billy on the toilet lid. He pulled off the boy’s still-untied sneakers, his tee shirt and then, when he had Billy back on his feet, his sleeping shorts. Billy, now naked, was put back down on the seat while Tyler stripped himself.
Tyler adjusted the water temperature to lukewarm, then got Billy back up and, holding him upright, led them both into the shower, Tyler feeling very thankful it was a stall shower rather than a tub they’d have to climb into.
Billy reacted to the warm water, suddenly shivering again and pushing away from it, back into Tyler, who was larger than Billy and took his weight easily. Tyler allowed the water to play over Billy’s front half, then eventually turned him so the two were facing each other and Billy’s back could be in the warming spray. Tyler had both arms wrapped around Billy, but kept loosening them to see if Billy could stay upright by himself. When he found Billy seemed stable enough, he turned him back around so he was facing the water, then began the process of turning the temperature adjustment gradually to warmer and warmer settings.
As the deep chill left Billy’s body, his mental fog lifted. He became aware of himself, of his surroundings, of what was happening. And with that, the inevitable happened. Tyler had continued to hold him and turn him so the warm water would splash over both his back and front. When that inevitability occurred, Billy happened to be facing Tyler, their two naked bodies touching each other.
“OK,” Tyler said, looking into Billy’s eyes. “Don’t sweat that. No problem. Your skin doesn’t feel icy anymore. You seem stable enough. I think I can get out now. I’ll dry off and wait for you in your bedroom. When you’re ready . . . .”
He let Billy stand alone for a second or two, just to be sure, then opened the shower stall door and left Billy alone. He was on the way out of the bathroom after drying when he noted Billy’s clothes on the floor where he’d dropped them. He picked up his own, thought a second, then scooped up Billy’s and took them with him when he walked to the bedroom.
Billy came into the bedroom with a towel around his waist. He took a quick glance at Tyler, who was fully clothed and sitting on Billy’s bed. Then he looked down at the floor.
“You want to talk about what I saw in there?” Tyler asked, speaking very gently.
“No.” Billy said, speaking just as quietly, but with a tremor in his voice. Then, he managed to say, “Thanks for rescuing me. For getting me warm!” He dropped his eyes, though, not having the courage to meet Tyler’s.
“We need to talk,” Tyler said, gently but firmly. “Why you ran out in the cold today. Why you almost ended up with hypothermia. What you were so upset about. Probably still are upset about.”
Billy was shaking his head, but when he heard the last statement, he looked up sharply. “You saw,” he said, accusingly but not angrily.
“Come here and sit down,” Tyler said, persuasively, patting the bed next to him. “You’ll feel better if we discuss this; I guarantee it. We need to talk. By that, I mean you need to talk, and I’m a good listener. I can keep secrets, too. Come on.”
Billy hesitated, then slowly walked to the bed. When he sat down, a little away from Tyler, the towel pulled up and separated, and Billy quickly shifted it so he was covered. Then he blushed, realizing how silly that was. Tyler had already seen everything.
Tyler waited for Billy to speak, hoping he’d see the opportunity to get his worries out in the open. Billy, however, sat stoically and was silent.
“You always wear sleeping shorts when you sleep over. You have for a while now. Is this why?” Tyler asked, softly enough that Billy could barely hear him.
Billy’s eyes dropped to his lap again, and then he lifted them enough to ask, “Why are you here? Did you just happen to drive by and see me?”
“No,” Tyler replied, shaking his head. “Your mother called Ben, wanting to know if he had any idea why you’d be so upset this morning, why you might have run out of the house. Ben didn’t know, and she asked to speak to me. She said you’d run off, probably not aware of how cold it was out there, and asked if I could drive around looking for you. I did, and I’m awfully glad, too. You could have been in serious trouble if you’d been out there much longer, especially with the mist as heavy as it was.”
Billy nodded. But he didn’t speak.
