Jared walked into my office and closed the door behind him, shutting
out the noise of the showers and muffling the shouts and laughter of
the noisy jocks who were taking them.
I looked up from my playbook at the sound of the door shutting.
My gut clenched for a second when I saw who it was, but I kept a poker
face. "Hey, Watts," I said, motioning for him to take a
seat. "You looked good out there today."
"Thanks, Coach," he said, looking at the floor. He fidgeted with
his feet a little and lifted his eyes to meet mine, then began darting
his gaze around the room, never settling on any one thing. That
only confirmed my apprehensions concerning why he was here, but I
sucked it up and said, "What can I do for you?"
"I think I'm ready to talk about it," he said in a near-whisper. "Is it
I looked at the clock on my
desk. It flashed 4:45 p.m. I'm sure I put way too much blank space
between Jared's question and my reply; he was nervous as it
was. I heard myself say, "Uh, sure." But most of my
awareness was focused on a question I was asking myself:
How the hell had I gotten into this?
I'd come to this town in West Texas two years earlier, straight out of
college. My girlfriend still had a year of school to
go. Part of me hadn't wanted to move that far away from her; and
my buddy Ryan had wanted me to open up a sporting goods store with him
in Austin. But I was sick of the city. I-35 had gotten
miserable, and it took 45 minutes to make a 15-minute trip in Austin
these days. And the noise and confusion of the city amplified the
noise and confusion inside me. I was ready for some emptiness.
I'd seen that a high school in west Texas was looking to bring on
another assistant coach to work with the football team and to coach the
boys' soccer team. They needed a math teacher too. Seems
like everybody needs math teachers these days. It was preferable,
they indicated, that the two needs be filled by one person.
That suited me fine. Football and math, well, those were both in
my blood. I'd manage
with soccer too. I'd played my share. But I knew that was going to be
secondary; up in west Texas they inhaled dust and exhaled
football. It was part of the air. That and the tumbleweeds
that always seemed to roll by, powered by the west Texas winds that
blew across the flat land.
And it was away. God,
was it ever away. Maybe if I got that far away, I could
think. At any rate, it would give me a few years of steady work
and steady income while I came to whatever major decisions I was going
to have to come to about how I was going to live my life.
Soccer wasn't a high-priority sport up here and between that and the
fact that I can pretty much coach the shit out of any sport you put me
in front of, the soccer team had begun to stand out in the area.
The boys loved me, since I gave them my best stuff. And I got a
pretty good reputation as a math teacher. I didn't put
up with any shit from the kids--I couldn't since I wasn't that much
older than they were--but I always try to make learning interesting,
and I guess I got put on a few "favorite teacher" lists.
And of course, there were always the girls to contend with. What
would life be for a young male high school teacher if not for
schoolgirl crushes? In the past two years I'd even been asked out
on a date by a couple of them. Yeah, right. Like I'm going there.
But, to tell the truth, if you'd have asked me what it was I liked most
about my job, I'd have to tell you that it was hard not to get caught
up in the football. The whole town--hell, the whole region--was
football-obsessed. The varsity players were young gods, and the
Friday night stadium was their temple. And thousands came to
When things are working for the gods, the coaches get put on a pedestal
too. Even the assistants. It's hard not to lose your
perspective in the middle of all that.
I got along with the football boys just fine. We spoke the same
language, and I understood what they were about, mostly. Raising
hell, getting laid, and pushing past the small-town desperation and
boredom by aspiring for godhood under the weekend stadium lights.
I tried to emulate their head coach, Ray Dickson. He was your
typical iron-fist-in-velvet-glove football coach. Stereotypical,
maybe. But the coaches I'd loved the most in my past were cut
from the same cloth, so I listened and tried to learn. And I'd
decided to take on the same approach.
It worked. The boys, reacting to the closeness in our ages, were
a little less guarded around me and a little more inclined to talk
trash with me. I found it hard to walk that fine line between
being a buddy and being an authority figure, but by my third year, I
thought I pretty much had it down. I was tough as any coach when
it came to business, but in between, I got to be known for my
willingness to listen without judging. And so I heard more than
most high school teachers about pregnancy scares, drinking and drug
scares, other kinds of high school drama that most kids wouldn't
usually think of bringing to a teacher. Once in a while I might
have even given some decent advice.
