Nobody can prepare you for the special cruelty that is high school. They can try to get you ready for it, but in the end, nothing that they can say or do will be enough for the reality of it. They just offer up a prayer to Heaven and toss you bodily into the scrum, hoping that you'll land feet first and not on your face. I suppose this is more true for public high schools, but even in our parochial school, there was enough of it going around.
I just wasn't prepared for it to happen to me . But, then, no one ever is.
I got up the next day with Tom's all-too-obvious threat still whispering through my mind. Shut up or I'll drag you into this, too, was the unstated but very clear thesis he wanted to put forward.
I showered, dressed, gathered my books, choked down some kind of breakfast, slipped out the door. Tom was already gone.
Tom and I were far enough apart in age that we shared almost no classes together. For some reason, however, we did share gym class. Today's treat was shirts-on-skins basketball; as luck would have it, Tom and I found ourselves on opposite teams, he shirts and I skins, and I dutifully shucked my shirt over my head and laid it on the bleachers.
More bad luck presented itself: Tom would be guarding me, and he took the job seriously, sticking closer to me than even my own shadow, hands and arms flickering here and there, dodging in to slap the ball away from me at every opportunity. There was a strangeness in his face, in his eyes, a kind of intense mania; I pretended that it was just his game face, his way of intimidating his opponent … but then I understood that there was something more about it: he was furious at something. Me? Always, of course … but this seemed different. Something had happened today, between the time he had left for school and now.
More than once he fouled me, knowing that it was an easy way to produce contact between us, and knowing also that I would probably not make any of my free throws. Coach Spradling stepped in when he could, when he understood that something was boiling just under the surface.
"Watch yourself, Keenan …" he growled, once … and both of us understood just who he meant.
After half an hour of this, Coach called an end to it. "You guys go hit the showers." Another bit of torture that nobody prepared you for: standing naked under tepid water with twenty other guys. But it was either that or stink like roadkill for the rest of the day.
But Tom wasn't done. I watched as he walked over to the corner of the gym, where a couple of ropes hung side by side, suspended from the ceiling, meant for climbing. I had done my turn at these, when asked, and managed to acquit myself adequately on them; some boys, I knew, could not, got only eight or nine feet up them before chickening out, or simply weren't strong enough yet.
Tom reached out, took one of the ropes, tugged on it.
From the gym's exit leading to the locker rooms and the showers, Coach Spradling - leading the rest of the class out - turned back.
"Keenan! What are you doing? " he barked.
Tom looked at me, grinned. "Can I climb this rope, Coach?"
"What? Why? We're done with gym, Keenan. It's time for class."
"It'll only be a minute," Tom answered. "I just want to see if I can do it."
In answer, Coach Spradling started back towards the two of us; the rest of the boys followed like ducklings following their mother. "Fine," he grumbled. "Make it quick."
Tom smiled at him, looked at me. "Bet you can't do it," he murmured. "Pussy," he added, barely whispering the epithet.
Coach still heard him. "Watch your mouth, Keenan. Just fu-, uh … just do it."
Tom still looked at me, the challenge obvious. I rolled my eyes. "Fine."
In answer, Tom crossed his arms at the hem of his shirt, tugged it up and off of him, threw it on the floor, revealing his muscular torso. I, not even a year behind him, was still slim and undermuscled, still possessed a little baby fat at my belly. I thought, perversely, of the conversation I had just had with Tom, about the things that our classmates were saying about him and Paul. I darted a quick glance at Paul, at the back of the pack of boys circled around coach, could see him staring at Tom, dressed now only in the loose shorts we all wore for gym, as well as socks and shoes. There was a strange glint in Paul's eyes as he stared at Tom.
Tom seemed unaware that he was the object of attention of not only Paul, but the rest of us. He turned to me. "Ready?"
"Yeah. I guess."
Tom reached out, gripped the rope, started hauling himself up it, hand over hand. I watched the play of muscles in his arms as he climbed, reached out myself and started climbing.
