Eighth period must be hell to teach. I’ve never asked any of my friends who are teachers, but I have to imagine the last class of the day is always unruly, unfocused, and difficult to control. The man who sat in front of our eighth period algebra class was ancient, prehistoric. In my mind, I’m thinking of a hobbled old wizened man with a cane, but he didn’t walk with a cane. I’m thinking he walked with a hunch though. He wore a perpetual scowl. He rarely rose from behind his desk. He didn’t seem to like kids at all and spoke with a gruff Ebenezer Scrooge-like sneer adding a dash of The Penguin for good measure. When met with excuses or dissembling, he sang out, “My heart bleeds for you,” and made a sound like the tiniest most off-key violin in the world. He was the type curmudgeon I’d enjoy today if I discovered that one of my children had him for a teacher, but as a youth, I was frightened, intimidated. Yet, a certain type of child, too, thrived under him. He wasn’t sentimental, he didn’t idealize youth. There was no trying to relate or be your friend. Rather, he demanded attention, effort. If you put it in, he met you with respect. I’m not sure if our year was his last teaching. I looked for his photo last night in our eighth grade yearbook, but he wasn’t present. Perhaps he retired at the end of that year. Perhaps he simply didn’t like to have his picture taken. But in him, I discovered a talent for mimicry—mimicry, in particular, for comedic ends.

Mr. Buchwald’s eighth period algebra class was one of the few where I sat toward the back of the room. Someone had told me where you choose to sit indicates the level at which you wish to learn, and although I wasn’t a top student, I recognized that mid-room was usually the perfect place. I’d be close enough to hear the teacher and show that I wanted to learn, but far enough to avoid any accusations of pandering, teacher’s pet. With Buchwald, however, I wanted to be as far away from his gruff persistence as possible, so I sat, back center, and tried to keep my head down. We found ourselves at the polar ends of life, Buchwald and the student body. We were no more than a decade in; he, a decade away from the end, and I’m certain that, as we arrived that afternoon, intoxicated by the end of the day, my fellow classmates were scared of him too. Before the bell rang, we did the usual. Passed notes between desks, shouted each other down with insults, made jokes, goofed off, but once that bell rang, the class quieted down. Buchwald sat and waited for silence. For each minute we continued to be unruly, he tacked on a minute after the final bell. This was his psychology, his approach to teaching, Germanic, stringent, but on the whole, wildly effective. He was known to scratch the blackboard on occasion to keep us in line.

The class began, and we sat, observing. Buchwald approached the blackboard and began to write. This was the limit of his motility, desk to blackboard, blackboard to desk, the shortest path between two points being a straight line. He’d jot an equation and turn to us, explain. Jot some more. I sat next to Dario Greer, who slumped in his seat and gazed out the window. Buchwald’s voice, despite its grumblings, was monotone and hard to endure in full wakefulness. We had to force ourselves to retain consciousness, and the fight in those who cared for neither grades nor math was lost from the outset. The verve with which we’d entered, like our expanding universe, was dissipating, slouching toward entropy. You could hear the buzz of florescent lights above us. Even my own eyes drooped as I struggled to pay attention. There were certain classes for me where the textbook served as a savior, where I’d zone out and only later save myself through closer study of what was written in the book, and I figured I’d have to do that today. But then, no more than ten minutes into the lesson, the fire alarm sounded.

This was unusual. It wasn’t often we had a fire drill during the last class of the day, and in the space of an instant, our energy had returned. Was there really a fire? We all stood up. We marched to the door while Buchwald held his position as last, standing next to the threshold, watching all us go past, the captain waiting to see that every last passenger got off before he rescued himself. The other classes across from us filed out as well and marched toward the doors. There were varying levels of discipline in the lines. The idea was single file. You were supposed to exit in a one-by-one fashion. But students naturally fanned out. Walked side-by-side with their friends, glommed up in the thin corridors of the hallways and doors.

