I wasn't a happy camper. It wasn't my fault, but that's the way the cookie crumbles, which is something I heard an old guy in my barber shop say. Old guys tend to talk funny.
Well, maybe it was my fault, but it was like the law of unintended consequences. I wasn't happy because of the consequences of what I'd done, but what I'd done was something I'd do again in a New York minute. New York's time is the same as everywhere else. Time's time. But that's another thing old people say. I didn't get them at all. Heck, I didn't even get the ones I lived with.
Well, one was all I lived with now.
My mom was, well, different. She was into all this occult crap. That was relatively new as far as that goes. But . . . she'd been into it long enough now that the house was full of candles and strange books with really fine print, some of it not even in English, and dark pictures. She had stuff, too; stuff she called spiritual objects and I called junk, objects that according to her had powers. She had them scattered all over the house—things like orbs and twisted sculptures and figurines in all shapes and sizes, half of them naked, some of them even naked males in a state that used to embarrass the crap out of me till I got used to seeing them every day.
She thought I was silly, being embarrassed, but when you're not even 11 yet and she's displaying statuettes like that, how could I help but be? But she said sex was nothing to be embarrassed about. Tell that to any 11-year-old boy! Now, at 15, I was still getting through all that coming-of-age crap. I shouldn't be embarrassed? Not! Who wouldn't be?
She said I should celebrate my body, not be ashamed of it. I'd learned pretty early—when I was 12 or 13, I don't really remember exactly when it was—that some celebrations felt pretty good, but they certainly were very, very private things and not to be shared at all and certainly not with my mother, but that was very likely not the celebration she had in mind. I imagine she was thinking about the esthetic, not the practical, at least as far as her son was concerned.
Frankly, I was surprised she seemed to know anything about any of that stuff, living about three-quarters of the time in some murky, mystical place she seemed to retreat into, a place I had no interest in visiting if the expressions on her face when she was attending them were anything to go by. But then I realized she'd had kids, so she had to have some idea of how the male body worked. And then there were those figurines as well. She certainly wasn't embarrassed by them. One even showed a young man and woman, more like a youngish boy and a similarly aged girl, both not adorned with clothing, hooked up in a way that was explicit enough to make me blush when I looked at it, which was why I always averted my eyes as I passed even though the interesting parts were hidden by what they were doing. I did, as a matter of course check each time I did pass by whether those parts were still hidden. They were.
I wasn't embarrassed by my body—well, not much. I'd seen other bodies in the showers at school; yeah, we seemed to be on the ass end of school systems that still had mandatory communal showers after gym class. I'd heard it was optional at most schools these days. But, with respect to bodies, or really about parts of bodies, mine had a ways to go yet in that area, just like many of the boys my age. At 15, there was quite a range of development. I was sort of in the middle, private-parts-wise, but as I had a larger body than most of my age peers, normal-sized private parts looked smaller than they should on me. At least I thought so. But they were still growing, still not entirely grown. Hopefully, not entirely grown. But you know how that goes. I was a kid, and in today's world, for the most part, kids kept their parts where they belonged: hidden.
Except not those old guys. They're batty. We have a community swimming pool I go to in the summer, and everyone changes in the dressing room and then showers before swimming. Most of the boys my age—well, any age, really—wear a bathing suit when showering. Not the old guys. They tend to shower nude. They walk around in the dressing room that way, too, without a care in the world that anyone's seeing them. I'd say more than half of them—and it's a guess because I really don't look all that much—aren't any bigger than I am. Why should they be so nonchalant about that? If they don't have much to show, why show it? Why not be a little embarrassed? Batty. But maybe with age their minds are gone and they don't ever realize they're putting on a show for the rest of us, in most cases a dark and unattractive one.
I didn't have anything to be embarrassed about, really, and was kinda proud of my body, but I also felt it was private. Just like that celebration thing that felt so nice; it was very private, just like my body. Mom didn't respect my need for privacy; she thought nothing about walking in on me in the bathroom, so I'd learned to always lock the door. She'd walk into my bedroom anytime at all, too, no matter how many times I'd yelled at her about that. I didn't have a lock on that door; she didn't believe in locked doors in the house. That meant I had to do what I did, my celebrating, under the covers, which was rather constricting. And all the time I spent being constricted was also time spent worrying about her coming in, taking a look at the covered but moving lump that was me; I could just imagine her making suggestions on how to achieve greater sensate fulfillment, that I wasn't doing it right and maybe she could show me. Well, that probably wouldn't have happened; that was mostly just a teenage boy's frustrated imaginings. But what if it did?