Tyler was still, hoping he’d speak, but when the silence grew, he shook his head and said, “Come on, Billy. I’ve known you all your life. You’ve known me, too. You know anything you say to me won’t go any farther. You know I caught you and Ben fooling around once three years ago. Did I say anything to anyone? No, I didn’t. Did I tease you at all? No, I didn’t. I know when you came out, you were worried, and you and I even talked about it beforehand, and I told you it would be OK at school, and it was. I was there for you when a couple of guys thought it was OK to say something. You didn’t lose a single friend, and maybe even gained a couple.
“I care about you, Billy. You’re a really good kid and a really good friend of Ben’s. You keep him on an even keel better than anyone else. You can talk to me, Billy.”
Tyler reached out to touch Billy’s arm, then thought better of it and dropped his arm. Then he did what felt right. He just sat still, waiting, letting the silence alone put pressure on Billy.
When Billy finally spoke, Tyler could hear how reluctant he was, and then how, as he talked, his voice became stronger. He smiled inwardly. Kids need to voice their emotions. He didn’t know if he could solve Billy’s problems, but he was pretty sure if Billy shared them, he’d be lightening his burden.
“You said I’ve done OK since coming out,” Billy started. “And you’re right. Everyone’s been supportive other than the religion freaks, and there aren’t all that many of them, and everyone else thinks they’re weird, so that isn’t a problem.”
He stopped, and Tyler could see this was hard for him. Tyler slid an inch closer to him on the bed, but remained silent.
“The problem is me.” Billy stopped and took a deep breath, then spoke quickly, not wanting to chicken out. “I’m not as OK with me as everyone else is. I’d rather be straight; it would be so much easier, especially because of the way I react to any negative comments. But I’m not straight. I accept that; there’s nothing I can do about it. But it means I’m different. I hate being different. I want to be like everyone else. But I can’t be. I’m gay.”
Tyler opened his mouth, then closed it. He knew Billy had to have thought about this, thought hard, for a long time now. Anything Tyler had to say would be trivial, fluff, overused platitudes. He remained silent.
“Being different is hard. It’s not being gay I mind; I mind being different. Some kids are different in other ways and are fine with it. It depends on your personality, I guess. I think it depends on how confident you are in yourself. I was always confident when I was little. But when I realized I was gay, that I was different, well, some of that confidence began eroding. I don’t think it’s because I’m gay. It’s because I’m different. I know—I’m repeating myself—but I’ve lived with this for a long time, thought about it a lot, and it always comes back to that. Being different means you have to be careful. Especially if you can’t take criticism. I know I’m too sensitive, but that’s just the way I am, and so I worry about being teased and ridiculed. If that happens, I’ll probably break down, and that’ll just make everything worse. There’ll be jibes and derision, and I’m scared that, with the teasing and taunting, the friends who’ll stick by me at first will start to not want to associate with me any longer, won’t want anything from me to rub off on them.”
Billy took another deep breath, then finally looked up, meeting Tyler’s eyes. “You saw me in there, in the shower. What’ll happen if a whole locker room of kids sees? I can’t face that.”
Tyler looked, puzzled. “I don’t get it. What’s changed? Yesterday you were fine. Today you run outside and almost freeze to death, almost die of exposure. What’s changed?”
Billy’s sigh coincided with his standing up. Still looking Tyler in the eyes, he slowly unwrapped his towel and let it slip to the floor. With despair in his voice, obviously fighting tears, he said, “Look at me. Look at what everyone will look at. We learned yesterday that for the next four weeks, in gym class we rotate to swimming sessions. And that the rules in that pool are the same as they always have been. No bathing suits for boys during gym class swimming. So, how can I manage that? How?”
Billy was in bed the next morning when his phone rang. Muttering an oath, he threw his covers off and stumbled over to his computer desk, where he grabbed the phone. He saw it was Ben calling.
“Hey!” Billy said, and yawned.
“You coming to school today?” Ben asked.
“Don’t want to,” Billy replied. “I was thinking of getting a doctor’s appointment, talking to him and getting an excuse to miss swimming. He’d understand.”
“For four weeks?”
“Yeah, I know,” Billy sighed. “But I simply can’t—”
“Yes you can,” Ben interrupted him. “We figured it out. Me and Tyler. We talked it over, and he figured it out. Come to school. Come to gym. Go swimming. It’ll all work out.”
