Chapter One

 

 

IF COACH forced us to run even one more lap around that gym, I swore to God I would die. My legs were like Jell-O already. I loved it, though. I loved the way he pushed us, and it was his insistence that we all give a 110 percent that led us to the state championship last year. We were all hungry for another victory because winning once just wasn’t enough.

That was exactly what I thought about when my lungs ached as I tried to catch my breath. When it felt like the muscles in my arms and legs were going to fail, I remembered that victory. I remembered how my teammates had lifted me high in the air after I’d broken the state scoring record and led the team to that final, decisive victory. Basking in the adulation of the cheering crowd, I’d ridden the wave, knowing full well how much we deserved the championship. We’d earned it. We’d worked our butts off.

I had no intention of doing any less my final year. This was my stage, and it was up to me to give the performance of my life, especially if I truly expected to get that basketball scholarship. And that was why it came as a surprise to no one that I was the first one to complete my laps and hit the shower. Rarely was it any different. They all knew the level of my determination, and whether they liked me or not, they respected my position as a team leader.

After stripping off my sweat-soaked tee, I used it to mop my brow before tossing it carelessly on the cement floor in front of my locker. Shoes, shorts, jock—within seconds they were added to the pile. I no longer was modest when it came to stripping down in the locker room. I knew how to play it cool and fit in with the guys, and in spite of the raging hormones that so often seemed to control me when I was alone, I was Mr. Casual when I was hanging with my buds.

When I felt the snap of a towel against the back of my leg, I knew it came from Bryan, and I knew exactly how to respond: I turned and slugged his naked bicep playfully. We horsed around like that constantly, and it was no big deal. Touching another guy in the locker room, even when naked, was safe. You could swat and slap and punch all you wanted. You just couldn’t look.

“Hey, man,” I protested, as I jabbed my fist into his upper arm. “Do I need to kick your ass?”

He laughed and jumped backward, feigning intimidation. Truth was, we’d have been about evenly matched in a fight, but there was no animus between us. Bryan was my best friend and had been since the fourth grade. We lived in the same neighborhood, rode the same bus to grade school, and had shared many of the same classes over the years.

“Oh my God, I’m dying,” Bryan complained as he stepped under the shower. “Fuckin’ coach is gonna kill us.”

“Deal with it,” I replied. “Only pussies whine about a good workout.”

“I’m dealing,” he replied, turning and tilting his head back under the spray of water, “but sometimes I just wonder….”

“What?”

“Well, is it worth it, you know?”

“Listen to you! Don’t be a shithead. Of course it’s worth it. We’re state champs, aren’t we? And if we win these last two games, we’re going to division playoffs.”

He smiled as he looked over at me. His blue eyes seemed larger and brighter than normal, in spite of his obvious state of exhaustion. “I know, I know. It’s just….”

“What?”

Bryan turned away before answering, and at that very moment a gang of four more teammates rushed the showers, all of them boisterous and rowdy. Their shouts echoed in the small chamber, and my conversation with Bryan was cut short. Something was off, though. I could sense it.

I didn’t say anything more, but as Bryan and I made our way back to our lockers, I pretended not to notice when he hesitated. Alex Carson was standing by his locker with his back toward us, wearing only a tight-fitting pair of blue boxer-briefs. His arms were raised as he slid a polo shirt over his head. Bryan’s eyes trailed every inch of Alex’s masculine frame, from the broad shoulders down to the tapering, narrow waist and beyond.

Bryan shook his head slightly, then turned away, not only from Alex but from me as well. He snatched up a fresh pair of shorts and slipped into them, not turning to face me.

“So, dude, what’s up?” I asked. I now had my own locker open and went about my business as if I hadn’t noticed anything.

“Huh? What do ya mean?”

“I mean, well, is something bugging you?”

“No,” he responded, a little too quickly. “I’m just tired. I feel like I just got my ass kicked, ya know.”

