CHAPTER 1

Stats

Girls I’m pretty sure wanted to kiss me: 5

Girls I’ve kissed: 3

Boys I’ve kissed: 1

If Dad ever finds this, I’m dead—like broken spine, belly slit, and guts slithering out all over the floor dead.

THE E-MAIL waiting for Billy when he got home from basketball camp didn’t come as a complete surprise. But that didn’t mean Billy didn’t want to throw himself onto his bed and beat the pillow into a cloud of feathers. All summer, as he sweated through the shooting drills, passing drills, and endless debates on the merits of zone vs. man-on-man defense, he’d depended on texts and e-mails from Jonah to keep his loneliness and confusion at bay. Nearly everything he knew about himself and his place in the world was changing, and Jonah understood. He’d been through some rough stuff in the last year too.

The easy part had been graduating from high school. He’d looked forward to that, even though it meant leaving old friends behind and, hopefully, making new ones at Hoosier State. But the kiss he’d shared with Jonah last year had, in an instant, blown his self-image to kingdom come. He was still fitting the pieces back together. But if he didn’t quite recognize the eighteen-year-old staring him in the face as he shaved every morning, he was clear on one thing. He wanted to do it again. Maybe not run out of the room like a frightened rabbit this time.

Only now it wasn’t going to happen because Jonah had cut him loose before they’d even had a chance to try. Billy got that their differing circumstances would make a physical relationship a challenge. Jonah was finishing his last year in high school in Glen Falls before heading off to music school, and Billy was leaving for Hoosier State on a basketball scholarship. But he’d thought they had a connection.

It was particularly galling that Jonah broke the news via e-mail. Didn’t Billy at least deserve the courtesy of a face-to-face dismissal? He could have met Billy at the bus or the café across from Martin Luther King High that had been their favorite hangout last year. Instead, Jonah had to send him a fucking e-mail. Billy couldn’t fault Jonah’s logic or his poetic language: their lives had thrust them into wildly different trajectories, and the energy it would take to push them into close orbit was beyond their reach. He hoped they could stay friends. He would come to see Billy’s games when he could. Billy knew it wouldn’t be the same.

After banging around his room over the weekend, supposedly packing for college but mostly just shifting shit from one pile to another on his bed, his mom had finally come up to survey the mess. She glanced at the bed and then waited until he had to look her in the eye.

“It didn’t take you five minutes to pack for camp.”

“College is four years, Mom.”

“It’s not like you can’t buy anything once you get there. Or call us if you need something sent.” She was asking, in characteristically oblique fashion, what the hell was bothering him. But it wasn’t like he could tell her. The only person who knew he was bi-curious, or whatever, was Jonah. Now who was he going to tell about this stuff?

His mom meant well, but she was a former cheerleader who’d married a high school basketball star when she got pregnant—her attitudes were more Sarah Palin than Barbara Boxer. And his dad would shit a cow if he knew his son was… if he knew his son liked to look at other guys. Whatever else he’d been, Jonah had become his safety valve, the guy he could talk to about anything.

“I don’t know what I’m doing.” His mom would know he wasn’t talking about the piles of towels and underwear on the bed.

“Give me a hint?” she said. “We talking about going to Hoosier State? Life in general? Basketball?”

Billy reflexively checked to see that his dad wasn’t standing in the doorway or something.

“He’s in the garage. You can tell me, you know, if it’s not what you want.”

Billy collapsed onto the bed. “It’s not the basketball.”

“You worried about the coursework? Forgive me, kid, but I can’t see you homesick.”

His mom liked to call him kid when she was trying for wise parent mode. He’d better come up with something plausible, or this conversation was going to shit fast. Only he wasn’t really used to having to hide stuff from his mom.

“I feel like I’m living somebody else’s life.”

His mom’s eyes narrowed. “It doesn’t seem like such a bad life to me. Most kids have to pay for their college—or their families do.”

“I didn’t say it was bad. I get that I’m lucky.”

“So let’s get this stuff packed, huh?” She pointed. “Hand me those towels. They can go into the big suitcase.”

