A Story in The Human Calculus

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc. at
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/calculus?show=0&t=1360157661 Last accessed 2/6/2013




Smart Enough



Life around him was changing changing changing like a row of dominos falling, each one tipping another, faster and faster, more and more, here and there, and change change change and it was so hard sometimes to keep up with it to remember it all, to even it all out.  Balance was hard to come by these days, he was off balance a lot but he was learning how to recover.


Barry was lying in his bed one Saturday morning, sleeping in, a different thing in itself and for once there was no one home another different thing, and he began to rub himself, not so different, something he had begun doing a few months earlier, knowing it was a sin but not caring all that much really.  He had more hair growing there now, and he shaved it off every day or two so no one would know something was wrong with him.  He knew it would come out somehow sometime, but he was going to do whatever he could so he didn’t stand out, so they couldn’t see what was wrong with him.


And then it felt so good while he rubbed himself and he did it more and then somehow he lost control of himself and he did it faster and faster and more and more and he just could not stop himself though he knew something wrong was happening and then he felt it, that feeling he could never have described and then he didn’t want to rub it all of a sudden and a wave of shame crashed on him.  He was a good boy, he was a devout Catholic, and he knew this was as wrong as anything could be. 


And it was different, that was for sure.


And a few days later he did it again.


And then again, and the third time, something really frightening happened; something came out of his penis, and as he watched he thought, “What’s THAT?”  He almost wanted to ask his mother, despite his shame, because he was afraid he was sick, that what he had done, despite the intense pleasure, was damaging him.


After he would pray for forgiveness, but he never could say anything in confession.


In time he understood.  His Junior High counselor, Mr. Springer, had told him this thing about “wet dreams” in those long sessions he spent in the warm counseling office in the basement of the school; and he never did understand it and it took a long time to put it all together and understand what Mr. Springer had been getting at, make the connection. 


But he did finally figure it out. That was when Barry realized how inadequate adults really were.  How afraid they were to talk about this, which made him wonder about how terrible it really was.


Of course, no one had told him about masturbation, so he didn’t know this could be normal, didn’t know anyone else did this thing he had discovered and couldn’t seem to stop doing.


That was before he turned thirteen; started the 8th grade, and finally made friends. Friends were a new thing; that was different. Change change change.


*  *  *  *


The house was very empty all of a sudden.  Tad was married, suddenly, he came home after being gone for a weekend, and he was married and he lived with his wife and her parents, and Mom was not speaking to him now.  Change change change.


Pat was gone, she had moved out and was working as a clerk at a department store but also was going to college.  Bill had gone, no one was sure where, he just had a fight with Mom and two days later he told them all he was “outta here for good.”  And they hadn’t heard from him in months.  With Jack and Jerry in the Army for the past two years, that left a very small family: Mom, Dennis, Kate, and Barry.  The apartment had only two bedrooms but it felt really empty going from seven to four, and they moved again, to a smaller apartment, to a crummy place, but it was cheaper.


It still felt empty.


It was funny, because he had always thought it would be nice to have his brothers gone, to have only one person sharing his room with him, would have seemed an impossible luxury, but now that it happened it didn’t feel nearly as nice as he thought, and Dennis was 17, he would go soon, Barry could see how it all worked and then it would be just Kate and him, then she would go too.


It’s hard to hide in a small family. It would be impossible to hide if he was the only one. And who could he use to balance, to cancel out the things he needed to cancel out?




The first friend was Tom, his father was a doctor who no one ever saw and his mother clearly disapproved of Barry, but for the first time in his life he was invited to sleep over somewhere, and Tom and his younger brother knew a lot about sex.  Not that they did anything, but as boys will, they talked a lot, and after a few conversations where Barry soaked up their common misinformation like a sponge, he began to ask Tom, privately, questions.  And then suddenly he could understand what the other boys at school were saying in their incomprehensible conversations.


He learned that no one masturbated but everyone knew lots about it. They knew there was a name for it, well, actually about a dozen names it seemed he found a new name every week or so. And he suspected then maybe someone else did it, because if not, how would all these people know about it?  And they knew how it was done, they made that plain with their hand motions and jokes and he switched to a new technique when he figured out what the motions were about, it hadn’t occurred to him to hold it in his fingers instead of just rubbing it with the flat of his hand.  So now that was different.  And he kept thinking after that how could they know so much about it if they didn’t do it themselves?