See, for her, a big thing was fulfillment. She was always on about fulfillment, one kind or another, about seeking the truth of the universe, about how there was so much more in the world than was apparent, that we could perceive so much more if only we would try. Achieving fulfillment would enhance our lives—and provide us with enlightenment. She was all about opening our senses, experiencing that which was hidden to us by our too-focused, narrow-minded interests in the temporal world.
I'd looked up 'temporal' once and found it meant pertaining to worldly life. Hey, this world was where we were, where we existed, and what was wrong with accepting and being entirely involved with that? I was ready for that, just on a different level or plane than she was talking about.
Am I making her sound quirky but open and happy and accepting? If so, I've been misleading. She wasn't really any of those. There was a deep melancholy about her, melancholy I felt was exacerbated by all the time she spent with her dark arts in her other world. That was the main reason I spent as little time in her presence as possible. I myself could fall into that pit way too easily if I allowed myself to. Being away from that influence was one way to escape that.
Let her have her separate spheres or realms of existence; I didn't have time for worlds unknown. I had enough trouble with all the girls at school snickering and whispering and looking down their noses at me, and even some of the teachers scowling over their glasses when dealing with me, asking me insidious and unfair questions, and with the older and bigger guys in gym, too. Especially those gym guys, even though there weren't many who were big enough to challenge me. The temporal world was where I lived, and negotiating my way through it as unscathed as possible was plenty tough enough for me without attempting to open my senses to other realms. Who knew what badass nightmares I'd find there?
But she lived on the doorstep of that other world. That wasn't why my dad left us, though. Even though he was a beer-after-work, meat-and-potatoes-for-dinner and what's-on-TV-tonight sort of guy, he left soon after she got into the crap that now was her existence.
I didn't want to think I had anything to do with him leaving. I was pretty sure I hadn't. Dad was a homophobe, sure, as small-minded and hateful as all of them, but I didn't think he had a clue about me. Maybe he felt it, subconsciously. Maybe that was because we had nothing in common and barely ever spoke to each other and hadn't for a long while before he left. I didn't like most anything he did, and maybe I was the straw that broke the camel's back—or at least helped break the bonds of their marriage—but I didn't really know. There were several reasons for him cutting out, no doubt about that. What it came down to was that there was nothing to keep him living in that house with us any longer, and so he left.
I didn't want to think I had much to do with that, so I simply accepted the fact that I hadn't. In any case, it had been several years now, so I really didn't think about it much any longer. We'd never been close. Maybe if I'd taken to having a can of Bud when I was ten and was watching the NFL on TV with him, listening to his swearing and off-color comments—but I'd had more integrity than that even when that young; that wasn't me and wasn't going to be me, so I pretty quickly stopped even watching the games with him. I never did drink the beer.
So, he hadn't spent much time with me. Then Mom had begun spending most of her free time visiting the spirits or chanting or meditating, and I ended up on my own a lot. Which gave me time to ponder life, a habit I formed early on and which remained an integral part of me.
I spent a lot of time on two things. One was just thinking, much of that done in my room. Thinking about life, and how I fit into it. Feeling sad that I didn't seem to fit in very well anywhere. Not at home, and not at school. The latter was my fault. I just wasn't much of a social animal. Everyone else at school made friends and had things going on. After The Incident, I had no friends and became an edge-of-the-crowd sort of boy, the type who watched what was happening rather than being involved. The other kids at school made sure of that. The other thing I spent time on? That was what I did in my basement—working out; lifting; getting stronger.
School had started up again. Sophomore year for me. There, I watched a lot of kids pairing up. That gave me an empty feeling inside. I knew that was what I wanted. I wanted that more than anything else. I knew at 15 that I'd never be comfortable in the middle of a crowd. But it would be good to have a couple of friends, kids I could talk to, kids who could get to know me. Or just one friend. But more than that, what I really wanted was one really, really good friend.
I wanted a boyfriend.
