I was completely surprised to see Don in my class. And thrilled! But I knew enough not to act too excited. That would be gouache! I knew then and there that this was going to be a major year in my life. Sounds cliché, sure, but hey, it’s my life and my memories, so what are ya gonna do.
I knew that Coach Frank was sort of Don’s mentor since he was the baseball coach and was surprised that he didn’t stay in the P.E. class. Our computer class wasn’t required to get a diploma so he didn’t need to take it. But I wasn’t going to assume, by the furthest stretch of my imagination that he took the class because I was in it. Nope. That’s just wishful thinking.
First day of school was the typical b.s., especially in the computer science class. My next class was American Lit. Mrs. Coleman was an older lady, in her fifties, and was pretty laid back. She did, however, expect us to work really hard in her class. It was easy because she made it fun. One of my friends since the eighth grade, Chandra, was also in class. I knew most of the other people but there was this one sort of geeky-conservative guy in there that I’d never before met named Kent. From what I’d understood he’d come to our school the previous year but I hadn’t had any classes with him. Chandra was a trip and I always loved having her in class with me. We had the same homeroom because our names both started with “L.” If you’ve ever seen “The Jeffersons” she’d remind you a bit of Florence. So would I, except I’m a white guy.
Kent was the type who dressed pretty sharp. He did the blue jeans and loafers thing, and oftentimes wore argyle sox. Remember, this was the 80’s, so quit laughing. He was a pretty quiet guy. At least I thought so at first.
Third period was Algebra 2. Ugg. This class was a mix of juniors and seniors, mostly juniors. The teacher was a snoozer. After his class I just wanted to run around holding scissors. My only saving grace were a couple of people that sat near me. One was named Kate. Kate was an absolute fuckin’ trip. She had a really dry sense of humor and would say almost anything. She knew the senior that sat next to me named Denis. He was also into inappropriate humor. Thank God.
Fourth period was chemistry. My homeroom teacher actually taught this and she was pretty cool. The first day I sauntered in and sat at a table in front of a guy that I’d known since the eighth grade named Pat. He was a really light hearted guy and it was easy to make him laugh. Each chemistry table sat two students and in front of Pat was just one guy with an empty space next to him. I asked if anyone was sitting there and he said no. He seemed to know Pat and the other guy at Pat’s table, Eric. The guy at my table introduced himself as Charles and I introduced myself to him. The dude, Kent, from my Lit class was sitting at the table behind Pat and Eric.
Fourth period was also lunch. We had “C” lunch, which meant that for the first hour we had class, during “A” and “B” lunches. Then we had lunch and came back for study hall during “D” lunch. I think the school had around 1900 students and that’s how they broke up the lunches. So Pat, Eric, Charles and I get lunch and head to a table. I noticed that Kent was sitting alone and so we asked him to sit with us.
Then I spied Don.
He was standing in the lunch line talking to some dude named Carl. I remembered Carl as being a real asshole from 9th grade gym class. He was in Don’s grade, but an asshole nonetheless. Carl said something and then waved before walking off. I guess he was part of the work study program because he had his book bag and was walking toward the main entrance of the school. Don was looking around the cafeteria and our eyes met. I nodded a bit, still the geek trying to be cool, and he nodded back. A minute or so later he headed over to our table after he’d bought his lunch.
“Hey man how’s it goin’?” he asked.
“Just fine. You sittin’ anywhere?” I replied.
“Right here,” and he put his tray down across from mine. “Hey Pat, what’s up?” Pat also played baseball, which is how they knew each other.
“Hey Don. I didn’t know you had this lunch.”
“Yep. You doin’ alright?”
“I guess so. We’re in chemistry right now.”
“Yeah, but the first day shouldn’t be too hard.”
“So what position do you play again?” I asked Don. He had told me once but I didn’t remember.
“That’s right,” I snapped my fingers. “Forgot.”
Just simple talk. You need to remember that he and I had only talked a little bit over the summer and were just beginning to get to know each other. Conversation came easy to us, which isn’t always the way with me. I tend to be pretty vocal about what I think, and it can put off some people. Sorry ‘bout that! I was glad that we shared lunch in addition to our computer class. The rest of the lunch was just simple chat. A couple of us knew each other or were mutual friends with the others so lunch was pretty fun and enjoyable.
