First day of high school. To ask if I am nervous is like wondering if a kitten surround by a pack of salivating Rotweilers might feel a bit uneasy. Yes, I am nervous. Not quite scared, but not very far from that.
Daniel had some advice for me on how to behave, and it sounded really good, but I could manage to do it? While worrying about that, I also think of something else to try. He said to be honest with people, not pretend to be something I wasn’t, and this thought I’ve had doesn’t break that rule. Not really. I get a chance to use it right off the bat.
This is what happens. I walk in the front door of the school after Daniel drops me off. I’m a little early because he said the teachers always got there before most of the students. But there are a few kids already in the lobby milling about. Maybe it’s a vestibule and not a lobby. One of thousands of things I don’t know.
I have to stop thinking that way!
Anyway, we’re in whatever you want to call that area just beyond the front door that has the school’s offices on one side and hallways leading off in three other directions. A lot of the kids are looking at cards in their hands. I know what those cards are because I have one in my pocket, too. It’s a light-blue piece of stiff paper with my class schedule. It shows where I’m supposed to go for my homeroom; that’s where attendance will be taken and announcements made. The card also lists the seven classes I have each day of the week by the time of day and what buildings and rooms they are in.
I pull my card out, although I already know my homeroom is in the 300 block, room 307. All the buildings here are on ground level and each is numbered; the building where I’m standing holds the office; it’s the 100 building. In Massachusetts there’d been a three-story-tall high school. Here, the campus is spread over a larger area, and there are no second or third floors. I guess maybe back East they had multi-story buildings to keep down heating costs or to minimize the footprint of the school. Here, I suppose everything is kept on the ground level because of the frequent earthquakes. I don’t know if either of those reasons is actually true. There is so much I don’t really know. I do know that since I’ve been here, there haven’t been any earthquakes. None I’ve felt, anyway.
I did it again! I need to stop focusing on what I don’t know and accept the fact that what I do know is considerable for someone my age. Think positive, like Daniel does!
One thing I do know is that I’ll fit in better with the others in the lobby if I also have my card in my hand. Don’t be any more unusual than I need to be, I tell myself fiercely. Fit in!
This is a bad situation for me. This sort of thing where I am in a group has ended up with me the center attraction in humiliation-city many times before. Someone will ask me something or even just say hi, and I’ll look at my shoes, not having any idea how to respond, and if they are the right sort, they’ll be offended or see easy pickings and speak to me again with a much different tone of voice; it never goes well for me.
I look at my card and then join a group of kids who mostly look my age. They are gathered around a large map mounted on a wall near the office that shows the layout of buildings on the campus with each one numbered.
I can tell a few of these kids are friends. But a lot of them are together in that way strangers will gather for something that is attracting all of them; you can tell they’re strangers from their body language and the discrete distance they keep from each other.
I move to be close enough to the map to locate building 300. As I am looking, I feel myself get bumped.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” a kid says from behind me. I turn to look at him, my heart practically leaping to my throat. Is this the beginning?
The kid is my size, maybe a bit bigger, and probably my age. He has long, messy brown hair, is wearing a black tee shirt and stonewashed jeans, and for some reason is smiling apologetically at me.
“Sorry. I was trying to get closer and got shoved into you,” he says.
I remember. I actually remember! Even with my heart racing and the need—and it’s an overpowering need—to look down, I don’t. Instead, I force myself to smile. I have no idea what it looks like. Could be one of the death grins you see on TV, what I’ve read in books described as a rictus. Yeah, maybe I have that look. But I do it. I remember I am supposed to, and I force myself to! I smile.
The other thing, the harder thing, is keeping my eyes on his. His are brown, just like his hair. As I am noticing that, I realize I need to say something. It’s my turn. He spoke, now I need to. Just staring at him, smiling or not, isn’t going to cut it. In fact, it’ll be weird.
And this is when what I mentioned earlier, what I thought about as another thing to do to improve my chances of fitting in along with smiling and making eye contact, comes to the fore. I say, “No problem. I’m Rob. A freshman. I’m new here.”
Whew! That was hard for me, but I did it; I feel quite proud. Maybe proud enough to make my smile more genuine.
“Yeah, I think most of us here are freshmen. We’re all trying to figure out where to go. I overheard some of them talking, all saying they were in building 300. Maybe that’s where most of the freshman classes are held.”
He stops, but then before I can speak, says, “Oh, sorry,” and laughs. “I’m Terrance. Terry, actually.”
My turn again! I think, then ask, “What homeroom do you have?” This isn’t as difficult as I expected.
