By Brent Hartinger
I was deep behind enemy lines, in the very heart of the opposing camp. My adversaries were all around me. For the time being, my disguise was holding, but still I felt exposed, naked, as if my secret was obvious to anyone who took the time to look. I knew that any wrong action, however slight, could expose my deception and reveal my true identity. The thought made my skin prickle. The enemy would not take kindly to my infiltration of their ranks, especially not here, in their inner sanctum.
Then Kevin Land leaned over the wooden bench behind my locker and said, "Yo, Middlebrook, let me use your shampoo!"
I was in the high school boys' lockerroom at the end of third period P.E. class. I'd just come from the showers, and part of the reason I felt naked was because I was naked. I'd slung my wet towel over the metal door of my locker and was standing there all goosebumpy, eager to get dressed and get the hell out of there. Why exactly did I feel like the boys' lockerroom after third period P.E. was enemy territory -- that the other guys in my P.E. class were rival soldiers in some war-like struggle for domination? Well, there's not really a short answer to that question.
"Use your own damn shampoo," I said to Kevin, crouching down in front of my locker, probing the darkness for clean underwear.
Kevin stepped right up next to me and started searching the upper reaches of my locker himself. I could feel the heat of his body, but it did nothing to lessen my goosebumps. "Come on," he said. "Where is it? I know you have some. You always have shampoo, just like you always have clean undies."
I had just found my Jockey shorts, and I was tempted to not give Kevin the satisfaction of seeing he'd been right about me, but I was cold and tired of being exposed. I sat down on the bench, maneuvering my legs through the elastic of my underwear, then pulled them up. I fumbled for the shampoo in my backpack and handed it to Kevin. "Here. Just bring it back when you're done." Kevin was lean and muscled and dark, with perfect sideburns and a five o'clock shadow by ten in the morning. More importantly, he was naked too, and suddenly it seemed like there was no place to look in the entire lockerroom that wasn't his crotch. I glanced away, but there were more visual land-mines to avoid -- specifically, the bodies of Leon and Brad and Jarred and Ramone, other guys from our P.E. class, all looking like one of those Abercrombie and Fitch underwear ads come to life.
Okay, maybe there was a short answer to the question of why I felt out of place in the boys' lockerroom. I liked guys. Seeing them naked, I mean. But -- and this is worth emphasizing -- I liked seeing them naked on the Internet; I had absolutely no interest in seeing them naked, in person, in the boys' lockerroom after third period P.E. I'd never been naked with a guy before -- I mean in a sexual way -- and I had no plans to do it any time soon. But the fact that I even thought about getting naked with a guy in a sexual way was something that Kevin and Leon and Brad and Jarred and Ramone would never ever understand. I wasn't the most popular guy at Goodkind High School, but I wasn't the least popular either (Kevin Land at least spoke to me, even if it was only to ask for shampoo). But one sure way to become the least popular guy was to have people think you might be gay. And not being gay wasn't just about not throwing a bone in the showers. It was a whole way of acting around other guys, a level of casualness, of comfort, that says, "I'm one of you. I fit in." I wasn't one of them, I didn't fit in, but they didn't need to know that.
Kevin snatched the shampoo, and I deliberately turned my back to him, stepping awkwardly into my jeans.
"Hey, Middlebrook!" Kevin said to me. "Nice ass!" Leon and Brad and Jarred and Ramone all laughed. Big joke, not exactly at my expense, but in my general vicinity. Some tiny part of me wondered, Do I have a nice ass? Hell, I didn't know. But a much bigger part of me tensed, because I knew this was a test, the kind enemy soldiers in movies give to the hero who they suspect isn't one of them. And from a guy I'd just lent my shampoo to too. So much for gratitude.
Everything now depended on my reaction. Would I pass this, Kevin Land's latest test of my manhood?
I glanced back at Kevin, who was still snickering. Halfway down his body, he jiggled, but, of course, I didn't look. Instead, I bent over halfway, sticking my rear out in his direction. "You really think so?" I said, squirming back and forth.
"Middlebrook!" Kevin said, all teeth and whiskers and dimples. "You are such a fag!"
Mission accomplished, I thought to myself. My cover was holding -- for another day at least.
