Upon my return to school after a week's absence, Frank asked me to rejoin the swim team. The winter champs were due in a few weeks and I was one of the team's better performers. As the weather cooled, we trained at the local health club, equipped with a heated pool and sauna. Frank and I were the only two who sat on the wooden sauna benches with our legs wide apart. We were proud of our jewels and welcomed inspection from anyone willing to take mental notes. Brett, on the other hand, was far more modest despite being well equipped. In many ways he was a contradiction.
On the weekend I visited the local hospital. Brett was a patient there after being involved in a serious nightclub brawl on the Gold Coast.
"There were too many of them to handle so I bolted for the bus station," he explained from his bed. "That's the last thing I remember before ending up here."
"Jeez, man, those guys must've given you a real hiding. You're all..."
"Spare me the details, Kyle. I've heard it a million times already. The doc says I most likely got a boot to the head. He says my swollen lip is even bigger than yours." Brett managed a feeble chuckle, subdued by his sore ribs. "The good news is just about every chick in town has visited me. Great way to get attention, I guess, if not the smartest. Lots of the guys have visited, too."
At visitor closing time, I asked the nurse if I could hang around for a while longer.
"Hey, man, I'm not dying for Christ sake. I'll be out of here in a day or two. Anyway, what makes you wanna stay?"
"I dunno," I lied. "Nothing else to do."
When Brett did return to school after spending a few extra days at home, he explained that he was too ugly during his convalescence, and didn't want to parade around in Speedos looking like something the cat refused to drag in.
Most of that week I spent swimming, studying for exams, then sitting for the papers. You had to be an Einstein to crack the math paper. Bloody hell! All the guys were complaining about it.
"Hey, bud, what's up?" Brett asked as I got ready to leave school for the day.
"You look lower than shark shit."
"Just feeling a bit down. Dunno why exactly."
"Got some time? I wanna show you what I do when things are getting me down."
Brett led me to the gym and asked if I had any togs with me. I didn't so he reached into his tog bag and tossed a pair of boxing shorts my way. Eventually, we came to a small training room equipped with a couple of punching bags suspended from the ceiling.
I watched the shirtless Brett hit one of the bags with all the force he could muster. Surprisingly-impressive muscles popped out of almost everywhere. That guy could easily have done me like a dinner during our encounter at the change rooms. I figured he must have gone easy on me. But why? How odd.
"Your turn," he grinned as he stood back, gleaming pectorals and abdominals pumped to extraordinary definition.
I whacked that heavy, leather-clad bag for all I was worth and it felt great! Woohoo! I sensed anxiety and frustration ebbing away with each solid punch. And the more I punched, the more euphoric I became. It was so enjoyable, our workout lasted two exhausting hours.
We were such a lather of perspiration by the time we hit the showers our boxing shorts had formed a second skin.
"Feeling better now?"
"And how! Thanks, Brett, I really needed that."
"Yeah, I could tell. So what's the prob?"
"I dunno. I guess it's the frustration of not surfing because of all the studying and exams. I've been grounded."
"Yep, I know the feeling, although I don't surf."
Brett and I were soon regulars at the gym each morning before classes. It was great exercise and a fun way to let off steam. From the boxing bag, I graduated to sparring with Brett in the ring. One day, the coach and some of the boxing team guys organized an in-house competition, and I was silly enough to volunteer.
"Hey, bud," Brett said to me in the showers afterwards, "you got potential. Maybe you should join the team."
"Nah, I enjoy going a few rounds and hitting the bag with you, but it's swimming and surfing for me."
"You're right about letting off steam. I'd be a right asshole if I didn't box."
"What makes you think you aren't already?"
"Well, man, in the ring you're as aggro as all getout. But you're a different person afterwards."
"Kinda laid back."
"You a shrink or something?"
"Nothing about me shrinks," I laughed as I thrust my hips forward.
The exam results were predictable; most of us were down an average 15 percent. My folks were pretty cool about it, though, once they heard similar reports from other parents.
During the upcoming school break, Stuart and I planned a trip to Surfer's Paradise for the Billabong Surf Championships so it was a surprise when Brett approached me on the last day of school.
"Hey, mate, I'm feeling a bit tense. Wanna go a few rounds with me after final assembly?"
"You look aggro."
"Yeah, I feel like beating up on somebody. You wanna be that somebody?"
That afternoon, we donned our headgear and gum guards and went for it. Brett was by far the superior boxer but I was determined to give as good as I got, and laid into him at every opportunity. It was plain that Brett respected my spirited attitude. Each time I made a mistake, he stopped the match and took time out to explain what I was doing wrong. Unfortunately for him, I was a quick learner and his ribs and abs soon paid a painful price for his generous edification.
In the showers, Brett revealed he was contesting a junior tournament during the holidays. "Wish you could be there to see me but you'll be away."
"I would if I could, Brett. Honest. I'd love to see you in a tournament. I reckon you'll be awesome."
"Like you on your surfboard?"
For some inexplicable reason at the time, I introduced the subject of masturbation and, surprisingly, he was happy to admit to being something of an enthusiast. "Doesn't everybody?" But after explaining my own personal technique to Brett, he suggested an alternative.
"You need a girlfriend, mate."
