School is going okay for me, at least on the surface. My grades are good. As a swimmer, I am considered a jock, even though high school swimming doesn’t start until Spring. Everyone belongs to one clique or another. I do not have time for a social life, other than swim team. The truth is I am lonely but do not want to admit it. I need a close friend to be part of the group. Nobody is outgoing. School activities are de-emphasized; no one goes to formals or sports events. The school is an armed camp, with security everywhere, worrying about integration. The Black students arrive at 8 am by bus and leave at 2 pm. Contact is restricted. They even have separate classes, so they can ‘catch up.’ I guess the administration thinks it is enough that they come to our school, not that they can consider it their school – de facto segregation.
I’m writing Tina regularly. She sends me her magic book, ‘The Occult’ by Colin Wilson. It seems pretty scientific and logical, as long as you can believe in magic. Wilson calls magic our ‘sixth sense.’ explaining how to do all types of magical routines, like astrology, numerology, tarot, and the paranormal. We write mostly about astrology since we both love looking at the stars. It is a system describing personality differences, twelve signs that in total encompass all human traits, an ancient psychology. My moodiness fits my Cancer sign. I am a home body and always have money. I do not care for that prediction. Tina writes that I should not feel imprisoned by my sign; if another seems better, I should embrace it. Use the knowledge to understand yourself and others. This heresy fits my belief that I have to be myself. With this new point of view, astrology seems logical and sensible. It is belief that makes it work, which sounds a lot like what the youth leader used to say in Catholic CCD. Suspending skepticism opens up other senses that see the world as other than pure cause and effect – the human factor that befuddles scientists. I guess we are pretty arrogant. Tina wants to experience the full range of human characteristics by trying to embrace the traits of each sign as the moon waxes and wanes; I want to understand myself better. I suggest she give each sign a year to broaden her experience at each. We enjoy this type of communication. My hope is to visit New York at Christmas vacation, if I can just get my folks to visit Aunt Helen’s in New England.
My friendship/relationship with Lydia continues to blossom. We swim together every morning and evening. When she tries to ride her bike with all the boys, the mud puddle jumping is not her forte. We go to the movies – ‘Tom Sawyer’ – which isn’t very romantic. We keep it as buddies who hold hands. My sex drive has completely dried up, after my weekend with Joey. Am I really gay and not interested in girls? Is what I have done too much, traumatizing me about sex? Have I retreated back to pre-pubescence, kind of like Tom Sawyer? Without raging hormones I feel relieved. I like girls naturally. Should I be concerned that I seem to like everyone? I try putting these thoughts about relationships into my swim log.. I write about Joey and the wild experiences we shared in contrast to the even texture of life as a jock. One rainy evening, Scott and I are waiting for our rides home. He asks to swap logs, which I feel is cool. I have been careful not to put anything about gay sex in mine. He still seems hung up on himself. Even though I have not been bothered lately by that problem myself, I can identify with it. He calls me up after reading my log. He asks a bunch about the partying I did with Joey, especially having sex with Sweet Jane. He is incredulous that I can have sex with someone I just met and not see her again.
“Don’t you want to see her?”
“Just to have sex?
“Not just that. What happened to her?”
“Joey said she’s living with a businessman.”
“At sixteen? Wow.”
“Living in the City makes you grow up fast.”
“It’s hard enough growing up slowly.”
“Maybe you’re a social retard.”
“Don’t you care about her?”
“I don’t worry about her. It was something that happened, and I’m not a virgin anymore. It wasn’t meant to be a relationship. In some ways, she used me as much as I used her.”
“Used your big one, you mean.”
“Glad you noticed,” and he laughs. “No. She needed someone young, like she is. Sex isn’t just the goal. She needed to instantly connect. Maybe I won’t do it again.”
We laugh. He wants to talk about my crying after talking with Joey on my birthday, but when I hesitate, he quickly backs off. He feels similar ambivalence on talking about strong feelings.
“Listen, Scott, my cousin is the first person I really missed. When I joined the team, things became normal again, but in the City and at Joey’s I was doing things I know aren’t normal for my age. Sex and everything are great, but they leave you confused. Joey’s twenty and knows what’s up. He was there for me when it was over. When he came to visit, we worked out our feelings, so I didn’t think and worry about them so much. The need and missing him were no longer so strong.”
“You act like you love him.”
“Yeah, I did. I still do, but differently.”