* * *
Once I'd finished dressing, I met up with my friends, Gunnar and Min, for lunch at our usual table in the school cafeteria.
"The paint is flaking off the ceiling in Mr. Wick's classroom," Gunnar said as we started to eat. "Sometimes the chips land on my desk." Gunnar and I had been friends forever, or at least since the fourth grade, when his family had moved from Norway to my neighborhood. I'd always thought he should be proud of being from somewhere different, but kids had teased him about his accent and his name (they called him "Goony" or "Gunner"), so he desperately tried to ignore his heritage. Gunnar was a thoroughly nice guy and perfectly loyal as a friend, but -- and this is hard to admit, him being a buddy and all -- just a little bit high-strung.
"It's an old school," Min said. "The whole ceiling's going to collapse on us one of these days." Min, my other friend, was the school egghead (she was also Chinese-American, which is something of a stereotype, isn't it?). But unlike Shelly Vorhaus, the school's other egghead, Min had more than two shirts and actually wore makeup. In other words, Min and Gunnar were both like me, occasional visitors to the border region of high school respectability.
"You don't understand," Gunnar said to Min. "What if it's lead paint? You said it yourself, this is an old building."
"Lead paint?" I said.
"You know -- the kind that causes brain damage if you ingest it?" Gunnar could be also be a bit of a hypochondriac or whatever.
"So what if it is?" Min said. "You're not eating it, are you?"
"Ingest doesn't just mean to eat something," Gunnar said. "It can also mean to inhale. Most people don't know that." He was right, I hadn't known that. But if Min didn't know it either, I didn't feel so bad.
I liked Min and Gunnar a lot. We had a lot in common, and for the most part, I felt comfortable around them. But I couldn't help wondering how they'd react if they knew my little secret -- my liking guys, I mean. I doubted they'd run shrieking from the room. But they were my best friends, and I couldn't have handled anything less than confetti-and-sparklers acceptance. Which was why I'd decided never to tell them. But which was also why I guess I never felt that comfortable around them.
Suddenly, a blanket of silence fell across the cafeteria. Min, Gunnar, and I all turned to see what was making the lack of a commotion.
Brian Bund, a junior, was sitting by himself at a table in the corner, his hunched, bony back to the room. Someone had flung a big spoonful of chili at him, and it had spattered across the back of his white t-shirt.
As soon as people realized what had happened, they began to laugh. I glanced around the lunchroom. Ordinarily, there was a cafeteria worker or two around, cleaning tables or refilling napkin dispensers, but there were no adults just then -- which was probably why Brian had been on the receiving end of the chili in the first place.
A lot of people were laughing at Brian now, but the jocks, sitting two tables away from him, were laughing the loudest. I was certain the projectile-chili was their handiwork. Sure enough, even as the whole lunchroom was watching, Jarred Gasner lobbed a spoonful of chocolate pudding at the back of Brian's shirt. And Nate Klane flicked a heap of vanilla ice cream. Kevin Land, snickering with the rest of the jocks, wasn't throwing anything, but he'd probably been the one to throw the chili that had started it all. But at least I had to give those jocks credit for their aim, because everything they threw hit Brian square in the hair or back.
By now, the cafeteria was ringing with laughter. It was coming from every corner of the room. The cheerleaders at the Cheerleader table. The druggies at the Druggie table. And the Girl Jocks, the Theater Crowd, and the Lefty Radicals at all their tables too. Even some of the kids at the Christian, Orchestra Members, and Computer Geeks' tables were laughing. (For the record, Min, Gunnar, and I made up the Nerdy Intellectuals, and no one at our table was laughing).
I wasn't surprised by any of this. Brian Bund was the unquestioned outcast of the school. The jocks teased him mercilessly, and almost everyone else watched and laughed while they did it. Maybe Brian would be one of those high school outcasts you read about who grow up, found some software company, and make fifty billion dollars. But for the time being, he was the lowest of the low, and all the future billions that he might someday make wouldn't get me to trade places with him.
