Fish or Cut Bait

by James Pavian

Chapter 2

Everyone at school was walking on eggs Wednesday morning. I felt like a movie star, or a major criminal or something. Everyone--and I mean everyone, even the janitor--was looking at me. 'I wish Bruce was here,' I said to myself. 'That way, we could split the attention, at least.'

Somebody had printed "No Fags!" in black marker pen on some of the Prom posters. All the teachers were on guard in the hall, even the ones who usually hid behind their desks. The vice-principal stalked through in one direction, and the principal strolled through in the opposite direction, trying to look like the good witch from 'Wizard of Oz,' except in a dark blue dress.

I didn't see Bruce until after first period, and he looked kind of scared. "Hey, Bruce!" I said, smiling too hard, trying to cheer him up, or something.

"Hey, Mike. Did you--of course you did. Channel 7, last night?"

"Yeah. I'm surprised they even got the name of the school right!"

"It was so…Chuck was furious with me. 'I'm your date, dammit!' he kept saying. He's still asking what's with you and me. I told him we were just friends. I told him you were straight! I told him I wanted me and him to go steady--I was going to do that at the Prom, but…He said he'd have to think about it!"

"Oh, shit! Bruce, I'm sorry!" And I hugged him--a guy hug, though.

"It's not your fault, man," Bruce replied. "It's nobody's goddamn fault except Channel Seven!"

"Kissy kissy!" someone shouted. We both spun around, looking, but we couldn't tell who said it. I blushed.

"Fucker!" Bruce hissed. Then he took a deep breath, and his voice changed. "Look, Mike, I hate to do this, but I gotta stick pretty close to Chuck for a while, so I may be avoiding you. Nothing personal, I swear--"

"The hell it isn't personal," I said, surprised at the anger growling inside me. I took a good, deep breath. "But I understand. I don't suppose there's anything I could say to Chuck--"

"God, no! Just…steer clear, you know?"

"Got it."

"Thanks…buddy." Bruce sighed. "Don't tell Chuck, but for you--anything." Then, there was one of those moments when you really, really want to hug each other, but you can't, but we saw it in each other's eyes and smiled and that had to be enough. 'God!' I thought, as I walked away, 'Maybe Chuck should be jealous, after all.'

Wally Snyder walked up, with a wicked smile. "Saw you on TV last night. I didn't know you were…a dancer," he said.

I almost gave him my 'Bend Over' answer before I realized what he'd said. I smiled. "Smooth, Wally. The smoothest." I walked away before he could figure out which of us I was talking about.

Second period. History. Cindy Foster's hand was up when I got into the classroom, before Mrs. Troutman called us to order, even. I caught Cindy's eye, and she smiled.

"Settle down, children," Mrs. Troutman said. She always called us 'children.' She was old, though, so I guess it made sense. She probably lived through the American Revolution. "Cindy? Have you a question?"

"Can we talk about the gay rights movement, Mrs. Troutman?"

"Not in the curriculum, Cindy. We're finishing World War One, today."

"Can we talk about it tomorrow?"

"What did I just say, Cindy? It's not in the curriculum. The Treaty of Versailles, children," she said, without a break, and we were off. Cindy sat silent for the rest of the class.

I think the Treaty of Versailles went too far, actually. I mean, Germany did deserve a good smack, but there's such a thing as being a sore winner. That's what I like about sports: you compete like hell, and then afterwards you all shake hands, and sometimes, somebody organizes a little beer bash, after. Sometimes, anyway.

I was headed for third period when I saw Bruce in the school office. Chuck was there, too, and they both looked like they'd been in a fight. It was all I could do, not to rush in there and find out what happened, and who did it. I knew they both had gym, second period, so if it was going to happen, that would have been the time. Mister Spolinak, our Track coach, was one of the PE teachers, but he must not have been there. He would have stopped it, I just know it. I forced myself to start walking, before Chuck spotted me.

