Going for the Gold

by Cole Parker

Chapter 4

I caught up with Ronnie before lunch. I'd been eating with him every day. I told him I needed to eat alone with Dan Haskett today, and I'd fill him in after school. He gave me a quizzical look, but I explained I didn't have time to go into any details why at the moment, but it was about Evan. He knew all about Evan and my frustrating obsession with him. He agreed to eat with someone else that day. I knew what that meant. He was working his way into having a girlfriend, a freshman named Juliette, and eating lunch with her would be another step forward. Or maybe he'd just get with other kids he knew well enough to eat with. Hanging with me hadn't seemed to cost him any social standing.

I looked around the cafeteria when I entered, looking for Dan, but he hadn't come in yet. I went through the line, got some food and two cartons of milk, rechecked for Dan, then looked for a two-person table. There were several along the walls, and they usually were deserted. They were today as well. I chose one and sat down. I'd always sat at a longer table in the middle of the room before, even when being ostracized. To me, it felt that by doing so I wasn't showing I was at all affected by the treatment I was getting. It showed that the choice anyone made to avoid me was their choice, not mine. Now, sitting alone along the wall, I felt really exposed and almost like I was naked, like I was voluntarily letting the rest of them dictate my behavior, which wasn't the case at all.

I thought about that feeling naked thing. Being naked in school might be some kids' phobias and others' fantasies, but believe me, it would be a hideous experience. I got just a slight taste of what it would be like when I sat down, looked around and saw a lot of eyes peering in my direction.

I again thanked my lucky stars Ronnie had come along when he had. He'd been a lifesaver.

I saw Dan enter the room. He was with three other guys, and they were laughing. I felt a rumble in my stomach that had nothing to do with hunger. I suddenly wondered if I'd made a huge mistake. Was that laughter because of me?

Dan went through the line and then stepped away from it and began searching the room with his eyes. He found me quickly, then waited for his friends to catch up with him. When they did, he spoke briefly to them and then headed in my direction. I watched his friends; they all went to the jock table and sat down.

I expected there'd be some questioning looks from around the room when he joined me, and that's just what happened. He must have been a jock, too, and so he was part of the group that was still shunning me. I didn't know what sport he was in, but I guessed soccer or maybe one of the field events with the track team, seeing how big he was. I'd have guessed he might play football, but those guys were more against me than anyone else. I'd ruined their chances of being any good this year, even being competitive. He wouldn't have agreed with my plea if he played football. He'd have laughed in my face and then taken full advantage of his chance to humiliate me.

I'd spent the rest of the morning since English thinking about what to say to Dan. Nothing had come to mind, nothing good, and now, here he was, and I had to say something. He beat me to the punch.

"Hi. OK, I read both messages. Obviously, you took my phone and sent the first one. Then he replied, and I can just bet you're dying, sitting there. You want to know what he said, and you're wondering how many people I've told that you're gay." He looked up at me, then did the craziest thing I could have imagined. He chuckled, then grinned! Wow! That grin changed everything. My stomach, which had tied itself into a tangled knot and taken up residence in my throat, untied itself and dropped back down to where it belonged. He wasn't angry or upset or anything like that. He actually could see some humor in the situation, and he was human enough to get a kick out of it. Wow squared!

I still didn't have words for what needed to be said. He could see that by looking at my face. I detected a momentary flash of compassion, and perhaps that was why he filled the silence. "Well, let me guess. Not that it's that hard to do. You like how he looks. He is sort of good looking if that's what turns your crank. You might even be crushing on him and want to know if you have a chance with him, and that depends on the answer to those two questions. It doesn't take much imagination to see that. I can even go further. You also must be scared to let him know who you are because doing so would out you, and my phone was handy. Right?"

He grinned again, and his eyes twinkled, and I felt like Lou Gehrig—you know, the luckiest guy on earth? This could have been a disaster—should have been, really—and it seemed Dan wasn't the sort of guy who'd do that to a stranger.

I nodded, then looked down. Even if he could accept this situation as funny, it was still embarrassing, and I was admitting I was gay to a stranger, a jock stranger, and maybe this was a setup to get me to admit that. It didn't seem that way, but . . . maybe.

When I didn't answer and didn't raise my eyes, he said, "You're wondering about me, too. Wondering if I'll out you. You're not out, are you? I've never heard that, and I probably would have; everyone would have heard. The football team would have had a field day if they'd known. The football team, the holdovers, have some old-fashioned ideas."

I finally looked up, and he was still grinning. "How come you're OK with this?" I asked. "I was panicking. I was sure I was dead meat."

He didn't answer and, in fact, just ignored the question. He responded with one of his own. "You are the one who ratted those guys out last year, aren't you?"

"Is that why you're being so nice about this?" I asked, not able to keep all the bitterness out of my voice. "Sucking me in? So you can find out about that?"

He drew back as though he'd been slapped. The grin faded. "Absolutely not. Why aren't I giving you any shit about that? Easy. Because I'm not sorry you did what you did."

"You're not? You're a jock, or at least friends with them. There's a bunch of football players at that table where you sit. They're not going to be a bit happy seeing you talking to me."

He didn't say anything for a moment, just stared at me, then shook his head, the kind of shake you make when you're trying to clear it of confusion. Then he grinned. "You really don't know me, do you?" he finally said. Then he grinned again. "That cuts me down to size a bit for sure."

"I only know your name and that you and that girl you were talking to in English are together. Why?"

"Because if you knew me, you'd understand why maybe I don't hate you like some of the other football players. There are a few that really hate you. But only a few."

"You play football?" I couldn't really believe what I was hearing.

"Yeah," he said. "Quarterback. Because of you and what you did. Not only am I on the team, but I'm playing every game. I'm starting. Again, that's all on you. If you hadn't done what you did, I'd be on the bench all year, or maybe I'd have given up and not even played. Maybe the same next year as well, and I'd hate it because I love football."

