Phil and I hit the hay early. I have no idea why we did since I knew I wouldn’t be falling asleep right away. I just didn’t think that two hours later I would still be awake staring up at the ceiling. Phil was purring like a cat on his side of the bed. We’d cuddled after we retired, but my partner obviously had less on his plate than I did.
He wasn’t going to be responsible for a team of high school baseball players tomorrow. He wasn’t going to be responsible for riding a bus across the mountains with them for the State A High School Baseball Tournament. I was the head baseball coach of the Mayfield Mustangs. I was in my seventh year as head coach and this would be the Mustangs’ third trip to state since I took over the program, all in the last four years. The first two appearances ended with the Mustangs winning the State A Championship.
Of course, none of this was keeping Phil awake. He had taken tomorrow off from his job as superintendent of county roads to ride the bus to Pasco with us. He was the coach for the top team in our summer program and was an important part of our success. He was also a certified school coach and was qualified to sit in the dugout during the games. But, he would have no real responsibilities; those fell on the shoulders of the head coach. That would be me.
I reached out and put my hand on his warm body. We both liked sleeping in the nude and had from the first time we slept together back when we were in middle school. In fact, as I felt the hard body of the man I loved so much, I looked up at the ceiling yet again and thought about when we first met as eleven-year-olds in sixth grade.
If there were two boys who were never meant to be friends, let alone lovers, it would be Phil and me. We were such opposites then, from my neatly trimmed light brown hair to his longer black hair that always seemed to be flying in every direction; from my friendliness and popularity, to the anger he had raging inside of him and his readiness to fight anyone who was in his way; from my being on the honor roll, to his barely making minimum D grades; and from my doing my best to being a follower of the rules and working to please my parents, to his being a rebel, doing battle with his parents, his teachers, and anybody else he could find.
It’s still hard for me to believe that it’s been over twenty years since we met. I grew up in a suburb of Tacoma in a solidly middle-class family. I attended the same elementary school from Kindergarten through fifth grade. I was a happy kid. My parents encouraged me to succeed in school and I did. They introduced me to playing sports. Both of them had been athletes through college and still played on adult recreation teams. I inherited their athleticism and, as I entered middle school, I was always one of the star players on my team, whether it was soccer, basketball, or baseball.
The student body from my elementary school came mainly from middle to upper income families, but the same was not true of the middle school I entered as a sixth grader. It was much more of a mixed bag of backgrounds. For the most part, who you were depended on which side of Stevens Avenue you lived on. My eyes would be opened on the first day of school by a kid from the east side.
While I had been able to walk to my elementary school, I was going to have to take a bus to middle school. Quinn, Daniel, Perry, and Jung, who were my four best friends, would all be on the same bus. Quinn and Perry got on at the same bus stop as I did, while Daniel and Jung would get on at the next stop.
Quinn picked me up at my house and we walked the two blocks to the bus stop together. Perry lived closer to the stop, but came from the opposite direction.
Quinn, Perry, and I were at the bus stop well ahead of the bus. The three of us were joined by four other kids, three girls and a boy, who were all in seventh and eighth grades. We kept our distance from the older kids, and they did their best to pretend our little eleven-year-old selves didn’t exist.
Perry was a carrot top, skinny as a rail, and loaded with freckles. His hair was always unkempt, a mass of red seeming to point in every direction. We kidded him that if anybody needed a buzz cut, he was the one.
“Your hair looks like an explosion in a mattress factory,” Quinn told Perry when he walked up to the bus stop. Perry casually flipped us off, a gesture our group had worked on perfecting during the summer. The four of us were of the opinion that being able to give the bird quickly and at the proper time was a necessary skill for a middle school boy. We learned later that many of the east side boys had mastered that skill in the primary grades.
“You guys would look all messy, too, if you weren’t wearing baseball caps.” Quinn and I always wore baseball caps, except in school where they weren’t allowed to be worn inside the building. At least they weren’t allowed in elementary school. At sixth grade orientation, they told us the same thing would be true in middle school. We’d agreed we were going to test that rule, knowing full well that we wouldn’t. Like I said, we were all good kids.
“Dudes, I can’t believe we’re really starting middle school,” Quinn said. “We’ll get to play school sports and change teachers and all kinds of shit.” Cussing was another necessary skill we worked on during the summer.
All of us were sports crazy and had played on teams together since we were first and second graders. Quinn was the non-stop talker among us and was my very best friend. We had no secrets from each other and spent as much time together as we could. All of us did overnights together in pairs or groups, but Quinn and I practically lived together. The two of us had discovered quite a bit about each other the past few months. He was the blond in our group and we never let him forget it.
“You sound like you’re not even scared about going,” Perry said.
“I’m not,” Quinn said. “This is going to be way more fun than elementary school.”
“Q, you’re so full of crap,” Perry said. “It’s a school. Quit talking like you’re going to the Fair or something.” Everybody called Quinn “Q”, except when they didn’t. Usually they did.
“Look at P. He’s going to middle school and using dirty words and…and…shit.” The three of us started giggling and couldn’t stop. The older girls looked at us with obvious disapproval.
“Quit calling me P,” Perry said.
