The next day, I pay Mrs. Haines the thirty dollar monthly dues, feeling cheated out of my life savings, but glad that I beat my dad at his game. I have trouble getting going during morning workout. I’m not tired but my muscles just won’t respond as quickly as they normally do. Scott leaves me struggling to keep up with him. He knows something is up. I confess I was out drinking beer and eating pizza with Robby the night before. The look of disdain he gives me, lets me know not to even mention the pot. By the time I get to school, the lack of responsiveness leaves my muscles and settles in my brain. Junior English is studying Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ by reading the roles out loud. When Shylock’s soliloquy about being a Jew is read, the teacher catches me looking at my hands and pretending to prick myself. I’m unaware how strange it looks.
“The quality of mercy will be strained, Castle, if you don’t come down to earth.” He mocks me.
The rest of the class boisterously enjoys his humor at my expense.
At Nutrition, I’m not hungry, another odd symptom, so I go looking for Robby. I see Michael in the hall, who gives me directions to Jace’s house, half a block from school. As I walk up the street, I hear Led Zeppelin blasting from a garage. No doubt who I’ll find there. The older guys and Dawn are sitting in a smoke-filled haze when I stick my head in the garage.
“Com’n in, jock-head. We’re getting my dog stoned,” Jace invites me.
“The name’s Tim, stonehead.”
“It’s Mr. Stonedhead to you.”
Lying on its back at his feet is a large black lab. They’re passing around a joint and exhaling the smoke in the dog’s face. Each time someone exhales, the dog rolls around on its back, like he’s satisfying an insatiable itch.
“What’s his name?” I ask.
“I’m Jace,” he answers.
“I know that. I mean the dog’s name.”
“Oh, he’s Max.”
“Come here, Max,” I order. The dog half-rises to his feet. Before he’s fully up, he tries walking, falling all over himself. Everyone breaks up and the dog does a passable imitation of Spot, the Our Gang dog, with its paw over its eyes. More laughs. Max slinks into the corner.
“So this is third period for you guys?”
“And fourth, nutrition, fifth and sixth.
“You’ll flunk out.”
“They can’t flunk us out. It’s the law. We gotta attend school ‘til we’re eighteen.”
“This ain’t attending”
“Whadda you, the truancy officer?
“Yeah. Mr Spencer made Max and me Deputy Dawgs.”
They howl, a bit too hilariously.
“Hey, Tim’s our new truancy officer, Mr. Dick.”
“I’ll show you Mr. Dick,” I respond.
“Watch it, there’s a lady here.”
“I’m all eyes,” Debbie pipes in.
“Well, I hear he’s taken, Debbie, and not with some girl.”
“That’s over, guys. Don’t mean I’m pulling out Mr. Dick.”
“That’s a relief. So, you’re not gay no more?”
“I’m not so gay, like you guys said.”
“There’s hope for you yet, jockhead.”
“How about just Tim?”
“How about a hit off the joint, Just Tim?”
“Naw. I gotta get back. I’m just checking out the ditch pad.”
“Ya coming back?”
“Sure, if you guys lay off the gay crap.”
“Just don’t be so gay.”
I walk back to class, amazed at how close I came to skipping for the day. I still feel outside of myself. I slip into Biology lab only a few minutes late. I can’t shake the feeling I’m watching myself go through my day, rather than living it. Too much pot, I surmise. At afternoon practice, I really put out the needed effort. Once we were done, I feel my head is clear. I ask Scott if I could come to dinner at his house. We ride to Kendall together on our bikes. He’s in a light mood. I appreciate the escape from wanting to hang around with Robby and the stoners. We even sit in his room doing homework, until Mrs. Watt reminds me that Scott isn’t allowed to have anyone sleep over. I ride home and go right to bed, not even checking Robby’s house. I’m asleep in an instant, telling myself I was done burning the candle at both ends. I dream about Shylock, except it’s Coach demanding his pound of flesh, while Robby dances around in the background. The sight of Robby in a Speedo is unsettling. Although I wake up with a hard-on, I just need to piss.
The next week flies by. On Saturday, I take my friends on our long bike ride. I enjoy Mike’s company, even though he’s only thirteen. He’s an only child and seems to like the attention without making it seem like he looks up to me too much.
Mike asks how things are working out between Scott and Lydia
“I thought you don’t approve of what they did?” I ask him.
“Well, it seems wrong but you guys were all so happy together, it’s hard to believe it’s bad for them. And with Lydia still being punished, you and Scott aren’t your regular selves.”
