Tuna Sandwiches


A Story in The Human Calculus



Barry lay crying on the soft carpet, curled into a ball, a position he was used to, usually he’d be under his bunk bed at home, on the bare floor, cold, so this was better in that way, it balanced out some of the pain, cancelled a little of it.


He was in pain, he was crying, but it was a soft floor, and there was a fire in the fireplace after all. You had to look on the good side, keep things balanced.



From the start Barry Holmes knew he’d be much happier at High School than he’d been at Junior High, even though he was a year younger than usual. University High was different. They took 9th graders for one thing, and bumped them to tenth grade immediately; they only took students who were gifted; and the other high schools started with 10th grade, so this was different.


Although he was barely fourteen he was in the company of other kids who were smart and he hoped and prayed he would not stand out for he knew it could be a bad, very dangerous thing to stand out. Barry diligently practiced not standing out, melting into the walls, adopting his camouflage, and he had years of practice at it.


But his Mom had this saying, “you can’t make a silk purse out of sow’s ear.” That, he thought, was apt; was him, a sow’s ear; and he was not always successful at hiding. A Sow’s ear was bound to stand out in a room full of silk purses.


*  *  *  *

The best part of University High was that they let him take the self-paced math classes and he made the mistake of thinking that this was one thing he could do, in math he could work as fast as he wanted, learn as much as he wanted, move as quickly as he wanted. He cannot be blamed for that, it’s what they told him, it’s why they called it self-paced math.


He should have known better than to trust adults, they were forever saying things like that; do your best, work as fast as you can; adults didn’t have to deal with the consequences of that kind of reckless advice!


To be fair, they did not expect him to finish the high school curriculum in twelve weeks. 


*  *  *  *

Dave Thompson first noticed Barry in chemistry class. He could see the skinny little boy trying to hide but he couldn’t hide from Dave.


Dave had learned early on to hide his own smarts, as had so many of the kids here. But few tried to hide it once they got to University High, and that alone made it interesting to watch him, see his camouflage in action. Dave was an observer of people and Barry was a sore thumb, way out there in the attention getting category.


There were others like him, dorky little ‘freshmores,’ kids who should be ninth graders in Junior High bumped to tenth grade, too young for high school and too smart for their own good, and Dave had seen them before. Dave was what passed for a jock at “You High?” which is what older, more worldly kids called it. Dave’s natural camouflage being that of a jock, no one expected him to be very smart, but this was You High, everyone was smart.


You High might be for smart kids but that didn’t mean it didn’t have drugs, sex, cliques, jocks, cheerleaders. Violence. Bullies. Still, the intelligence level of the student populace made a difference. Maybe it was a kinder, gentler, hell.


So Dave was a smart jock and he saw the slight, strange, brainy freshmore trying to hide, even in this place, his intelligence. Dave thought he was interesting, but Dave had a unique way of looking at the world.


Barry was cleaning up and putting away his lab ware, getting ready to run across campus for a class in the Math building when he first noticed the older boy looking at him and his antennae went up, the hair on his neck prickled with a sense of danger. Getting the attention of a junior, a jock, could not be a good thing, he thought.


So now they were watching each other.


*  *  *  *

Life at home was not as bad as it sometimes had been. For one thing Barry stayed at school until the latest possible moment, studying, went to school on the earliest possible bus, and kept out of sight at home studying as well.


His brother Dennis finished high school and started working full time; and Kate was seventeen, finishing high school herself; and suddenly he realized that both of them were protecting him. He and Kate had had some talks since last year, whispered conversations, when Mom was around and on the rare occasions when she was gone they spoke openly.


One day Kate told him right out that Mom was crazy and something in him agreed and something else rebelled at the idea. He thought maybe Kate just needed to believe it, but sometimes Mom sure did look out of control and said things that, well, that weren’t possible. He thought about it, and the very concept that she was crazy gave him a certain freedom to question, in his own mind, the things that she said and did.


He decided she wasn’t crazy, just mean.


Kate said it wasn’t right to be strapping him the way she did, and he knew when she said it that it was true, but he couldn’t help feeling that he also deserved it some ways, that he did things that made her mad, that he sinned, sinned a lot. He didn’t tell Kate most of that especially not about the sins because he didn’t want to talk about them at all. He was afraid Kate would learn about them and wouldn’t like him anymore.


He didn’t know if Kate knew about masturbation, and for sure he didn’t tell her about being a goddam queer. Well, maybe being one, anyhow.


On weekends he still served Mass, went to church when he didn’t serve. He prayed a lot, too, but his life seemed to be less painful these days and the intensity to his prayer was diminished. He was going to hell, but the trip seemed less threatening these days, the destination less fearful. He thought perhaps he was getting used to the idea.