Perhaps because of our semi-conscious state, our class was guiltier than most. The down time had charged us with an uncontrollable energy. All order fell apart. The line we’d formed in filing out of the room collapsed, and we left the front doors and entered the blacktop outside in a state more akin to a gas, dispersing in the air, than running liquid, a steady stream that follows a preordained course. While most of the other classes formed straight lines for roll call, our algebra class milled about, holding conversations, shouting. Buchwald stood before us with fire in his eyes, though none of us noticed. None but maybe me, who caught sight of him tangentially. I didn’t have friends in that class, so I hung around and waited to head back to the room. But when the announcement came, Buchwald held up a hand and commanded, “Wait!”

We all glanced at each other in wonder. What did he have in store for us? It couldn’t be good. Not with a voice that struggled for self-control in that one word, “Wait!” Others noticed the anger now. When the rest of the classes had left, and we alone stood on the blacktop, he addressed us. “You think it’s a joke?” he said. A few kids snickered but fell silence as he turned on them. “Do you think that a fire’s a joke? Have you ever been in a fire,” he said. And this time, no one moved an inch. “Well, I have!” He paused and pounded his chest. Spit had accumulated at the corners of his mouth. Tiny white pockets like webbing. His next words were full of rage, his voice went up a register, a nasally snarl. The saliva flew out from his teeth, “Have you ever smelled burning flesh!” He pounded his chest through the pale blue button-down shirt he wore every day. “Well, I have!”

I’m not sure how the rest of the class felt at that moment, but I’d entered a state where I was simultaneously terrified yet recording every word in my memory. I heard him say fire and burning flesh. But this didn’t register. I was twelve. I’d had a cat who died when I was in fourth grade, and I’d struggled with the loss. But death happened to others, not me. I was young and immortal. I was scared but only by his rage, which was also humorous. I knew better than the kids who’d laughed. And yet, I somehow knew that laughing later was acceptable, that I’d repeated the story, that I’d adopt Buchwald’s tone.

There was no further algebra that day. What we did instead was march in a single-file line back and forth between Buchwald’s room and the front of the school. We had to do it until we did it correctly. If someone talked, we did it again. If someone breathed incorrectly, we did it again. Part of me admired the man. I was one of those who improved under his demands. My grade went from a C that first quarter to an A the second. I took him as seriously as he demanded I take him. And yet, when I went home that day, I told my parents what had happened. I performed his speech for them. I adopted Buchwald’s tone of voice. I even allowed myself to spit as he had. I stayed far enough back so I wouldn’t spray my parents, and as I went along, they laughed. I did it on the bus for Reed and Lex and Elisa, and they laughed. They asked me to repeat my routine in the lunchroom, and the kids I did it for there laughed too.

“You sound just like him!” they said.

To this day, I recall little of the algebra I learned in his class. What I took away was this: an ability for imitation. An attention to nuance, and a love for attention, the thirst for it. I’d done it a bit when I’d written my first song by stealing the climax of Metallica’s “One.” I’d kept that to myself though. This was the first time I’d had an audience, and the audience responded. I might have beaten it into the ground, done the routine too much, used it after my friends no longer found it amusing. But when it was fresh, I felt a rush of artistry. I was taking the substance of lived experience and using it to create a new experience, to make others feel something—in this case, the warmth of shared laughter. I didn’t stop to consider it may have been cruel. My sensitivities didn’t extend far enough to consider if I bore any responsibility toward the inspiration of this creative act. If it had, I’m not sure I would have stopped anyway. He’d been serious, I knew. But it had been funny. Burning flesh, no, there was nothing funny about it. Nothing funny about fire. What was funny was a grown man losing his shit on a classroom of twelve year olds because they talked during the fire drill. Because they hadn’t formed a straight line. Because they hadn’t exercised due diligence. Fire drills have always struck me as providing a false sense of security. I understand, in theory, that the thinking goes, if you behave like this in practice, you’ll behave like this when the real event occurs. So we practiced once a quarter for five minutes, and this was supposed to save us? This was supposed to prevent our bodies’ natural inclination to flee danger from taking over? To stop us trampling others to avoid burning? To make fun of Buchwald was partially rebellion, but it was also me looking for acceptance. The portrait of myself I’ve presented so far is partial. The outsider. Picked on but bright. Who wants to be part of things but has to resist because he doesn’t buy into herd mentalities. But I joined in sometimes. It was rare I led the charge, rare that I mocked another student in the way I mocked Buchwald, but I didn’t step in to stop others from being taken to pieces. I didn’t intervene. On occasion, I laughed, and laughter can be cruel.