Don't look down, I commanded myself. Don't look down. I focused on the top of the rope instead, where it was knotted securely to a metal ring suspended from the ceiling. Already, my arm muscles were burning from the exertion, reminding me just how unathletic I was. Three feet away from me, I could hear Tom's own exertions, the sounds of his breathing, small grunts and sighs as he hauled himself up. He was slightly above me … but I was managing to hold my own.
Shouts of encouragement drifted up from below; even Coach Spradling seemed interested in our impromptu competition, whether or not he understood the reason behind it. I risked a glance down, saw the yellow glint of Paul's head, turned up, watching our progress.
And here was the top, the end of the rope. I reached up, tapped the metal ring in confirmation. I thought about starting back down, but - this high up - I had a view out of the clerestory windows that ringed the top of the gymnasium. Past the oaks and maples that ringed the building, I could make out the towers of downtown and the alien half-ring of the Arch, newly completed, and the strange shimmer of light that reflected from its stainless steel skin. It looked like an artifact from some distant world, set down in our humdrum, workaday, brown-brick lump of a city, known for brewing beer and making shoes and not much else.
I looked over at Paul, at his hands clutching the rope, at his muscles straining against gravity, at the loose shorts riding up, up, up on his thigh, not realizing what I was seeing until I realized what I wasn't seeing, understanding that under the shorts there was nothing but Tom , and I looked down to the distant floor of the gym and the boys gathered there, cheering us - him more than me - on, and I picked out one face in particular and looked at it, at the ghost of a smile on Paul's face, a look of quiet and oblivious amazement, and devotion, and … love? and realized for whom this display was meant. All of the boys ignoring what they saw, immune to it, save for one.
And I understood.
I looked over at Tom again and could see that he could see it, in my face, my understanding, the surety of it, the unavoidable reality of it. I watched his eyes go wide as he risked a glance down to Paul and then back at me.
" Tom …?" I whispered.
"No!" he shouted, knowing that of everyone gathered here I would be the only one who understood the denial, this particular denial. "No …" he whispered. "No."
I was thinking - as was he, I was sure - of that certain day, when I'd come home early, when I'd surprised them, when I'd heard and seen things that had flown completely over my head, Paul's red-faced refusal to meet my eyes as he'd dashed out of the house (swiping at his mouth with the back of his hand, tugging at himself, there, between his legs, and I had not understood) and away from us, from me, from Tom , from that. I had marked, in his passing, a certain scent, as well, a certain musky funk whose import I had also not understood.
It's okay , I wanted to say to Tom but could not. To say that would be to make it real, more real than he could bear at this point. I watched him as his jaw set, as his eyes narrowed in a sneering kind of anger - go ahead, say it! , it seemed to say - as he began his descent, hand over hand. I watched him slip away from me, hesitated … not out of fear - climbing up here had rid me of all that - but because I didn't want to get to the ground at the same time he did and have to acknowledge what had just happened.
I looked down at the boys, their attention trained solely upon my brother. I had slipped from their awareness, if I had even had it to begin with.
One person still stared up at me, though. Paul. Whatever look he had favored upon my brother was not given to me; the same truculent denial I had seen in Tom was there, as well. He, of course, now knew that I knew.
I started down, going carefully, not hurrying.
Tom, of course, was faster, scrabbling hand over hand, going so fast he certainly had to be raising blisters on his hands, on his bare thighs. He dropped the last two feet to the ground; instead of wading into the crowd of waiting boys - and Paul - he went over to my rope … and I knew what he was going to do before he did. He looked up at me; I tensed, knowing what was coming. He picked up the end of the rope, gave it a vicious tug, and another, and another.
And I fell.
I was close enough that when I hit the ground, landing on my left leg before sprawling backwards on my ass, what could have been a nasty break ended up only a less-nasty sprain. I still couldn't get up without help; Coach Spradling was there in an instant, hauling me back up before turning to Tom and ordering him to the principal's office.
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