He paused to taste his lunch. I didn't say a word, not wanting to interrupt him.

"The senior you ratted out was a real asshole," he said, continuing after a few swallows, "and the guy slated to take his place this year, another one of the expelled guys, wasn't much better. A lot of the guys on the team this year are glad he's gone, along with a couple of others who got booted out, too. We might not be as good a team this year, we might not win any games, but we like it that those guys are gone. We're a much better group of guys this way. A lot of us aren't a bit pissed you did what you did."

I hadn't known that, and I didn't know what to say and so didn't say anything, just looked at him. He grinned again, then said, "But I've always wanted to know why you did it. Most people wouldn't have. I'd have asked you earlier than this, but you walk around looking like a grizzly bear, one whose hibernation was interrupted, one who'd bite anyone's head off who approached him. No one wants any part of that. But when we talked in the classroom and you said you wanted to talk about Evan's message to me, I realized I could finally find out why you did what you did last year. That was the main reason I agreed to come—so I could find out about that. And of course to discuss your using my phone to call Evan. That part's hilarious."

I might have blushed, but I'm not sure. Nothing he was saying was what I expected or what I had accepted as true. I'd thought this conversation would be very awkward and had been pretty sure it wouldn't go well for me. How would I have been able to explain what I asked Evan without admitting I was gay? Just my asking those questions made that obvious, didn't it? But that aspect of it, which was what had had my head buzzing, didn't seem to be of any consequence at all to Dan. Or maybe we just hadn't gotten as far as consequences yet. He'd suggested we'd talk about that after he'd got an answer to what he'd wanted to know since last year.

Well, OK, I could start with that. Maybe then he'd feel some compassion for me and wouldn't push too hard on the second bit, the Evan part. Dan appeared to be a nice guy. He sure wasn't acting like I'd expected him to. He seemed to be accepting the fact I was gay, yet seemed to feel like it didn't matter.

I met his eyes. "I've never told anyone that. Actually, only one person's really asked why I told on those guys, and I haven't told him yet. I think everyone's assumed stuff, assumed why I did it. I don't really know, but no one's asked. Let me sat this, though: it's personal, and I guess I'm not very good talking about personal stuff."

I took a breath, maybe hoping he'd jump in, but he just kept looking at me. This would be hard, but so be it. I could handle hard. "See, I had a sister. She was five years older than me. She and Mom were really tight. I think Mom had some private girl stuff going on with her. I've never had that same vibe with Mom, then or later. Anyway, my sister's name was Susan. When she got into high school, she tried to fit in, like a lot of girls do. A lot of boys do, too, from what I'd seen, but it seems much more important to girls to be part of the popular crowd. That was what she wanted. It really, really mattered to her, and she did her best to learn how to fit in with the other girls, to do what was required to be popular. That meant changing from being the straight-laced innocent she'd always been."

I wasn't used to talking this much—or to talking at all about this. I drank an entire carton of milk just taking a break. Well, they aren't very big cartons. Then I continued.

"So she did. Change. She did everything the popular girls do. The clothes, the way they talk, the attitude, all the rest—she did it. I hardly recognized her anymore. The worst thing she did was to get a boyfriend. I don't know if she even liked him. What she liked, needed really, was a boy to hang onto that everyone could see. He was a junior. I guess that made you something, being a freshman with an older boyfriend. Anyway, she got one, and of course to keep a boyfriend, especially one who was a couple of years above her and popular, she had to do things to please him. I guess she did. It also meant going to parties with drinking and smoking pot, which is also what she did. I don't know how much of that was her choice or how much it was from the pressure she faced if she was going to hang with that crowd. I do know she did what she had to do to be part of the group she wanted to be part of. I know all this from other people. By then she'd pretty much completely shut me out of her life."

I stopped for another deep breath, then plunged on. "One night, at another of the frequent parties she was attending, someone gave her some weed. She'd done weed before, but this stuff was much stronger than what she was used to. I don't know how many joints she had but do know she got really stoned. Staggering-when-walking stoned. The kids she was with thought that was hilarious. When she finally started walking home, I guess she was pretty much out of it. When she was nearly home and crossing a street, I guess she simply wasn't paying much attention to anything. Completely wasted. She stepped in front of a car. It was dark, she was wearing dark clothing, and that was it. Dead on the spot where she was hit. She died instantly."

I didn't pause then. I hurried on; my voice was thickening; I was fighting to contain my emotions and had to get through this quickly. Maybe she'd cut me out of her life, but she was my older sister, she'd been a big part of my life and had supported me when I was younger, and I'd loved her.

"Ever since, I've had this hatred of dopers, and mostly of those who encourage other kids, innocent kids, to use drugs or smoke pot. That's what I saw those boys, older boys, doing in that locker room bathroom. A senior and some juniors were encouraging—forcing, really—younger kids to smoke dope. Seeing that brought it all back."

I took a deep breath, then continued. "I didn't just lose a sister I loved. It was more than that. My mother never got over it; it changed her completely. My dad couldn't get over it, either; the two of them started blaming each other for how she'd changed and for not stepping in. Dad got fed up with the arguing and the blaming and ended up leaving. I was left alone with a mother who was entirely involved in her own grief. All of that ugliness and abandonment and grief hit me when I saw those young kids smoking in that bathroom, seeing them doing it at the urging of older kids. Probably wanting to be popular, or at least accepted by older team members. Wanting what my sister had wanted.

"Those young boys felt they had to do what they were being told to do if they wanted to be accepted as part of the team, to fit in with their teammates. I didn't even hesitate. I went to the vice principal and told him what I'd witnessed. I'd do it again today if I saw that happening again."

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