He now sat in the cafeteria at lunch, even though he had no money, and finally he started to make a lunch for himself, meager it was, and bring it every day, even though it was not cool to brown-bag – and he had to reuse the bag every day! – but it at least gave him a reason to sit in the cafeteria with Tom and Sharky and Ronnie who he had decided were his friends and he began to feel, oh he couldn’t put it in words, but he began to feel normal.


And that was very different.  That was a change for sure.  Dominoes falling left and right.


They didn’t make fun of him, well they did, more than of each other he noted, but they didn’t drive him away or think he was weird or put him down all the time, just sometimes and they did it to everyone sometimes, so it was a relative thing.  He was relatively welcome, relatively acceptable, relatively part of something. 


He was becoming an observer of others, he realized, and that was different.  He wasn’t sure if it was a good way to hide, but it provided a lot of information and maybe that was a way to be safe.


Tom’s house reminded him of the lady who had gotten him into so much trouble when he lost his bus tickets when he was nine and she took him home and called the police and he got a strapping for that, his Mom was very angry at him.  It was a beautiful house, everything was warm and soft and so very pretty and he was always afraid he’d somehow make it dirty. Maybe that’s why Tom’s mom didn’t like him. So he still saw Tom and rode bikes but he didn’t sleepover much after the first couple of times.


Of course, he never invited anyone to sleep over at his family’s apartment.  He was different, not crazy.  One sleepover here and he’d have no friends at all. And where would they sleep? On the couch with Mom?  Under his bed?  The paint peeled in the hallway and the neighborhood was always dirty and nothing like the place Tom lived.


He could not imagine Tom sleeping on a lumpy, sagging mattress with threadbare sheets and stained pillows with a single pillowcase on a bed that didn’t even have a bedspread.  He thought they were beautiful, but had thought that was just a thing they did on television – but all the beds at Tom’s house had them and his mother made all the beds every day!


He took Dennis’ bike, which he, being 17 never used anymore, and spent two entire days in the park teaching himself how to ride it, falling time and again, once crashing into a tree, once into a drinking fountain, most of the time just falling over on his side.  But in the end he could ride.  It didn’t hurt the bike, it was old and battered, China Red it said on it, it had one speed only and the tires sucked but it worked.  When he got some money he bought a new seat.


It was at the annual altar boy’s picnic that Barry saw his first boner.




Because he could ride a bike now, Barry got a paper route that year, he decided he needed to contribute because Jack and Jerry were sending money but with Tad and Pat and Bill suddenly gone it was a problem, there was never much money and now there was even less.  Kate was working but only ushering at the movies and that didn’t pay much, but it was great because Barry could get in free when her boss wasn’t watching.


So he got up at 3:30 every morning now, folded his papers at the drop off, and he had a new circle of friends, other paperboys.  And you couldn’t look weird or be a dork at 4 a.m. for ten or twenty minutes, no matter what you did. In the dark, under the dim streetlight at the corner, folding the papers in the lee of the stoop of the corner store, hands thick with his gloves making his, everyone, awkward, and still they would giggle and joke and you couldn’t feel like you didn’t belong or you were broken.


But it was cold, that was a price to pay, some mornings he would arrive at home after throwing his route and would be so cold and stiff he could hardly move; but the weather was changing, warm weather was coming.  Everything was changing.


He still served Sunday Mass at St. Mark’s a couple times each month. Every year the altar boys from all the parishes in town had a picnic at a small amusement park. It was really a pathetic little park, hardly more than a carnival, but it was a permanent place, and they had a pool as well, and the park was only for them that day.  The rides were old and the paint wasn’t so fresh most of the time and the operators weren’t quite as sleazy as carnies but the didn’t look they belonged in Disneyland, either.  And hundreds of boys roamed the few square blocks of rides and games arcades and basketball and volleyball courts.


