WHAT LIES WITHIN: CHAPTER 12
Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thought that is forever flowing through one's head.
-- Mark Twain
I couldn't believe this was actually happening to me. It just wasn't possible, was it?
I had to re-run the whole sequence of events back through my mind several times to convince myself I had really just seen and heard what I thought I had. But, as I gradually became aware of several older kids standing there, looking at me very strangely, or pointing at me and whispering to each other, I was pretty sure that it really had happened just as I thought.
Oh my god...He called me a FAG in front of everyone!
I looked around at all the faces staring at me...with confusion, dismay, or disgust clearly displayed for all to see. Suddenly, I began to get that nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach again. I put my head down and searched desperately for the closest point of escape, as I battled against the urge to throw up right there on the spot.
I could hear the voices beginning to murmur more loudly around me as I made my escape. A sense of panic came over me, and I ran until I recognized a bathroom I was familiar with. I dashed inside, and locked myself in a stall. A profound sense of sadness and despair washed over me as I sat there, trying to digest what had just happened to me. I was in such a state of shock; I don't think I was even able to cry. I almost never cry in situations like this...it's like it would just be too painful, so my brain won't even let me go there. The longer I sat there, the deeper I sank into a complete state of paralysis. My emotions were on the verge of total shutdown.
I kept asking myself the same question over and over again...hoping each time for a different answer. Could I have been wrong about him? How could he do that to me, after what he'd said? I mean, yesterday I was really beginning the think that we might actually...no; it was just stupid to even think that, I could see in hindsight. I guess it was just wishful thinking after all.
But, how many times had I heard him say the same thing in the last few days? "Just trust me," he'd implored with his words, and with his eyes.
Rusty, I DID trust you...I just had to. How could you do this to me?
Suddenly, I felt a profound sense of emptiness inside me. The hole in my life that he seemed to be filling was growing larger and larger again.
Last night after I'd left his house, I could see he was really battling with his fears about being gay. I got the impression that part of him really wanted open up completely and let me inside, but the fear was always there to hold him back. I knew pretty much what he was dealing with `coming out' to himself, because I'd been there. Yes, it was a while ago for me, but I still remember very clearly how it felt. At first you try denying it for as long as possible...then, the sadness and hopelessness that comes from feeling so utterly powerless to change it begin to set in. After that, the anger and frustration begin to slowly eat you alive from the inside out. Eventually, I managed to realize that it was ok to be who I was...that there wasn't anything wrong with me.
It was everyone else that was messed up.
I could just see that battle raging inside his head and inside his heart, as I watched the tears run down his face last night. At that point, I knew there wasn't much I could do but give him some space and some time alone to think it through. It's something we all just have to go through on our own, eventually.
As I walked to school this morning, it just hadn't felt like a typical Friday...that usual sense of impending freedom...of optimism...of sheer relief...just wasn't there. I had noticed to myself how ominously gray and heartless the sky had seemed. Intuitively, I think I already had some sense that today wasn't going to be a good day. Unfortunately, that made me all the more anxious to see him before class this morning.
When I searched him out, I could just tell that it was still troubling him, and I wanted him to know that it was ok to be going through what he was feeling...to give him a little support and encouragement. I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised at his reaction. Although I had seen his temper flare and his patience get tried before, he had never directed any of it at me. If anything, he always seemed to have that extra little bit of patience and understanding for me; and maybe that, more than anything, was what kept me coming back...kept me hoping we could still be...friends? Or...?
I was too surprised to even react when he swung his skateboard at me. I watched with an almost detached curiosity when it stopped barely an inch from my nose. In my heart, I just knew he could never hurt me like that. I just knew. But, I surely wasn't prepared for those two little devastating words. In the pit of my stomach, I was afraid that he might have changed the rest of my life here at school with those two simple little words.
I still can't believe he said that!
I realized that it was probably just his anger and frustration over his own situation speaking, but obviously it still really hurt. Badly. I've been called lots of names by different kids growing up, and I was used to letting it just pass right over me without letting myself be bothered by it. But, I was surprised at how much power Rusty already had to hurt me. Maybe I hadn't really been honest with myself about just how much I felt for him. Now, I was also forced to seriously re-evaluate those feelings. Was now the time to cut and run...to take my losses and move on? Or was there something here worth fighting for? Worth fighting through those painful words and feelings...words I was convinced in my heart that he didn't really mean, but truly hurtful all the same. If my emotions had still been working, I might have found it hard not to get mad at him.