After study hall came fifth period. For me that was Beginning Spanish. The teacher was actually from Spain so I guess she knew her shit. The only thing that was moronic was that all of the desks were arranged in rows of two. Four rows of two, with an aisle in between each pair of desks. But that’s not what was moronic. Mrs. Espinoza decided that the best thing to do was to put us in alphabetical order. How original. Does anyone know why teachers do this? Can’t they just take down the names as we sit?
I ended up sitting next to this guy named George Heaney. I’d had an English class with him a couple of years before and recognized him. He played football as well as baseball. Nothing in common with me there.
I looked at him sideways in my enormous glasses and said, “Hey.”
“Hey,” he responded. Future astronaut I could tell.
To my right across the aisle was a dude named Mike Perez. I recognized him because he was hot. Everyone knew who Mike was. He was one of those typical rich, good looking guys. Brown eyes, black hair. Swarthy. Always a nice Polo shirt. I just looked at him and he looked back. Never said a word. A real conversationalist, he. Oh boy what a treat I was in for. Jock on one side and model on the other. Two rows back was another football dude, a senior. I always remember him, Andy, as being, well, not too well-equipped in the brains department. Across the aisle from him, and two seats behind Perez was a junior named Chuck Reese. He was the quarterback and, of course, incredibly popular.
I felt like a bastard at a family reunion. Geek boy Paul surrounded by a wolf pack.
Mrs. Espinosa droned on about what we’d be doing and learning in class. Luckily there were several cut-ups so at least the class would be a fun one. Basically I had no friends in this class. Lucky me.
Sixth period was American History. Chuck ended up being in that class too, along with two other guys from the football team. But I had a few more friends in this class, mainly girls. Our teacher was this really cool lady named Miss Dargens. She was a little bit hip, kinda hot, and seemed to really connect with the students.
So that was a typical day in my junior year.
Every day I got to see and talk to Don twice, which was cool. Kent, who was in my Chemistry and Lit classes, turned out to be a really crazy guy. Crazy in a good way. He was always cracking jokes and being a dork, which always had me laughing. From that we started talking and hanging out a bit more. Turned out that his folks were divorced, and he and his sister lived with their mother. He was big into musicals and dramas and I got to help him study the lyrics for a song from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Joseph” when he joined a musical playhouse in Atlanta.
Kate, in my Algebra class, always cracked me up. There was this dude in there named Todd who absolutely would not shut up. He was always getting called down by the teacher for something or other. One day I got real ballsy and made a paper airplane. Then a couple of other people did. Soon we had a squadron of airplanes flying around the room while the teacher had his back to us. It was funny because he’d see one land on the file cabinet and look sideways at it. We’d all laugh. Then I took aim and just threw another plane. It soared through the air and landed right on the bastard’s head. Everyone roared with laughter. The teacher turned around and blamed Todd, who kept saying that he didn’t do it. When asked who did it Todd just said he didn’t know, which was a lie because he watched me throw it. That was just one of the ways that I started to become more of a class clown than just a nerd.
One day in Spanish class Mrs. Espinoza overheard me telling someone that I played the piano. Well our class was set up in the chorus room where a three was a piano. She asked me if I’d mind playing a song. I politely refused but for some reason when people hear that you play the piano, everyone on the planet wants you to play, and they think you take requests. The next day as I was coming into class Chuck was standing at the back of the piano (it was an upright) talking to somebody about wishing he knew how to play. Mrs. Espinoza said quietly to him that I could. I heard this, and they knew that I heard it because they all looked at me at the same time. My stomach did flips. I was finally starting to come out of my shell and now this?
Chuck stood there grinning and crooked a finger at me to come over there. I just smiled and walked over to the bench. The first song I played was Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” I only really knew ragtime music because it was my favorite type to play. By the end of the song the whole class was applauding. The teacher asked me to please play one more song so I played “The Entertainer,” which was one of her favorites as it turned out.