“307,” he says without glancing at his card. Maybe he has his whole schedule memorized the same as I do. Maybe this kid is smart; maybe he could be a friend. I’d love to have a friend. But it can’t be this easy. It just can’t!
“Me, too,” I say. “Are you new here?” Bold. Very bold of me to ask a
stranger a personal question. Yet it feels surprising normal to ask that.
“We all are,” he says, and laughs again. “All of us freshmen. But you probably meant it another way. Like, do I know a lot of these kids? And no, I don’t. I went to a Catholic elementary school and rebelled at going to high school there. My mom insisted; I stood up for myself. I couldn’t believe I won that battle. Luckily, my dad was neutral and in the end was even on my side, which was a first for him; maybe he did that just to spite her, not help me. In my family, we all have our own sides.”
He stops for a moment, then sort of has a whole-body quick spasm and continues. “But, back to talking about school, most of those kids went on to a Catholic high school, so no, I only know one kid here: you!” He laughs again. Terry certainly laughs easily.
“I just moved here recently from back East. That’s what I meant about being new here. I don’t know anyone, either.”
“Sure you do! Me! Want to walk over and find 307?”
It’s that easy. Daniel was right. Smile and look ’em in the eye. Wow! Unbelievable!
I don’t know if being Rob rather than Robin actually makes much difference. I kind of used that name in a spur of the moment sort of way, thinking it might make me feel less conspicuous and less, less… well, I don’t know; but Rob is a much more masculine and common name than Robin, so that has to help. I’ll feel a lot less defensive being able to tell them I’m Rob when meeting people. Saying I was Robin had always seemed to put me on the defensive.
I realize right off, though, what wouldn’t be so easy would be getting my new and improved name established at the school. What I was afraid of was teachers calling roll—if they did that. Maybe in high school they didn’t. Or maybe they did but just in homeroom. I’d have to find out, but one thing was clear: if anyone calling roll called out Robin Tressman rather that Rob Tressman, my plan for reinventing myself starting with my name would be down the tubes. I’d be dead meat.
What I know I have to do is going to be very hard for me, but so is my hope of being Rob in this school and to the other kids. So, when I walk into my new homeroom, the first thing I do is tell Terry I need to speak to the teacher for just a moment, and he says okay, he’ll save me a seat.
The teacher is Miss Holterman. She’s young, which I think might help. Old teachers can be very set in their ways and don’t necessarily listen to kids and/or do what they want.
I know the teacher’s name because she’s written it on the whiteboard. Room 307—Freshman Homeroom—Miss Holterman. All that being written tells me she wants to take any uncertainty away from kids coming in. Nice of her, I think. One less thing for us to be anxious about on our first day.
I walk up to her and wait for her to look at me. When she does, I say, “Miss Holterman, hi. I’m in your homeroom. My name is Robin Tressman. I have a big favor to ask of you. May I ask?”
She smiles at me. “Sure, Robin. That’s what I’m here for.”
So far, so good. I take a breath and start in. “Miss Holterman, I’ve had trouble at school before. You can see I’m small. Maybe you can see how timid I am. I don’t hide it well. At other schools, I got bullied a lot. My name was part of the reason for that, I think. Now that I’m in high school, I thought I’d try to fix that part of the problem. So, my favor: could you call me Rob when you take roll, rather than Robin?”
She nods. “I’ll mark it on the sheet so I won’t forget. None of the teachers in your classes will call roll; we do it just once so all that time won’t be wasted. The school wants to know who showed up and who didn’t, so we send them the roll first thing. But this means you don’t need to tell the other teachers not to call you Robin. Today they’re going to ask what you guys want to be called, and they’ll use those names from then on. They’ve all been instructed to do that. Our principal is a good man, and he wants the students to be as comfortable here as possible. So, you shouldn’t have any problem making this work for you. Okay?”
“Not just okay; great!” I say while cracking my first really sincere smile with a teacher at this school. Hopefully, it’ll be the first of many to come. “Thanks.” Then I go sit with Terry.
Training Nosy is fun. That’s my dog: Nosy. Exasperating, frustrating, but fun. It is also great for teaching me patience. Labs are used for seeing-eye work because they’re smart and steadfast and obedient. Nosy is all that but also curious about everything, and dogs frequently get to know what’s what about something as much through their nose as any other way. So Nosy fits her in a couple of ways. Besides, I’d much rather be calling down the sidewalk, “Here, Nosy. Come here, girl,” than, “come here, Fluffyduffy,” or, “come here, Princess Darling.” No, Nosy was a good name for her—and for me.