I was sitting down to lunch when somebody slammed into me and I fell forward onto the table--onto my lunch, actually. I sprang up, all smeared with cafeteria lasagna, but whoever had done it was lost in the crowd. "Did anyone see--" I started to ask, but suddenly, everybody around me was deeply concerned with the food in front of them. I turned around. "Face me, fucker!" I said, loudly enough for everyone in the immediate area to hear, even if they were suddenly even more interested in bad Italian pasta. I scraped off what I could, then headed for the condiments counter to get some more napkins. By the time I got back to the table, some asshole had cleared my tray, so I took my wad of napkins to the rest room to see if I could save my shirt, at least.

There were nasty voices in the restroom that stopped as soon as I opened the door. I pretended to ignore that, and went straight to the sink. I turned on the water, and took a few swipes at the tomato sauce while I scanned the room through the mirror. Sure enough, there was more than one pair of feet in the last stall. I cleaned myself off rather noisily, then went out of the room and immediately turned back. Two mean-looking upperclassmen burst out of the stall, with a smaller kid between them, looking scared as shit. 'These may not be the assholes who went after Bruce and Chuck, but they'll do,' I thought. "Hey!" I shouted, and before they could figure out what was happening, I shouldered one of them back into the stall and got between the kid and the other one. "Back off, asshole!" I pulled the kid toward me. "You okay?"

"Don't!" he said. "They were just--"

"Just messing around," said a voice from the stall. I managed to push the kid toward the door before they jumped me. They were big guys, big as me, almost, but like a lot of big guys, they didn't really know how to fight. I do. And they kept getting in each other's way.

"What's--Stop! All of you, right now!" The security guard appeared out of nowhere. The three of us backed off. The kid was nowhere to be seen. "Put your school ID's on the shelf above the sinks. Now!" There's three security guards on campus, I think. Should have known there'd be one around the cafeteria at lunch time. They're actually adjunct sheriff's deputies, or something, and they really can arrest you. You don't mess with the security guards. He put us against a wall while he grabbed our ID's. We were toast, once the guard got our ID's.

"That fuckin' faggot came onto me!" one of the bullies said. The guard told him to shut up. A second security guard appeared, with handcuffs. Oh, shit. He cuffed us, while the first guard kept watch. I maybe could have gotten away while they cuffed the other guys, but that would have made it look like I was the bad guy. So I decided the best thing to do was just cooperate and straighten things out later.

The vice-principal came in with the kid. "Okay, now tell me what happened," he said, in the gentlest voice I'd ever heard come out of him.

The kid didn't answer.

"I came in to--" I started to say, as respectfully as I could.

"Shut it!" the second security guard said, accidentally pushing me against the wall. Maybe accidentally.

"You bleeding? Is he bleeding?" the vice-principal said.

"It's lasagna!" I said.

"I said shut up! Or I'll push you right through this wall!"

I didn't even say 'yessir,' or anything. 'It will all get straightened out, eventually,' I told myself.

"I don't know any of them, Officer." It was the kid, thank goodness.

"Don't talk, son. Your jaw's in pretty bad shape," the first guard said.

"Fuckin' faggot was after the little kid!"

The first guard slammed his prisoner against the wall. "I'll tell when you can talk!" he yelled.

The vice-principal squatted in front of the kid. "Is that what happened, son? You can tell me. I'll make sure he doesn't hurt you--or anyone. Ever."

'Oh, shit,' I thought. 'Should I ask for a lawyer, or something?'

"They-they take my money," the kid said, at last, and I sighed. Thank goodness.

"Turn out your pockets, you three!" the vice-principal ordered, in the nasty voice we were used to.

"They're handcuffed, Sir," the second security guard said.

"Then do it for them! I'll deal with this one," the vice-principal said, walking toward me. He reached his hands into my pockets. "Don't get any bright ideas, fag boy," he whispered.

"Wouldn't dream of it," I answered, but softly.