July 1 was the day Stuart and I were to leave for Surfer's. It was also my seventeenth birthday. Birthdays had never been a big deal for me so I wasn't concerned about being away from home.
The night before, my mom told me Stuart called. Apparently, there was no message, but my first thought was that he was sick or something, and the trip was cancelled. "He needs to discuss something with you in person," was all my mom said.
I arrived at his house to be told some cock and bull about what he should pack for the trip. "You're kidding," I complained. "You brought me all the way over here just to ask me what kind of underwear you should bring?"
"Sorry, mate. I'll walk you home."
My house was in darkness. Strange. Had my folks gone out? I led Stuart through to the den. Suddenly, there was light and the room filled with singing. "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Kyle, happy birthday to you!" Everyone was there... well almost. Some of the guys and their girlfriends from the swim team, Graham, Brett and, of course, mom and dad...and a big chocolate cake with seventeen flickering candles right in the center of the room. I was speechless.
Then the penny dropped. I spun around to see Stuart standing behind me grinning like the Sydney Luna Park mask. "You! You knew all the damn time!"
Mom approached, threw her arms around me and gave me the most enormous hug. "Hey, you didn't think we were going to let you go without a small celebration, did you? Your dad's got something for you."
The package was quite large. What could it be? It seemed to take forever to remove the wrapping. Meanwhile, the room was packed with craning necks; friends and family eager to see what was in the box.
My eyes popped and my mouth fell open, but no words emerged, at least not at first. I couldn't believe what I saw. I remember shaking my head in disbelief, then lifting the gift from the box and holding it aloft for everyone to admire. Finally, words came to me: "A brand new wetsuit!" It was a Rip Curl, and black. "Wow! It even smells new!" I hugged my dad, then my mom, and just about everyone else in the room. Brett? I think I did. It was all a bit of a blur, like a surreal dream.
The trip north to Surfers was fantastic. Stuart and I hitched our way there, and met a couple of girls on the beach while watching the competition. They invited us back to their folks' holiday house and asked us to stay for the weekend. Was that okay with their folks? Who knows? They weren't there. But it sure was cool with Stuart and me; we'd expected to camp out. Instead, we had all the comforts of home and a bit of shenanigans as well. Up until then, my only sexual experiences were confined to the prostitute Rick organized and the chick who blew me out back of the barn, so I felt better about myself as a ... regular guy. No, I didn't go all the way, but it was far enough.
A couple of guys carrying surfboards find it difficult sometimes to hitch a ride. We were on the road back home one night, rucksacks on our backs, boards under our arms, thumbs pleading for a lift, when I stopped and asked Stuart to listen.
"To what?" he shrugged. "I don't hear anything."
I got mad and told him again to listen. Then he became aware.
"Beetles? Yeah! I can hear them now. Funny how I didn't notice before." As we walked further, he kept referring to the sound of the beetles and how loud they were. "Thanks, Kyle. It makes the night all the more special."
I figured the only way we were gonna get a ride was to employ some kind of drastic and creative strategy.
"You're kidding, Kyle. No way I'm gonna hang my dick out of my boardshorts."
Well, he relented and sure enough the next car to come along stopped and gave us a ride all the way back to Byron Bay.
Next time I saw Brett was at the school gym. He had a big shiner, the result of a fight with some guy at a club who tried to hit on Susan, his girlfriend.
"And what happened to him?" I asked as we skipped and danced, ducked and weaved around the ring.
"He won't try it again."
"Was it worth it?"
"You're lucky it wasn't you and me, Kyle. I totally lost it. That guy will think again before he tries anything with Susan."
"Your eye is still pretty swollen. Looks like he got a punch in."
"Yeah, his last punch before I trashed his brains."
"You've got a short fuse, huh?"
"Nope. Just don't mess with me. Simple."
"So how come you didn't beat me up when you had the chance that time?"
"'Cause you're a wuss, Kyle, and I didn't wanna make you cry."
"Oh, yeah? Take this!" I jabbed him right in the breadbox. Not that it hurt him; his abs provided a rock-hard defense.
"That was a lucky punch, man. You won't be so lucky in the pool this afternoon. I'm gonna drown you."
I couldn't shake the feeling that Brett was a deeply troubled guy; something seriously bothered him. Curiosity got the better of me so, in the showers, I asked him: "Don't get pissed at me, Brett, but there's something I wanna know."
"Like what?" he said, soaping his perfectly defined chest.
"How come you're in a shitty mood most of the time?"
"Just a few hassles I'm trying to sort out, mate."
"Anything you wanna talk about?"
"Nope," he shrugged. "Anyway, it's personal stuff. No biggie. Actually, I didn't realize I appeared that way until you mentioned it just now. Guess you're trying to figure out why I beat you up in the ring this morning."
"Yeah, right! Who beat who?"
"Hey, in a real match I'd flatten you. Don't push it."
"See what I mean? You're getting aggro again."
"I'm not, man," he protested. "That's just being me. Stop trying to find something that's not there."
"How's the eye?" I asked in an attempt to change the subject, but Brett was no longer in the mood to chat.
Next morning, he caught me momentarily off guard. He hooked me and sent me flat on my butt. "That'll teach you to keep your hands up next time, Kyle."