I went back to my seat as the class applauded. George was just sitting there watching me. “Cool,” was all he said. No presidential speeches from that one. I was sort of embarrassed but everyone seemed genuine in their praise. It didn’t take me long before I was on cloud nine. Now everyone in class knew who I was. I was “the piano player.” I had always wanted to have more friends than I’d had, and now it looked like I’d attracted the attention of the jocks. Not necessarily a bad thing. If you’ve always been a bit of a dork then you know how this makes you feel. I’d always envied the jock group because they were always having fun and seemed to have lots of friends. From the moment I played the piano in Spanish class on, half the sport-o’s knew who I was because of Chuck. More and more people started talking to me and taking an interest in what I did. It sounded like the warm up to a bad 80’s movie.
But it wasn’t.
I don’t know why but the jocks that I had in my class suddenly had an attitude shift when it came to me. Remember, I’m skinny with coke bottle glasses. Normally we mix like oil and water. I started to feel like I belonged. I gained a little self confidence and to top that off, I was beginning to have even more fun than ever.
The guy next to me, George? Well he and I eventually were always cutting up in class. We’d mumble stuff under our breaths that only we could hear and Mrs. Espinoza would ask us what we were talking about. Have you ever seen the movie “Airplane”? You remember the scene where June Cleaver says “Stewardess, I speak jive”? Well, George and I would start talking jive whenever this one girl in particular would be called on. Not because she wasn’t nice or anything, but because of her name. It was one of those really bizarre urban names like Quavella, or something like that. I wish I could remember what in the hell it was but one day he and I turned to each other and said exactly the same thing, in jive, to each other at the exact same time. We both laughed so damn hard that the teacher had to stop lecturing and wait for us to stop. All the other jocks were like, George, Paul, what’s so damn funny? We were laughing so hard that we couldn't speak; it was awesome.
Almost overnight I felt safe to extend myself towards other people. And it felt great! I had more friends than I ever thought I would. For me, high school was a blast!
Don and I were hanging out a bit more too. He started sitting with me and my group of friends in the morning before school. Then in October of that year I got a job at Kroger. We were both baggers but he’d been there longer and I knew he’d be promoted to a cashier before long. I made quite a few friends there as well. Normally we only worked on the weekends because of school; usually Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays. Hell, any bit of “Don time” was fine with me. We really got along great and I honestly appreciated his friendship.
October is always Homecoming Week at our school. At least it was. I don’t know if it still is. Anyway, I was on the class council and each grade had their own truck that they could decorate with signs, streamers, whatever, and ride in the parade through the old town square. The Junior’s truck held around twenty-five people or so, and the parades were always on Thursday evenings. The game itself was always at home on Friday nights. This was the first season I had any interest in going to any football games, mostly because I had some new friends who were playing ball, partly because I was now driving and could take some of my own friends to the game. I had just turned 16 and my parents were cool enough to let me take the “boat” out here and there. It was a big old, fat-ass Caprice Classic.
Being a gay guy I naturally gravitated towards the cheerleaders. I knew a bunch of them anyway and we’d start cutting up when they weren’t on the field. Every Friday night a huge group of us would go to the local Pizza Hut and watch the bearded hostess shit her drawers when we’d tell her that we needed tables for twenty-one. I’m tellin’ ya, my life changed completely that year. I was part of the “in” crowd and having a ball.
Back to Homecoming. I don’t think I went to the dance, but I definitely hit the game with my friends. I was my own cheering and hollering section. I probably annoyed some people there but hey, we were favored to kick ass and our team did. After the game was over and we won, I headed down to the field with some of my friends to congratulate the players. Some of my friends were surprised that I knew any of the guys, let alone would head down to the field to give them atta-boys. Spread the love baby!
Day to day activities you really don’t need to know. I was gaining a really wide circle of friends; something I’d never had in my life. Don and I were really becoming close friends. His friend Carl helped me play a prank on the girl that Don was dating. Erin was her name. Well to give you some history here, Erin had gone out with Carl once or twice in the past – nothing that was a big deal. But once Erin and Don started going out all she would talk about was Carl. It started pissing Don off. What pissed him off, pissed me off. So I thought it would be funny if Carl took her to a movie and left her there. Where this idea came from I don’t know. At this point I had only known Carl by sight and from my gym class a couple of years before. I’d never really talked to him, but let Don in on my idea. He thought it was funny and introduced me to Carl. Carl thought it was funny too and asked Erin out to a movie. I told another girlfriend of mine, who was actually Erin’s best friend, and she thought it was great because she also got sick of hearing Erin’s nagging.