"This it? Is this your money, Son?" I heard the first security guard ask, but I couldn't see what was happening because the vice-principal was in the way.

Apparently, the kid nodded, or something. "You want to press charges, Son?" the guard said.

"That's my mon--" the first bully started, and then sort of gurgled. I pushed my eyes as far to the left as I could. From what I could see in the mirror, the second security guard had the bully in a choke hold.

"He can't," the vice-principal said. "But I can. Get these creeps out of my school!"

"Uh, just a moment, Sir," the second security guard said. I think the kid was whispering to him. I prayed the kid was telling him--

"Kid says it was these two, Sir. That young man was trying to help him, he said."

"Don't move, Winchell," the vice-principal growled in my ear. He stepped away. I tried not to breathe.

Five minutes later, it was all over. I was out of the handcuffs; the nurse was talking to the kid, and the vice-principal was talking to me in his office. I told him what had happened, and he frowned. "If this winds up in court," he growled, "you may be called upon to testify. So that better be the truth. In fact, wait here." He left his office and returned a long time later, or maybe a few minutes, if you weren't me, with one of the school clerks. She took a seat at his desk, and the vice-principal turned to me. "Tell her what happened, and then she'll type it up, and you'll sign it. So tell the goddamn truth!" I didn't think school officials were allowed to swear--not at students, at least. Then again, this was the vice-principal.

It was all over school, of course--every variation you can imagine: I saved the kid's life, the assholes saved him from me, he was stealing money, they were stealing money, he was bribing them, or me, they raped me, I raped them (really?!), we all were going to rape the kid, and then, when they got expelled and I didn't, the rumor went around that the vice-principal was in love with me! It was nuts! Susie thought I beat the crap out of them single-handed, though, and the cops were just there to clean things up. I could live with that.

I told the guys on the Track team what happened, and Miguel Espinoza backed me up, sort of, because he said he knew one of the guys, but he wouldn't say how, or anything, just that he knew him, and he was an asshole.

The worst part was that the kid got transferred to another school, so he couldn't even have told anyone what really--No! The real worst part was that I couldn't talk to Bruce to tell him what really happened. It was all there in the official record, but it was all confidential because everyone was under eighteen, so there was nothing but rumors.

The Prom was sort of a let-down, after that. My face was still a little messed up from the fight, but Susie said it was like a badge of honor, and she was proud of me. There was a King and Queen contest, of course, and Zahi Warsame and Polly Winslow won. Polly's victory was a surprise. I voted for her, for old time's sake, but I really hadn't expected her to win. Anyhow, after the confetti drop, there they were: our tall Somali quarterback, standing right next to Polly, who's barely five feet seven and about as white-bread as you could find. But they started a dance together, and pretty soon most of us joined in.

Bruce and Chuck tried to slip into the gym quietly, but as soon as they appeared in the doorway some of the kids from the demonstration gathered around them and made a big deal out of it all. After cheers and applause, they were able to dance with the rest of us, though, and pretty soon they were just another couple, laughing and eating snacks…and dancing.

All in all, it was turning into a nice, quiet Prom--as quiet as a couple of hundred high school juniors could be, anyhow--even though there was a little booze passed around. A couple of straight guys even danced with Bruce and Chuck.

"Look!" Susie said, and pointed to two girls who were dancing together.

"So?"

"Lesbians! Two guys dance together and it's a big deal. Two girls dance together, and--"

"How do you know they're lesbians?"

"It's pretty obvious, Mike."

"It's kind of weird how everybody gets all hot and bothered about boys dancing together but nobody even notices two girls," I said.

Susan just looked at me. She wasn't smiling.

The dance officially ended at 11:00. Some couples had already slipped out, of course, with better things to do. But most of the crowd streamed into the parking lot, and that's when things got…messed up. Seems there were some people pretty pissed about biracial Prom royalty, and other people just as pissed about two guys dancing. They seemed to come from nowhere, and it went from insults to fists almost immediately, like when you open a can of ginger ale that somebody shook up.