Billy covertly let out a sigh of relief that she wasn’t pursuing the issue. They’d have to talk sometime, but he’d rather it was after he was out of the house. At least with the scholarship, he’d still have someplace to live when they found out.

THE LOCKER room was not unlike the ones he’d seen in high school, if a bit newer. The same yeasty mixture of ripe sweat, feet, and athlete’s foot powder wafted from ventilation slits pressed into metal locker doors. The same wood-topped benches were bolted to the floor between rows of metal lockers. The lockers were bigger. That was nice. Billy followed the coach to his office, careful to keep his eyes from the crotches of the young men who laughed, snapped towels, and paraded shamelessly from the showers. He met them with a loose-limbed saunter of his own.

“I understand congratulations are due, and not just on your state win. Digger tells me you got MVP at your last game. What was it, 62 points and 18 rebounds?”

Digger, Billy gathered, was Assistant Coach Paulson. They’d met briefly at orientation. “Yes, sir. But the other team’s point guard was injured. I’d never have made so many—”

“Hold it right there, young man. There are always circumstances. Great players know how to take advantage of them.”

“I’m really not that great—”

“A little humility can go a long way, Billy. You don’t actually want to convince people you don’t deserve your successes, do you? Tell ’em you’re something special, and they’ll more than likely believe you. Muhammad Ali taught us that.”

“But he was a great boxer, wasn’t he?”

“Sure, sure.”

Coach Rocker showed Billy into his office and waved him to a chair.

“So how’s your dorm? Getting settled in?”

“It’s fine.” Billy didn’t know if it was because he’d won a basketball scholarship, but he’d been given a room in a suite with two other athletes in Brookhouse, a dorm that was only a short walk from the Athletic Center and Basketball Coliseum. The truth was, he’d rather have been nearer the quad with its green lawns and shaded walks, but he wasn’t going to complain.

“Meet your roommates yet?”

“One of them. Jason Pritchard? He’s a catcher, I think, from Ann Arbor. On a baseball scholarship. The other is Mike Brooks.”

“Oh yes, promising shooting guard.” The coach seemed distracted, his eyes flicking back and forth between Billy and the small TV mounted on the wall of his office as if he wanted to catch the scores. “I’m sure you’ll get along.” Coach Rocker’s eyes returned to meet his. “Tulane Sampson is over there too. Nice guy. You have a lot in common. You should look him up.”

Billy knew who Tulane Sampson was. Everyone knew Tully Sam. He was Hoosier State’s star center. Last year he’d led the league in scoring at twenty-seven per game. He was also a black kid from New Orleans, and more significantly, a senior. What in hell did Coach Rocker think the guy would have in common with Billy, a freshman and small-town Midwestern white boy who might have played point guard in high school but who would be lucky to get off the bench at Hoosier State?

“Well, thanks for stopping by, Billy. We’ll look forward to seeing you at practice.”

Billy rose, wondering why he’d been summoned to speak to the coach only to be dismissed so soon. Maybe the coach made a point of welcoming all the scholarship students.

“You be sure and introduce yourself to Tully—421 Brookhouse. Nice guy.”

Okay, this was just weird. Billy made his way out past the rows of lockers. Maybe it was because Billy had played in Jazz Ensemble in high school with Jonah. New Orleans was known for its jazz heritage. But Coach Rocker didn’t seem the type to pay much attention to extracurricular activities that didn’t involve tossing balls around. He wished he could call Jonah to ask him what he thought, but their friendship was on hiatus, and Jonah would be in class at Martin Luther King High School, three hours’ drive and a world away.

Billy’s father didn’t know about Jonah, or more precisely, what Jonah meant to Billy. It had taken a lot of explanation and even more persistence to explain to Billy’s father why he’d wanted to accept the scholarship at Hoosier State instead of the one at Michigan. His father had been certain Billy was deliberately trying to hurt him when he had refused the scholarship to his alma mater. Ironically, it was the truth that had been most persuasive. Billy had told his parents that he wanted to be closer to Glen Falls. If he’d led them to believe he wanted to be closer to home, instead of closer to Jonah, what was the harm in that?