I'd like to say that when I saw what was being done to him, I stood up and stomped across the cafeteria, stopping the humiliation with some cheeky quip. If this was the movie of my life, that's exactly what I would have done--a great way to establish what a plucky, likeable guy I am. But this wasn't a movie, and the only audience was the other kids in that cafeteria, so I sat there like everyone else. It wouldn't have made any difference anyway. Nothing I could've said would have stopped what they were doing to Brian. The jocks just would've thrown stuff at me too, and when I took Lifesaving, the first thing they taught us was to think long and hard before you approach a drowning person -- that if you get too close, they can pull you under with them.
"What's going on?" The voice of a cafeteria worker cut through the din.
The food stopped coming, but the laughter didn't.
Brian sat there for a second, the back of his shirt flecked with chili and ice cream and pudding. Then he stood up, and little bits of food started dripping down to the floor. Brian turned and looked out across the cafeteria with such a mixture of bewilderment and sadness in his eyes that I felt a deep pang of a shame way down in my stomach, even though I was one of only about fifteen people who weren't laughing at him. Incredibly, Brian took the time to carry his tray to the garbage can where he dumped his trash. Anyone who couldn't see the dignity in his sorting of his dirty silverware didn't know what dignity was.
But most of the kids in the cafeteria just laughed louder still.
"Would you look at this?" said the frustrated cafeteria worker, spotting the mess behind where Brian had been sitting. "Who's going to clean this up? Huh? Who?" The worker was saying this to Brian, which I thought was ironic. Talk about blaming the victim.
Gunnar, Min, and I turned back to our table, but none of us said anything. I wasn't sure what Gunnar and Min were thinking. I knew they thought it was terrible how everyone treated Brian Bund. But let's face it, Brian was weird. He had acne, he smelled bad. And to Gunnar and Min, Brian probably seemed so different that he was like another species. You care when someone kicks a dog, you feel bad for the poor animal, but you don't feel that bad, because it's not like it's a human being.
Brian didn't seem so different to me. Because I knew that's how people might treat me if they ever learned the truth. It scared the hell out of me, because I was certain I could never handle being that completely alone.
* * *
That night in my bedroom, I logged onto the net. I said I'd never actually been naked with a guy, but it's possible that once or twice I might've gone to a gay chat room and maybe even gone off for a private chat with a guy or two. I refuse to say any more about this on the grounds that it may incriminate me, but I will say that mostly we really did just chat about innocent things, like how long had we known we were gay and which actor did we think was cute.
The fact is, there's a difference between being alone and being lonely; I may not have been completely alone in life, but I was definitely lonely. My secret mission -- four years in an American high school -- had been an involuntary one, and now I desperately wanted to be somewhere where I could be honest about who I was and what I wanted. I had plenty to say on the topic, but no one to say it to. The Internet gave me people to say it to. Problem is, they weren't real.
That night, I visited one of my regular gay haunts. Among the list of various chat rooms--"College Students," "Bisexuals," "Political Junkies," etc.--there is a whole list of rooms categorized by geographic location. In other words, if you want to talk to a gay person in Boise, Idaho, there's a room labeled, "Boise, Idaho."
I kept scrolling down the screen until I came to a room listing the town where I live. It hadn't been here before -- they must have just added it -- and it caught me by surprise. My hometown is kind of a smallish, and it had never occurred to me that there might actually be other gay people there. It made sense, of course -- ten percent, gays are your friends and neighbors, all that crap. But I'd kind of assumed that that's just talk and that gay people really only live in New York and San Francisco. Still, if there are gay people in Boise, Idaho, it stood to reason they'd be in my town too.
I entered the chat room. I may have been a tad more excited than usual.
There was only one other person in the room, which made sense to me, since I figured there was only about one other gay person in my whole hometown. His handle was GayTeen, which wasn't the most original name I'd ever seen. Mine was Smuggler, for no reason I can explain.
Hey, I wrote.
S'up? he wrote.
Not exactly the most exciting conversation. But I admit, I was desperate.
Age? I asked.
16, he wrote back. Of course, I had no way of knowing that anything he said was true -- the good or bad part of the Internet, depending on what you looked like. On the other hand, if it was some creepy old guy looking to bust a nut, it would become clear pretty quickly, and I could just check myself out.
I asked him if he really lived in my town.
Sure, he wrote.