I almost tell him everything but wisely hold that impulse at bay. After we hang up, I congratulate myself for keeping control of the situation. I am a bit more mature. Scott is needier than I realized, like Stu, just not on the surface. Maybe I should give him more credit. I came close to blowing my cover. I decide to talk with David Wilkie and Jill; at least he knows about me. It doesn’t matter to them. I get on my bike and soon am knocking on their door.
“Hey, Tim. Long time no see. Any more exploits with your crazy cousin?”
I look at him and my eyes water up. Oh, no.
He grabs me and pulls me into their apartment. Jill takes one look at me and opens her arms.
“What’s wrong little fish boy?”
I smile, then relate how I had been about to out myself to someone on the team.
“You mean the boy you’re always fighting?” David knows.
“Yeah, but that was over him being mean to his little brother.”
“This brings back mixed memories from when I started swimming in Aberdeen,” David smiles.
“We’re friends now and shared our logs. Joey is in mine, how I cried once from talking to him on the phone. I said I loved him because I was lonely. We worked it out.” It comes out all in a rush.
“You cried? Isn’t the reason you fight is because you called him a cry baby?”
“That’s to get him to stop calling his brother Stupid.”
“Okay, but why tell him you’re gay? That won’t help your popularity on the team.”
“I didn’t but afterwards I feel like I need to tell someone.”
“So that’s why you’re here, but we already knew.”
“I know, but I can’t keep my feelings bottled up. You two are the only ones I can just talk to. My popularity is based on being open to everyone. Nobody knows the truth.”
David starts to go on. Jill stops him. She holds me until the tears stop. I start to laugh.
“Everything at the right time, my dear,” she says. “Timing is everything. It’s hard to be closeted, but you’ll know when it’s right to tell your friends.”
I smile. They push me out the door.
“Come whenever you want, but know we’re going to laugh about this once you’re gone.”
As I go out the door, I turn around and say, “You know I’m not totally gay.”
“Right,” they both say.
When Thanksgiving comes, Coach announces we will work extra hard since there is no school. We may get off for Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t worry since my family is not the type to spend all day over a meal. Dad decides we will go out to eat which seems cool. While we wait for dessert, I ask them if we can go to Aunt Helen’s for Christmas, laying it on about missing snow and everything. Mom and Dad look at each other.
“Listen, Timmy,” Dad starts, making me wince at my old name, “there are some things we have to talk about, things that make planning to visit Helen impossible.”
“What are you saying?” I instantly think it is some trouble with Joey.
“Your mother and I have a life that you’re too young to be aware of. There are problems you don’t know about.” Dad gets right to the point. “We may separate for a while, just to sort out these problems.”
It is like a bomb that lays there for years, suddenly going off into a zillion pieces. I just sit there. Mom says nothing.
“I’m moving out next week. Nothing’s going to change in your life,” Dad rationalizes.
“Like I’ve never handled changes, like growing up as a military brat is stable.”
Mom speaks, “This is not your fault, Timmy. Don’t blame yourself.”
What? Blame myself for their loveless, boring lives? My head is spinning. All I feel is how mad I am that they keep calling me Timmy.
“What do you want from me? What can I do?”
“We want you to go on being happy and making us proud. Nothing will change.”
No. I do not believe that for one minute.
Life is much the same at first. I make all my workouts. I never spent much time with Dad before, so I do not really miss him after he moves out. He gets an apartment in the Grove. He calls during Christmas vacation. I tell him about an up-coming swim meet at Dade-South Community College, which he actually attends. I win some medals. He says he is glad he came. Something unspoken is up, but I know he deserves his own life. Remembering their embarrassment last summer when I asked why I had no siblings, I have a clue where their problem lies. It just does not affect me.
My Christmas is spent at everyone else’s house. I tell Stu what is happening with my folks while we are riding bikes. Naturally, he gossips. All the team parents find out. I become a regular dinner guest at Stu and Scott’s and Lydia’s houses, much like when I was a military brat. The parents ask if I need to talk. There is not much to say. Helen calls on Christmas, asking how I’m holding up. Actually, dad comes through with cool gifts this year, maybe to assuage his guilt. I figure that he has a girlfriend now. I do not need to confront him. I still have not seen his new apartment. Helen tells me Joey has moved out and is living in New York. He does not have a telephone, but she will get him to call me. Good old Helen. It seems strange that Joey is living in the City after all he had said. The worries are piling up.