The security guards were there pretty quick, with three more officers, and it didn't make a bit of difference. Central was headed for a full-scale riot. I handed the keys to my mom's car to Susan. "Get out of here! Quick!" And I raced off to the mob boiling around Bruce and Chuck.

If you watch a prize fight, you may think three minutes isn't very long. But if you're actually in a fight, three minutes can last forever, and there can be a lot of damage. And these guys weren't fighting fair, either. A bunch of us linked arms and formed a ring around Bruce and Chuck and tried to move them to Chuck's car, but then some asshole with a baseball bat smashed out his headlights. "Did you drive?" I yelled at Bruce, but he shook his head. Shit! And Susan had my wheels, or at least I hoped she did. There were cars pulling out of the parking lot without bothering with the driveways, bouncing off the curbs. It didn't take long for the sirens to show up, and there was a squad car with lights flashing and then Channel Seven, and then the Fire Department, and ambulances. I was expecting helicopters and the National Guard any minute.

The helicopters and the Guard didn't happen. As riots go, I guess it was pretty small, though it didn't seem that way from inside. A little "rain" from the fire truck cooled things off pretty quickly. The cops herded us into groups--a big one for Zahi and Polly and a smaller one for Bruce and Chuck. The cops wouldn't let anyone leave without showing their school ID, and if they weren't from Central, or dating someone from Central who could vouch for them, they got busted. I think maybe four or five guys got carried off in ambulances, and some more went to the hospital in squad cars. I don't know if anyone got arrested. A cop looked at me and asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, but I declined. It was mostly my clothes that got wrecked.

Chuck was standing beside his car, with a couple of guys protecting him. I hurried over. "Chuck? You okay?"

He nodded, but sort of like a drunk.

"Where's Bruce?" I asked.

"Dunno." His voice was slurred.

"You been drinking, Chuck?"

He shook his head No, and then grabbed it. "Oww," he said.

"Ah, Chuck? I think you better go to the hospital," I said, carefully. Concussions don't happen much in Track, but we got some training, anyway.

"Where's Bruce, man? You seen Bruce?" he said, in that same disconnected way.

"Maybe he went to the hospital. Why don't we go to the hospital and find out?"

"Okay. I can drive."

"No, you can't. You don't have headlights, Chuck."

"Who took 'em?"

"They got broke, Chuck."

"Shit! I gotta walk home, then, huh?"

"Come with me, Chuck." I headed for the nearest cop and Chuck followed like a lost kid--which he was, I guess. I explained the situation and the cop got on the horn and pretty soon a squad car pulled up. I put Chuck into the back seat--did the whole protect the head thing, too. There's still good in TV cop shows, I guess. I wanted to go along, but Chuck started saying, "Go find Bruce," over and over again, and the cop said I should do that, and told me what hospital they were going to and said that I could check with them, later. They pulled away, and I turned back to the crowd, which was rapidly thinning.

I called my folks, and told my mom I needed a ride home, and Mom said, "Did anyone get hurt? Are you--"

"I'm okay Mom, but Susan has your car. Long story."

"Mike?" Polly Winslow appeared, on Zahi's arm. "You okay?"

"Hang on a sec, Mom." I turned to Polly. "Can I get a ride home?"

"Of course," said Zahi. His voice was still incredible, almost like singing.

"Mom? Good news! I can get a ride with Polly Winslow! See you soon!" I hung up before she could ask any more questions, and followed Zahi and Polly to his car. While we cleared the police checkpoint, I tried to call Bruce, but it rang through to the message thing. "Bruce? It's me, Mike. Chuck's at the hospital. He may have a little concussion. I'm headed home. Call me!"

"I am confused," Zahi said. "May I ask, are you Chuck or Bruce or Mike?"

Polly Winslow giggled.

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