Skipping ahead two years, I picture sitting in Mrs. Holland’s ninth grade World Cultures class. There were two doors to the room, one in the front, one in back, and a claque had gathered at the back door between classes. I had taken my seat. One row over, a few chairs back, Delia Birch had taken hers. Delia had been a target since Cedarbrook. She had pale white skin, Gothic, acned. As it was, she lisped and had a tendency to react dramatically to insult. She was bright. The World Cultures class was honors. But the teasing had drawn her inward. She’d walk the halls, head down, unkempt black hair hanging in her face, more likely than not leading to more acne. She’d participated in the spelling bee and been eliminated by failing to spell “espionage” correctly, and the boys who’d gathered at the back door of the World Cultures class were hissing that word, “espionage” under their breath. I heard them. I’d watch one of them float toward the threshold and say it, then another one popped up. Each time they did, Delia convulsed, had a mini fit. Another boy floated to the door, “espionage.” And got a rise.

To some extent, I pitied Delia. This had been going on for three years. Yet, I also wondered why, after three years, she hadn’t realized that if she ignored them, they stopped. The only reason they found it any fun was how she reacted. The jolts that went through her whenever she heard that word, the way she’d flip out. The spasms, the little animal cries. Part of me wanted to tell her, “Delia, ignore it. I’ve been there. If you stop responding to it, they’ll get bored and leave.” Instead, I turned away and hid my faced, laughing. It wasn’t an outright guffaw. I had enough sense to understand that to show her I was laughing was worse than concealing it, and yet I laughed nonetheless. It wasn’t only me either. A lot of us laughed. It was a word, she’d spelled it wrong. If you’d asked me to spell it then, I would have had to look it up. I was certain none of the boys at the back of the class could spell it. They were all in remedial level courses, and if she wanted to, she could have fired back with that. She could have said, “I know how to spell it now. G-O-F-U-C-K-Y-O-U-R-S-E-L-F.” But she never would. She wasn’t that kind of person. Still, she was smarter than them, and all it takes to diminish someone of lesser intelligence is to point that out. Because that’s their insecurity. I’d learned this in grade school when I was the boogie boy, when I was the outcast, when I’d figured out how to hit back. That’s the cruelty in me. It helped because I knew that while the boogie boy mantle would fade into disuse, stupid never would. They would always be remedial. They had other talents of course. Some of them could play sports, and I’d only use my edge if I had to, if I was cornered, if I had to hit back. So why didn’t I intervene on Delia’s behalf? I could have. When I think on it, I had nothing to lose. The worst they could do was dig in on my hair. By then, I’d let it fro out in a massive halo around my head. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth grade, my hair, which until then had been straight, had curled, gone wavy. My mother didn’t know what to do with it when I hit middle school. She taught me to part it on the side, brush it down, but I ended up looking like Poindexter in Revenge of the Nerds.

“Why do you brush you hair like that?” Lex had asked me in the eighth grade. “It looks all messed up.”

We were standing next to our lockers.

“I don’t know. It’s just how my mom taught me to brush it.”

Right as the words left my lips, I knew I’d made a mistake.

“Your mom?” he laughed. “You know that guy from Seinfeld? The guy who plays Kramer? He said he never liked his hair growing up, so he started pulling it out. You should to that. Pull it out, let it stand straight up, embrace it.”

