WHEN TWO hundred or so pounds of football player hit me, I couldn’t exactly ignore it. Especially after I ended up on the ground, staring up at Tyler Wright, one of my teammates. One I wished would find another team.
“Thought you were the football superstar, Guillermo.” Tyler held out his hand.
I got up on my own. Touching him would have required fumigation or something afterward. Jackass-ishness tended to be contagious.
I didn’t bother answering his snarky comment, either. For the past two weeks I’d had insults thrown at me on the field and in the halls. I’d learned to ignore them. If I didn’t, someone would have ended up pounded into the pavement or a locker. And I’d promised Evan I wouldn’t fight.
“Garcia, you okay?” Coach called. “Wright, what the blazes was that?”
“He had the ball. I took him down.” Tyler glared at the ground. He knew he’d been out of line. He’d just hoped Coach wouldn’t notice, like last time he’d tackled me for no good reason.
“He’s your teammate.” Coach strode over and glared up at Tyler, who had a few inches on him heightwise but was a whole lot narrower. “I don’t care what’s going on between you all personally. I don’t even care about inside that building.” He jabbed his pen toward the school on the far side of the field and raised his voice. “Out here, you’re a team, and you’d better get back to acting it, or this season will be over.”
“It already is,” someone said from behind me. Rick Murphy, I was pretty sure. I didn’t want to turn around to see. “It ended when that fag got Jim and Ray in trouble.”
The “f” word did it. Some things rolled right off my back, but there was no way in hell I would let that word go without consequence. Rage shot through me, and I whirled around to face the guy who’d spoken.
Sure enough, it was Rick. His eyes went wide, and he stepped back, almost tripping over an invisible hole in the ground.
I clenched my fists against the heat trying to explode out of me and gritted my teeth. “You do not call Evan Granger a fag when I’m around. Or any other time. You hear me? He was not the one who got those guys in trouble. You know how the sidewalk at Main and Hermon has that red stain? You think that’s some kind of juice?”
“Fruit juice,” someone else said in too low a voice for me to identify.
“Clemson, showers,” Coach snapped before I could react. Apparently he had no problem identifying the speaker. “You’re out for the rest of the week. Murphy, you too. Get off my field.”
I was glad he’d spoken up. I was shaking from trying so hard not to go off on those guys, and I was right on the edge of losing it. I didn’t want to find out what would happen if I did.
“Coach, are you kidding?” Tony Demaria walked up beside me. “We’re already down two men. You’re suspending two more?”
“You’re the captain, Demaria. Do a better job leading these guys and I won’t be making decisions like this. Rules. You all know them, so I won’t bother repeating. Slurs will not be accepted on this field.” Coach patted me on the shoulder. “Garcia, five laps, then get your butt back here. We have a game Saturday, and this team needs to get in shape.”
I didn’t argue about the laps. Coach and I’d had chats about my temper during summer practices when I’d almost blown up. It wasn’t easy to stay chill in a game that involved people pummeling each other, and when some of the pummeling was about the color of my skin, it was even harder. I’d almost quit the team over someone mouthing off about me being Puerto Rican before Coach had brought things under control.
I jogged off to the edge of the field and started running the perimeter while Coach kept lecturing the other guys. Some of them probably didn’t have a clue why calling Evan a “fag” was a bad thing. Half of them called each other the same in the locker room. I wasn’t too happy about that either, but it was one thing to razz a teammate. It meant something completely different when they used the word on the most openly gay guy in school.
And it meant something more to me when that openly gay guy was my boyfriend. Every time they called Evan names, they were saying the same thing about me. None of them knew it, but that didn’t change anything.
The team went back to work, minus Rick Murphy and Josh Clemson. I did my laps, and by the time I finished, I’d cooled off enough to deal with the last part of practice. I went back to my position and ran plays with the rest of the team until Coach blew his whistle and sent us inside.
No one said a word to me, but the narrowed eyes and muttering made it pretty clear they blamed me for Rick and Josh being suspended. They wouldn’t mess with me. My reputation protected me. But they would do sneaky little things and make smartass remarks no one else heard until a distraction came along. Most of them didn’t have the attention span to hassle me and deal with someone or something else at the same time.
I didn’t waste my breath talking to anyone in the locker room. I just showered, put on the baggy jeans, black tee, and flannel shirt I’d worn to school, and tried to get out of there fast.
No such luck. Tony stopped me at the door.
“The guys used to look up to you.” He kept his voice down and glanced over at the others. None of them seemed to be paying attention, which meant they were probably trying to hear every word.
“If they don’t anymore, it isn’t my problem.” I folded my arms over my chest and tried not to glare at him. “We’re athletes. Future leaders, as Coach always says. So if people have a problem with me sticking up for someone who’s picked on for being himself, it’s on them, not me.”