But, at the moment, I couldn't really make myself feel anything at all.
The rest of the day was a total blur. My head and my heart were totally anesthetized from this morning's shock. I wasn't feeling or thinking much of anything...I just wandered from place to place within the school like a zombie, following my routine through force of habit, I guess. I don't really recall anything else that happened that day until I found myself at the door to the graphics lab, ready to begin sixth period. I hesitated briefly at the door, wondering if he would be in there. No, I decided, surely he won't be there. He's hurting right now...probably still pissed at the world for all the difficult things it's making him deal with right now. Been there, done that, I reminded myself. Give him some time. Give him some space. Hope.
I got my next assignment from the senior girl who was the yearbook editor. She had been nice enough to me (in the past week since I began on the yearbook crew), in that patronizingly saccharine sort of way that only 18-year-old girls seem to have. But today, even she was looking at me a bit strangely.
My stomach sank to my knees again as I realized that she had been one of those staring faces I had seen this morning in the hallway. She knew, damn it. Somehow, the smug but insincerely considerate smile plastered on her face told me everything I needed to know. Almost apologetically, she informed me that my next job was to do the yearbook photos for the boys swim team. I would need to make arrangements with the swim team coach this afternoon, and be prepared to get to school early Monday morning to shoot the team before their daily 6AM workout began. Great...I am SOOOO not a morning person!
As I trudged out of the graphics room, I could see Mr. B standing in the corner looking at me with a concerned look on his face. Perhaps he knew what had happened this morning. Heck, it seemed like nothing happened around here that he didn't know about sooner or later. I got the distinct impression that he really wanted to talk to me about it, but had decided not to...reluctantly...and it was driving him crazy. He was only a spectator at this point. I know how he feels. Sometimes I feel the same way, and it's my stupid life!
I dragged myself like a zombie slowly across campus to the gym, and went inside to find the swim team coach's office. The gym was deserted, because the guys who had PE that period were all out in the field doing whatever stupid thing it was they did for PE this week. I knocked on the office door, half expecting nobody to be there. But, I was wrong.
"Door's open!" I heard from the inside.
I opened the door, and I'm sure my jaw hit the floor. Coach Mather was standing there in the middle of the room naked, toweling himself off. OH MY GOD. Like, I'm not that into older guys, but Coach Mather was definitely a MAN. He was probably in his early thirties, and he was pretty buffed out with a classic swimmer's build. His thick tube steak stood out proudly from his bushy black pubes. The rest of him was completely hairless. Even his head.
"Uh, excuse me Coach...um...maybe this is a bad time...I can wait for you to get dressed...uh... that's ok...I'll just wait outside..." I said, trying to be as calm as possible, while trying to keep my eyes from completely popping out of my head. I began to take a step towards the door, when he spoke.
"No sweat. Just finished my workout and hopped out of the pool. What can I do for you...uh...damn, what's your name again? You used to be in the sixth period class, didn't you?" he asked.
"Yes sir. I'm Ian Sullivan. I need to make arrangements with you to do the yearbook photo for the swim team, sir."
"Oh, right. They said that we would need to do it one day next week. Well, I hope you're an early riser kid, because you need to be here Monday morning at 6AM sharp to get `em before they start their workout. Don't want any wet-heads in the yearbook photo, now do we?" he asked with a chuckle.
"No sir. I'll be here at 6," I groaned.
As I headed out the door, I had to go back through the main part of the gym where the lockers and showers were. The period was just ending now, and the first few guys were stripping off and walking into the showers. I just put my head down, and did my normal inconspicuous thing. Unfortunately, this time I had to get noticed.
"Hey FAG! Who let you in here with a camera?"
"Huh?" I though to myself. I realized that I vaguely knew that voice. I looked up, just to be sure that I was the one being addressed here. At that moment, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach, as I realized that I did indeed have my camera over one shoulder like I frequently did. I always slid it slightly around so the camera body was behind me, so it wasn't in my way all the time. Sometimes I forget it's there, until I sit down and lean back into a chair or something.