At first, kids had laughed at me. But I wore it with pride. I’d done it intentionally. So when they started shit with me, I shrugged. And eventually people stopped. I’d still get the occasional, “Yo, it’s Kramer. Look, it’s Kramer,” when I walked down the hall. But I embraced it, and people accepted it.

So I could have gone over to the boys picking on Delia and intervened. “Yo, chill, let her alone.” Maybe they’d turn on me. But I knew how to take it. Then, too, maybe they would stop. But I let it go on. We all did. By the time Delia was crying, the worst had happened. Mrs. Holland noticed and intervened. She’d chased the boys from the back of her class, and she took Delia out in the hall and talked to her. We all waited, hushed, trying to hear what she said, but we couldn’t. When she finished, she brought Delia down to the office and came back and lectured us. She told us how horrid it was, to torment a girl like that. And we sat staring at our desks. Mrs. Holland was pretty even as an elderly woman. I imagined her younger, as a Southern belle. She had a slight Southern twinge in her voice. And we all felt bad because we respected her. Not one of us had uttered the word, “espionage,” but no one had intervened either. I thought of the times I’d been picked on in elementary school, how I wished someone would intervene. Not a teacher because a teacher’s intervention would have been a death knell. It only would have made things worse. I had dreamed of another student taking my side. One who wasn’t picked on, one who my tormentors respected, one who could change the tide, but that wasn’t me, and I’d done nothing but laugh. Beyond that, I’d gone along with the herd. The rest of the kids were laughing too, and I’d gone along with it. I hated that. I was a coward among cowards, and Mrs. Holland’s disappointment in us drove it home.

Now let’s jump to summer. Maybe the next, maybe the summer after, I can’t remember. My friends and I were standing on the train tracks near Sonny Ford’s house. We were right behind the abandoned building that bordered his property. Me and Sonny, Drew and Tony P. and Rick. We were screwing around, throwing rocks at the beer bottles that littered the tracks to see if we could break them. Rick had broken one by some stroke of luck. He hadn’t any skill when it came to sports, to throwing a ball, yet the rock he’d tossed by some miracle had broken a bottle, and he rushed down the incline toward the yellow wall of the building to look. I stood atop the tracks with Drew. I was tossing a rock up and down in my hand. I’m gonna scare him, I thought. I’m gonna throw this and hit the wall right next to him and watch him jump and we’ll all laugh. Because we all laughed at Rick. He was our court jester, our fool. I slung my arm back, aimed for the wall, and let go. At the final moment, I jerked my hand back because I realized my aim was off, but it was too late. The rock flew through the air. Rick bent over to the spot I’d aimed at, and the rock struck him in the back of the head.

Drew rushed down, “Holy shit! Are you okay?” Rick stood up and rubbed the back of his head. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m all right.” But as he took a few steps and looked at his hand, he saw it was covered with blood and panicked. He ran for the bushes at the back of Sonny’s yard, the place we cut through to reach the tracks. As he did, he tripped and fell to the ground and rather than push himself up, he started swimming in the grass. He unleashed a cry, “I’m bleeding, I’m bleeding, oh my god, I’m gonna die!” We rushed to help him up, and he ran again. He ran home, and once he’d disappeared, Drew turned on me.

“What the fuck, man! Why’d you do that?”

In our search for meaning, we attribute people with full volition of their acts. We seem to think in the aftermath of such an event that the person who committed the act was in full control and malicious, that they knew what they intended and what the outcome would be even though all of us have been in situations where we act without forethought. I don’t say this to excuse myself. I shouldn’t have thrown the rock. But the truth is, when Drew asked, I didn’t have an answer. That thought, the thought that I’d hit the wall and scare him and make everyone laugh, it had happened instantaneously. We had all done things like that, which again, I don’t say to excuse myself but to point out this was part of larger tradition of engaging the herd, my herd, Drew and Tony P. and Sonny and sometimes Lex. I hadn’t weighed any pros and cons. I hadn’t thought through the ramifications of what would happen if he moved at the last second, if I actually ended up hitting him. And for all my wish to be an outsider who fit somewhere, for all my desire to be unique, original, to not bow or kowtow to the whims of peer pressure, I could be bent. I could be influenced badly. And I’ve spent years struggling with this and against it.