Winter in Miami is warm and dry, no afternoon thunderstorms or flooded streets. The ranchers burn the sugar cane in the Everglades, with the thick brown smoke drifting over the city.
Stu wants to ride our bikes in Everglades National Park. His dad agrees to drive us, suggesting we camp overnight, as long as he comes with us. We need the car as it is about forty miles to the Park. Surprisingly, Scott wants to come, too. We pack tents, sleeping bags and cooking gear into their station wagon, with the bikes secure on the roof, and drive to the National Park. The Everglades is a huge area where Lake Okeechobee flows hundreds of miles to the ocean. It is fun riding on the paths and trails, not having to keep an eye out for traffic. It is not that exciting until Stu spots a baby alligator. His dad grabs him before he can pick it up. He tells us to high-tail it away because a baby is never far from its mother. Thoughts of an alligator attack get our motors running. It is all we talk about that night at camp, better than ghost stories after dinner. Stu gets scared that a giant mother alligator will come into our camp and eat him in his sleep. He insists he sleep in his dad’s tent for protection, even though we assure him alligators only attack when threatened. Stu is not convinced. That leaves Scott and me sleeping in the other tent. Laying on top of our sleeping bags we start talking about the swim team. Scott wants to know how dating Lydia is going, meaning how romantic we are. I disappoint him because there are no juicy details, just dates where we hold hands. I ask him who he likes. He admits he really has not dated anyone.
“I write in my log how I need to be more outgoing if I’m ever going to have a girlfriend.”
He does not expect me to give him girlfriend advice as I am not exactly doing better than he is in that department. He asks me what I had been putting in my log.
“Mostly swim stuff. Gables High is doing well and my times.”
“That’s ‘cause we’re in different leagues, so you don’t meet real competition.” Scott goes to Ransom, a private school like Dickie Mertz attends. We trade barbs about how much better our own schools are.
Then he asks, “I’ve been trying to understand if I have any feelings for others. You showed me how much you care about your cousin. Maybe crying isn’t so bad when it’s about someone else, not just because you’re mad you lost a race or something.”
It is the most Scott has ever said to me. “Well, when it’s about someone else and they have feelings for you back, it’s twice as strong. Most kids are just self-centered. It’s a sign we are growing up when we care for someone else more than we care about ourselves.”
“So, feelings get you out of your own head. By expressing them you get feedback about how others feel about you.”
“You’re a heavy dude, Scott.”
“Well, I think about everything but never act on it.”
“Crying’s one way to relieve the frustration, letting out the bad feelings.
“And sex is a way to let out the feelings when your girlfriend likes you back.”
“It’s not your head that gets you into sex but your body reacting to the strong feelings.”
“I thought it was from a girl touching or rubbing your dick.”
“Don’t you just get horny sometimes without any reason?”
“You mean, like, say, in class?”
“Anytime it just pops up, not because of anything or anyone.”
“It’s telling me to have sex?”
“Yeah, your body is telling you. That’s why they’re called feelings, instead of touchings.”
“So, you wanna talk to a girl. Your head says maybe she doesn’t like you. Then your body has to repress it’s need for sex, until it can no longer hold the need in, and guess what pops up?”
We laugh. I enjoy mentoring young Scott until he asks about Joey.
“So why were you so upset about missing your cousin? You’ve known him all your life. Why miss him that time?”
I could say I was lonely from the move, but I’ve moved several times. Or, that I was having raging teenage hormones, but that is dangerous. Instead I gamble if I open up, it might open up Scott and make us better friends.
“Listen, Scott, my cousin is the first person I ever really missed. Then I joined the team, and everything was normal again. Before that in New York and at Joey’s, I was doing things that I know are not normal for my age. Sex and everything is great, but they left me confused. Joey knows what’s up. He was there for me when it was over. Then he came to visit here. We worked out our feelings. I don’t think and worry about them so much. Now the need and missing him are not so strong.”
That was the longest I had ever spoken to Scott.
He thought about it, then asked, “You act like you love him, too.”
“Yes, I did and I still do, but differently. Can I trust you, man?”
“Sure, Tim. I’m not like Stu.” Oh, yeah?
“The reason I got so worked up about Joey is we had sex. It was my first time, with anyone. When he came down here, it was over. Now my life is with you guys. In the summer, I was moving. I didn’t know where I belonged. It all happened so fast. Then I was here alone. All my feelings were raw. I couldn’t handle it. I cried in the hall closet for half an hour, which helped get me through my birthday. But we both had to complete all the feelings to finish it.”