“Yeah.” I tried to sound sympathetic in my tone, but his explanation was flimsy. Coach always kicked our ass, and Bryan had never complained before. “Hey, I think I know what you mean. Last year, about midseason, I totally felt like that. I was like, ‘This sucks. I have no life.’”

“Exactly,” Bryan agreed, but that was where the conversation ended. When he finally turned around, the sour look on his face served as a warning not to press him. I guessed it best for me to let him have his space. As we were sitting on the bench lacing our shoes, I made a final attempt. “Bry, if you feel like you need to talk about something, you know I’m always there for ya, right?”

He looked over at me, and his expression softened. “Thanks, man,” he said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

 

BASKETBALL meant a lot to me. It always had, since the time I was old enough to dribble a ball. But unlike many of my jock counterparts, I realized it didn’t have to be the only thing that defined me. Sports in general were a big deal, in my opinion. I loved to compete. I loved to challenge myself physically and mentally. I loved the entire atmosphere of the athletic arena—the camaraderie and sportsmanship. The thrill of victory. Yeah, a lot of it sounds clichéd, but it was true.

Yet I hated the labels. I hated the fact that so many kids in our school were quick to categorize each other. Sure, I liked sports, and so technically I was a jock. But was I really a jock in the sense that most of them meant? The “jocks” in our school were a clique in the same way that the geeks, the cheerleaders, and the goths were. Along with the label came a litany of expectations.

Jocks were expected to be obsessed with sports to the point that they didn’t give a rat’s ass about anything else. They weren’t too bright, usually. They were bullies who used their physical strength to push around their weaker, average-sized classmates. Most of them wouldn’t amount to much in life unless they happened to be lucky enough to get a scholarship or make it into college or pro sports, and that was about as likely to happen as winning the lottery.

That was probably why I didn’t go around calling myself a jock. I wanted people to think better of me, and more importantly, I already thought better of myself. What I didn’t realize was that after our team’s success winning the championship during my junior year, I’d have a bit of a “following” amongst some of the underclassmen.

One example of this was a day in early October when I arrived at the cafeteria earlier than normal. Usually I looked for familiar faces, fellow team members or people I normally hung out with. Bryan was sick that day, and since I didn’t see any of my “gang,” I chose to take a seat next to this kid I barely knew. I recognized Noah from drama club, but I hadn’t really talked to him very much.

“Mind if I sit here?”

He looked around as if confused. I think he thought for a second I might be talking to someone else, maybe someone behind him. “Uh, no. I mean, sure, go ahead.”

“You’re Noah, right?”

“Wow,” he said, his voice barely audible.

I had to laugh. “It’s really not that hard a name to remember,” I commented.

“But why would you even bother?”

“Um, I don’t know. I guess ’cause we’re in drama club together. We go to the same school. You seem like a cool enough guy. Why does someone remember a name, anyway?”

He picked up his milk carton and sipped through the straw, then placed it back onto his tray. Shrugging, he finally dared to sustain eye contact with me. “You’re Evan Drake, captain of the basketball team. Jock superstar. Most valuable player. Et cetera, et cetera.”

It was my turn to shrug. “Hmm. I’m not sure if I should be flattered or offended.”

“Flattered,” he blurted out. “I mean, I wasn’t insulting you. I’m just sayin’ you’re popular. Everybody knows that.”

The kid was cute in a nerdy sort of way, but way too short. He was probably only, like, five foot five, and compared to my six-foot-one stature, he was a pipsqueak. I liked his toothy smile and big blue eyes, and I remembered a skit he did in drama one day that made me laugh my ass off. We were doing improv, and he came up with the silliest, most self-deprecating routine I’d ever seen.

But then it kind struck a chord in my heart, and I wondered if that tendency to put himself down might have stemmed from some low self-esteem. “Well, I don’t see myself as all that popular, really,” I said. “And to be honest, I wish I had your talent. That skit you did a couple weeks ago in class had me laughing for days.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. You should be on Saturday Night Live or something.”

He looked down at his tray, grinning. Obviously, he wasn’t used to receiving compliments. “I was kind of surprised you took that class,” he said after a beat. “Not a lot of guys like you are into, you know, acting and stuff.”

