Fish or Cut Bait

by James Pavian

Chapter 1

This is a work of fiction, but Love is real.

I've known Bruce McNerny since third grade. We're still best friends, even though he turned out to be gay, and even though most of the guys on the Track team razzed me about him when he came out. "You a fag?" they asked--stuff like that. "Bend over and I'll show you," I said. I throw shot put, and I'm a big enough guy that nobody messes with me.

Bruce and I did the deed a few times, in seventh grade. Not the butt-fuck part, but we did get naked and play with each other's dicks, and for a while, I admit, I was kind of worried. But then I met Polly Winslow, and…let's just say I'm straight, and I know it.

Bruce was really pissed at Polly at first, but he and I had a long talk over some beer I swiped from the back of our refrigerator. "Look, man," I said. "What if I said you had to start fucking girls?"

"Huh?"

"What if I told you that you had to be straight?"

"Why the fuck--you know it's not like that! It's not like there's a switch somewhere that I could flip from 'Gay' to 'Straight'!" Bruce snapped.

"Well, I haven't got a switch like that, either! Come on, Bruce. I like you as a friend--heck, you're my best friend! But my cock has a mind of its own, and there's nothing I can do to change that."

"I suppose," Bruce said, like he really didn't believe it.

A year or so later, occurred to me that breaking up with a girl probably hurts exactly like breaking up with a guy.

Anyhow, that was way back in eighth grade, and now it was almost time for the Junior Prom, and I told Bruce I was going with Susan Hagan, who I'd been dating and stuff since tenth grade. Bruce just smiled and said, "That's great!" and I knew something was up.

The next day, Bruce told everybody he was taking Chuck Chamberlain to the Prom. I knew they'd been seeing each other for a while. They'd met in the Tennis Club, and one thing led to another, and Bruce was still so happy he was practically floating. But as far as the rest of the school was concerned, nobody knew what to do about two guys going to the Prom together. Everybody--I mean everybody--was up in arms and taking sides.

Most of the faculty was just trying to act neutral and keep things from turning physical, but most of us knew which teachers were cool and which ones were…you know, assholes. The principal was squeezed between the faculty and the School Board. See, Central is the biggest high school in the district, so almost everything we did, the other high schools followed. High School Principal sure as hell isn't on my list of career choices!

Anyhow, there was going to be a demonstration. "Top Secret," Bruce said. The gays and the lesbians were all going to just stand up and walk out of class and parade back and forth in front of the school with signs and stuff. And they wanted their straight friends with them. Bruce wanted me to be out there with him and Chuck. And the thing was, he didn't get all plead-y and whiny and pathetic: it was more like he was recruiting me to join the Marines, or something. He came over Saturday and made me swear not to tell anyone, and told me what was going on. And he told me I was going to march with him. Not asked me, understand. Told me.

"But--but you could get expelled, or something!"

"Yeah," he said.

"You're okay with that?"

"Yes," he said. "We are." Bruce has developed this soft dangerous voice he uses to keep the assholes off of him, which is just great, but this was different.

"That's like declaring war on the school!" I said.

"Well, actually on the School Board. But you have to start somewhere."

"They might even arrest you!"

"This is our lives, Mike," Bruce answered. "Fuck Geometry and World Literature and all that crap! This is our lives! This is my life, Mike, and Chuck's: right here, right now! Are you with me?"

"Jesus, Bruce!"

Bruce McNerny looked at me, into my eyes, and I knew that nothing I could say would stop him. But I could hurt him. I could turn my back on a friendship that started in the third grade. I could turn my back on a guy I loved, in that way guys can love each other without sex, like the guys on the Track team.

"If enough of us go out," Bruce went on, "they can't just expel us. They'll have to listen!"

"No, Bruce. They don't. They're adults and they don't have to listen to us. Shit, they almost never listen to us."

"'Us?' Does that mean you're--"

"No! I don't know! This is big, Bruce. This is the biggest thing ever, far as I'm concerned!" Now, I sounded all plead-y and pathetic. I could hear it in my voice, and I hated myself. "Can I at least think about it? Please? You guys thought about it, right? I mean, you didn't just come up with this yesterday, or something, right?"

Bruce nodded. "Fair enough. But I have to know, soon."

"When--"

Bruce shook his head. "I can't tell you that, Mike. Not unless I know you're with us. But soon." He started to hug me, then stopped and stood there with his arms half-way out, and he whispered, "You can't make me stop loving you, Mike. No matter what." So I pulled him to me and put my chin on his shoulder so he couldn't see me starting to cry. He hugged me so tight that it squeezed the breath out of me.

I wasn't exactly fair with my dad. I told him some friends wanted me to join a demonstration at school, without actually explaining anything specific. And I sure as hell couldn't tell him about me and Bruce in the seventh grade. He'd blow the roof off of the house, or pitch me through it, or something.

"I'm sure you'll do the right thing, Michael."

I smiled. "Thanks, Dad." I walked out of the living room and headed upstairs. "I'm sure you'll do the right thing" is parent-speak for "I haven't got a clue," of course. So I was on my own. If this is what being a grown-up is like, I'm suddenly not so sure I want to go there.