Rick’s mother placed his head in the shower stream to clean the wound and took him to the ER, and Rick recovered. When he reappeared, we adopted his cry to use against him. We’d mimic, “I’m bleeding, I’m bleeding, I’m gonna die!” Yet, even Rick, the one we ragged on like this, wasn’t innocent. On the bus ride home in eighth grade, he’d spent a week or two asking Delia Birch to go out with him. As a frequent target, she’d seen something insidious in it. She’d told the bus driver, and the bus driver had called Rick over to talk.

“You messing with this girl?”

“No sir,” Rick had said. “I want to take her on a date.”

“All right then.”

The bus driver had dropped it, but I didn’t. Rick was doing it because we laughed, not because he wanted to take her out. This was one of the times I did intervene. Because with Rick, I could.

“You should stop,” I said. “She’s already got enough problems.”

And Rick, perhaps because he knew what it felt like, stopped.

I’m not sure why I’m confessing to all this. I’m not asking for absolution. Perhaps I’d like to disavow readers of what I see as a false dichotomy between bullies and bullied, arguing it’s erroneous to assume one can never take the place of the other. There’s fluidity between them. Perhaps I’m uncomfortable with the thought I’m myth-making, presenting myself as hero, skirting around the details of my past that I’m most uncomfortable with, only showing the good side. But most of all, I think that it might be due to my belief that the formulation of a full personality requires the experience of both power and powerlessness, sometimes in the exact same moment, and that the recognition of this can be integral to stopping oneself from abusing it, that reminding myself what I’m capable of—turning on or ignoring the weak and being weak myself—is the first step to refraining from such actions in the future. I’m not sure if this is misguided or sensible. As with the fire drill, is it delusional to think I can train myself to resist turning against another outcast in times of threat or stress, knowing it’s far more likely I can’t predict how I’ll react if I have to stand against the crowd, stand for what’s right over what’s easy? We witness often enough, especially with the internet’s advent, that we can defend the outcast in groups if the group is large enough, invoking the self-righteousness of numbers, puffing out our feathers in a line as we counter-condemn. But a mob is a mob, and I’ve never trusted them, even when their message is love. So what about standing on your own, dangling out there by yourself and saying stop when no one else will? It’s easy to do in cinema, in literature. We’re provided shining examples, e.g., Atticus Finch. But there, the script is already written, the actions preordained. An author has carefully chosen the words that are much harder to speak in everyday life. Is it moralistic to entertain this notion, the notion that engaging the worst parts of myself will lead me to the best? I’m not looking to moralize, but I can’t shrug it off and chalk it up to self-preservation either, even if self-preservation is a fundamental aspect of our natures. What I’m really seeking to do in writing this is to understand myself. And if I’m looking to understand myself, I can’t ignore what happened at the end of my friendship with Sam Lawson.


“What exactly is wrong with it?”

“I don’t know. Isn’t it against nature or something?”

“Against nature? What does that even mean?”

Lex and I were walking home from school. We were coming down toward the end of Bickley Road where it met Waverly when this discussion had started. We had turned past the hedges that Sonny found it amusing to push us through whenever we walked to 7-Eleven and now headed toward the library, toward the local pool, toward the fields and basketball courts. I didn’t mention Sam, though I thought of him that whole time. My arguments were theoretical, rehashing ideas I’d picked up elsewhere, though I don’t know where I’d picked them up. Certainly not at home. My parents had never broached our topic of discussion with me. Maybe TV? By the late ’80s when I’d become aware of a larger world around me, the AIDS crisis was everywhere. In the news. There were free informative booklets at the library to educate anyone who cared to take one on how it spread, how to avoid contracting it.

