Ten years ago
It all started when I was sixteen years old. We met at the beginning of our junior year in high school. He was a new student at my school and I was assigned to be his mentor, which basically meant show him around and be available if he had any questions about teachers or classes or what was safe to eat in the cafeteria. I had no idea when I got called to the office that hot August morning that my whole life was about to get turned upside down. No, I just grinned like a fool, stuck out my hand, and said, “Hey, I’m Sam. Welcome to Warren High. You play football?”
He grinned back and I liked his smile, which was wide and friendly. He didn’t give off that shy, awkward vibe that was pretty much the norm with new kids. When we shook hands, he gave mine a firm squeeze like my dad had told me was the way a real man shook hands: not too hard, not too soft, just right. “Hey. I’m Hank. Yeah, I’m okay at it, but I’m better at basketball,” he said, and since he was tall and thin with arms out to there, I wasn’t surprised.
“That’s cool. We’ve got a good team, went to the semi-finals last year. I mostly warmed the bench, but I’m gonna go out for it again this year anyway. Keeps me busy so my folks don’t get in my sh… business!” If the school secretary heard my near slip-up, she kept on typing and didn’t let on.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. My folks want me to join everything the school offers. They think it’ll keep me outta trouble,” he said, rolling his chocolate-brown eyes.
“Does it?” I asked, wondering what he liked to do for fun. I wasn’t up for drugs or anything heavy, but me and my friends were getting kinda stale. New blood might be cool.
“So far, but I got my driver’s license this summer, so probably not for much longer!” he said, waggling his eyebrows and flashing an evil grin.
“Cool! You got a car?” He nodded and I was immediately impressed. I didn’t have one yet, but I had my license and my dad let me drive his old truck on the weekends. It was better than nothing, but just barely.
“Yeah. My mom got a new car, so I got her old one. It’s pretty cool though; a Grand Am.”
“Oh yeah, those are nice. Let me know if you wanna go out sometime. I’ll show you around. Where’re you from?”
“Everywhere,” he said, with a shrug. “My dad gets transferred every coupla years. We came here from Atlanta, but I was born in Birmingham.”
“You’ll like it here. It’s cool. Give me a call and we’ll hang out one weekend. Bowling Green’s nothing great, but it’s not bad.”
“Sure, man. That’d be awesome,” he said, shifting his backpack while we talked. He had his schedule in his hand and the dark green backpack he was carrying must’ve weighed fifty pounds, making him list to the left. That needed to go first thing.
“Cool. So, you got your locker assignment? We’ll go dump your books off and then I’ll give you the tour.”
“Yeah, it’s here,” he said, waving the paper. “Two-forty-eight.”
“All right,” I said, genuinely pleased. “I’m two-fifty-two. We’ll be neighbors.”
He smiled again, looking happy to have met a potential friend. I’d been going to school with the same kids all my life, and couldn’t even imagine having to start over that late in the game. I knew that was coming soon with college, but everybody’d be in the same boat then, which made it seem not so bad.
Still, even though Hank was a fish out of water, he seemed okay with his situation, laid back and not too worried about anything. I admired his confidence and I liked his smile. I decided right then that I truly hoped he’d call me to go out sometime, and not just because of his car. Even though we’d only just met, I already liked him and wanted to really be his friend, not just his guide and contact person until he figured out where all the bathrooms were.
Little did I know then that that choice was already not mine to make, and that not another day would go by in my life where he didn’t figure in some way—as a friend, as a roommate, and eventually, as my lover and the keeper of my heart.
A year and a half later
Hank dropped down into the seat beside me in the school auditorium, bumping me and getting into my space, which I was totally used to after being friends and hanging out with him since almost the first day we met. It was career day at school and all the seniors had to attend. I already had my college and career plans made, so I wasn’t very interested in the program, but it got me out of class for the day, and that was always a good thing.