There was some frustration, though, associated with coaching. And
I mean aside from your standard garden-variety frustration that every
coach has. I guess I'd known that I "played for both teams" since
I was a 10th-grader myself, and though I was probably more straight
than I was gay, the locker room was always a distraction for me.
It was low-grade torture for me to walk into the locker room to my
office as these guys were showering. I'd had some experience with
guys, especially one. Ryan and I had been best friends for years,
and he was about like me, I guess. Chased pussy most of the time
and once in a while got with his buddy. If you're bi and you've
been there and done that with both sexes, you can't ever go back to
looking at just one sex. So the sight of a bunch of naked high
school jocks was pretty tough to deal with. But just as it was
with my lovestruck female students, there was no way I was going there.
I'd met Jared when he was a sophomore. I was a rookie on staff at
the time. I was working mostly with the JV that year, and he was
a wide receiver on the junior varsity team. He was a wiry kid
with enthusiastic eyes and a won't-quit attitude. His
father taught social studies at the high school and he was well-liked
by most of his peers. I can't say I remember much about him from
that year; everything was new to me and it was taking most of my
concentration just to make sure I did my job right in the classroom and
out on the practice field.
The next year, though, I began working with the varsity team.
Jared had made Varsity, and he was one of a handful of guys who seemed
especially interested in getting to know me better. Every coach
has favorite players, though we can't ever let on. And different
players gravitate to different coaches. I had a group of guys who
looked up to me, it seemed like. I think part of it was simply
the fact that I wasn't too far removed from their age. And the
other thing, I think, is that I was genuinely interested in them as
human beings. I still had the new-teacher syndrome of believing I
could make a difference. I'm proud to say that in the short time
that I worked at teaching, I never lost that optimism. Anyway,
several of the guys seemed interested in casual conversation.
Jared was one of those guys. I could always count on him to
volunteer for this task or that. Beginning my second year, when
he'd made Varsity, he never came into the locker room without sticking
his head into my office and saying "hey." Even during the
football off-season, when I was coaching soccer, once in a while he'd
stop by. I never thought much about it, because a couple of the
other guys did the same thing, and I enjoyed their company, without
being too encouraging. I felt it was important to keep a little
professional distance. I wasn't as though I could take them out
drinking or anything. But it was kind of nice because I sort of
missed my buds from college, and there weren't many people my age I ran
into on a daily basis. So it was always kind of gratifying to
shoot the breeze with these young studs.
As the year went by, Jared and I had conversations about a lot of
things. Politics, shopping for colleges, sports, and music; Jared
was, predictably, a country music fan. Occasionally he'd ask me a
"girl" question or two. Like most of the jocks, Jared dated
around, and occasionally would settle in on a girlfriend for
awhile. Once on my way out of the locker room I'd overheard a
piece of a conversation between him and his buds where he was
recounting a blowjob he'd gotten in his pickup. Overall, he
seemed like a pretty typical west Texas football jock; maybe a little
more reserved, and, truth be known, a good deal more intelligent; but
nothing that would cause me to think of him in any way as
Over the summer I'd gone back to Austin. Lori had gotten a
teaching position in the Austin ISD and had just completed a year
there. We'd managed to have a long-distance relationship for a
year, but I was missing her like crazy. So I moved in with her
over the summer, and we spent a good deal of time making up for not
having seen much of each other during the year. I had some things
to do back up in west Texas so she came up with me for a couple of
weeks and got to see the place. I was hoping I could convince her
to move up here. Her terse response was "You've got to be
kidding, Patrick." After a year of thinking about it, I'd decided
I wanted to marry her; but I wasn't ready to leave this place; my work
here, and the forbidding, harshly romantic geography had come to mean a
lot to me.
It wasn't too many weeks before school was going to start again, so I
stayed on and Lori went back to Austin. In the evening on the day
she left, I'd gone up to my office to do a little work I spent a
couple of hours there, and as I walked to my car, I saw Jared coming
off the track, sweaty and winded. He saw me and came over.
"Hey, Coach Abbott," he called out.
"Hey, Jared," I waved back. "Gettin' a jump-start on the season?"
"Shit, yeah," he said, shaking my hand. "Got to get back into it."
My eyes took in his form. He'd obviously been doing some
upper-body work. His abs were impressive.
We eased into conversation, talking a little about our summers. I
told him about Lori's visit and he had lots of questions. He
wanted to know if and when we were getting married; I told him that was
anybody's guess. He talked about the girls he'd dated over the
summer. Then, out of the blue, he said, "Hey, Coach, what do you
think about gay people?"