Sam and I were friends through elementary school and into middle school. He wasn’t popular but wasn’t an outcast either. He was a nice kid who treated me well. He ignored the name-calling and befriended me, and strangely, didn’t suffer for it. No one decided not to be friends with him because he was friends with me. Or at least, if they had, he never told me. During recess, we talked about Nintendo, since that was what we were into, and he often invited me to his house to play.

“I don’t know. God’s law. The way he meant things to be.”

“Do you even believe in God?” Lex said. “We’ve been friends for a year, and I’ve never heard you mention religion once.”

I shrugged.

“Do you parents go to church?”

I shrugged again.

“Do you pray at night?”

I had, in fact, prayed. I’d prayed between the fifth and sixth and then sixth and seventh grades that Jennifer Mills would be in my class. I prayed she would like me. But I knew by now these weren’t the type of prayers Lex meant, they weren’t the types of prayers that God, if God existed, took any interest in. And I didn’t tell Lex. I’d revealed a bit of my crush to Jennifer Mills, but mostly I kept my thoughts on girls to myself, I didn’t talk about her body the way boys talked about girls bodies, even if I often thought about it, and I’d asked him not to call her Jennifer Big Tits, which was part of the problem. Lex was dating Elisa. He was with her all the time, and though he invited me to hang out with them, other kids had accused me of jocking Lex, of being gay. I didn’t understand what it meant. At the most basic level, of course, it was when a boy liked another boy. I knew that much, and I sensed the stigma attached to it. But beyond that, my knowledge was limited. I’d never met one, and I just wanted to hang out with my friend. Still, it scared me to death when the other kids accused me of it. And this went back to Sam and the end of our friendship.

At the beginning of sixth grade, Sam had invited me over to play Metroid. My dad had just bought the game for me, and at school, I talked it up.

“It’s really dark. You’re like this alien who has to hunt other aliens on other planets. It’s like you’re in a space cave, and there are these really crazy bats that swoop down and you have to shoot them. You can roll yourself into this ball and bounce around the cave. It’s really, really cool!”

“You should bring it over tomorrow,” he suggested. And I did.

The next day was Saturday, and that morning, I went to play Nintendo at Sam’s.

His house was bigger than ours and more comfortable, less crowded. His family was nice. I believe Sam was an only child, or, if he had siblings, they had already left the nest. His father was an older man. He had white hair and a gray mustache, his demeanor was warm toward Sam’s friends. His mother greeted me with a smile. It’s possible I’m imagining this, but I believe she had snacks available. My mind is forcing the image of carrots on me, but there might have been cookies too. It wasn’t just veneer. At least, it didn’t seem that way to me. They were like the Cleavers. Sam had become my friend, ignoring the kids who picked on me, because he had this foundation of kindness at home, which had made him kind. And this, in retrospect, makes my betrayal all the more shameful.

It had been cool that morning. I’d worn a red and black stripped shirt, which had long sleeves. We sat in his room most of the day, playing Metroid, but by mid-afternoon, we’d worn ourselves out on the game. We were restless and decided to walk to Grove Park and play football. By then, the day had grown hot. We tossed the ball back and forth. Beyond this, neither one of us knew how to play football with two people. But after a while, it transformed into a game where I took the ball and had to run past him between two trees, and once I did, he took the ball and did the same. We tried to tackle each other. We did this for maybe an hour, and I got sweaty and took off my shirt. It was a small gesture. Taking off my shirt. Neither one of us thought much of it or cared. We went on playing. When we were done, I left the Metroid cartridge at Sam’s and walked home. It was only a quarter-mile. And as I walked cars passed. And one of the cars contained a classmate of ours.

“I saw you with Sam.”

We were at school on Monday between classes. I turned around in the hall and saw Wade Lessman.

“What?” I said. Or, if I didn’t say it, I had that look on my face. What did he mean he saw me and Sam? Where had he seen us, and why was it worth commenting on?

“Saturday afternoon,” he said. “You had your shirt off. The two of you looked real close.”