I didn't sleep Saturday night. Well, I must have, some, because I woke up Sunday morning. But I sure didn't feel like I'd slept. And I went to church. I'm not religious. Mom is, and she's kind of pissed at Dad, I think, because he doesn't go with her, usually. Especially not in the summer, when he can golf. She thinks I don't go because Dad doesn't go. I let her think that because…well, come on! God? Wipes out most of the world except Noah and his family with a flood, and almost tricks Abraham into slaughtering his son, and then lets his own son get crucified? His son's up there dying and he says, "Take this cup away from me," and his Dad just ignores him? I'm supposed to worship that?

My mom was thrilled. I sat next to her in my suit and a starched shirt and tie that felt like a collar around my neck--like a dog collar or something--and I stood up and sat down and sang hymns and prayed. And there's this silent part, where you're supposed to pray your own prayer, and I sat there and prayed, 'God, I want to do the right thing but I'm scared shitless-- I think God's okay with that, because that was exactly how I felt, and prayers are supposed to be honest, right? --and I don't know what's the right thing to do, so if you could sort of help me decide, you know? Please?'

"Amen."

After church, Mom and I were walking to the car and there was this guy in this suit that didn't fit, with a sign that said, "God is a hoax!" He was parading back and forth with a couple of other people, and I suddenly imagined Bruce and Chuck like that, all by themselves in front of the school. 'What kind of an answer is that, God?' I thought.

And then my mother pointed to them and said, "Those poor people, denying themselves God's blessing." See, that's really why I don't go to church: I always come out more confused than when I went in.

So I did the worst thing of all: I didn't say anything to Bruce. I actually dodged him in the hall, Monday, because I couldn't look him in the eye. I prayed again, that maybe they'd decided not to do it. And when school let out and everything outside was normal, I thought 'Thank God!'

It happened Tuesday, after lunch. All of a sudden, I heard kids talking about what was happening outside, and my heart sank into my stomach. I looked around, and at first everything was normal, and then I remembered that I usually saw Bruce after lunch, on my way to Geometry, and he hadn't been there.

The Geometry classroom is in the front of the school, and I looked out the window--actually, most of the class was looking out of the window--and there they were, maybe two dozen kids with signs, but before I could read them, Mister Grannan clapped his hands.

"Everybody take your seats! Ignore those idiots. They're just looking for an excuse to skip school," Mister Grannan said. "Open your books to page ninety-three. Have you all worked out the prob-- Excuse me, Miss Foster. Class is in session. Get away from the window. Now!"

Cindy Foster just stood there, ignoring Mister Grannan, and I stood up. I mean I realized I was standing up. And talking. "They're not idiots, Mister Grannan. They're the bravest kids in this school." And Cindy Foster and I walked out of the classroom. Some of the other kids went with us, and there were some more of us in the hall, and we all went outside and started marching back and forth and Susan Hagan ran up to me and I found Bruce and Chuck, and we took their hands in ours, and we started singing "We Shall Overcome."

Eventually, there were maybe fifty of us marching--not "hundreds," like they said on TV, but nobody actually counted. There were some signs, like "Gay Rights Now," and "The Prom is for Everyone." The principal stood on the steps for a while, watching, until the TV people showed up. I don't know if Bruce called them. He swore he didn't, but he was smiling. Anyhow, there they were, and the principal had disappeared, and a few of the kids panicked and they split, too. But Bruce had my hand locked in his. I mean, I wouldn't have chickened out, probably, but he didn't give me a choice. The next thing I knew, we were standing in front of a camera and this newslady had a microphone about the size of a baseball bat in front of Bruce.

"It's simple," Bruce said to her. "It's a dance, and people bring dates to dances. Guys bring girls and girls bring guys, so why shouldn't guys bring guys and girls bring girls?"

Then the newslady turned to me. "How about you?" she asked. "How does it feel to be invited to the prom by your boyfriend?"

"Um…it's not like that. Bruce is my best friend, but I'm not his date! It's Chuck!" I turned to Bruce, but he was talking to some other newsguy, and then Susan Hagan stepped in front of me and said, "Mike is taking me to the Prom, not Bruce. We're just here because we're friends, and it's the right thing to do!" And then, the vice-principal appeared out of nowhere, yelling at the reporters that they'd have to leave school property. He glared at the cameraman, who gave him the finger and kept the camera running at the same time. And somebody--not sure who--shouted "It's a public sidewalk, so get fucked!"

And people were suddenly surrounding the newspeople, shouting "Two, four, six, eight! Gay is just as good as straight!" and the newslady sort of pushed her way through until she was in front of the camera, and she said, "And there you have it--hundreds of students rioting for gay rights at Central High!" I didn't actually hear her say that, then, but I saw it on the news that night. And then the cops showed up, two squad cars with every light they had flashing, and Bruce said "Shit!" and let go of my hand and I lost him in the confusion.