Tony sighed. He was a decent team captain. He simply didn’t grasp the idea of leading the guys off the field as well as on. Coach had a point. If Tony did his job, the guys wouldn’t keep getting kicked off the team or worse. Controlling other people’s opinions was pretty much impossible, but teaching them to watch what they said and did was totally doable.
“They’re starting to wonder about you,” he said. “The way you’re always sticking up for Evan and hanging out with him at lunch and stuff. And didn’t he say something about you trying to buy his affections?”
I rolled my eyes. Evan hadn’t meant to cause problems with his little wisecrack a couple of weeks earlier. He’d been giving me a hard time for offering to buy his lunch when he wasn’t exactly speaking to me. But of course the small-minded punks in our school would make something out of it.
“He’d had a crap day, so I said I’d pay for his lunch,” I said. “He made a smartass comment. Two weeks ago, Tony. If people haven’t already forgotten, they don’t have anything resembling lives.”
“They think you’re dating him or something,” Tony said.
My chest tightened, and I took a deep breath and tried to act cool. No one could find out about Evan and me. I’d told him so right from the start. His cousin Holly knew, because the two of them were pretty much joined at the hip. His mom knew, too, because I spent plenty of time at Evan’s house. I didn’t mind having them know. Holly knew how to keep her mouth shut, and Imogen wasn’t likely to tell anyone either. They were the only ones who knew.
Since my family and I had moved to town back in April, I’d seen the crap Evan went through for being gay. It didn’t help that he often wore nail polish and clothes that weren’t exactly intended for guys. He refused to stop being himself, regardless of how many people hassled him for it.
I was terrified of getting the same crap he did. I had too much to lose. Including maybe my family.
“Evan’s my friend,” I said slowly, emphasizing the word. I spoke more loudly to make sure the whole team heard me. “He’s a good kid, and he doesn’t deserve the way people treat him. So yeah, I stick up for him. And I’m going to keep doing it, and if any of you give him a hard time, you will be dealing with me. I don’t care what you think of me or him. Keep it to yourselves.”
“He’s the reason we lost two of our best players.” Donny Antonelli didn’t sound ticked off. He was just stating a fact.
An untrue one.
“You forget, I was there,” I said. I didn’t look at Donny. Hot rage shot through me again, and I was close to punching someone’s face in. Which wouldn’t have been too cool in the locker room, especially when it would have earned me a one-way ticket off the team. I was one of the best players we had left, and I had to handle myself.
I took a deep breath and spoke as slowly as I had before. “Evan was walking to school. Frankel and Ferreira stopped him and started pushing him around. Evan tried to stick up for himself, and next thing, he was on the ground having his head pounded against the sidewalk. He might have freaking died. All he wanted was to come to school. I don’t know why, since all he gets here is a bunch of crap. But it was not his fault they went off on him. So don’t talk about shit you don’t know anything about.”
“He’s right.” Tony turned away from me. “And Coach is right about me leading you guys. So listen up. I don’t care what you think about gay people, or guys who dress like girls, or any of that. You have a right to your opinions. You’d better keep them quiet is all. The school’s already in trouble for not taking care of what was going on with Evan, so now they’re coming down hardcore on any kind of bullying.”
He glanced at me. I nodded and breathed again. I wasn’t officially a captain, but I’d helped turn around a team that hadn’t won a game in five years, so the guys sometimes listened to me. Or at least they had until I’d started defending Evan.
“There are laws,” I said. “One of them says if you bully someone in school, it’s reported to the authorities. Another one says if you beat someone into the hospital, you’re arrested. I’m the one who called the cops that day, so if you’re going to blame someone for Frankel and Ferreira being off the team, blame me. I’ll be more than happy to have a private discussion with you.”
I cracked my knuckles to make my point and immediately hated myself for it. I’d promised Evan I wouldn’t intimidate people on purpose. He said it made me no better than the guys who’d harassed him. I wanted him to believe I was better.
“If the school finds out you’re bullying someone, they have to do something about it,” I said. “And if Ms. Rondeau and Mr. Lawrence don’t do anything about it, Coach will. He told all of us he isn’t putting up with it anymore. So be smart.”
Some of them grumbled, and I was pretty sure a few guys said words that would have gotten them suspended from the team, if not from school, if I’d been sure who said them. Since I couldn’t tell for sure who’d spoken and didn’t want to know, I let it go.
“Are we done here?” I asked Tony. “I have homework and important stuff to do.”
He opened and closed his mouth as if he had something to say and didn’t know how to say it. Finally he gave up. “Yeah. Go ahead. See you tomorrow.”
I hiked my backpack up on my shoulders and walked out. Behind me, I heard more grumbling. I tried not to care.