Carl asked Erin to a movie and Denise (Erin’s friend) and I agreed to be there to take her home. The two of them sat down near the front and about a half hour into the movie Carl got up to go to the bathroom, but left the theater. After a few minutes we could see Erin looking back to check on Carl. A little while later she headed back toward the lobby. Denise went out after her and found her in the bathroom. Erin told her what had happened. Of course Denise already knew it, but she offered for her to come sit with us and we’d take her home.
It was a shitty thing to do, but once we told her what happened (which was the next day) she was at first stunned, but then thought it was funny. Needless to say she never talked about Carl to Don again. Oh yeah, and she and Don were done dating.
Carl had moved down the street from me just before his senior year. There was a bizarre rule that in your senior year of high school you could chose whichever school in the county you wanted to go. So visiting Carl is how Don found out where I lived.
One day the doorbell rang and I answered the door. Don Keller stood right there.
B-duh, b-duh. “Hey Don! Um, what are you doing here?” I asked.
“Paulie! I didn’t know you lived right here! I was taking Carl home from school and saw you walking towards the house the other day. I woulda stopped by then but after I dropped him off your car was gone.”
“Well hell, come on in,” I said.
“Oh I can’t. I have to go to work. Just wanted to drop by and say hi.”
I was still a bit shocked that he was standing there. “Um. Okay. Well have fun,” I kidded him.
“Seriously though, drop by any time. I’m always here.”
“Unless you’re at work,” he said.
“We’ll see ya, buddy.”
“See ya.” I shut the door. Hmm. Interesting. I was really, really getting too much attention lately. Oh fuck it! I was loving it!
Don had made another first move. At least I think it was another. I was still assuming that he switched classes to be with me. Wishful thinking I bet.
* * * *
Fall of my junior year came and went, as did Christmas. I was still working as a bagboy at Kroger and Don had been promoted to cashier. It was a cold night at the beginning of January that our friendship took an enormous leap forward.
It may have been the night of the 1st or the 2nd of January. It was cold and snowing a little bit. I was actually on door duty. You know, where I had to unload buggies into the customers’ cars. Only I had to stand outside. I had a coat on and a knit cap pulled down over my ears. I got this bright idea to wire my walkman through my coat and listen to the radio. The hat would cover the headphones. Between loading cars the radio station played a dedication to someone who’d died, and the song was Barbra Streisand’s version of “Somewhere” from West Side Story. I remember thinking what an incredible song it was to dedicate to someone’s memory.
I got called in to start just bagging groceries and it was a Sunday night around 9:00. The place was really kind of dead, so Don and I just started talking at his register. Honestly, after all these years I don’t remember how the topic got brought up but he started talking about his family. More accurately, his parents. He told me that his dad was always talking down to him, belittling him. His mom drank a lot. Like, majorly a lot. Right when he was about to continue with his story our manager came up to us and told us that we could go home, that the snow was keeping people home and we weren’t needed.
“Well man, I guess we’ll talk later,” I said to him.
“Hey, you can call me tonight, if you want?” he said.
“Uh, sure. What time?” I was completely surprised. Up until this point we’d only talked shop, shit or whatever. Things were about to get deep.
“How about 10:00,” he said. “My parents should be asleep by then.”
“You won’t get in trouble?” My folks wouldn’t have been too fond of a phone call that time of night.
“It’ll be cool.”
“Ten it is,” I said as we walked off to clock out and leave the store.
I lived about a half-mile from the store and he was about a mile. Don lived about a mile away in the other direction. I could feel in my bones that things were going to change between us. Up until that point in my life I’d never really had a close friend. My two brothers were older and always, always getting on my nerves, and them some. We were never really close. Still aren’t.
Since he asked me to call him I assumed that he wanted to tell me more about his family life. Otherwise why else would I be calling him at 10:00? Normally we would have just said good night and gone home, only to see each other again at work or school. This was different. He had something on his chest that he wanted to get off. I wasn’t pushing him for details or anything, he was about to volunteer.
I remember wondering what it was about me that made him decide to let me into that part of my life. I know that he didn’t have a ton of friends; some acquaintances and people he hung out with. Carl had enlisted in the Marines and would be going off to boot camp soon, and I think I was the only other person that he talked to on a daily basis. Actually I was surprised he wasn’t getting sick of me. We had first period together every day, and then on the weekends we usually worked during or around the same shifts at Kroger. I guess it was the natural progression in our friendship that made him want to share his more personal life with me.