Funny how friends work. I am feeling a lot better about myself now. Terry is a large part of that. He’s clever and fun and my friend. I could never say that about any other kid before. My mom wouldn’t really let me get close to anyone. Once she saw it happening, she’d humiliate me to the point it felt like my flesh was being ripped off in public. It was self-defense not to give her that opportunity. So I hadn’t had friends, let alone a best friend.
Now I do. And Terry spends time at my house. Much more than I do at his. He says he’d won the battle with his mom of which schools to go to, but when I’m at his house, I feel the attitude she carries. She’s upset with him and shows it through stiffness, speaking as little as possible, and unpleasant frowns. I lived with a woman similar to that for years and know how to behave around them, but I hate the feeling I have when I’m over there. It’s all new to Terry. He doesn’t yet know how to keep from getting in shouting matches with her. Or maybe he just doesn’t care when she’s yelling at him. I always cared. It hurt me. He seems indifferent to the criticism and outright anger. Maybe he got used to it while I never did. Certainly he has more self-confidence than I ever had.
It’s especially hard for Terry at home because he has a father who’s perpetually disappointed in him. They’re not close at all. Terry says that his parents don’t even like each other all that much. The entire family lives in a strained atmosphere.
So we spend more time at my house than his.
See that? My house? Well, it seems like mine; I think of it that way. More and more I’ve been putting my former life behind me and out of my mind.
The other main reasons we spend more time at my house than his are: 1) Daniel’s not home a lot when we are, staying after at school when the kids are gone so he can prepare the next day’s lessons without interruptions; 2) Nosy’s here and is always fun to play with; and, of course, 3) there’s the pool.
I guess I need to talk about that a little. It’s a new house in a new development. More houses are being built around us, although this one is on the back edge of the development and there’s only desert and mountains behind us. Two more houses are going up on our street, but they’re a ways away to each side of us. Immediately around us there are only open lots.
Of course, this means we’re isolated, which is another word for private. Private house, private pool. And we’re kids. Boys. Anyone can guess what that means.
There’s a natural, built-in shyness with boys. Perhaps it stems from early childhood concerns from their mothers: “Your pee-pee is private and must never be shown to anyone else.” This is usually said when the boy is young and gullible enough to believe and trust his mother. It gets implanted. Often the message carries into his younger teenage years. So that was something to deal with when it came to the pool and Terry. It goes like this:
“Hey, you’ve got a pool. Great!”
“Yeah, I swim in it every day. Wait till you see Nosy in there. She won’t let me swim alone. Do you swim?”
“Sure. We don’t have a pool, though. This house and neighborhood is much nicer and newer than ours.”
“We can swim here as often and as much as you want. I love swimming. Uh, though . . .”
I stop. I haven’t told Terry I’d gay. I have a friend! No way am I jeopardizing that for anything. Telling him I swim nude—is that going to suggest I’m gay to him? Well, probably not. I’m not sure, of course, but I think the fact I love being naked outdoors is just a boy thing, not a gay thing. Still, I have to be careful.
“Well, we’ll do this however you want. I was just going to say, with no one around but Daniel, I don’t bother with a bathing suit. But I have one, and if you’re shy, I can let you use it and I’ll swim in my boxers.”
He looks at me and grins. Laughing and grinning are what Terry does best. He’s very easygoing and rarely serious about anything. He’s told me one of the reasons he hated Catholic school was the teachers, mostly nuns, were always strict and frowning at the least bit of levity among the students. He used that word: levity. I’ve found out he reads as much as I do. It’s one of the reasons we make good friends. We’re alike in several ways, important ways, like wanting to do well in school.
“You swim in the nude?”
I don’t know why he asks that, but from the look in his eyes, I think he just wants to prolong the conversation. He is getting excited about it. Well, to be honest, I think most 14-year-old boys get excited thinking about being nude, especially with another person. There’s a conflict, of course, with the pee-pee thing, but maybe that adds to the excitement. I don’t know if Terry likes the idea of being nude with another boy, or just being nude with anyone. But I can tell easily enough the idea of being nude excites him. I don’t know if he wants to do it, actually, but I do know thinking about it is something he likes. Just thinking about being naked outside . . .
It was for me, too, the first time. Just walking outside nude into the open air had an immediate, thrilling aspect to it. I still get a little of that, even though I’ve been coming outside nude to swim ever since we moved here. I’m hoping it doesn’t wear off. I like the feeling.