I wasn’t on my way home to do homework. It was five o’clock. I was starving, and Mami would be expecting me for supper, but I wasn’t ready to go home yet. My heart wouldn’t slow down, and even though anger heated me up, chills ran through me.
People already suspected Evan and I were a couple. I could deny it forever, but people would always assume something was going on.
Sooner or later, someone would figure out they were right. Everyone knew Evan was gay. He didn’t try to make any secret out of it. A straight guy and a gay guy could be friends, the same way a straight guy and a straight girl could be. People were ignorant, though, and they would still make guesses about the real reason I hung out with Evan.
As I stomped out of the building through the gym doors, my brain ran through all the worst-case scenarios if I stopped hiding. I might be kicked off the team because the guys wouldn’t want to share the locker room with a gay guy. None of them were even close to attractive as far as I was concerned, and I wouldn’t have hit on them any more than I would have hit on a girl. But that wouldn’t stop them from whining about me seeing them naked in the showers.
Being forced to leave the team would be easy to handle compared to how my family might react. I was the oldest son. My father expected me to carry on his name, and both of my parents expected grandchildren. In my family, a man supporting his wife and children was a matter of pride, and the news that I wouldn’t be fathering any children or marrying any woman might send my father off the deep end.
They might throw me out of the house. My family might never speak to me again.
That was the main reason I didn’t dare to let anyone find out about me. The way people hassled Evan at school was bad enough, but I’d be able to deal with bullying. If my family turned against me, I didn’t know what I would do.
So I had to make sure they didn’t find out.
My brain was going down a darker path than I wanted to deal with, so to break the spiral I took out my phone and called home.
Mami answered. “Guillermo, is practice over yet?”
“Yes, but I promised Evan I’d help him with his anatomy homework.” I held my breath. She wouldn’t be happy to hear I didn’t plan to be home for dinner. Family dinners were a nightly thing at my house, and we didn’t miss them without a good reason.
Homework wasn’t usually a good reason.
“We’re eating at six,” she said. “It’s after five now. How long will your homework take?”
“I’m not sure.” I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell her I’d planned to eat pizza with Evan. My mind was still whirling, and I just didn’t have it in me to break family plans. Evan would have to understand. “I’ll try to be home by six. I might be a few minutes late.”
“All right.” She sounded happier now. “See you when you get home.”
I put the phone back in my pocket and groaned. I couldn’t win. If I’d stuck to my plans with Evan, Mami would have been upset. And then Papi would have gotten on my case for upsetting her.
Now I would only have about half an hour with Evan, which would make him unhappy. He knew how important my family was to me, so he wouldn’t be too upset. But I’d promised him I would go to his place after practice and stay for supper because his mom had to work late, and now I had to break my promise.
Sometimes I wondered why he bothered going out with me. He had to hide it from everyone else, and half the time I ended up saying something stupid or breaking plans with him so people wouldn’t find out.
I wanted to be worth the effort for him, and I doubted I was. But he was beyond worth it for me.
When I got to his apartment, he opened the door before I had a chance to knock. He wore black skinny jeans and a white T-shirt that hugged his body and made me want to hug it too. He’d rimmed his blue eyes with black eyeliner, and he had black polish on his nails. The black matched his crew cut, which he’d dyed the week before from its previous blond.
I hadn’t figured out yet why I thought he was so hot with makeup, but I did. And I wished I wasn’t so afraid to let people know he was mine. Right then, I only wanted to wrap my arms around him and keep him safe from all the jackasses and bullies around.
And I couldn’t even do that much, because we were standing in front of his door and his neighbors might see. I had no guts at all compared to him.
“I was watching for you.” He blushed. “That sounds creepy, doesn’t it?”
“No. It sounds like you wanted to see me.” I smiled, and my heart swelled. No matter how chicken I was, Evan wanted me around.
I went in, and he closed the door behind me. I hesitated. “I can’t stay the way I said I would. I’m sorry. My mom wants me home.”
His smile shrank a little and he shrugged. “It’s okay. How was practice?”
“The usual.” I didn’t want him to hear what the jerks on the team said about him. Or how much they hassled me because of him. None of it was Evan’s fault. Maybe I couldn’t protect him from all the negatives, but I didn’t have to add to them.
He led me over to the couch and we sat down. I wanted to hug him or kiss him or something, but I held back. We’d kissed plenty of times, and it was always awesome, but I always felt a little weird about it. Evan wasn’t my first boyfriend, but with the other two guys I’d gone out with, there hadn’t been a whole lot of physical stuff.
“Are you okay?” He hauled his backpack up off the floor onto the couch between us, which pretty much killed my idea of kissing him.
“Guys mouthed off again at practice, that’s all.” I stopped myself from telling him what they’d mouthed off about. He’d been hearing at school and online about people blaming him for Frankel and Ferreira’s problems. He didn’t need confirmation that the storm hadn’t died down yet.