“Why? You call me Q.”
“Why is it different?” Q asked.
“Because you like it.”
I had heard this byplay too many times and was about to tell them both to shut-up when we were saved by the bus. We were the second stop on the route and were able to find some seats together with room for Daniel and Jung, who would be getting on at the next stop.
“I can’t believe we’re starting middle school,” Q said as we arrived at the next stop and our two friends sat in the seat in front of us.
“You already said that Q,” Perry pointed out.
“Yeah, but not to them.”
“Believe it,” Jung said. “The other guys on this bus aren’t first graders.” Jung had been born in Korea, but moved here when he was two. Listening to him you’d never know he had been born in a foreign country. He was smart, outgoing, and funny. That made him much different than Jin, a Korean boy who had played middle school baseball for me in Mayfield. Jin had only one of those three character traits, and it had nothing to do with being outgoing and funny.
Daniel was a quiet kid. Nobody played harder than him when it came to sports, but he never said much. He was the tallest of us and the center on our basketball team. He wore his straight hair shoulder length, and even with his hair long it looked neater than Perry’s. He kept it carefully combed. We called it his girly hair. He used to say something back to us, but now he finally just gave us the bird when we kidded him about his hair.
“Did you two do it this weekend?” Daniel asked.
“Do what?” I asked innocently.
He shrugged, indicating that we knew exactly what “it” was. Like I said, Daniel didn’t say a lot. Just in case none of us got it, he put his closed fist above his crotch and gave the universal symbol for masturbation. This really had been a time of discovery.
“Somebody is going to see that,” Perry said. He was sitting next to the window while I sat between him and Q. Since there were five of us in all, Perry, Q, and I occupied one seat by unspoken agreement.
“This is middle school we’re going to,” Jung said. “Do you think there’s somebody on this bus who has never done it?” We all said nothing. “Thought so; I rest my case.”
“Speak for yourself,” Q said, which got us all to giggling. We might be going to middle school, but in a many ways we were all still little kids.
“Hey, dudes, we’re going to cross Stevens,” Q said. We all looked out the window as we stopped at a red light and saw that he was right. This surprised us since we lived on the west side of Stevens and our new school was on the west side of Stevens. The light turned to green and we crossed the street, passing strip malls to either side of us. The east side of Stevens was a working class neighborhood, and to us it was where the tough kids lived. We knew the middle school drew from both sides of Stevens. We even knew a few kids who lived on the east side through sports. While having the bus cross and re-cross Stevens seemed very strange to us, we knew nothing about the nuances of school bus dispatching.
It turned out our bus had only one stop on the east side. There were around a dozen kids waiting at the stop. They would come close to filling up the bus. It appeared the school bus dispatchers knew what they were doing.
The five of us looked to see if anybody we knew was getting on. I recognized the fourth kid to get on, a sixth grader like us. His name was Ben and we’d played against him in soccer and baseball. His hairstyle threw us. He was sporting a blue Mohawk. We didn’t know him very well, except as a sports rival. He acknowledged us and we acknowledged him and he moved on to find an empty seat.
The last kid to board the bus was a boy. I remembered having seen him before, but I couldn’t place him. I found myself unable to take my eyes off what I was seeing now. He had longish, jet black hair and contrasting pale skin. He was short, maybe four foot five. I thought he was an incredibly good looking boy even though his looks were marred by a black eye and bruised cheek. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him, but he was concentrating on finding an empty seat and didn’t return my glance. As he walked by, I noticed something in him. Even at my age I could recognize the look of pure anger on his face.
“Do you know that kid?” Q asked after the boy passed.
“Never saw him before in all my life,” I said, which turned out not to be true. Maybe it was the bruises that made me think that.
“Well, you sure couldn’t take your eyes off him.”
“It’s true, though.”
“I just wanted to see if I knew him.” I gave my friends a partial confession.
“I don’t like him,” Perry said. “He looked mean.”
“I just think he was mad about something,” I retorted.
“I am with Red,” Jung said. “I mean, did you check out that black eye. You get those from being in a fight.”
“Don’t call me Red,” Perry whined.
“Don’t call me Red, don’t call me P, we can’t call you anything,” Q mocked.
“So you think he looked mean, too?” Perry asked Jung, quickly changing the subject.
“I am saying I do not want to be friends with him,” Jung said.
“I second that,” Perry added.
“I third it,” Q continued.
Daniel and I said nothing. “What, no fourth?” Daniel asked.
“Not from me, I don’t fucking know the kid,” I said.
“Ohhhh, Larry said a bad word,” Q said.
“Daniel?” Jung asked.
“I think Larry is probably right,” Daniel agreed.
“He barely said anything,” Q said.
“And I am not saying anything either,” Daniel told us, being his usual noncommittal self.
That pretty much ended our conversation about the new kid. All I knew was there something about that kid that intrigued me, but I couldn’t say what it was.
Because I went to orientation, I knew where my homeroom was. The only one of my friends to have homeroom with me was Daniel, and we walked to the room together. Daniel was a great friend. He was friendly and smart and a good athlete. But it could be a pain to get him to say anything. We all decided that he balanced out Q.