Despite the time that has passed, despite the fact that most of us are different people now, despite my own subsequent sins and the knowledge I might have been guilty of unknowingly causing similar damage and knowingly having treated Sam in a despicable fashion after this day, there’s part of me that wants to tear into Wade. Because of who he was back then. Because of the damage who he was back then did to others. Because he thought he was king shit of fuck mountain. Because his uncle was school disciplinarian which made other kids scared to come forward and call him out on anything. This isn’t a rage I’ve been carrying for years, some latent grudge, but the result of accessing memories I thought I had buried. This has been happening often as I access the past. These are the events that made me, and though it shouldn’t come as a surprise, they still have the power to elicit strong emotion. Lessman spread the kinds of rumors and said the kinds of things that adults shrug off as boys will be boys. Yet I’m not certain that all the kids he picked on have forgotten this even as adults, the powerlessness he instilled. Because no one forgets powerlessness. Even if that powerlessness eventually fuels you, makes you strive to prove yourself better than those who hurt you. I wonder if he’s ever reckoned with it. Before writing this, I looked at his profile on Facebook. Sympathy for Orlando. His most recent posts are questioning gun control laws. His politics, like mine, are liberal, left-leaning. Seems he’s become a caring person. But I wonder, Did he ever step back and reflect on this time, the people he hurt? Was there some moment of conversion? Or did he too dismiss it as boys will be boys? Later, in high school, I got along with him in the limited interactions we had. And nowadays, I don’t know who he is. I only know who he was to me at this point, at the point he confronted me after my Saturday with Sam, which is why as a pseudonym I call him Lessman. Because, no matter who he’s become, he was lesser then. Even if he’s changed, even if he’s sorry, and I assume he has and is (if he even remembers it), the boy he was then is still representative of a certain type of boy that exists, a certain type of boy in schools everywhere. The boys will be boys Boy. I’m not writing this with the intention of shaming the man he’s become now, but because the boy he was then was cruel and because cruelty can be forgiven but should be acknowledged rather than swept aside as boys being boys, I’m placing this mantle upon the boy he was, as the boy he was turned to me and said, “Are you two fags?”

Did he really say this? Am I imbuing him with greater vindictiveness in hindsight based on what I remember feeling at the time? Is this attributing too much volition and forethought to him? Did he know what he was doing, what he was saying? Certainly, back then calling another kid a fag was more common. It was interchangeable with sissy. The word had not yet assumed the forbidden connotation it has in recent years. I knew about as much then as I’d know two years later when I had the conversation walking home with Lex. During that conversation, the arguments I pulled from the ether were thin. I just didn’t know it yet. I was twelve years old when I argued with Lex, ten when I stood before Wade and he called me a fag. I flushed with shame. I dissembled. I stepped back and denied it.

“No, he’s just my friend, I swear.”

I looked into his eyes, which seemed dark to me, deep-set, two matching pitted peach-halves. He had a skater haircut, shaved round the side with blonde bangs dangling over his face. He was stronger than me.

“I don’t know. The two of you looked pretty cozy. I think you had your arm around him.”

Had I? Oh god, he was right. I’d put my arm around Sam as we’d walked back to his house. A gesture of camaraderie. I hadn’t considered how it might look.

I’d escaped the branding I’d received in elementary school. In a single year of middle school, I’d made friends. People liked me. I couldn’t give that up. I couldn’t go back.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Lex had explained on our walk home. “It’s two people who love each other. Two people who want to be together.”

But I didn’t know this standing before Wade. Nor did I love Sam or want to be with him.

“We’re not even that good friends. I was just patting him on the back.”

“I hope so. I wouldn’t want to have to tell everyone Jason Jones and Sam Lawson are gay for each other.”

Wade had walked away, and I’d stood there with a hollowed-out nauseated feeling welling up. Over the next few weeks, I forgot all about Sam, avoided him in the halls, pretended I had other plans when he asked to play.