“You’ve seen High School Musical, right?”

He laughed. “Yeah. Actually, I love those movies.”

“Remember the song in the first movie, ‘Stick to the Status Quo’?”

“Yeah, when Troy and Gabriella get a callback from their audition, and the whole school freaks out.”

“Right. Then the rest of the school is like, ‘I’ve got a secret too. I like to bake even though I’m a jock. I like to sing hip-hop even though I’m a geek.’”

“And the skateboarder dude played the cello.”

I laughed at the way his eyes lit up when he got excited. “Yeah. Well, don’t you see a parallel here?”

“Ha! So you’re saying you’re Troy from High School Musical? I guess you do sort of resemble Zac Efron.”

This time I laughed. “Nah. But it’s a good message, don’t you think? Why should we let other people define us by their assumptions about who we should be? Just ’cause I love basketball doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to enjoy other things as well.”

“Like Troy,” he repeated. “So does this mean you’re gonna audition for the school play this year?”

“Hadn’t really thought about it, but since I’m in drama club, I guess I just figured we’d all be auditioning. Even if I don’t get a big role, the experience itself will be fun.”

Noah bit his bottom lip as he stared across the table. It was like he was assessing me, sizing me up. “Wanna hear a secret?” he whispered, leaning in toward me.

“Sure, man.”

“I’m writing a play.”

It wasn’t what I expected. I thought he was about to reveal some earth-shattering gossip. I tried to keep a straight face but couldn’t help but smile. Immediately his expression changed, and he looked disappointed. “I know. It’s dumb.”

“No!” I quickly sobered. “It’s just… well, it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I mean, it’s not that big a secret, is it?”

“Well, I think you’d be perfect for the lead,” he said. “Because it’s about a jock.”

“Like Troy?”

“Kind of….”

“So, are you writing it for drama club?”

“That’s the secret part,” he said. “Mr. Collins liked one of my other plays, and he said I should write one specifically for us to use, ya know, for our annual school play.”

“Wow! That is seriously badass. So you’ve written other plays already?”

“Nah.” He shook his head, shrugging again. “Sort of, I guess. They’re more like skits. Short plays. This will be my first major project.”

“They must’ve been good, though, for Collins to ask you to write a full-length play. So tell me about it.”

He took a deep breath, then slowly released it. The apprehension conveyed by his sigh signaled how nervous he was. “I’ll show you when I get it done.”

“But you already said I’d be perfect for the lead—”

“Maybe!”

Just then we were interrupted by one of my teammates. Duane took a seat opposite me and began talking, completely ignoring Noah. Trying not to be rude, I turned to Noah and attempted to pull him into the conversation, but he got up abruptly.

“See you in class,” he said. “I gotta run.”

 

 

THAT incident with Noah was more than two months ago, before basketball had even started. We’d bumped into each other at various times since, but hadn’t really talked. My only interaction with the kid was in drama club. But knowing there were guys like him out there, guys who looked up to me and elevated me to a position of particular social relevance, made me feel oddly humble. I wasn’t sure Noah actually got what I was trying to tell him—that we all were more alike than we are different, and that no one should be placed in a box based upon the perceptions of their peers.

When I left the locker room that day after our grueling practice, it was Bryan who was on my mind. Why couldn’t he trust me enough to tell me what was going on? Obviously, something was bugging him, and I suspected it was something much more complicated than being tired from practice.

And what was up with him checking out Alex? Who knew? Maybe he wasn’t checking him out as much as he was assessing him. Was there something going on between them? A rivalry maybe?

One thing was for sure, Bryan wasn’t looking at Alex the same way I was. I’d known for more than two years that I found guys more attractive than girls. High school, though, was not the right time or place for me to “come out” as gay. To be honest, when it first started, I thought it might just be a phase, a part of adolescence. When and if I met the right girl, I was fairly certain my same-sex attractions would disappear.