Whatever Mom’s problems, it seemed pretty clear to Barry that he needed Kate’s goodwill and then he realized Dennis was working with her, distracting Mom, placating her, giving her his paycheck and taking Kate and Barry to church in his old beat up car or doing the shopping. All these things were keeping the levels of fear and tension lower and it helped Barry a lot to be able to do his homework without all that.


He’d never done homework before, it always bored him and now he knew why because now he was in classes where he actually did not understand and master things as soon as he heard them. He still didn’t need to do homework in math; once they showed him something he grabbed that in his head and could answer problems without practice. But for his other classes he did, and there were things like English where he needed to write compositions or read books or things that you couldn’t do without doing homework. He had to memorize things for chemistry class, too; the periodic table.


The house felt empty still with Jack and Jerry and Tad and Bill and Pat all gone now, and he wondered if that wasn’t bothering Mom a lot too. He knew it would have been better to have them here, for coverage, for camouflage, to spread the pain around. But there were just the three kids now and the one thing he feared most was being left alone with Mom.


*  *  *  *


There had never been a boy, or a girl for that matter, who completed the math curriculum in the first half-semester of tenth grade, but University High was on campus at a university for a reason. So he was young but the precedents were clear. When a student completes the High School portion of a curriculum he starts taking University courses, and so they registered him for Calculus – also self-paced – at the University and it took him another ten weeks to complete two semesters, but that was because he was interested in some other things and not as focused. Still, before Spring break he started on differential equations and the rest of the lower division courses.


His other classes were a mixture of self-paced and regular courses, and the school was used to dealing with kids who moved too fast in one thing but weren’t mature or ready to move in some other area. Everything was based on ability so he spent part of his day taking 10th grade advanced composition, biology, and history, and 11th grade chemistry, and he wasn’t at all unusual in this.


He was used to PE classes, which they had, and the locker room didn’t bother him anymore. They supplied towels so he didn’t have to bring one, but he realized that he had overreacted – his brothers must have done it too, and his mother either didn’t know or didn’t care, but he wouldn’t get beaten for being naked in front of other people.


And he kept his eyes to himself. Rigidly.


*  *  *  *


The thing with Dave grew slowly, steadily; he never really realized it was happening.


In his own slef-defense Barry was doing his homework on more than chemistry. He was doing it on Dave, though the two had not even spoken; he kept seeing the good-looking dark haired boy watching him, felt under a microscope; felt threatened.


He discovered Dave was a basketball player – it was not basketball season yet but there was no football team at You High – and Bonnie was a cheerleader. Bonnie was Dave’s girlfriend, and Barry would see the two of them together in class and in the cafeteria often. How cliché, he thought. But here even the cheerleaders were smart; he needed to keep that in mind. He had one class only with Dave, Chemistry, and because they accelerated the classes that was only a semester, so he figured if he could avoid trouble-- and Dave -- for the rest of the semester the problem would go away.


Dave had another idea. He talked to the Chemistry teacher and when term projects were assigned, Barry found himself partnered with Dave and Bonnie.


At first he just didn’t say anything, and he was used to the regular schools, to the group projects where he did all the work or he had to live with some slow, plodding, uninterested kid getting in his way. This was weird because even when he tried to just do it all, Dave wouldn’t let him. You can’t do a project without talking, and Dave kept asking him questions.


At first he was very guarded, tried and tried to do his disappearing act, to be there but not be accessible if he could not be unnoticed. But Dave just kept on asking and talking to him, like he was a person. Finally he realized that Dave didn’t seem to want to hurt him and Bonnie was pretty and nice, and well, so was Dave, really. Especially pretty.


It turned out that Dave wasn’t all that smart in Chemistry, he wasn’t slow or anything, but this wasn’t his strong point, and in time Barry helped him study for tests. He wasn’t stupid but he was actually in the accelerated Art program, he did sculpture and beautiful line drawings and before you knew it he was asking Barry to model for him.


Which was a ridiculous thing, a crazy idea because why would he want that? Barry wasn’t big, or strong, or good-looking. But Dave kept asking him; and Bonnie told him he had “an interesting look” and finally he said he couldn’t stop Dave from drawing him but could they do it at lunchtime?


Which shows that Barry could be a crafty kid in a lot of ways, because it gave him more social status than he’d ever have imagined having, since that meant he was having lunch with the social elite at You High. If you can’t hide, he figured, being prominent in a good way was not a bad second choice. And he didn’t have to be alone somewhere with Dave, he wasn’t sure whether it was because he still didn’t trust Dave or didn’t trust himself, but he didn’t want to be in some Art classroom without anyone else around.


In a month he felt like he had friends, like Dave and Bonnie were his friends. Even after Dave had filled a sketchbook of those drawings that Barry knew were him, could see were him, and yet didn’t look anything at all like him. They were too scary. He didn’t think he looked so sad for one thing; and he didn’t understand how or why Dave made his eyes so big and dark. In every drawing he was pulled to the eyes.