“Sure, I really envy how you guys are so close and always happy. Now you seem sad and Scott is angry. Did you guys fight?”
I can’t tell him I’m carrying messages back and forth to help Scott and Lydia.
“So, you see why being in love isn’t that great?”
“That’s why they got punished. How can you learn to love anyone if you get punished for it?”
“Man, you’re the little love guru, aren’t you?”
He laughs. “No, I just wish I had a friend like Scott is to you. You’re so happy all the time.
“You’re not happy? You’re a rich kid. Everybody likes you.”
“I get lonely sometimes.”
“Yeah, I do too – no brothers and sisters to give me crap.”
“Why don’t you decide to be best friends with someone? Girls all do that; you don’t have to do girl stuff to be friends.”
“I thought maybe I can be closer to Stu. He’s a lot like Scott.”
“Don’t tell Scott that.”
“No, but I’m like you. We can fit together like you guys.”
Oh, god. What did I start?
“He’s an awful pest.”
“Sometimes I wish I’d get pestered some.”
“Okay. All you have to do is show an interest. Stu’s really a great kid and you’re a year older. Maybe you can calm him down.”
“Think he’ll come for a sleepover?” – Red Flag!
“Better to ask him to come for dinner. Then you can go to his house. Just let it develop. If you seem needy, he’ll feel weird.”
“Yeah, that’s true. Well, thanks.”
“I’ll tell Scott you want to be Stu’s friend. He’ll be amazed.”
After the ride, Scott comes out. I tell him about Mike’s hope to copy our relationship with Stu.
“Jesus, why do you encourage this?”
“Stu’s twelve now. If we talk to him about how he acts, it might be good for both of them.”
“You mean the part where he always wants to sleep with us?”
“Wasn’t that just when I’m there?”
“He still insists on sleeping with me. Even when I kick him out, he always seems to be there in the morning.”
“Maybe that should stop.”
“Why do you think I don’t let you sneak into my window.”
“I thought you aren’t into it. You used to wrap yourself around me pretty tightly.”
“A Watt family habit, I guess.”
“I’m not complaining but I feel Stu has replaced me.”
“That’s why you’re pimping him out to other team members?”
“Anything to get you alone.”
“Well, we both need to talk about this with Stu.”
“Yeah, I told Mike they should start by having him over to dinner at first.”
“You plotted this all out?”
“I like Mike. He said he thinks he’s like me and Stu is like you. We’re models for young gay development.”
“Then we’re never sleeping together again.”
“You can’t help yourself. It’s a Watts family gene.”
Then Stu comes up. We both jump on him and totally mess him up. He complains, but I know he likes being the center of attention again.
So starts the bromance of Stu and Mike. After dinners at both houses, and with approval of both parents, the boys are hanging out constantly. When Mike gets sick of Stu, he’d dresses him down. Stu amazes us by actually listening to him. They seem to egg each other on during the bike rides and soon they’re swimming in the same lane together. They push each other in their workouts. Scott and I laugh at the mini-me’s, seeing stupid things we had done being repeated. Scott and I face the problem of telling him he can’t have a sleepover until he stops being so gay in bed.
“What’s gay about it? I thought gay was when you’re lame.”
Sex Education 102. We need Coach Earl’s help but we forge ahead without guidance.
“You won’t really understand your sexual feelings until you start going through puberty, so you have to believe us that there are things you don’t do until you’re ready.”
It isn’t going well. We have already jumped to sex.
Scott jumps in. “Forget that, just do what I say. If you stay at Mike’s house, don’t try to get in bed with him when you go to sleep. Stay in your own bed.”
“You always tell me that, but you’re happy when I sleep with you, at least you make happy sounds when I sneak in.”
I jump back in. “It’s not about happy sounds. That’s for when they serve you ice cream for dessert.”
“So sleeping together is like ice cream.”
Scott can’t resist, “Except it’s like melted ice cream in your pants.”
Stu starts to tune us out.
“But Mike’s room only has one bed.”
“You need to sleep in the guest bedroom. You’re a guest.”
“But that’s not a sleepover. I might as well go home.”
Scott gets frustrated. “Just listen to us? Mike will think you’re gay if you hug him in bed, and in not just the lame way.”
That gets his attention.
“But, you guys…”
We both interrupt him. “Stop. We’re not talking about us. Do you want Mike to think you love him?”
“He’s my friend. My first real friend, except for you Tim, but you’re really old.”
