I DON’T remember the moment I knew I was broken.
I was seventeen and on the edge of an eighteen that seemed terrifying to a young man not sure of his sexuality. I knew I liked guys but was still under the delusion that an attraction to guys didn’t make you gay just like drowning didn’t mean you were breathing water. It just made you different, and as we all know, in high school there is nothing worse than being different. Though every TV show or movie will tell you the wacky, zany, oddball character is not only cool but a necessary component in most social settings, no one ever closed their eyes and wished they ended up being Screech.
I never assumed I was broken, coming from a single-parent family that consisted of a mom who spent more time drinking and partying than being an actual parent—not that I had any idea what an actual parent looked liked. Again, pop culture had taught me that a mom was either baking pies in pearls and heels, Xanax smile pasted on her face as if she were a post-modern zombie, or the spunky single lady who worked hard and never seemed to secure herself a real romantic entanglement. My mom was neither of those, and the concept of a dad was about as familiar to me as walking on the moon.
I was emotionally retarded in a way that made connecting with another human being so daunting a task that even considering it could cause my heart to race and my breath to stop altogether. Since junior high, boys had made me feel funny, and not in a laughing sort of way. That clumsy, all feet and no balance stutter that most teenage boys feel towards girls, I would get in the locker room. Let me assure you no one sounds slick stuttering like they are having a seizure. All sound drained away as my vision zeroed in on the boy next to me as he slipped out of his jeans. More than once I had found myself forcing my eyes to look away so I could finish dressing out for PE.
By the time I started high school, I had constructed a virtual igloo of emotional distance between me and everyone else. I projected a coldness that bordered on snobbery. I was the guy everyone knew of but no one could recall speaking to personally. I imagined myself an urban legend of Foster High School, like the Sasquatch or a chupacabra. Everyone had a friend who had seen me talking to someone, but no one had ever talked to me directly. I was a ghost wandering the halls, head down, backpack over one shoulder, eyes focused on where my next step would take me and nothing more. In a social environment where being cool and liked were currency, I was a monk who had taken a vow of poverty which then necessitated a vow of celibacy. I sidestepped conversations, ate lunch by myself, and practically ran home after school.
I didn’t know it, but I was broken in a way that wasn’t readily evident to those around me.
As anyone who has read comic books knows, when one sense is taken from you, the others become almost superhuman, allowing you the ability to get by in life the best you possibly can. Since I was completely and utterly devoid of any knowledge of how emotions worked for other people, my mind had taken the unused space and used it to amplify what book smarts I already possessed to a Rain Man level of intellect. I was the person who never needed to study, never needed to read anything more than once, and always finished his test first. I am sure in some alternate universe there was a high school where being a nerd was cool. That possessing a vast array of useless knowledge would be a badge of notoriety and it would have garnered me some kind of social worth. Alas, I was not born there. Instead, my brain made me a nerd at worst, at best the quiet, smart guy who never seemed to look up when he walked.
I think that’s why I never saw him coming.
I knew who he was, of course; everyone did. His name was Brad Greymark, and he was one of those lucky few who walked on rarefied air as he passed you by in the hall. He was on the baseball team, and every image I had of him before we met was of him wearing a letterman’s jacket, green with white leather sleeves adorned with a huge F on his lapel, making him look like a superhero amidst the rest of us normal people. He wasn’t perfect-looking, though he was closer to it than most, but he was good-looking enough to get you to turn your head at least once, and with Brad, once was all he needed. With his dark-red hair with green eyes, he was the very model of a modern teenage athlete, strong features with just a hint of prettiness that made him irresistible.
He had to know how popular he was, but it never came across when he talked. There was earnestness in his attitude that made you want to like him despite all of the obvious benefits already bestowed on him by the universe in general. I never knew anyone to dislike or take umbrage with his obvious gifts as was so common in the high school ecosystem. Normally people like him were coveted and loathed behind their backs, but this was not true when it came to Brad. It was as if instead of pushing those around him down by reminding them of his physical superiority, he shared it somehow, like when you were talking to him, somehow you were made more popular as well. I had, of course, never talked to him, but I had eaten lunch near the group of people that gathered at his feet every noon to break bread. Being in his presence was almost akin to listening to royalty speak, by the way people hung on his every word. No matter what the subject, there seemed to be a gravity about it that made even the most trivial of subjects seem important. His voice was strong and soothing, containing none of the odd tones and subliminal insecurities most high school boys possessed. It was easily recognizable above the noise of a crowd, and no matter where he was in a room, it commanded attention.
Which is why, when I heard it coming from right in front of me, I almost screamed.