Daniel and I talked about it. I can talk about anything with Daniel. He’s seen me at my lowest. He’s the one who pulled me out of my despair, who saved me, who’s given me a new life. I have no secrets from him. It would feel weird, hiding anything from him. So, when I wanted to go swimming that first day we were in the house, I asked Daniel if it was all right for me to go in, and he said sure, and asked if I minded if he joined me. I liked the idea. Then he said, “Actually, since the pool isn’t visible from anywhere around here, I thought I wouldn’t bother with a bathing suit when I swim. Would that concern you?”
Hell, no! I was curious to see him naked. Maybe that was me being gay or just me being curious; I didn’t know. As far as him seeing me nude, well, that was a little different, but I knew by then he’s wasn’t into me that way. No sneaking looks at me, no checking out my crotch, no making suggestive comments to see how I’d react, no comments when I’d show up for breakfast in only my boxers. Just no sexual tension at all. So the choice was to let him see me nude and never have to worry about it again, like begin caught coming out of the bathroom naked after a shower, or having to wear a swim suit every time I wanted to swim when I knew it would be a lot more fun not wearing one.
So I’d said to him, “No, let’s both swim that way.” And we did. And have ever since. The thing is, while we both swim nude, we rarely do so together. After that first time, if we want to swim together, now we wear our suits. Daniel explained it. He said it was a matter of propriety, whatever that meant. He’d seen my confusion and had elaborated.
“It would look and sound bad to some people if they learned we swim nude together. Even though it’s only swimming and there’s nothing erotic or sexual about it, I don’t want to give anyone any possible reason to think anything like that goes on here. I don’t want it coming up innocently in any conversation that we swim in the nude together. If that news ever got out, I might be in trouble. I want to be a teacher here for a long time, and any possible hint of impropriety, true or not, could affect that. So that’s the house rule right from the start. No kids and adults in the pool together naked. Kids alone, with no adults watching, fine. Adults alone, with no kids watching, fine. How does that sound? Can you live with that?”
I was a little disappointed, but I could see his point. I agreed, and that became the rule.
So now Terry is asking me ‘You swim in the nude?’ and having excited thoughts while asking it. What should I, a closeted gay boy, say? I kick it around in my head about a half-second and say, “Yeah! It’s great!”
“Okay,” he says. “Let’s do it. Uh, though . . .” He stops, and I ask, “What?”
“Uh, well, I might get hard. I get hard all the time. It takes nothing at all and I’m wearing a flagpole. Doesn’t mean anything, but I don’t want you getting the wrong idea.”
Okay, that’s the perfect time to tell him I’m gay and it’s fine with me if he wants to display his equipment. But I’m way too chicken for that. Instead, I say, “Then you won’t be bothered if I do the same thing!” I grin at him, the same volume grin he’s wearing. A 10-out-of-10 grin.
We’re on the patio. Daniel isn’t home, won’t be for another hour or so. Nosy is, and she’s watching us, probably hoping the pool is next up. She loves the pool.
I start to undress, pulling my tee shirt off, then stop. “Towels,” I say, and walk inside to get them.
The rat! Son of a…! When I come out, Terry is already in the pool! His clothes—all his clothes—are on a patio chair. He’s in the water in the shallow end, standing and watching me. And I’m still dressed. He has another grade-10 grin on his face. He’s going to get a show, and he’s salivating over it.
I’ve been a shy boy all my life. Some of those feelings rush over me now. I fight them down. This is my friend. He’s enjoying himself. He wants to see me undress. He wants to see me nude. That doesn’t mean he’s gay. Odds are he isn’t. He’s just a boy my age and anything even remotely or tangentially involving sex is exciting. Way exciting.
What should I do? The old me wants very much to go inside, strip there and put my bathing suit on. But I know that would be the exact wrong thing to do. The right thing is to give him his show but do it playfully as though it’s the most natural thing in the world—with sexual overtones but made-up ones for effect.
Can I do it? I’m not sure but I can try. So I remove my shoes and socks, then drop my shorts. That leaves my boxers. I glance at the chair again to make sure his are there. He has boxer briefs and they’re lying there on top of his tee shirt.
I take a breath and pull down my boxers. I’m standing a little bit profile to him. But he can see. I made sure not to have my back fully turned. That would have shown I was concerned about him seeing me, and I want to show him the opposite: that it doesn’t matter to me.
Your head can be thinking one way, your nervous system another. I am playing this as casually as I can, mentally. But the air hitting my parts and the awareness Terry is watching is all it takes. I spring up. I’m fourteen. I don’t know much about older men but do know how I am at fourteen. ‘Springing up’ isn’t that much of an exaggeration.
“Oops!” I say, walk quickly to the water, blushing like mad, and jump in.