We laugh. “You’ve been calling us gay for the longest time.”
“That’s cause you’re both so lame. Lame-o’s in love,” he mocks us.
“Right. Do you want Mike to think that about you?”
“I don’t wanna have sex with him.”
“If you get all lovey-dovey he might think you do, and goodbye friendship.”
“Why are you telling me all this? He’s already my friend.”
“Can you just get it through your hard head that you have to stop being so loving until you know the other person loves you back.”
“How can you know that?”
“The sooner you learn how, the happier you’ll be as a teenager.”
That’s the best we can do. Maybe you do need a credential to teach sex ed. Mike tells me several times that Stu is cool and makes him feel less lonely. Finally, sleepover night arrives. After a long South Dade Saturday bike ride, Stu goes home with Mike. We’ve launched our gay bomb on the nicest kid on the team. Stu gives us the thumbs up and goes in with Mike to his parent’s mansion by the bay. The worst that can happen: Scott and me outed to the entire team and parents. Scott would be a second time sex offender.
I call Scott the day after, but Stu hasn’t returned yet, a positive sign, unless the police are questioning him. Monday morning workout arrives. No one seems perturbed. Stu and Mike are chatting away. I’m pleased to see Mike shut him up when he keeps going on and on. Mike seems happy in his quiet way, while Stu is still his usual chatterbox self. Later Mike comes up to me and asks if we can talk. Here it comes. But he just wants to say that he feels more mature now that there is someone who he knows really likes him. Someone who won’t stop being friends just because he’s lonely and needs the friendship. Some accommodation must have been made, to the satisfaction of both parties. Scott and I badly want to quiz Stu, but we leave it alone to work its way out. Scott said Stu still sneaks into bed with him almost every night. I remain jealous.
The weeks of Fall fly by. I concentrate on my swimming. Dad asks how I plan on paying my swim dues. His accusation that I’m incurring an unpayable debt is deflated when I tell him I used my savings to pay. I secretly gloat at his discomfort. Robby comes by on nights when I have the light on. One Saturday night, he’s acting strangely, confessing on Monday that he was ‘on acid.’ He did seem strange, but not the hallucinogenic spaciness depicted in movies. He always acts strange anyway, with his Peter Pan act. I’m glad he didn’t want me to do it. For his part, he’s peeved at me for not taking him to Sorrento’s again. I tell him I don’t have the money. He’s bugged that I also refuse to smoke pot with him. He jumps me and tries to force me. It’s harder than I expect to shrug him off.. He claims that all the bike riding he does makes him wiry. I finally give in on the weekend and spend the whole day watching cartoons and staying high. Most of the gang comes by. Eventually we go to Michael’s house, where both he and Robby play drums to Zeppelin records. They really crank up the volume, so their drumming doesn’t overwhelm the recorded sound. I’m totally wasted by night, from the music and the drugs. I’m somehow convinced to blow more money on pizza. We all end up at Sorrento’s. It’s a whole month’s team dues, but the pizza is great. I spend the whole next day with Scott, Stu and Mike on our bikes. Scott notices how subdued I am, but I won’t admit it’s caused by beer and pot. Stu looks really concerned and convinces Mike and me to stay for dinner. Even Mrs. Watt worries about how quiet I am. By the time I get home, I’m so sick of everyone’s concern, that I go straight to Robby’s and spend the evening getting high again. I wake up on Monday morning, having slept through the alarm, missing morning workout. Knowing that I’ll get it from Coach, I promise myself there’ll be no more pot. I keep my vow for the rest of the week. Coach is definitely keeping an eye on me. I swim well and think everything is on track. On Friday, Scott gets permission to spend the night. We take Lydia to the University, hanging out in the student lounge and thinking we’re college students. Scott asks me to let him ride Lydia home, so they can be alone for a while. I play along, trusting he won’t get into trouble. All evening I think how great it is that our little gang is together again. I am also worked up about sleeping with Scott. It feels good to be horny once again. We leave the University at ten. I sit up doing homework (on a Friday night!) until twelve. I know he needs this time with Lydia. I get edgy that he hasn’t shown up. I put out the lights, noticing there are still lights at Robby’s. I’m not going to be tempted. I lay in the dark, waiting for Scott. My horniness is gone, replaced by worry. It’s three before I finally fall into a fitful sleep. I wake up with Scott sneaking in after dawn. He grins sheepishly. I want to give him a parental lecture, but just keep quiet. He slides into bed, rolls away from me and goes right to sleep.