And one day, when I was sadder, unhappier, lonelier than usual, I decided: I was going to get one. A boyfriend. Of course, getting a boyfriend was something I had no idea how to do. No more than I knew how to find a friend. But deciding to get both gave me a purpose, something to work on instead of walking around school with a scowl on my face and a watchful eye on everyone. Right then, I hadn't the foggiest clue of how to go about finding either one. There was one thing I did know, however: I'd have to go way, way outside my comfort zone to find either. But I needed to. I was 15 and too old—or too young for that matter—to be living a solitary life. Depressing, that's what that was. Really depressing.
* * *
The cafeteria was noisy as usual, not only from the cacophony of voices all trying to be heard over each other, but also from the competition they were getting from the clatter of plates and utensils and the piped-in music that the powers-that-were thought would soothe the anxieties and/or lift the spirits of traumatic teens like me. Whether we show it or not, we all have our own anxieties and insecurities, believe you me.
It became silent, however, when I walked in. Well, quieter at least. I came late, as usual. I walked through the line alone; everyone else already had their food. Then I looked around for a table, and most eyes in the place fell on me. The sudden quieting was eerie; except I'd heard it before. School had only been open for a couple of weeks, but I'd heard it the final two weeks of last year, and it had begun all over again this semester.
I figured they'd get tired of it sooner or later.
Since The Incident, I'd been getting the silent treatment and eating alone, both of which exemplified the fact that I didn't really have any friends at the moment. I knew—well, hoped—that would change, and sooner rather than later. But at the moment, eating lunch always made my situation strikingly apparent.
Then I realized, just like that, that this provided me with an opportunity. Why hadn't I seen this before? Too wrapped up in my own personal gloom, I guessed. But now, with my realization, I had a mission. I'd decided what I was going to do, and here I was, standing in the cafeteria, and what better place to start? This was the perfect place to do what I'd decided to do.
I carried my tray out into the room. As always happened now, a lot of eyes followed me. I didn't let it bother me. For one thing, we had lots of monitors in the room. This school was very heavy on rules and discipline, and enforcement of the anti-bullying dictum was a constant issue, so I doubted anything would happen as I moved through the aisles. For the second thing, there was my size. I was larger than most of the boys in the room. Had been larger than my age group for a few years now, although with the weights I'd been doing, I wasn't only taller, but stronger now, too. I hadn't always been glad to be large, but now, and not for the first time in my life, I could appreciate that fact.
I moved steadily toward my objective. It was a boy my age, and he was sitting alone. I understood why: he was a new student. I knew that because he'd been in my pre-calc class just before lunch, and the teacher had introduced him and asked us to all welcome him to our school.
Obviously, no one had done so to the extent that he had someone to sit with at lunch. It's always intimidating to just walk up to a bunch of strangers eating lunch together, chatting and laughing, and ask if you can eat with them. Very hard unless you're one of those weird creatures who's extroverted to the max and hasn't an embarrassment-prone bone in his body but instead has the self-confidence of a timber wolf.
I approached him, stopped and said, "You're Ronnie Garrick. You were in my pre-calc class today. Do you mind if I join you? Oh, I'm Jess Chambers."
I doubted he'd heard of me, so introducing myself didn't pose much risk.
He smiled, and I sat. Made both of us feel better. Eating with someone made us both less obviously losers.
We were just starting to get acquainted when Bud French walked up to the table. He was both a senior and an asshole. Linebacker on the football team. Big, strong guy. Very macho. He started to put his hand on my shoulder, and I looked up at him. He took his hand away. He was big, but not all that much bigger than I was, even with being a couple of years older, and I think he saw something in my eyes. His hand dropped to his side.
He didn't look at me, just at Ronnie, and he spoke to him. "I wouldn't be eating with this asshole," he said, "not if you want to make friends in this school. You're new, I guess. Never seen you around before. But right now, you need to pick up your tray and go somewhere else. Go now. Everyone's watching."
Then Bud paused for a moment, meeting Ronnie's eyes, before turning and sauntering off. The monitor who'd been headed in our direction stopped and went back to where she'd been standing. Ronnie looked at me.
I shook my head. "Maybe you should do what he said. He might be right about it being harder for you to get on here if people lump you in with me."
"Why?" he asked, wrinkling his forehead. "I don't see anything wrong with you."
"Because of The Incident," I said. "Well, that and the fact I'm not the most sociable kid in the school. I didn't have many friends before, and I don't have any now. It's why I came over when I saw you here. Thought maybe I could make a friend. It's good to have someone you can talk to, eat with. But that lasted about two minutes."
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