“Do you even know anyone who’s gay?” Lex had asked me.

I shook my head. But this wasn’t true. My aunt, my favorite aunt, the one who’d taught me to play guitar. She lived with another woman. I’d just never put it together.

“Have you ever met a gay person?”

I shook my head. But this wasn’t true either. I shared a room with one every night until I moved out of my parents’ house. I just didn’t know yet.

When I stopped hanging out with Sam, I became friends with Elton Danvers and Jacob DeGeorges. I adopted the skater, metalhead lifestyle. I tried to act tougher than I was. I tried to act macho. When I asked for Metroid back, Sam told me he’d accidentally sold it. He’d had a garage sale. His parents had bought him a Super Nintendo,  and he’d sold his regular Nintendo games with mine in the mix.

“What do you mean he sold your game?” Jacob said when I told him.

I explained what Sam had told me.

“And you just accepted that?”

Honestly, I hadn’t cared. I hadn’t wanted to play Metroid since that day with Sam, since Wade had implied that something untoward was going on between us. It reminded me of how close I’d been to resuming my outcast status. It reminded me of the way I’d dropped a friendship rather than become a pariah again. Giving up Metroid was a small price to pay for self-preservation. Wade hadn’t said a thing, and I was grateful. Maybe he’d even forgotten all about it, just used it for a moment’s torment, a moment’s fun. But I hadn’t considered that.

“Dude, you should make him pay you or beat his ass,” Jacob said, and I let Jacob talk me up like this. Through him, I grew indignant on my own behalf. I’d been ready to let it go. But now that I’d revealed Sam had sold my game and hadn’t paid me, I had to do something. So I went back and told Sam he needed to pay me. I put it the same way Jacob had, “You need to pay me or I’ll beat your ass.” I’m not sure how seriously he took the last part. I wasn’t much bigger than him, and I couldn’t wield any intimidation in my voice, especially since I didn’t mean it. I wasn’t going to hurt Sam, at least not physically. I’m not sure whether my ignoring him had hurt his feelings. At that age, friendships change on a quarterly basis. It’s not always personal. Perhaps if Wade had never said anything, we would have drifted apart anyway. Perhaps it’s only what Wade said that makes me remember. Still, Sam agreed, and Jacob and I showed up at his house and tried to look intimidating, as he handed me the cash.

As always, Sam was genial.

“Here you go, Jay. Again, I’m really sorry about this.”

I am too, I think. Not back then, but now.

Image conscious, I had believed I was trading up with my new friends. They were cooler. They had attitudes, an edge. I wanted attitude and edge. I hadn’t yet reconciled that you could have attitude and edge and still be kind.

“So do you really think there’s anything wrong with it?”

Lex stood, awaiting my answer.

“No, I guess there isn’t.”

But there was a difference between accepting this in theory and putting theory into practice. I could say there was nothing wrong with it, and I believed it. That day, while walking home, Lex had convinced me. I assume, in retrospect, he’d had this conversation with his parents, who were urban, sophisticated. They’d lived in New York for a time in the ’70s, while my own parents, accepting and loving, hadn’t yet broached the topic with me. Perhaps they were waiting until I asked or was older. The arguments I’d presented as counterarguments hadn’t come from them. It’s more likely these were in the zeitgeist of the time, at the tail-end of Reaganism and pre-Ellen coming out. Yet, because I never had a girlfriend and was shy around girls, because I was always with Lex, because as soon as I stopped being friends with Jacob DeGeorges and Elton Danvers I’d shed my faux machismo and allowed my sensitivities to come through, my sexuality was suspect in people’s eyes. I shrugged it off, and as I got older and more comfortable with sexuality in general and less frightened of being branded an outcast, people’s questions no longer mattered. But Wade wasn’t the last time I had to navigate such insinuations.



on July 2, 2016, 4:00 pm

Wow- this section is my favorite so far.



on July 2, 2016, 10:05 pm

Thanks. I think it was the most emotionally taxing to write, so I appreciate it.


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