It wasn’t that I had anything against gay people or against being gay. But it was another one of those labels, and I didn’t like labels. It wasn’t me. I didn’t fit into any of those stereotypes, and to announce to the world, or even to my closest friends, that I was a homosexual would be acknowledging this whole set of assumptions they were sure to have of me.

Plus, I really didn’t know. I knew I loved sports. I loved competition, and I loved being around other guys like myself. I loved the physical contact, the sights, the scents, the feelings. And yes, sometimes these stimuli resulted in arousal, but then so did a lot of things. Christ, isn’t it normal for a seventeen-year-old to get a boner from just about anything?

The reason I had doubts, though, was that I didn’t seem to experience the same reaction with girls. I did go on dates, and I did get excited by the idea of going out with a pretty girl. I liked how it looked and how it made me feel about myself. On the other hand, I felt a tad hypocritical, like I should feel more than what I did—or differently. And that always brought me back to my original supposition: I just hadn’t met the right person yet. There was probably a girl out there who would change everything for me. One day I’d look back and smile, realizing it had just been a confusing phase of adolescence. After I was married and settled down, raising my perfect family, supporting them with my perfect job, living in my perfect house, all of this would seem kind of silly.

So when I saw Bry check out Alex’s backside, I discounted it as a misinterpretation. It was undoubtedly just me being my confused, messed-up self. I was the one who recognized Alex was hot, because I did that sort of thing. I noticed guys. I always noticed guys. The last thing I wanted to do was to project my feelings onto my best friend.

What would he say about it if I told him? Bryan had been my best friend for as long as I could remember, and in a way I felt an obligation to tell him the truth about myself. The problem was that I didn’t know for sure what the truth was. And if I said to him, “Hey dude, I need to confess I’m turned on by guys,” he’d most definitely freak. At the very least, he’d be weirded out by the idea and then might start questioning our friendship.

So I wasn’t about to have a heart-to-heart with him, at least not about me. But I had to find out what was bugging him. That was what friends did. It wasn’t even ten minutes after I walked out of the locker room that I saw Bryan again. This time, I had no doubt something was seriously wrong. I rushed up to him and grabbed him by the shoulders.

“Dude, what the hell are you doing?”

Bryan had little Noah shoved up against a locker, using his forearm to pin the kid’s neck. Noah stood there gasping, desperately grasping at Bryan’s arm, trying to pull it away.

“Faggot!” Bryan spat. “Stay the fuck away from me!”

As I pulled Bryan off the kid, I then shoved him backward into the center of the hallway. Bryan’s arms flailed like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He quickly righted himself and steadied his stance. He was enraged, and I expected him to charge at me. I held my arms up, palms facing him. “Chill out!” I yelled. “Dude, what’s wrong with you?”

Pointing his finger directly at Noah, who was now standing there clutching his throat and trembling, Bryan’s face contorted into a hostile expression of hatred. “I’m sick of that little pervert looking at me all the time. Staring! Checking me out! He’s a faggot, and if he does it again, I swear to God I’m gonna kill him!”

I didn’t even know how to respond. I just stood there, mouth agape for a moment. Before I could formulate any relevant response, Bryan was gone. He stormed off down the hallway and made for the exit. All I could do was turn to Noah and make sure he was okay.

He shook his head, eyes bugging out. “I didn’t do anything,” he whispered. “I swear….”

“Noah, are you okay?” I stepped closer to him and placed my hand on his shoulder.

His eyes welled with tears, but he nodded. “Yeah. I’m fine. He’s just a dumb fucking jock. Like I told you before… they’re all the same.” And then he turned his back on me.

 

 

I COULDN’T catch Bryan, and it was obvious Noah didn’t have any desire to talk to me. The whole situation was messed up, and I felt as if I was squarely in the middle of it. It was strange that Noah was even at school that late. Usually by the time we got out of practice, there was no one around. I wondered exactly what he’d said or done to set Bryan off.

Maybe he had made some kind of pass at Bry, but I doubted it. I had no idea what Noah’s proclivities were, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out he was gay. He was in drama, was a sharp dresser, and definitely had softer mannerisms. Well, you could say that about a lot of people—some people might say as much about me, but I didn’t really think I acted girly.