He rode rides some, that was fun, but mostly he was swimming, he had learned this a few years earlier when Jack taught him and liked it very much, even though the water was chilly and his lips turned blue and he was shivering after a bit.  It was freedom to be able to twist and turn your whole body without having to hit anything or maneuver around people and things, and he felt so free and light and unbounded. But it was cold, and he was blue and he was shivering; the water would not really be warm for another month, so he went to change.  One of the boys from another parish was in the changing room, and they were sitting on benches near each other, facing each other, and the other boy was older, perhaps 15, and did what Aaron had done in the locker room at the Junior High last year, posed for him, let him look, only – this dick was hard.


It was not as much of a shock as it might have been, he had figured that it had to happen to other boys, but he had never actually seen it.  And the boy had hair, and suddenly Barry was hard too, and they sat there, opposite each other, showing, inspecting, but it never occurred to him to touch or do more than stare.  Not ‘til afterwards.


That day he stopped shaving his pubic hair, because he realized white boys had it too. And he thought about how nice that boner had looked.  He wanted to see another one.


One of the other paperboys had just turned twelve, younger than he was, a sixth grader, and he was very nice looking, he had very fine blonde hair and blue eyes and his name was Byron but everyone called him Barney, his parents were from Norway and sounded foreign.  He had a nice smile it was very big and bright and his teeth were all even and he always seemed to be happy, which was so very mysterious and attractive; Barry could not imagine a boy being happy all the time.


One Saturday after they threw routes and met at the park to pay their manager, they decided to spend the day together and rode their bikes all over before they went to Barney’s house.  They were in Barney’s room when it happened.  They started wrestling and roughhousing, something that was new to him, but he’d learned a little at school, and by watching other boys, and once in a while Jack had done that with him.  So he knew this was OK and normal.


And in the middle of it all he felt Barney grab at him, in that place, where he was not supposed to touch himself, much less should anyone touch him there!


But something about it, though shocking, felt right to him, and he looked at Barney who was giggling and twisted away, but not as if he were afraid and he realized instinctively that he was supposed to grab back.


In the end they had both pulled their pants down enough to show their boners to each other, but Barry did not have the social context to understand Barney’s state of mind, and he thought for just a moment that what was in his mind was also in Barney’s.


Barney did not object when he touched him, that was expected.  What happened next was not. 


Barry never knew where the idea came from, how he could do anything so perverted, what prompted him to do this, it was like a volcano in its suddenness, but he just did it, he leaned forward and took it into his mouth.


It was a mistake.


He was starting to learn that mistakes could balance out, too.  This mistake ended up with his getting under his bed again, which he knew he was too old to do, but when he got home he went right into his room and he couldn’t help it he felt like he had to and he crawled under there in the dark and closed his eyes and tried to forget.


But he started to cry, hot, silent tears, only not so silent and Kate found him and made him come out.  He wouldn’t tell her why he was crying, but no one else was home that Saturday afternoon and Kate said things he never expected to hear.


He was sitting on his bed and for some reason she was holding him, and telling him not to cry and then she whispered in his ears, he felt the same kind of shock Father Roy had given him when he touched him and whispered into his ears in the Sacristy two years earlier, she whispered to him “It’s OK, you’re not crazy, it’s this place that’s crazy.”


And then, “Mom is crazy, it’s not us, it’s her.”


After that he knew Kate loved him, even if she was wrong, and they became allies in survival; and he hoped she would never leave him.  So he had some good things to balance out Barney with, to balance out a lot of things with.  And it was all different, it was all changes.


But he had to quit his paper route. He didn’t want to go fold papers and hear what Barney would say about him.




School was much better this year.  Not only did he have friends, but this year he understood everything, how the lockers worked, how the teachers talked, where the rooms were, everything.


Barry never got really good grades, he never had figured grades out, actually.  He went, he learned, he never did less than an ‘A’ on any test.  He also didn’t do homework most of the time, and homework bored him endlessly. But homework had nothing to do with learning for him, and he did like to learn, though he had learned to hide it from his classmates.  One of the good things about leaving St. Marks was he didn’t have a reputation for being smart at the Junior High, and he was real clear he wasn’t going to get one. At first he had not understood what was going on but that was because he was coming in the middle of the semester, this year he did know what was going on, but he had learned last year that it was possible to look a lot dumber than he was, and that it was a good idea.