I got home and changed into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, then sat down to watch television for a while. My parents had already gone up to bed and were watching t.v. in their room. Once it got close to 10:00, I headed up to my bedroom and told my folks goodnight. I went to my room and closed the door, got into bed and picked up the phone to dial Don’s house.
“Hello?” Don answered on the first ring.
“Hey man how’s it goin’.”
“That was cool getting out of there early.”
“Sure was. So, you were just starting to tell me about your parents.”
“Yeah. I’m not sure if you knew this but I actually lived with Carl for a couple of weeks.”
“You’re kiddin’. I didn’t know that,” I said.
“Well what happened?”
“My dad and I don’t get along that great. It’s a bunch of bullshit, really.” He paused and I didn’t say anything. “He’s always starting arguments with me and then’ll say shit like ‘you think you’re so tough, don’t you.’”
“No shit,” I said.
“He’s a real prick.”
“He ever hit you?”
Another pause. “Yeah. He’s done that a couple of times. What finally sent me over to Carl’s was one day I was in the backyard and he started bitchin’ at me about how I mowed the yard, or picked up the grass or whatever. I told him to back off and he started shoving me a bit, trying to actually pick a fight with me.”
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“Nothing at first, but then he started trying to get me into a wrestling hold.” This was blowing me away. “We wrestled around a bit, then I grabbed a big stick I found at the edge of the woods and hit him over the head with it.”
“You’re shittin’ me!”
“Nope.” He took a deep breath.
“What happened then?”
“I grabbed some stuff and headed over to Carl’s house. I ended up being over there for about two weeks.”
“Wow,” I said, quietly.
“He’s okay some of the time. Luckily he travels around a lot.”
“What about your mom. What does she say?”
“Hell, she’s a drunk too. As soon as she gets home she starts drinking.” I shook my head to myself. “She usually joins in with him when he starts bitchin’ at me. Normally at night she passes out on the couch and I have to help her up to bed. Sometimes she picks fights too.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“Yeah. But she’s easier to control because she’s smaller than I am.” He sat there in silence for a minute.
“Damn dude, I don’t know what to say. Except that if you ever need anything, or you need to stay here…”
“I know man, thanks. But things are getting better. At least they are for now.”
“By better you mean…”
“They work more, so they’re here less.”
“Got it,” I said.
“Well Paul, it’s late and I need to hit the dusty trail. Thanks for listening. I just didn’t know if you knew that about me.”
“Hey man, anytime you wanna talk-“
“I know. That’s cool. Thanks. We’ll see ya later.”
“Alright, man. See ya.” I hung up the phone. Yeesh! I’d never been exposed to that type of atmosphere. On one hand I felt angry that my friend’s parents would treat him like that. He was such a nice guy I can’t imagine where the motivation to behave like that even came from. Not that there is any motivation to beat your kid, mind you. I just didn’t get it. And then on the other hand I felt so bad for him, having both of your parents being mean and abusive.
I lay there after I hung up the phone and looked at the ceiling. The entire conversation came out of the blue. We weren’t talking about anything in particular at work when he brought it up to me. And the part where he said he didn’t know if I knew; how on earth would I know something like that? I’m sure he was saying that because it may have been awkward for him to start talking about it.
To this day I don’t know what motivated him to actually tell me about his parents. As I sit here typing this I just shake my head. Something had happened in our friendship and he had gotten to a place where he wanted to share that with me. Was he asking for help? I didn’t think so. It’s not like I could do anything physically. Or maybe I just wasn’t used to having somebody open up to me like that. But I’ll tell you what. It made me feel good that he trusted me to tell me those sort of things. It was like our friendship had just turned up another notch. I gotta say that I still had the hots for him, but now something was different.
I’m not sure but that night may have been when I started to actually have feelings of love for Don. Where did those feelings come from? Did they come from being flattered that he’d open up to me with something really personal? Did they come from being trusted? I’d never felt those feelings before for any of my other friends. It was strange but I welcomed it. God! I actually started craving it.
I remember sleeping like a baby that night.