I had been walking through the hall as I normally did, head down, concentrating only on getting out of the building. Navigating a high school hallway is no easy task, since the inborn pocket of comfortable space most people possess seems to have no value when you have fifteen minutes to run to your locker, grab the books for your next class, and catch up with gossip before you are tardy. If you weren’t careful, you could get body checked more times than a forward at a hockey game without even the briefest of acknowledgments by the person who had committed the personal foul. I had perfected an almost radar-like ability of passing by a crowd of people without them ever knowing I was there. So when I saw a set of size twelve Converse sneakers directly in my path that day, I swerved sharply left to avoid the collision. The sneakers moved to intercept me. As I tried to pull right, I heard his voice say, “Hey,” and mentally, I lost it.
There is nothing worse than your body reacting to someone before your brain can even recognize who it is. It is a Pavlovian response when you run into someone you are attracted to and aren’t ready for it. There is a something that runs up your spine, as if every particle of your being is being magnetically pulled to the other person. Whatever automatic system your body has for keeping itself upright and moving forward temporarily fails, and inevitably you are going to stumble like your sneakers have grown three sizes too big.
And because I was a teenage boy, I instantly got hard.
There are few materials known to man more unforgiving to an erection than denim. It is coarse, dense, and not even the least bit interested in giving you an inch or two of room as the swelling member gets bigger. I don’t know any male who has not felt the gnawing maw of jeans clamping down on his member at least once in his life. Sitting down, standing up, running laps, eating lunch—there is never a penis that is as comfortable hard as it is soft in a pair of jeans. The only thing worse than throwing a bone in the middle of a hallway while standing in front of a straight guy is adjusting your hard-on in the middle of a hallway while standing in front of said straight guy without seeming like you are playing with yourself.
So as my member slid down my jeans inch by agonizing inch, I forced myself to focus on a spot between his eyes and tried to replicate the heterosexual male head nod that all teenage boys except me seemed to know, and responded with a, “Hey” that was a few octaves higher than I initially intended. My right hand was still gripping the history book and folder I had just retrieved from my locker, so as he began to talk, I tried to move the book in front of my groin as unnoticeably as possible.
“So you’re kind of smart, right?” His question that was far more rhetorical than an actual inquiry, since he kept talking without waiting for an answer. “Because Gunn is a cool coach, but he is a dick about grades.”
This only made sense if you knew how our high school worked.
Coach Gunn was a bulldog of a man who spent his day coaching baseball and teaching history. That would seem to be a godsend to our school’s jocks, who had to maintain a grade point average of 2.75 to stay on the team. They thought that since he coached them, his history class would be a breeze. So every year, the new group of jocks would do everything they could to make sure they got into his class.
And every year, a fresh group of boys found out that Coach Gunn did not believe in a free ride.
Brad had paused to wait for some kind of response from me, which was his second mistake; his first was expecting me to be normal in the first place. I wasn’t used to talking to actual people, much less people waiting for me to respond to them. I had lost myself doing two different things that ended up becoming one, and I was completely unaware of him waiting for me. My gaze had moved from the space between his eyes and drifted to the almost luminescent green of his irises and had stayed lost there for a few long seconds. At the same time, my hand had moved the book over my now hard dick and instead of just covering it from view, it pressed against it.
And the two things had become one.
His eyes led me to the ruddy blush of his cheeks, which, upon closer inspection, seemed to hide pale freckles that made his skin seem that much more perfect with its newfound imperfections. His freckles led down to what I could see of his muscled neck. It was hidden by the collar of his jacket on either side, and I saw the first Adam’s apple I was ever transfixed by. His neck led my eyes down to a thin white T-shirt that seemed to accentuate the hard muscles that made up the twin curves of his pecs instead of covering them. The way the cotton seemed to dip between them almost invited a person to see how deep the space between them actually was. I could see the impression of a chain underneath, and when he shifted his weight and I spotted the glint of silver between the white T-shirt and the jacket, I felt like I had almost seen the band of his underwear.
My head jerked up so fast it was a blur as I realized I was still standing in the middle of a high school hallway with a huge erection covered only by my history book. “Yeah,” I said quickly, not sure exactly what question I was answering.
Obviously he didn’t either, because he cocked his head like a dog and asked, “Um, to which one?”
“What?” I asked, as confused as he was, if that was possible. And then whatever buffer that had frozen in my head freed itself, and time started moving normally again. “Yes,” I said again, now answering his question, followed by a sharp, “No.” Which didn’t sound good. “I mean, I don’t… what do you mean by smart?” I could see in his eyes that whatever hopes he had that I possessed any superior intellect were dwindling quickly as it became apparent I couldn’t even string together a sentence. “I mean, there is street-smart, and there is, like, math smart, which I’m not because numbers suck, so not really, but if you’re talking about….” I began to ramble.