That took work, the teachers were very seductive, they’d tempt you to answer, always.  Out of boredom if nothing else.


So he had rules to help him not fall into their traps.  One rule was, you can never ever be the only person who knows the answer. If no one else puts up a hand, keep yours down. Another is, don’t answer more than two in a row, and it’s best to stick with one in three questions for raising your hand. Just count, one two three questions before you raise your hand.  You didn’t have to be stupid, that wasn’t good either, but you had to be real careful to not be smart.  There were exceptions – if most everybody had their hand up you could do it too, for example.  But you had to pay attention to be sure you weren’t standing out, you needed to blend in to survive, and he was getting to be very good at blending in.


Not doing homework helped, actually. Because he rarely did homework – except in English, where you had to write things and he could see that they didn’t have tests for that, just for spelling and grammar – and it never occurred to him that it counted against his grades.


Hiding tests when you got them back was important too, and looking disappointed, making a bad face when you got one back was a good idea.  If people asked what grade you got, look disappointed and don’t answer, just say you hope your Mom doesn’t get mad when she sees it.  If they keep asking, tell them it was a D, but there were a lot of rules about that, you couldn’t get a D on a really easy test, for example.


It all took a lot of careful work to blend in.


But he didn’t work for grades or really have anything but a fuzzy idea of how teachers gave them.  He knew tests counted but he just didn’t care, he brought home a string of B’s and C’s and “does not work up to potentials” and his mother never said anything.  And if she didn’t care, it never occurred to him to care; he didn’t know he was more than a little smart, everyone in his family was pretty smart, so he never thought it was a different thing.


Then they gave everyone tests, one whole day in homeroom, everyone taking the same tests, everyone in the eighth grade.  It was a nice day, an April day and the mulberry trees outside the windows were lush and full and green; the snow and ice were gone and the lawns were green and he could smell that freshly mown grass smell.  The sun was shining and the air was perfumed with spring.  He was distracted a lot, but he still finished his test before anyone else did and his homeroom teacher was suspicious that he wasn’t trying, told him to take more time, check his answers over. 


So he did, he realized he’d almost made the mistake of looking smart to the other kids, so he pretended not to be done on each of the remaining tests, not to be bored and kept the booklets open while he looked out the windows; and smelled the pencil shavings and the flag up front waved a little in the warm sweet breeze from an open window, gently undulating in time with his mind; and heard the quiet rustle of the room; listened to the time counts the teacher gave to warn them when they had to stop working on a section and go to the next one.  And he made sure to just finish in time and look worried that he had barely got all the questions answered.


He didn’t think about deliberately answering questions wrong.


He didn’t think much of the test thing at all until the consequences came to him, just before the end of the school year.


That was when Mr. Springer called him in and looked at him differently, and sent a note home to his mother. And Mr. Springer told him he was going to be recommended for something special and different and that sent a shiver up his spine, because he knew that could only be a bad thing, being special and different was trouble for sure. He thought he’d been found out. And he smelled change change change in the air and he was worried about it.  But he was learning that sometimes change was OK, even good.  Sometimes things got better.


He wasn’t in trouble, though he was still pretty concerned about taking a note home he didn’t think it could be good news.  He didn’t think his mother would think a note from school was good but she did.


So instead of starting 9th grade at Junior High he was getting on the bus for University High which was the high school at the University – he thought the name excruciatingly obvious – and it was only for some students, smart ones they said.  Special ones.  He was starting tenth grade, by special invitation only.  Later he would learn the word used for kids like him, 9th graders who entered 10th grade at University High was “Freshmores.” Special was different, special was change. Being a Freshmore was special.


At least he didn’t have to be in Junior High and run into Barney to have him tell everyone else what he had said to Barry – that he was a goddam queer.


He didn’t actually know what a queer was, but he knew it was bad and it was somehow true, true of him.  It just sounded bad and like him.  But he had something more to balance that out. 


He was finding out he was a queer, probably, but he was also finding out he was smart.  Smart enough to hide being queer anyway.


Once he figured out what it meant.