“Trust me.” And Ben disconnected.
Billy did trust Ben; it was the only reason he went to school. Still, he went tentatively and with a backup plan. He figured if something hadn’t happened before he needed to strip off for gym, he’d simply walk out. He had gym class next-to-last period, so that gave him all day to worry.
He ate lunch with Ben as usual, but Ben was being sneaky. He was being an asshole, really, but there was nothing Billy could do about that. They were very different kids, Ben with his extroverted-to-the-max personality and Billy being much more reserved, more easily embarrassed, more the introvert. Ben could pull anything and everything off and usually get away with it. If Billy even stuttered in class, he’d get red in the face and lose his place and composure. He didn’t like people looking at him. He ardently wished he could be more like Ben—but on the other hand, one Ben in the school was enough. No, he couldn’t be anyone but himself.
Ben wouldn’t talk to him about gym, other than saying to come in, get undressed like the rest of them, and he’d be all right, that he and Tyler had worked it out, and it was best if Billy didn’t know just what was what because Billy was a terrible actor, and he needed to be caught by surprise to pull this off. All he had to do was remember and speak his one line.
“Huh? A line? What are you talking about?”
“Your line. All you have to do at the appropriate time is say, ‘You did, too!’ That’s the line. ‘You did, too’.”
“But when’s the right time?”
“You’ll know when. Trust me,” Ben said—and winked.
Ben knew Billy was upset. Billy never cursed! But this was for his own good, so Ben merely smiled at him and then, as the bell was about to ring, took his tray up to the counter, looked back at Billy, who was still sitting at the table, winked at him, and left the cafeteria. He couldn’t suppress a smile as he did.
The locker room was noisier and rowdier than normal as the boys were full of energy. They’d be naked together in just moments. Seeing a few other boys naked happened, of course, but not often, and many of the boys in the class had themselves never been exposed to other boys before.
That was all changing this day, and so all sorts of emotions were running through the group. Curiosity and fear of getting hard were in most everyone’s mind. Along with wondering how they compared.
Billy felt a variety of emotions himself. He did not want to expose himself to the group. But Ben said it would be fine, and he did trust Ben. They’d had each other’s back for some time now. Ben had never let him down. So . . . .
Billy got to his locker and began undressing. Shoes, socks, shirt, jeans—and then a pause. He turned around and looked out over the dressing room. He could see a lot of backs, most boys undressing facing their lockers. They’d all be turning around soon. This was happening. Billy turned back to his locker, shucked his shorts, and stopped again. He really didn’t want to turn around. And then, a voice.
It was Ben, and it sounded like he was still a ways away, but heading across the locker room toward him.
With extreme reluctance, not knowing what the expression on his face would be, his heart thudding rapidly in his chest, Billy slowly turned to face the room.
Ben, walking toward him, completely naked, was calling out to him, his voice filling the room: “Wow! Billy! You did it! You shaved your pubes!”
Billy stared at Ben. Ben was as naked below as Billy was. He’d seen Ben often, and the kid had a healthy bush. Now, he was bare.
After a second or two, he looked up at Ben and saw him lipping, ‘Your line!!!’
Only then he remembered and said, “You did, too!”
“Well, you said it was the style these days, that a lot of gay kids were doing it now, and that it made you look bigger. I’m all for looking bigger. Gay boys might like that, but the chicks do, too. But hey, you look great this way!”
Other boys were listening and now looking. A couple of them whistled. One shouted out, “How does it look when you’re hard?”
Ben answered. “Even better. But you’re not getting a peek at that, unless you beg!” Then he grabbed Billy’s arm, and the two headed for the pool.
“You shaved!” Billy said softly in Ben’s ear.
“It was the least I could do. Tyler figured out if people thought you’d shaved, no one would guess you haven’t started growing pubes yet. It worked! And if you get hard, seeing all these boys naked, I’ll make mine hard, too, and we’ll just say that people were curious, and we didn’t mind showing off a little. No problemo!”
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