“Man, you’re telling me you’re queer?” he says real slowly.
“I did those things, Scott. That’s the way I am. You gonna bust me with everyone now?” I never should have told him.
“But you act like everybody else. Do you think I’m a fag for crying?”
“Everyone cries sometimes, Scott. I am telling you all this so you’ll understand how crying so much helped me. Being gay is wanting your friends for sex. You’re not that way, and neither am I. I did it because I got into a situation way over my head, which I couldn’t control. It wasn’t a bad thing, no matter what you think.”
He sits up and looks at me. “I never talk to anyone like we do. Stu is always grabbing me and making me tickle him and stuff. I know I’m not in love with him. Maybe he’s queer.”
“He’s a little kid. You only worry about these things when you’re our age.”
“This is something I never worry about. I just worry about losing it when I get upset. I won’t make it if these are the things I have to handle.”
“Maybe you should just lose it when you feel that way. It can’t be as bad as what I’ve done.”
“Maybe you’re right, but that’s you. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. I might break if I lose it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Scott. If you lose control, the world won’t end. I picked up my pieces. You’ve got a solid base. Your life is set. Don’t worry about things you can’t control.”
We lay back to go to sleep, both still thinking about what was said. I wonder if I should have opened up so much, just a nagging thought. I want his friendship, but he is so closed-off.
On Sunday, Mr. Watt cooks the greatest breakfast, eggs, bacon, pancakes, even coffee. We are so stuffed we have to ride around the Park for hours to work it off. We find the boat landing and talk about how great it would be to explore by boat. I know that Dickie Mertz will die before taking his boat into the Everglades. Too bad for him.
When it’s time to leave, Mr. Watt turns west on the main highway, the Tamiami Trail, and takes us to an authentic Bar-B-Que in the middle of nowhere. It is famous for being run by Indians. He explains that some Seminoles still hide out in the Everglades. President Andrew Jackson had run most of them off their lands in Florida into exile in Oklahoma. He was General Jackson then, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Naturally I had to sing the song. It makes everyone laugh at me, except for the Indians who do not look happy with my choice of a music.
The mood between Scott and me is relaxed. All is fine when they leave me off at home.
Stu’s birthday is coming up. He is having a party with everyone actually coming. It is on a Monday night after practice. I am glad he now has so many friends after thinking of himself as stupid for so long. I want to do something special for him; he is my first team friend. I ask him to ride bikes with just me on the Sunday before his birthday. We ride over the causeway to Miami Beach. It is fun to see all the kids hanging out and enjoying their Spring Break in South Beach. After Nathan’s hot dogs, we ride to the Fontainebleau. He is apprehensive about going into a fancy hotel, but I lead him confidently into the lounge. He’s never heard about ‘Pong,’ let alone seen the game. He loves it. I spend another ten dollars on the game, my gaming addiction. He gets over-excited and is squealing, yelling and jumping around. The hotel staff ignores us, thinking we are hotel guests. Riding home he talks non-stop about our day. It is the perfect birthday gift.
School goes on as usual as the mild winter turns toward Spring. Attempts to break out of my small swim team clique are not too successful. I wish that Miami kids were more like Tina and Pete, with clear flirting and socializing moves. Even making eye contact is difficult at high school. I let my hair grow out, still bleached but more shaggy than straight. I feel I should fit in. When I try being friends with the bus kids from Hialeah, they treat me like a loser who can’t have friends in his own group. They always leave at 2 pm. The Nerds don’t know how to be friends. Lydia and I remain close. She is real possessive of me with other girls. High School swimming starts in February. Hurricane team spirit suffers from school rivalries. The girls are the worst. I figure it is just part of high school. Swim team kids are my only friends.
My swimming continues to improve. I stop the distance training and return to specializing in the breaststroke and individual medley. During league meets I win most of my races. Gables goes into the City Championships as favorite to win the title. Scott goes to Ransom, a private school. They compete in a different league. The City Championships are the first time we compete against each other. Gables Coach Mike devises a strategy that means I race against Scott in the 500 free. Scott is the favorite, but I have an advantage; I know how to psyche him out, getting him off his pace. I have been sprinting all spring and believe, as long as I stay close, I can beat him to the wall on the last lap. For eighteen lengths of the pool I keep at his shoulder, making him force the pace. On the last turn I do a butterfly kick into the wall, coming up even with him. We race stroke for stroke to the finish pads, both knowing how close it is. The electronic clocks show I win by 2/100ths of a second. Both of us are well under five minutes for the first time. I shoot my hand into the air and reach over to congratulate him on the great race. His time qualifies him for All-American consideration in the private school category. He is not a gracious loser. I can see in his face that he is losing control.