Me and Hank had talked a lot about what we were gonna do after high school. I’d known for a long time what I wanted to do. I was set on becoming an engineer, but Hank was still up in the air about what kind of career he wanted. He liked math and science, but he was a busybody and didn’t want to sit at a desk or in a lab all day. He wasn’t real jazzed about even going to college, said he was tired of listening to teachers, was ready to get out and do something, but his folks weren’t taking no for an answer and they didn’t want him to go into the military, so he’d finally promised to give college a shot.
I know folks generally think of engineers as being geeks, but I wasn’t a complete nerd. It wasn’t like I was excited about more boring lectures anymore than Hank was, but I wanted a good job that paid enough for me to do shit, like have a nice house and a car and vacations, so I was prepared to suck it up for four more years if that was the payoff. Hank bitched about it, but I knew he didn’t want to be bumming off his parents for the rest of his life either, so I figured by the time we did all the fun stuff we had planned for that summer, he’d be ready to settle down and hit the books come August.
The big problem was he hadn’t decided where he was going to school yet. That was bothering me because I really wanted him to go to the same school as me, but I didn’t want to make a big deal about it in case he didn’t want to but wasn’t saying so to keep from hurting my feelings. I’d tried to stay cool all the times we’d talked about it, just pump my school but not try to push him, but as the time got closer for us to decide, I was anxious and impatient for him to say, one way or another.
Apparently it was on his mind too. “So you’re for sure going to UK in Lexington?” he asked as soon as he sat down, squirming in the hard plastic chair like he might possibly wallow out a comfortable spot if he tried hard enough.
I tried to keep my impatience under wraps. “Yeah, man. I’ve been telling you that for months. That’s where my dad went. It’s a good school, and I’ll get a scholarship there for sure.”
“My dad really wants me to go to Alabama. That’s where he went, but I don’t know… it’s so fuckin’ far away.” He shrugged, looking embarrassed that he cared, but he kept talking anyway. “I mean, it’s not like my folks’ll even for sure be living here this time next year. With my dad’s job, who knows? They could be in freaking Antarctica a year from now. But I like it here and I’ve got friends here now and shit, so it’d be nice to stay close, you know?”
I was totally out of patience with dancing around the issue. I leaned over until I was just inches from his face and said in a loud whisper-shout, “Why don’t you just fucking get over it and come to UK with me? We’ll be roommates, it’ll be fucking awesome, and if your parents move, you can fly to see them at Christmas and spend Thanksgiving with me and my folks. Fuck, Hank, just make a decision! We gotta get our applications in soon!”
He gave me a “What the hell?” glare for my bossy attitude, his long, brown bangs shimmering in front of his face like a veil, but finally, he slung his head and his hair flew away and his eyes came into view, determined and satisfied. Apparently I’d convinced him; I could tell he’d made up his mind. “Fine. Fuck it! If you’re good with it, then that’s what I’m gonna do.”
“Dude. I’m good with it.” Jesus, what did he want, an engraved invitation?
“Okay. I just didn’t wanna get in the middle of it if you’d already made plans with Blake and C.J.”
“What makes you think that? I never said I was going to school with them.”
He looked away. “Not lately, but ya’ll used to talk about gettin’ an apartment, splitting it three ways and stuff. So I just wasn’t sure if that plan was still on or not.”
“That’s last year’s news, dude. We haven’t talked about doing that in months. Everybody’s doing their own thing. I’m not even sure where they’re going. They’re talking about UT now. I can do whatever I want,” I assured him. I actually felt bad because I’d totally forgotten my plans with my old friends. Since Hank had come along, and during senior year especially, I’d become less and less interested in doing things with them. They still hung out with us some, which was fine, but they were just extra. Hank was my star.
“All right then, we’re on! UK here we come!” he crowed, jabbing me in the arm with his elbow, and I grinned stupidly, feeling almost as happy as I had three weeks ago on prom night when my girlfriend had finally let me go all the way.