Where u go to school? I asked. This was a test. There are three high schools in the area -- it isn't that small a town -- but if he really lived nearby, he'd know the schools.
The screen was empty for a second, like GayTeen was thinking. Then a word appeared. Goodkind.
I hadn't expected this. This was my high school! I could accept there were other gay people in my town, even other high school students. But I definitely could not accept that they went to my high school! Once again, I knew it made sense. But I'd just felt so lonely for so long, it had never occurred to me I might not really be alone.
Was it someone I knew?
What year are u? I asked.
Sophomore, he wrote back. U?
Same, I wrote. Well, that clinched it. I knew everyone in my class, at least by name. Whoever this was, I had to know him.
We chatted for a few more minutes, mostly about teachers and cafeteria food. There was no denying that he was a student and he went to my school. He knew too much not to.
Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. Who are u? I wrote. What's your real name? I had to know.
The screen stayed blank. GayTeen didn't answer.
Are u still there? I wrote.
I'm here, GayTeen wrote. Who are u? You tell me first.
Suddenly, I saw the problem. If I told GayTeen who I was, there was no guarantee he'd tell me who he was. And if he didn't, he could tell people about me. If he told me who he was and I didn't respond, I could do the same thing to him. We could promise to write our names at exactly the same time, but who's to say we'd both do it?
No. We couldn't reveal ourselves over the Internet. The stakes were far too high.
Two new words appeared on my screen. Let's meet, they said.
I knew immediately that this was the logical solution. It was the only way to even out the risk. We'd see each other at the same time. He'd know about me, but I'd know about him too. If he talked about me, I could talk about him -- mutually assured destruction.
The risk was lower, true, but there was still a risk. I'd never actually met a known gay person before. Did it really make sense for the first one to be someone from my class? After the lengths I'd gone to over the years to conceal my true identity, how could I even consider entrusting that information to someone I didn't know? I'd never even told Min or Gunnar.
All this flashed through my mind, but even as it did, I was typing a response so fast my fingers were stumbling over the keys. It was only a single word: Where?
* * *
It was well past dark when I arrived at the playfield where we'd agreed to meet. I locked my bike and scanned the area, but I didn't see anyone. There weren't any cars in the parking lot either. The air was cool and wet, and I was shivering even under a heavy jacket, but it wasn't just from the cold.
Then I saw him. There's a picnic gazebo on the far side of the field, which borders a dense swampy area. Under the gazebo, a dark figure sat hunched atop a picnic table. Even as I spotted him, he seemed to see me too. He slipped off the table, stepping forward, still in the shadows, but peering out into the darkness.
The moon was behind some soggy clouds, so I couldn't see him clearly, and he couldn't see me. In other words, I could still back out. I could unlock my bike, climb aboard, and pedal away, and he'd never have known who I was. But I knew I wasn't going to. I'd already come too far.
I started across the field. It had been raining a lot lately, and the grass had flooded. The mud sucked at my tennis shoes, cold water seeping into my socks.
Who was it under that picnic gazebo? I could tell from his slightly slackened posture that it really was a high school student--but who? What if it was Gunnar? No, it was probably Brian Bund. What would I do then? I couldn't very well just turn my back on him and leave.
I passed a children's play area to one side of the field--two sets of rusted metal monkey bars, one in the shape of a covered wagon, the other in the shape of a tepee, in the middle of a patch of flooded sand.
The figure in the gazebo hadn't made any movement toward me, but he hadn't backed away either. He just stood there watching me. The only thing more fitting would have been if he'd been smoking a cigarette and wearing a dark overcoat.
This was stupid. I'd talked to dozens of gay teenagers on the Internet. I'd told them I was gay. What was the difference? But even as I thought this, I knew the difference, and it was big. This was real.
I was less than thirty feet from the gazebo now. The methane stench from the swamp was foul, and I couldn't imagine anyone ever actually having a picnic here. A few more feet, and we'd be able to see each other clearly. I was risking everything, but for what I wasn't sure. All I knew is that I'd been undercover for far too long. It was time to finally make contact.
Taking a deep breath, I sloshed the rest of the way across the grass, stepped into the gazebo, and found myself staring into the dark, bristled face of Kevin Land.
(Reprinted with permission of the author.)