They were what everyone noticed about him, but Barry didn't have that self-image.


They had lunch together, and he met other jocks and became a little bit of a mascot, a geeky mascot for the pretty girls and handsome boys of a geeky school, but he felt as if he were being protected all over. Many of the important kids in the school, the rich, the strong, the beautiful, knew who he was and would say hello and not laugh at him.


Of course, Barry never actually had lunch nor money to buy lunch for that matter, but he just told Dave he wasn’t hungry, that he only ate one big meal a day. Part of that was true.


The more time he spent with Dave, the more he liked him, and he was eventually sure it was mutual and then Dave and Bonnie started driving him places after school, they’d go out for cokes or food, though Barry didn’t have any money and would just tell them he wasn’t hungry.


But he was, and Dave knew it; Dave came to know all of Barry’s hungers.


Barry loved riding in Dave’s car, he sat in the back and strapped himself in because this car was fast, Canary Yellow and he figured about 350 horsepower and Dave and Bonnie would sit in the front bucket seats; he knew they were in love, and he loved to watch, watch them, watch the streets go by, warm, safe in this fast, powerful machine with people who liked him but really shouldn’t, and thrilled when Dave punched it now and then pressing him back into the soft leather comfort of the seat; rear wheels smoking and squealing.


And he was jealous because he wanted to be in Bonnie’s seat, and have Dave look at him that way.


In time Dave wanted to drive him home, and he couldn’t allow that, he couldn’t ever let anyone see his home or meet his mother. But he finally relented to the point of letting them drop him off on the corner near his apartment and he saw the look in Dave’s eye when he saw their neighborhood, but the junior didn’t say anything, just smiled and let him out. And said “I’ll pick you up at 7:30 tomorrow morning. Right here.”


And before Barry could protest, Dave drove off.


So the next morning he was on the corner, knowing Dave well enough, and it became something they did every morning, and he didn’t need his bus pass most of the time. And it was usually just Dave and Barry in the mornings, Bonnie didn’t ride with Dave to school.


It was pretty quick after that, when Dave started taking Barry to his house before they went off to school, for breakfast. His parents were always gone to work and Dave lived in a house that was much nicer than Barry’s apartment. Probably three days a week Dave would bring him over and would make breakfast, and his favorite was tuna salad on toast.


“I just love the way the hot bread and the cold tuna salad feel on my teeth,” he’d say, “don’t you?”


What Barry thought about was how his warm tongue would feel on Dave’s teeth.


After a while it seemed there were always leftovers. Dave would push an extra sandwich or two or some fruit or cookies or whatever seemed to be lying around into a paper bag and stick it in Barry’s backpack. And he wasn’t so hungry, at least not for food.


Once Barry asked Dave, why did he let him hang out, why this friendship that Barry didn’t deserve?


“You’re smart, you’re interesting, you’re different, you’re fun to be with.”


Which made no sense to Barry because he wasn’t sure being smart was even a good thing, and he did not realize that he had a ready wit, and a pervasive vulnerability that made many look at him as a puppy in need of love. Perhaps he would have been offended to hear it, but it was so nonetheless. Being different he understood, but desperately wanted to avoid. And Barry couldn’t imagine why anyone would think he was fun.


Finally Dave invited him to a party at his house, and at first the thought terrified him but then he thought, why not? Most of the kids would be ones he already knew.


He discovered alcohol, got very drunk, which didn’t take a lot for a boy who had never had a drink and weighed about a hundred pounds; but Dave took care of him, he called Barry’s mother and made excuses and Barry slept over, Dave just put him in his own big bed.


And that’s how Barry’s secret got out.


*  *  *  *


A day came when he walked home from the corner and found someone waiting for him at the door to the apartment building.


Barney was sitting on his bike, the bike casually leaned against the weathered brick of the building, propped up by the handlebar, Barney had one foot on the pedals, on foot on the handlebar. Barry froze for a moment, then up took his courage and walked forward and then the thirteen year old boy with the white blonde hair and blue eyes who a year earlier had looked so good to him was looking at him, and he was trying to figure out if the boy was going to call him that name again; taunt him; expose him here in the street in front of his home.


But he didn’t; he said hello, he acted friendly, and in a blinding flash Barry knew why Barney was here, knew exactly what Barney wanted from him, wanted him to do again what he had done so impulsively that day that had led Barney to call him a queer. A goddam queer, as in “Keep away from me, you goddam queer.”


Wanted him to take Barney’s cock in his mouth again.


Part of him wanted to do it very much.


First he thought of the practicalities, they could not do this in his apartment, he would never take anyone in that apartment and never for that, and Mom was home anyway.