I took my time walking home, dropped my backpack off on my porch, then strolled down the block to Bryan’s house. When he met me at the front door, I could tell immediately that he’d calmed down.

“Hey,” I said, “you all right?”

Staring down at his sneakers, he didn’t immediately respond. “Yeah,” he finally said.

“Can I come in?”

He pushed the door open for me, and I slid in beside him. He then turned and headed up the staircase, ascending the steps two at a time as I followed. I’d been in Bry’s home a million times before. I didn’t really even need to knock. I knew his whole family, and there were times it felt more like Bry and I were brothers rather than best friends.

Once in his room, he flopped down on the bed and clasped his hands behind his head as I closed the door behind me.

“So what exactly happened?” I said.

He turned away, staring at the wall. “Nothin’.”

“Dude, come on. It wasn’t nothing. You were ready to kill that kid.”

“I wish I had!” he spat.

“Bry, what’d he do to you?”

“I can’t fucking believe you don’t notice. That kid totally gives me the creeps. He’s always ogling everyone, staring at other guys. It’s gross. It’s not fucking normal.”

“So you freaked out on him ’cause you thought he was checking you out?” I almost laughed.

“Ev, I’m not a fag!”

“I never said you were. God, Bryan, of course you’re not….”

“Well, that kid must think I am.”

I sat down in Bryan’s desk chair, leaning back. What could I say to him? How could I make sense out of something so ridiculous? “Okay, dude, listen to me, and don’t get all pissed.”

He turned to face me, glaring. He obviously expected me to say something he wasn’t going to agree with.

“I have no idea if Noah is gay or bi or whatever. I don’t care.”

“It’s obvious—”

“Let me finish… please. Noah might be gay; I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t care one way or the other. But let’s just say he is, for the sake of argument. You know you’re a decent-looking guy. You’ve had lots of girlfriends. Chicks are always saying you’re cute. So why would it be so outrageous for a gay kid to notice you?”

“’Cause I ain’t gay! God, Ev, listen to yourself! How would you feel about some fag checking you out?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. Flattered?”

I thought he was going to choke. “That’s sick,” he said. “You’d want some dude checking you out the same way we check out chicks?”

“I didn’t say that. It’s not that I would want anyone checking me out. But ya know, people can’t help who they’re attracted to. If Noah happens to be gay, how can he help but notice which guys are… ya know… hot?”

“I don’t wanna be ‘hot’ to some fag.”

“Well,” I said after a beat, “I doubt you’ll have to worry about it anymore. Even if Noah is gay, I don’t think after today he’d be the least bit interested in you.”

Bryan was scowling again. “Good!”

“Is this what was bothering you in practice?”

“Are you my fuckin’ shrink or something?”

“No! I’m your best friend. Aren’t I?”

“Yeah. Dude, look, I’m sorry. It’s just… well, this season really sucks. It’s not fun like it was last year. I’m just sick of busting my ass to please Coach. No matter how hard I try, it’s never enough.”

“Coach is just doin’ his job, Bry. I know he can be strict. Maybe you should go talk to him, tell him how you feel.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll deal.”

I swiveled in the chair, trying to think of what else to say to him. It seemed I wasn’t doing a great job of helping my friend. “Bry, we’ve been friends a long time. You know our friendship is way more important to me than anything else.”

“I know, man.”

“If I can help, please tell me.”

“You can’t,” he said. “It’s not about you. It’s me.”

“Will you promise me that if you need to talk, you’ll call me?”

“You sound like a chick.”

“Dude, just promise!”

“Okay, okay.” Finally he turned to me and smiled. “We should go do something this weekend.”

“Something fun. Go to the water park or something.”

“Yeah.”

“Cool,” I said. I stood up and stepped over to him, slugging him affectionately on the arm. “I gotta get home. Brandon’s home alone.”

“Okay, man. Hey, thanks.”

“No problem.”