I can’t get back to sleep, and eventually get up. I ride to the Watt’s to get Stu to ride bikes. We pick up Mike and Dusty, ending up at Dusty’s Uncle Tom’s pond, where we use the diving platform and trampoline. Stu climbs up on the trampoline and starts his spazzed-out routine.
“Get off if you can’t do it right,” Dusty yells at him.
“Well, show me, then,” he challenges back.
Dusty is really good, using his compact, muscular body to work the trampoline. Pretty soon he’s high above us, getting maximum lift from the springs. There are no safety lines in those days. You can really get air. Once at the maximum height, he starts doing somersaults and twists. We’d never seen him perform so well.
“Alright. You are really working it,” I encourage him.
He does a series of double somersaults, and then bounces on his back, flipping left and right, until he’s finished.
I climb up, happy to get as much air as possible. Soon I’m flying higher than Dusty, my size and weight allowing me to go beyond his limit. I feel released from the torture of the previous night. Just putting the word torture to Scott’s actions makes me feel better. His insensitivity toward me is the definition of torture. Now I’m weightless, flying into the tall pine trees. Robby would love this. Too bad I can’t bring him here. His perpetual pot smoking would make him unwelcome. I float at the top of my lifts. The only trick I knew is to fall on my butt, rising high enough to return to my feet. I relish the escape from gravity. Stu screams at me that it’s his turn. I just space out on him and Mike. I’m so high, I can reach over and touch the nearby tree branches. I start singing, “Paid a man fifty cents, to watch an elephant jump the fence, jumped so high, he touched the sky, didn’t come down ‘til the Fourth of July…walkin’ the dog.”
Stu’s screaming brings Coach Tom out of the house. He yells at me to pay closer attention. Looking over, I see him waving me down. I really was up high. I figure I can dismount as Dusty did. I lean back seeing my problems float away from me.
The next thing I know I’m on the ground with Coach Tom holding me flat. Stu is inches from my face, tears streaming down his cheeks. There is no sequence to these memories. Soon an ambulance arrives. I’m on my way to Mercy Hospital. My legs are trembling and kicking out of control. I’m given a tranquilizer, and I feel no pain. I black out according to Stu. Later, he tells me I came down on the side of the trampoline, flat on my back. They’re sure I’m dying, or at least paralyzed. I’m held at Emergency while they wait for my dad to approve treatment. I’m supposedly calling for my mother. When Mrs. Watt rushes in, I stop calling out. I remember none of this. I’m x-rayed. When they see I have no broken bones, I’m put in a room for overnight observation.
The next morning, my back is spasming. I barely remember why I’m in the hospital. A nurse helps me out of bed and into the bathroom, so I can piss. I’m so embarrassed, I can’t start a stream for several minutes. She must’ve been a nun, because when she looked over to see why I haven’t started urinating, she almost drops me. I think she thought I’m just a boy. I almost pass out when I see how red my piss is. She tells me it’s okay, that I had ruptured a kidney in the fall. Great.
Scott, Stu and their parents come to see me in the morning. Stu almost jumps into bed with me. He’s happy I didn’t die.
“It’s all my fault, Tim. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, Stu. I’m the one who wasn’t paying attention.’
“I was screaming at you to come down, so I could go. It’s my entire fault.”
I hug him. He knows it’s alright.
Scott is uncomfortable. I don’t expect him to act like Stu. The doctor comes in and is explaining my muscle spasms and kidney contusion to the Watts. He thinks they’re my family. He says I have to stay in the hospital for five days of observation. Dad walks in during the discussion. The doctor has to repeat the diagnosis. I’m too hurt to be more than mildly amused.
My hospital days drag by slowly. The nurses are nice but act pretty silly toward me. I have a succession of assistants in my walks to the bathroom. I’m glad when I’m well enough to make it on my own and end the mutual embarrassment. My back really aches. I get very stiff from lack of movement. Stu and Mike come over every day, with games and some sort of gift. I appreciate it but wish Scott would come too. Robby even shows up, refusing to say how he learned I was there. We smoke a joint in the bathroom, getting silly about all the handles and railings old people need to poop. I get out on Friday, with a warning from the doctor to not overdo, specifically, no swim team. I go see Coach and give him the bad news, which he takes quietly. I ask if there’s anything I could do at home that would help for when I can return.
“Just get your head screwed on right, Castle.”
I think it’s shitty of him. I didn’t try to have an accident.