“About me?” He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest as if giving himself the hug I hadn’t managed yet.
“About the game this weekend and not having the whole team there.” I reached for his hand, but he didn’t let me take it. “Not because of the two Fs. Rick and Josh crossed a couple of lines, so Coach suspended them for the rest of the week.”
Evan looked at me, eyes wide. “Seriously? When you’re already down two guys?”
“Coach doesn’t accept that kind of crap from his players.” I tried again for his hand. This time he let me have it, and we rested our wrists on his backpack. “It was gay stuff. I mean, insulting terms. They said it right in front of Coach, and he stepped up and dealt with it. Then he read Tony Demaria the riot act for not being a better leader. Coach doesn’t blame you for what happened, and he isn’t letting anyone else blame you either.”
Evan took a deep breath. “Good to know, I guess. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like a lot of people are blaming me anymore. Mostly guys from the team and a few of the die-hard fans. Hell, Chastaine Rollo walked up to me in the cafeteria the other day and told me she likes my nail polish, so the entire school isn’t against me.”
I snorted. “Chastaine should take some fashion tips from you.”
“Yeah.” He hesitated. “You know, people talk about her and some of the other girls for the way they dress. Everyone’s heard Chastaine’s reputation, and they judge her for it. Even me, sometimes. It isn’t any better than people judging me for what I wear.”
I started to answer. Chastaine asked for the responses she got. She was proud of wearing clothes that showed as much skin as the school would let her get away with, and of liking to party, whether in public or private.
But now that I really thought about it, saying she asked for people’s insults was pretty much the same as saying Evan deserved to be bullied for wearing nail polish and sometimes women’s clothes.
Leave it to Evan to compare himself to Chastaine. She hadn’t exactly been friendly to him in the past, but Evan hated seeing anyone judged or put down.
“Okay,” I said. “So she likes your nail polish?”
“Yeah.” He held up his free hand. His nails sparkled in the glow of the overhead light. “New kind. I just bought it yesterday. I gave Chastaine the rest of the bottle.”
“You had it at school?” I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t lecture him again. I didn’t disagree with his right to dress how he wanted, but I sometimes could have sworn he did things for the sole purpose of getting a reaction.
“Julia wanted to see what brand it was, so I brought it to show her.” He rolled his eyes. “Moe, don’t start, okay? I wasn’t sitting in the caf painting my nails or anything. I brought a bottle of polish to show someone. And when Chastaine complimented it, I decided to be nice.”
“Why did you want to be nice to her?” Evan was nice to most people if they were nice to him, but Chastaine ignored him as far as I knew.
“Since Homecoming, she’s been talking to me,” he said. “She’s knocked down a couple of jerks online, too, when they posted stuff about me. She told me she liked my dress.”
“Great.” I’d gone to the Homecoming dance with Chastaine because she’d asked me and I hadn’t been able to come up with a reason to say no. My parents hadn’t been too impressed about my date choice. They’d seen Chastaine around town and didn’t approve of the way she dressed. On the other hand, they’d been pleased about me having a date to one of the biggest dances of the year.
Evan had gone to Homecoming too. In full drag. Makeup, wig, formal gown, and a banner saying “Homecoming Drag Queen.” The chaperones hadn’t let him inside the yacht club where the dance was held, and I’d wanted to kill him for being so stupid. That was what had caused the fight I’d tried to end by buying his lunch a few days later.
He’d looked really sexy in the dress, even if wearing it hadn’t been a great idea. He was a cute guy. In drag, he was even cuter.
I tried not to think about that too much. To me, if I was attracted to a guy in a dress, I might as well be attracted to girls. Which I wasn’t. So liking Evan’s drag look didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
“Chastaine’s pretty cool,” he said. “I always figured she didn’t like me because most of those kids don’t, but I may have misjudged her.”
“Yeah.” The word came out sounding more annoyed than I intended, but I didn’t want to talk about Chastaine or judging anymore.
He took the hint. “It stinks that you can’t stay. Mom’s working late, and Holly went to her grandparents’ for dinner. Her dad’s parents, I mean.”
“Sorry.” I squeezed his hand. “When I called home, my mom said she wanted me there for dinner with the family.”
“Yeah, it’s all good.” He smiled. “Family’s important. Maybe someday I’ll be able to join you for a family dinner.”
“Maybe.” I smiled back and tried to ignore the tightness in my chest.
I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to bring Evan home to meet my parents and brother. My dad would never understand the way Evan dressed, especially the nail polish and stuff. Evan’s outfit today was right on the edge of what a “real guy” would wear, in my dad’s opinion, but the nail polish and eyeliner killed it.
Even if I told them Evan and I were only friends, my parents might not accept him. I didn’t want to hide him, but I didn’t know any other way to protect him and myself.
It really sucked.