“Hey, Scott, it’s okay. Look at the times. We both dropped ten seconds.”
He just ignores me. “Nobody beats me like this. You used all the times we raced in practice to beat me.”
“Come on, Scott.” I reach over to grab his arm. “It was a great race.”
“Don’t touch me, faggot.”
I ignore the taunt. “Scott, I’m your friend and teammate. That’s more important.”
“You’re a fag. You’re gonna pay.”
He leaves the pool, his chest heaving and head buried in a towel. I do not think anything about his taunts, even if he tells everybody. I am not ashamed. I trust Lydia will stand up for me.
When I get home, Mom tells me that Stu and Scott’s mom called her. She is visibly upset.
“She says you tried to have sex with her eleven year old son.”
My mouth drops. “Mom, that’s a lie. Scott made that up because I beat him in our race today.”
“Well, they want to call the police. We have to go to their house and hash this out. Nobody makes such a serious accusation about some race.”
“You don’t know Scott. How can you take his word over mine? You don’t believe me, Mom?”
“I’ve had too many surprises this year. How can you embarrass me like this?”
“I didn’t do anything, Mom. I’m not going over there if you believe their lies.”
“I don’t know what to believe anymore.” So much for my chief defender.
We drive to Kendall in silence. Stu’s whole family looks at me in disbelief. Stu keeps his mouth shut for once. Their dad asks Scott to repeat what he told them. He recounts our conversations about the swim logs, stating I told him I’m gay. He says he kept quiet out of confusion and disbelief, but now he has to protect his little brother. He says it always bothered him why I always hung around so many younger boys. Stu jumps up and says Scott is lying. I am his friend and nothing bad has ever happened. He starts to come over to me, but his mother pulls him back. It’ is incredibly tense. These are the same people who fed me night after night this past winter.
Their dad asks, “Tim, have you ever had sex with other boys?”
I won’t lie but know I would end up making excuses that look as bad as lying. I look him straight in the eyes and rationalize that Joey was not a kid.
“Scott is mad at me because I am his friend and used it to beat him in a race today. I thought he was mature enough to respect my feelings, but he let his emotions overwhelm him. My friendship with Stu is open and honest. He won’t lie to help me. He doesn’t need to lie. You may believe Scott, but he’s making it up. I’m not trying to do anything with Stu or any other boy.”
“We have to know, Tim, have you had sex with other boys?”
“I’ve never had sex with any other boy. When we all went camping I told Scott some personal things. Now that he’s mad at me, he’s distorting what I said.”
He turns to Stu, “Is what he said true? Has he ever tried to make you do things you didn’t want to do?”
The tears flow down his cheeks. “Why are you doing this to me, Dad? Tim’s my bestest friend. He got everyone to stop calling me ‘Stupid.’ He’s the first person to ever treat me like I’m not a pest. He’s going to hate me now. He never did anything wrong to me. Why are you ruining everything?”
His dad turns to my mom and me. “I think you’re telling the truth, Tim, but until this matter is cleared up, I think it best that you not come here anymore.”
“Don’t worry about that. You’ve make me feel lower than dirt. All I did was try to get Scott to let his feelings out a bit. I now see what his real feelings are like. It was a big mistake.”
I know I had not spoken all the truth, but what business do they have knowing about Joey and me. I am a fool for trusting Scott. While driving home, Mom is incoherent. I know she takes Valium for her nerves, but this emotional confrontation has pushed her way over the edge.
“How could you? I’m so embarrassed. What are they saying about you?”
“Mom, you’re babbling. I’m the one they tried to embarrass. You better take a pill.”
She pulls over, her head strikes the steering wheel. “I took my pills. I took too many. You should drive.”
I am thunderstruck. I have never seen her this out of control. I drive the station wagon, very carefully. She leans on my arm to get into the house, as I see her do with Dad. This time she really needs my help. I think about my problems with Scott and see how little help I have around me.