Heading past the looming football stadium on his way to the library, he passed into the older, greener part of campus. The term hadn’t even started, but he had reading to do. Keeping his scholarship meant keeping up his grades, and he was determined that his degree would be fairly earned, not the result of laxness or special treatment applied to athletes. His pride, and Jonah’s regard, depended on that. It was stupid, but he still cared what Jonah thought of him, even after the guy had dumped him.

BROOKHOUSE WAS a reinforced concrete structure with vertical slit windows that, from the outside, looked as though the architect had recycled blueprints for a jail. Fortunately, the inside was friendlier, or at least more comfortable, and featured modern amenities such as air-conditioning and wall-to-wall carpeting.

After returning from the library, Billy stopped in the men’s bathroom to pee and wash his hands before dinner. Dropping his pack on a dry patch next to one of the eight sinks that filled a kind of lobby, he stepped into the stinky side, which contained a row of urinals and steel toilet stalls. Beyond a gray-and-pink tiled wall, the clean side contained individual shower stalls with tiny curtained spaces outside just large enough for a bench where you could dress. The shower stalls were only three-quarter height, so you could still hear your neighbors, but Billy was grateful for the measure of privacy they afforded.

When Billy returned to the sinks, a tall, well-muscled black guy in tight workout shorts and a muscle-T held his open pack with one hand, the other deep in the interior. A rush of adrenaline set Billy’s heart pounding.

“Hey, what are you doing? Leave that alone!”

The long muscles of the guy’s back twitched, and he dropped the pack onto the counter, but he turned to face Billy nonchalantly. “No need to get your panties in a wad, man. I was just checking to see who’d left his pack in the gents’.”

“Yeah, well, that’s mine.” Had they met at orientation? The guy looked familiar, but Billy couldn’t place him.

The guy looked him up and down with open interest. “I haven’t seen you before. You new?”

Billy, still keyed up for a fight, had trouble getting the words out. “Just got in last night.”

“Then you’re ’bout as fresh as a crocus in snow. I’m Tully. You got a name, newbie?”

Tully Sam. Oh. My. God. He’d failed to recognize him without his uniform. He’d practically just accused the basketball team’s star center of being a thief. This probably wasn’t the introduction Coach Rocker had had in mind.

“Billy Preston. I’m here on a basketball scholarship, so I guess we’ll be seeing each other around. I can’t believe I’m gonna be on the same team as you. I’ve been a fan since forever.” Billy held out his hand and tried not to cringe when he noticed that it still trembled from the adrenaline rush.

Tully glanced at Billy’s hand, something like surprise flickering on his face, before he flashed the trademark grin that had appeared regularly in sports blogs and magazines the last couple of years.

“Well, Billy Preston, pleased to meet you too.”

Billy had never thought of his hands as small. They were, in fact, bigger than average, long fingered and well-suited for palming a basketball. But the massive brown hand that enveloped his own could make a basketball look like it had come from the softball bin.

“Wow, you’ve got the biggest….” Billy stopped, flustered, sure it wasn’t cool to comment on another guy’s body so soon after they’d met.

Tully’s grin widened, and he thrust out a hip. “Honey, I sure hope that was my hand you was gonna compliment, ’cus we jus’ don’t know each other that well.”

Billy’s face heated. “Uh, sorry.” He lowered his eyes. To his mortification, he realized that he still clutched Tully’s hand in his own. He snatched his hand back.

Tully’s grin faded, and once again an expression passed over Tully’s face so fast that Billy wasn’t wholly certain he’d even seen it. Disappointment?

Billy reached for his pack. “It’s great to meet you, Tully. I’m sure we’ll see each other around. At basketball practice, I mean. Or here, in the dorm. Since we both live here. Anyway, see you.” He rushed out of the bathroom, certain suicide was the only answer. Pity the windows didn’t open.

Tully’s laughter, deep and musical, followed him down the hall to his suite.