Just great...this guy had been an asshole to me and all the other underclassmen when I was in sixth period P.E. until just last week. He was a senior, of course, and he took it as his sworn duty to hassle anyone he figured would take his bullshit without fighting back.
Chad...um, ya...Chad Campbell...that was his name. He was obviously a few years older than me (probably almost nineteen by the looks of him...), sporting a permanent shadow of dark stubble across his face, and a chest covered with disgusting black fur. Ewwwww...Gross! I remember he was one of the guys I made a point of not checking out in the showers or locker room. Looking at his hairy butt made me wanna barf.
And, I'm sure he remembered me, since I was one of his favorite victims.
"What's the matter? Still upset about that little fight with your boyfriend this morning?" he sneered.
I couldn't help it...but my heart sank a little bit, as I felt my face beginning to turn red from nervousness and embarrassment. At that point, I was just desperate to get the hell out of there. I figured the longer I was in there, the more chance I had to get into some kind of hassle. I quickened my pace, and headed for the door. But, my progress was abruptly halted when another very large and naked senior dude stepped in front of me. Oh great. Chad's buddy, Eric Swenson...varsity football asshole.
"Hey, where you runnin' you little homo? I think someone's talking to you," he said with an evil laugh.
"Uh...I'm sorry, I didn't know...but, um...you'll have to excuse me, `cause I have to get back to my class now, and..." I stammered, while looking helplessly at the floor.
"Let him go, Swenson," I heard the coach's voice echo through the tile and concrete, "and watch your mouth. You know that kind of talk's not acceptable around here."
He gave me an evil look as he stepped to the side to let me pass. Somehow, that look convinced me that this was far from over.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I passed through the gym doors and made it safely to the outside. I swear, I think I was dangerously close to wetting my pants there, for a minute. All of a sudden, things felt very different. I realized that this whole yearbook photography thing was designed to prevent me from hiding in my shell all the time...but I was beginning to see the advantages in that. I wasn't able to hide from the world now, and I could see that things were definitely going to change for me...
Not necessarily for the better, though.
Like I said, I'd been called names like `fag' or `homo' by other kids all my life, but they didn't really mean anything to me. They were just the normal `terms of endearment' that kids used against anyone on the playground that seemed a little different, or didn't quite `fit in.' Now, all of a sudden, those words held an entirely new meaning...and an entirely new threat. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm gay, but I am very much against physical violence... especially against me! I don't do pain, ok?
If anyone had sincerely asked me, I probably would have just told them I was gay. Of course, I certainly realized the advantages of staying in the closet...I mean, who wouldn't? But, I'm not ashamed of who I am, and nobody is gonna make me apologize for it. I had long ago promised myself that I would try to stand up and deal with it honestly and courageously when the time finally came (as much as I hoped that it was still a long way off). However, I wasn't gonna volunteer to let some close-minded, bigoted asshole get in touch with his inner feelings while he was re-arranging my face, either...
As I walked shakily across the campus, I passed the spot...where I had last seen Rusty this morning. I stopped for a minute, and stared at the now empty space...wondering to myself just how much my life had been changed in that instant.
Immediately, my thoughts turned to Rusty. I wondered what he was doing, right now. After that episode in the gym showers, I could definitely appreciate the fear he had lived with all these years. When I closed my eyes, I could see the frightened 12-year-old-boy that still lived inside him. I felt another wave of sadness beginning to wash over me. Why did the world have to be so screwed up? All I wanted was to get to know someone who was fascinating to me...both intellectually and physically, of course. I had honestly never met another human being before who made me feel both of those things at the same time. Yet, that one simple little desire seemed to have caused so much pain, fear, and awkwardness...and now I could see it was looming up, threatening to screw up both of our lives, even as I spoke. Why did life have to go and get so complicated?
I was worried about Rusty. I knew how much he must be hurting inside right now, and I wanted more than anything to be able to make him feel better about himself in some way. But, it also seemed that right now, I was indirectly the source of the problem. Perhaps the best thing I could do was just staying out of his way, and having some patience, I reminded myself. And some hope.