“History,” he said, cutting me off. “Coach Gunn teaches history, and you seem good at it.” He was talking slowly now as if he were trying to communicate with an alien. “Are you?”
“Yes,” I answered, trying to swallow.
We stood there staring at each other for about five seconds before he just shook his head. “You know what? Forget it.” He began to walk away.
And only then did I realize that one of the best-looking guys in school had just been talking to me and was now walking away from me. I tried to calculate all of the different possibilities that would have made someone like him to talk to someone like me. Was I getting cooler? Did he know I liked guys? Did he like guys? Did he like me? Was this a vain attempt to reach out and get me to understand that there was someone else in this world as lonely as me? Maybe he was trying to get across in code or something that he…. This was when my brain screamed at me. He needs help with his history homework, you retard!
“Wait,” I said, turning around after him. He paused and looked back at me, and I felt my mind begin to get lost in the lines of his chin, so I blurted out, “I can help you.”
He raised an eyebrow as the people walking past us stared, no doubt wondering what exactly that meant. I realized I had broken another cardinal rule of surviving high school besides “never look up” and “always bring your own lunch”: never talk to someone else in front of people.
I was talking to someone else in front of other people.
I took several steps toward him to minimize how loud I had to speak. “With your history,” I amended. “I can help you.”
“I need to pass the midterm,” he said in the same conspiratorial tone I was using. “If I don’t, I’m toast.”
I nodded to both the spoken and unspoken sentiments. I could indeed help him study for the midterm, and I was aware he would be tossed off the team if he failed it. And in a culture that is completely popularity-driven, like high school, being stripped of his letterman jacket was akin to being cast out from the pantheon of high school gods and forced to wander the barren earth with us commoners.
The ironic part is not once did I consider not helping him simply out of spite.
He was one of those golden boys who somehow seemed to deserve the spotlight of attention they received. Resenting or even trying to deny him that kind of adoration just seemed to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment. Imagining him not being one of the most popular boys in school was like picturing a beautiful golden retriever caked with mud or a masterpiece of a painting covered with years of grime and dust. I think that was his secret, the reason he was so well liked even though he didn’t seem to try. People naturally wanted to help him, and I’m sure the fact that he resembled most people’s concept of an ideal teenage boy in his prime didn’t hurt.
“It’s next week. We’d need to study pretty hard,” I said, wondering what exactly I was getting myself into. “We could meet after school at the library—”
He shook his head, cutting me off. “I have practice, has to be after that.”
I paused. “But the library closes at five.”
He shrugged. “Then come over to my house and we’ll study there.”
“Or we could go to yours,” he started to say.
“We’ll go to yours!” I blurted out, not letting my overactive imagination have even a second to envision the horror of my mother stumbling out of her room, hungover and wondering why there was someone else in the house.
“Cool,” he said, nodding to himself. “You need a ride, or do you have a car?”
“I do not have a car,” I said tonelessly, still in shock as I realized that by not wanting him to come to my house, I had agreed to go to his.
“Cool,” he said with an easy smile. “Meet me by the locker room after five; I can drop you off at home afterward, okay?”
My head nodded all by itself.
“Awesome. Thanks, man,” he said, turning around and then pausing. “Um, I hate to ask this… but I really don’t know your name.” He seemed contrite and embarrassed all at once, which made him about a thousand times more attractive in my eyes.
I paused for an impossibly long moment as I realized I didn’t know my name either. “Kyle!” I blurted out as the memory of my given name stumbled across the tip of my tongue. “My name is Kyle!” I tried again, reinforcing it by saying it out loud again.
His smile turned into a wide grin as he held out his hand. “I’m Brad.”
“I know,” I said before I could stop myself. His hand closed on mine, and his head tilted to the right a bit as his eyes locked onto mine, as if he were considering those words carefully. I felt my stomach fall out from under me as I realized what the hell I had just said. “I mean, everyone knows you,” I amended, and I followed that up with a nervous little serial killer chuckle that would convince absolutely no one I wasn’t crazy.
He held my hand for a second too long as he said nothing and then slowly nodded. “Okay, Kyle. Cool.” He let go, but I could still feel the warmth of where his skin had touched mine. “So after five?” My head did the bobblehead nod as I agreed. He laughed a little to himself as he turned away. “Awesome, see you then.”
I tried not to stare at the way his jeans hugged his ass as he walked away.
I tried but failed pretty badly.