“HEY, BILLY,” Jason Pritchard, one of Billy’s new roommates, called from the orange-and-blue striped couch that had already been in the suite when Billy arrived the evening before. Jason’s bare legs were hooked over the back of the couch, so his floppy blond mop brushed the carpet.

“Hey, Jason. What’s up?”

“You going over for dinner?”

“I guess. Seems a little early.”

“Sure. Just planning my evening. Brooks is eating at the Student Center. You want to walk over when you’re ready?”

It was weirdly disturbing talking to Jason’s upside-down mouth, so Billy tried fixing his gaze where Jason’s head should have been. Unfortunately, that had him staring at the crotch of Jason’s loose white athletic shorts. The head of Jason’s dick was clearly visible where gravity pressed it against the thin fabric of his shorts.

“Nuh.” It wasn’t quite a word that escaped Billy’s mouth. Get your head out of the gutter! He dragged his eyes from Jason’s anatomy. “Sure.”

What was wrong with him? He hadn’t been obsessed with guys’ bodies before. Ten years of after-school basketball had cured him of any tendency to stare. But then Jonah had started getting hassled at school for being gay—even though he hadn’t actually come out yet—and Jonah’s father had died, and Billy had been the one to bring over Jonah’s schoolwork while Jonah “took a break.” And then they’d kissed, and all the feelings Billy had repressed came roiling back to the surface. Now all he saw were body parts. Big parts, little parts, muscular parts, crisply defined parts, like the bare ridges of Jason’s abdomen where his T-shirt had slid down. Crap. He was doing it again.

“You okay, dude?”

“Fine. Just worried about my grades, I guess.”

“Grades?” Jason’s tone was incredulous. “Classes haven’t even started yet. You’re not some kind of neurotic, are you?”

“Listen, I gotta unpack. I don’t even know where my toothbrush is.”

“Right. Let me know when you’re ready to find some grub.”

THE FIRST practice of the year went pretty well, all things considered. Billy didn’t particularly distinguish himself, but he did well enough in the passing and shooting drills. More importantly, he began to get a sense of the key players on the team. Tully Sam’s presence was huge, his constant deep laughter seeming to exert an almost gravitational force over the players around him, each orbiting him in some complicated way.

Mike Brooks, the freshman shooting guard who supposedly shared Billy’s suite—although Billy hadn’t actually met him yet—turned out to be a quiet guy with a buzz cut and a Zen-like ability to stop time while he was shooting. He’d be in the midst of a shouting, sweaty tangle of players and rise up in slow motion to shoot a perfect arc as though he were alone in the gym. Billy asked him about it as they lined up for another drill, their hands on their knees.

“How the hell do you do that—just freeze everything while you shoot?” he panted. “You got some kind of superpower?”

Mike glanced over and grunted. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Billy hesitated, unsure whether Mike was playing with him. He gave Mike his best grin. “Come on, you’ve got great focus. It’s like there’s nobody else on the court.”

Mike shrugged. “No superpower. Brothers.”

Their turn came up before Billy could ask him to elaborate.

Of course, a major focus of Billy’s attention was the team’s starting point guard, Jamal White, a muscular guy rumored to have grown up in South Side Chicago. Billy had to be gunning for Jamal’s position, if he was to have a successful career at Hoosier State. As point guard, Jamal was ringmaster to the circus. And it didn’t take more than a few minutes of watching the on-court interaction between Jamal and Tully for Billy to realize the team had a problem.

At the end of practice, Billy watched from the bench as a squad of seniors finished a practice game, giving him a chance to give the point guard his undivided attention. While Jamal clearly knew his job—he was everywhere, calling to the other players, encouraging them, and directing plays—it was as if Tully Sam was invisible to him. Given their magnetism, other players were alternately drawn into Tully’s or Jamal’s sphere of influence, but never all of them at once. The result was a kind of bipolar madness.