I spent most of that weekend locked in my room. I pretended to myself that I was reading, although I knew I was only just turning the pages. My eyes were glued to the print, but I had no idea what I was reading...my mind was busy elsewhere. I spent the entire time lost deep inside my thoughts...lost in my own little world of possibilities. That's what I was good at...I could always see all the potential versions of the future (seemingly all at once), both good and bad.
My mind ranged back and forth...between the extremes of imagining all the really bad things that could happen to me at school, and all the really awesome things that could happen with Rusty, if I could just figure out what to do. My imagination kept begging to be turned loose...to be free to create that perfect version of the future where we could really be, you know...together...but, that nagging little doubt in my head kept holding it back...afraid it might never happen. Afraid to know what I really might be missing if...
I made a point to avoid any unnecessary conversation with the parents...claiming that I was just too busy...because I had a big project due on Monday (not exactly true, but I definitely considered my so-called life quite a project at the moment...). Luckily for me, they had plans that took them out of the house for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. By then, I was definitely getting a little stir-crazy, and I took it as a welcome opportunity to get out of the confines of my bedroom for a while.
As usual, I stuffed my hands in my pockets and took off down the sidewalk, not really knowing exactly where I was headed (at least not consciously, anyway...). I wandered all around the neighborhood, still lost inside the universe of emotions that existed inside my head...not really paying much attention to anything else.
I found myself at the park, watching some of the skaters longingly from a distance, and smiling. Well, I wasn't really watching them...as much as I was watching him in my mind. I knew he wouldn't really be there (don't ask me why...but I just knew, ok?). I just sat there remembering the times I had watched him skate before...basking in the warmth those memories stirred inside me. He was just so awesome on his board...it gave me chills every time I envisioned him flying across the concrete, with his long dark hair streaming out behind him, the sun glowing on the deeply tanned skin of his chest, his shoulders or his back; creating those little shadows that defined every single muscle on his body...
Then, like somebody had slapped me across the back of the head, it stuck me.
The nagging doubt. After Friday morning, I just had no way to be sure...I had no way of knowing how things were actually gonna work out between us. Even though part of me was convinced that he didn't really mean it...that it was just his anger and frustration lashing out at the world...I knew I couldn't be sure. I had to face the fact that whatever relationship...or friendship, or something...we had, might have had ended right then.
It might already be over, and I just didn't know it yet.
NO! I refused to let myself believe that. It would just hurt too much...
The simple idea that Rusty may already be gone from my life sent a wave of terror running through my body, and set my feet into motion again...even though I was still lost inside the confusing world of thoughts and feelings that swirled around in my head. I vaguely realized that I was wandering through a different neighborhood now.
As I stood there staring at it, I knew this place looked familiar. But, almost like it was a dream, things seemed just enough out of focus...out of any normal sense of reality...to really be sure. Then suddenly, my blood ran cold as an evil presence invaded my consciousness. My mind immediately snapped to attention, and I realized exactly where I was.
He stood there...staring at me intently from across the street. He had opened the door, about to climb inside the big pickup truck parked in the driveway, when he had noticed me standing here. Somehow, I just knew he didn't like what he was seeing.
He was a big man...well over six feet tall, and pretty muscular, even though his age appeared to be well into his fifties. Thick curly gray hair covered his head and his massive arms, and poked out through the top of his shirt. His cold, steel-gray eyes bore right into me...repelling me...pushing me away. Even though he had no idea who I was, the message was clear.
I wasn't welcome here.
I knew I had to leave; but, I wasn't gonna go quite that easily. Somehow, I just had the feeling that this was only the beginning...the opening blows, so to speak...between us. I gave him a defiant look before turning slowly, and shuffling back in the direction I had come. I heard his truck start up, back out, and head off down the street in the opposite direction.
I stopped, and turned to look back at the place again. I felt the tight grip that my emotions had held on my stomach begin to relax a little bit. My heart told me that he was ok now...that I didn't need to worry about him for the moment. Everything would work out alright...it just had to. But, as I turned to make my way towards home again, one thought dominated all the others:
So, that's Rusty's dad...