Nobody got arrested or hurt or anything. Bruce and this girl--I don't know her name, Chrissy or something like that--started telling everyone "We did it!" and that we should just go back to class, so we dispersed, like the cop with the megaphone said. Back in Geometry class, Mister Grannan gave me and Cindy Foster "the look," and everyone sat down and Mister Grannan went back to page ninety-three. He was waiting for someone to raise their hand with the answer to the problem when the bell rang, and he just threw his book down on the floor and said "You can all go to hell!" except the words he used were "Class dismissed."

But the worst thing was the TV news that night. I will never, ever, trust those guys again! I really wanted to watch it by myself, but the word had gotten out by the evening news, and Mom and Dad were right there, watching with me. The newslady interviewed Chrissy, and she explained what it was all about, better than Bruce, in my opinion, but I never told him that. But while Chrissy was talking, the picture on screen was mostly the crowd, and me and Bruce, so if you didn't know who was who, it did look like I was Bruce's date! Chuck was standing right there, at the edge of the screen, holding Bruce's other hand, and there was just one quick shot of him--with Polly Winslow! And the newslady said, "I asked his date how he felt about going to the prom with another boy, and this is what he said." And there was this maybe half-a-second shot of me saying "Bruce is my best friend!"

Time stopped. I mean, it felt like a what-do-you-call-it, slower than slow motion--a freeze frame! It felt like a freeze frame in a movie, and suddenly Mom and Dad were just staring at me, like they were frozen, too. I tried to explain, but everything came out at once, all scrambled together, and even while I was saying it, I knew I wasn't making any sense at all.

Mom just sort of fell back on the sofa with her hands over her mouth, and my Dad turned away, and then spun back real fast with his eyes really wide open, and said, "You're gay?" It was like I'd just told him I shot the principal, or something.

I shook my head. "No, Dad! Mom! It's not like--they got it all mixed up!"

But Mom was all scrunched up, crying, and somehow Dad was next to her, trying to hug her and saying, "It'll all be all right, dear," and stuff like that and a little part of me was thinking my dad was really wonderful right then, the way he loved Mom.

That helped, seeing the two of them closer than maybe I'd ever seen them before, and I knelt down in front of them. "Mom, Dad, please listen. I'm not gay! I swear! I've been f--dating Susan Hagen since tenth grade!"

"You don't have to lie to us, Dear," Mom said, wiping at her tears. "We're your parents! We love you!"

Dad asked, "How long has this been--how long have you and Bruce known each other?" and I noticed he was hugging Mom a little harder.

"Since third grade, Dad--you know that! But we're not--"

"He did this to you, didn't he?"

"No, Dad! It doesn't work that way! The way Bruce explained it, you're born gay or straight, and that's--"

"Why is it always the parents' fault?" Dad snapped. "Why can't you people take responsibility for your own…for what you are?"

Mom was crying even harder, now.

"I'M NOT GAY!" I yelled.

Mom froze.

"Don't you dare take that tone with us, young man--young…whatever!" Dad yelled back. "Go to your room!" That seemed like a pretty good idea, right then, so I did.

I lay on my bed, not sleeping, trying to make sense of things: I wasn't gay, I knew that. But I did love Bruce. And I loved the guys on the track team. That happens, when you barrel around the state in a ratty school bus for three years. There's hugs, and almost-wrestling, and partying that's not supposed to happen after a meet, but does. But it's not like I got hard, or anything. Maybe a little swollen, but that's just because, right?

I could get lost, in bed with Susan Hagan. We were music, making love. The two of us fit together, you could say. Susan was a tennis player, and a damn good one, and it turns out you have to be an athlete to play tennis--it's not like some hoity-toity British thing, with tiny tea cups.

Then, I suddenly started thinking of Mom and Dad downstairs on the sofa, with Dad comforting her and Mom sort of curling up against him, and then I knew Mom and Dad fit together, too. I smiled. 'What really is the difference between men and women in love, and guys and guys?' I wondered. 'And why does it matter so much to everyone--or most people, anyway? What business is it of theirs, anyhow?' And I felt myself starting to get angry. Why didn't anyone talk about this shit? We got all sorts of sex ed at school, but it was all anatomical and about how babies get born and heredity and stuff, but nothing about…You can just have sex and make babies, you know, like dogs have puppies. But the really important thing is all these feelings they never talk about.

Or maybe they do. There's all those books in English class, after all. But they're always about men and women. Is that why they're so fucking boring? Bruce likes them--some of them, anyway, and 'Romeo and Juliet.' That's a weird play, with families fighting and guys killing each other and right in the middle of it these two kids learning about love and then dying for no good reason except they don't get time to talk to each other.

For a few seconds when I woke up Wednesday morning, everything was the way everything always is. And then I remembered yesterday, and last night.

"Your father had to leave for work early, so I'll drive you to school," Mom said. She had started smoking, again.

"Mom, I'm sorry about last night--"

"Let's not talk about it, dear. I love you anyway. I will always love my little boy."

I don't think we said another word until I thanked her for the ride when I got out of the car at school. I watched her drive away. "I'm not gay," I told the back of her Chevrolet. And then I turned around to face Central High, hoping I'd see Bruce, and scared to death I'd see him.

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