In one particularly egregious play, Jamal ignored an obvious pass to Tully and instead sent the ball in a hard flat arc toward the squad’s obviously unprepared small forward. The forward, a guy improbably named Otutu Sullivan, reflexively batted the ball to Tully, whose opportunity had already passed, causing the squad to lose the point. Billy glanced at Coach Rocker to see if he’d noticed, and found the man’s attention on him. Billy raised his eyebrows, and Rocker turned away, a frown etched on his face.

After the game, Billy returned from showering to dress at his locker, his mood pensive. What did the coach expect of him? Was the obvious problem between Jamal and Tully the reason for the coach’s near order that Billy introduce himself to Tully? If so, Billy had already fucked that up. But it didn’t make sense. Surely the coach didn’t expect a mere freshman to play some role in fixing the problem?

In high school, basketball had elicited mixed feelings from Billy. On the one hand, it was the sport into which his dad had pushed him without stopping to find out if Billy was interested. At first, Billy had accepted basketball as the price for his dad’s attention and reveled in it. But eventually his dad’s ambition on behalf of his son, his driveway drills and endless postgame analysis, had turned his attention into a burden—and their home into a pressure vessel. On the other hand, there were moments on the court where Billy forgot his dad was watching, forgot that every missed shot or unexploited opportunity would be dissected until Billy wanted to scream at his dad to just leave it alone, and Billy lost himself in the exquisite stretch of long muscles, the slap of the ball against his palm, and the joy of knowing where the guys on his team would be before they did.

Billy knew he would never be a star. He didn’t have the drive or the overwhelming need to be the center of attention that motivated many top players. Maybe it was his dad’s disappointment at his lack of drive that had put them so much in conflict. What Billy loved was being part of a team, a thread in a mobile web of players that stretched across the court, quivering with every feint, pass, or shot. The best games were not the ones in which he scored the most points, but the ones in which he had the most assists—when the team connected and moved down the court with the fluid precision of a flock of starlings.

The only person to whom Billy had ever voiced these thoughts was Jonah, in the e-mails and texts they’d exchanged in the summer before he left for college, while he’d attended basketball camp and Jonah had stayed home at the Music Box to catch up on his school work so he could graduate with the rest of his class.

Billy was frustrated that their physical relationship was on hold, but he was also relieved, since any hint that he was gay could screw up his athletic career. His feelings about their friendship were less complicated: he missed their conversation. After Jonah’s start of term e-mail, they’d mostly shifted to the banter and superficiality of text messages instead of exchanging the longer e-mails that had been Billy’s electronic confessional.

Now that school was ratcheting up again for both of them, he wondered if Jonah would ever resume the long messages that had sustained Billy through eight weeks of shooting drills, passing drills, down-court drills, up-court drills, and intramural competition at basketball camp. The camp had been his dad’s idea, one Billy had initially embraced simply because his dad wouldn’t be there. But that had been before his relationship with Jonah had heated, and the summertime escape had turned into exile with a group of deluded kids who all seemed certain they’d be the one guy in a million who’d graduate from a successful college career to a coveted slot in the NBA. Billy missed his high school team. He’d known those guys for years—some since kindergarten—and enjoyed a rapport with them he never matched at camp.

Billy leaned over to tie his shoes, jeans on, but not yet zipped, his earphones already blasting a playlist of jazz standards he’d learned to love hearing Jonah play them on the piano. A slap on the back startled him into verticality.

“Wha’?”

Mike peered at him quizzically. “What the heck are you listening to, man?”

Caught off guard, unprepared to explain his relationship with Jonah, Billy stuttered. “Uh… just some old-school stuff a friend of mine sent me. He’s kind of a music jock.”

“Okeydokey. Whatever you say, Grandpa. You want to get something to eat?”

Grandpa? “Yeah, sure. If you don’t mind Jason joining us. I said I’d meet him at Porter Commons.”

“Of course. More the merrier. Hey, Liam, Tyler!” Mike yelled to a couple of other guys who were on their way out. “Grandpa and I are getting something to eat. Wanna come?”

Liam and Tyler had other plans, but just like that, the damage was done. Grandpa it was, and would be, for the foreseeable future.