Caught completely off-guard, I shrugged my shoulders and said, "I guess
I think they exist."
He laughed. "No, I mean, what do you think of them?"
I looked into his blue eyes and said, "I don't have a problem with it;
they didn't ask to be made that way."
He smiled a little bit. He'd gotten me curious, though, so I
asked him, "Why do you ask?"
He didn't answer me. Instead, he asked another question.
"Do you think queer guys ever like sex with girls?"
I said, "I don't know, Jared. Maybe. I think the whole
thing about sexuality is kind of complicated. But why are you
asking me this?"
He looked off into the distance for a moment. Then he looked back
at me and said, "I don't know. Would you be shocked if I said I
knew a guy on JV who was gay?"
"Not at all," I said. "There are plenty of gay athletes."
He took a deep breath and looked me straight in the eye and said "Do
you think doing stuff with a guy means you're gay?"
"Not necessarily," I said.
He blushed a little and said, "Well, never mind all that shit. I
don't know what made me think of it. Let me ask you something
else. Coach, did you ever have a best friend?"
"Hell, yeah," I said. I pictured Ryan in my head. The two
streams of this conversation came together in Ryan in a way that made
me uncomfortable, standing here talking to this
seventeen-year-old. But I tried to appear nonchalant. "As a
matter of fact, I still do. His name is Ryan and we've known each
other since elementary school."
Jared looked at me for a long minute. It was clear to me that he
was facing an inner conflict that I was all too familiar with.
This kid ought to be able to talk to someone, I thought. And who
better than someone who understands first-hand? But I wasn't sure
it was smart to open those gates. Touchy shit like that could get a
teacher into all kinds of hot water professionally. Even just a
sympathetic ear if it ran up against an unsympathetic parent.
Still, too many kids dealing with this end up in awful shape because
they can't find that sympathetic ear.
I steeled myself and said, "You go something you want to talk about?"
"Nah," he said quickly, blushing and looking at the ground.
"Well, maybe. I mean, no, not really. It's nothing about
me. I don't know, maybe some other time."
"Okay," I said. "It's no big deal. I never heard this
He grinned. "Okay."
"And if and when you need to talk about something, just remember what I
said when you asked."
His eyebrows furrowed. "What was that?"
"I said I didn't have a problem with it."
"Oh. Oh, yeah," he stammered. "Well, it doesn't really
matter anyway. I was mainly just shootin' the shit with you."
"That's cool," I said. I pulled my keys out of my pocket.
"I gotta go."
"Yeah, me too," he said. "See you soon."
"Yep," I replied. "Stay after your conditioning."
"Yes, sir," he said.
I got into my car and breathed a sigh of relief. If an athlete on
my team needed to talk about queer feelings, in my heart of hearts I
knew I ought to listen. I might be the only friendly ear he had
in this town. On the other hand, I was relieved he'd avoided the
subject. It was too close to home.
School had started and the football season was underway. Jared
was his usual friendly self, but there was no indication that he was
interested in having a serious talk with me about anything.
Until today. And now, here he was in my office, making it clear
that he wanted to have Part Two of our parking-lot conversation.
I looked at the kid. 165 pounds dripping wet, about 5'10."
Great arms and great abs. Short brown hair, beautiful blue eyes,
and a handsome boyish face
that flirted with "goofy," sitting in my office clad in just a towel.
"You know, Jared," I said, "maybe this isn't the best time for
this. I have a meeting with the other coaches and we're all
trying to get out of here."
"Yeah, I know," he said. "I just wanted to see if was okay.
I really need to talk, Coach. And I don't know, you're the only
grownup I feel like I can talk to about some things. And anyway,
I've seen you..."
He stopped, and I felt the hairs of my arm stand on end. What had
be been about to say?
"Well, never mind," he mumbled. Then, straightening up and
me in the eye, he said, "Hey, could I stop by your house later
I frowned. "I don't know if that's a good idea."
He sighed. "Yeah, I guess not. But I don't want to talk to
you about this at school."
He was right. And I understood his dilemma. "Okay, Watts,
you wanna stop by around 7:30, I can give you an hour and a half or so."
He beamed at me. "Thanks, Coach. I'll be there."
I watched as he stood up and turned toward the door. I took note
of the way his terry-cloth-covered ass flexed as he walked.
I thought to myself, I hope this doesn't turn out to be a huge mistake.