Practicalities aside he suddenly felt a flush of relief, of justice. He might be derided but Barney wasn’t so pure, wasn’t above it all. If what he had done, if who he was, was so contemptible, why was Barney here, why wasn’t he keeping away?!


He immediately devised an unspoken response to the unspoken request. He stood out there on the sidewalk talking for twenty, thirty minutes about school, and paper routes, and anything else he could think of; anything but the one thing he knew Barney wanted. Keeping Barney there, keeping his attention there, keeping the promise before him.


Then he said, “Well, it’s dinnertime, I need to go inside. See you.” He turned around and walked into the building without a look back, rushed upstairs and looked out the window on the front landing, to see the boy pedaling his bike away.


It was the best feeling. He knew for once his answer had been perfect, his calculations unerring. Barney never showed up again. Completely cancelled out, reduced to an infinitely small quantity.


The new math courses were proving very helpful to Barry.


*  *  *  *


A night came, it was winter, it seemed like it was always winter, and his mother came home drunk.


It wasn’t that common, mother didn’t get drunk often, and she could be mean but being drunk didn’t have much to do with it. Barry knew about getting drunk and doing and saying foolish things, things you should not. Did he ever.


But this particular day she was drunk and Barry was very late getting home, he took the bus, and no one else was home that day, Kate and Dennis were both still at work. And his mother got angry about something, he didn’t really understand what. She flew into a rage and then it was the strap; but this time she just kept after him and the pain drove him crazy or maybe he himself went crazy, like he always worried he would, and he turned it around and the hard stone in his middle melted to lava, came out like it had years before, with his brother, and he exploded.


He wasn’t so clear what he did; didn’t think he’d hit his mother, didn’t vent his rage there; he thought he was just running, running out into the night to get away from the relentless fire of the strap on his legs and sides and back.


It was cold, so cold, he didn’t have his coat and it was well below freezing, and he didn’t know what to do once the cold started seeping into him, making him shiver and his teeth chatter and he began to turn blue. So he found a phone booth and he called Dave.


Dave came as he knew he would, and took him home and then Barry was on the floor of Dave’s living room, crying and sobbing, on the soft beige carpet, rolled up into a ball, using the softness of the carpet and the solidity of Dave to cancel out the pain and horror of his crazy mother.


He didn’t know how he had come to say it, he was weak and tired and his defenses were down and it was warm and safe and seductive on this floor and it just tumbled out; he said what he had never said to anyone. It was about an hour after Dave picked him up and he lay on the carpet wishing he could melt into it, and the fireplace was burning, the sweet smoky hush as pine tar bubbled out of a log, popped and spat and crackled; and the fire cast dark shadows around his huddled form. But instead of melting, melting into beige, he heard himself choking, whispering, telling Dave he was a goddam queer, probably.


Then Dave told him he knew, told him all about the night he had passed out drunk in Dave’s bed and how Dave had finally had to get up and sleep elsewhere. And his voice was a gentle shushing and it held him and made him warm and sleepy.


Barry woke when Dave put him into the big bed again; the steel muscles in his arms bulging as he lowered him, but his voice gentle and affectionate, not accusing or taunting, “Stay on your side of the bed, buddy,” as he slipped into the bed himself.


*  *  *  *


A semester later Barry had another class with Dave. PE.


Dave was a coaching assistant in PE and so he was with a class of younger kids, freshmores and juniors and right off he told Barry to move to the locker next to him.


Barry wasn’t sure that was a good idea. The more time he spent with Dave the more he liked how he looked and he wasn’t sure he should trust himself too close to the chiseled, fine-featured boy. Especially naked.


But David knew it without him saying it, David almost always read his mind these days, and told him not to worry ‘bout it, it would be fine. And sometimes Dave would play a guessing game with him, to see if they could figure out which other students were gay.


And if some days he noticed that Barry’s eyes would look, rove, he didn’t show it, didn’t seem to care, and if once in a while Barry would get a little too enthusiastic he’d tell him “time to hide your joy” and cover them both from view while Barry struggled for control. Or clothes.


But he never minded, never complained about it, never let Barry feel bad. Once Dave told him that it was a little flattering that someone could find him so attractive and he was sorry that he couldn’t feel that way for Barry.


He spent many hours telling Barry that he was not going to hell, not for that. And Barry did so want to believe him. Barry realized that he could do nothing wrong with Dave, just the opposite of home where he could do nothing right.


Barry learned quickly, and at this school students graduated at their own pace, some took three, four years, others less. He and Dave graduated together the next year, when Barry was just short of his sixteenth birthday.


But for much of his first year and all the second, Barry had what seemed an endless supply of tuna sandwiches and he stored the memory and taste of them, of the contrast of warm toast and cold tuna against his teeth, deep in his heart against a day when he would need them to cancel out more pain. And wondered that there could be tuna sandwiches in hell.