My homeroom teacher’s name was Mr. Hunter. He greeted Daniel and me at the door and told us to sit anywhere. I found a spot in the middle of the row nearest the window and Daniel sat in the seat beside me. Normally you figured that if a friend sat next to your desk it would be so you could find ways to talk to each other, but that wasn’t the case with Daniel since he didn’t talk much. I think he was nervous about opening middle school and wanted the comfort of being able to see somebody he knew.
I was staring at the whiteboard in the front of the room when I noticed Daniel pointing to the door. I saw the angry kid on the bus enter the room. I was surprised to see him. We had all gone to our homeroom during orientation and he hadn’t been there. He walked across the room to the window row where I was sitting, came up the aisle, glaring at the three of us sitting in the row and plopped into the empty seat behind me.
While I wasn’t Mister Chatterbox like Q, I was a friendly kid who liked talking to people. I thought the dark-haired kid was probably mad about this being the first day of school and about whatever kind of fight he got into. I wondered if maybe he wasn’t just new to the middle school like the rest of us, but was totally new because he just moved into the area and was more scared than angry.
Besides, the little dude looked cute to me, although my eleven-year old self wasn’t entirely certain what it meant to think that a boy looked cute. I mean all five of us in my cadre of friends learned about jerking off together last winter and even more than that followed. But I didn’t think of my friends as being cute to the point I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them, except maybe when they were naked. But this kid, with his jet black hair, his clear white skin, his button nose, his reddish lips, and his intense eyes, well, to me this kid was cute.
I turned around to introduce myself. “Hi, my name is Larry. I’m new here, too.” I knew right away that sounded dumb since we were all new.
The boy didn’t give me his name. Instead he asked me a weird question. “Who is the fucking best fighter in the sixth grade?”
“Huh?” Like I said, it was a weird question.
“You must be deaf. I said who is the fucking best fighter here?”
“Um…I don’t know. I only know the kids from my elementary school and we didn’t do much fighting there.”
“That must have been a dumb school.”
I got a little defensive. “It was a pretty good school. I liked it there.”
“Then you must be dumb, too.”
I didn’t say anything, I just looked at him wondering where it was he came from.
“You’re bigger than me. I bet I can still beat you up. I beat up all kinds of dudes bigger than me.” I just kept looking at him, a bit dumbfounded by this bantam rooster. “Turn around or you’ll be the first kid I beat up here.”
I quickly faced the front and went back to concentrating on the whiteboard. I wondered how much of that chat Daniel had heard and what he thought of it. Mr. Hunter came into the room and shut the door just seconds before the bell rang. Sixth grade and my three-year middle school career had officially begun.
I could tell my man was restless. He moved from side to side, from belly to back and return, until he finally settled on his back, looking up at the ceiling. I was tempted to say something, but we’d already talked out the subject during the evening and again while preparing for bed. You’d think a man with two state baseball titles on his resume’ could be a little more relaxed. But I know him. I’ve known him since we were eleven. He is a sweet, friendly man who had scorching competitive fires burning inside of him. It’s the way he’s always been.
I finally fell asleep, but that didn’t last long. I felt his hand touching me, as if it was trying to pull strength from inside of me. I moved my head slightly to look at him. I could see his profile in the dark, staring up at the ceiling. I started to open my mouth to say something. As if sensing it his hand pressed down on me. I wisely kept quiet. There would be plenty of time for us to talk more in the morning or on the bus ride to Pasco. Right now he needed to be alone with his thoughts, trying to find the thought to focus on that would finally allow him to fall asleep.
My life was a good one. Hell, our lives were good ones. I loved him with every fiber of my being. It sometimes seemed I have loved him my entire life. While that wasn’t entirely true, it was close. When we met, I didn’t even like him. But then I didn’t like anybody, not even myself.
I sometimes wonder where I would be today if we hadn’t met. Well, that might not be accurate. Being in the same school, in the same home room, we were destined to meet. But considering how we started, we certainly weren’t destined to become friends.
I did not make friends easily, and had none when I entered middle school. I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family. I had two older brothers who kept my life interesting. They were two and four years older, and when we were really young, saw me as a place to take out their anger at our father. My father wasn’t a bad person. He could be a loving, caring man, but he also could be a mean drunk. I often was not sure which of those personalities was occupying the house. I found that the easiest way to deal with my father was to try to keep out of his way just like my siblings did.
In some ways my brothers took after my father. They could be nice, or they could be mean, although with them the meanness wasn’t caused by alcohol. It was just their way when I was little. I was their punching bag, but I stood up for myself. Troy, the oldest, ended up being a great brother and friend once he realized I’d fight him tooth and nail rather than put up with his bullshit. Keegan, the middle brother, had (and still has) many of his own demons to fight and would take his frustrations out on me until he realized that little as I was I could kick the shit out of him. Once that was settled for good he left me alone, often to the point of acting as if I didn’t exist.
I am a good sized man now at 6’1 and 195 pounds, but damn I was a late bloomer. I quickly learned that because I was small I had to be tough. When I was five and my older brother, Troy, was nine, I managed to bloody his nose after I got tired of being harassed by him. I just went after him and didn’t quit, which became my trademark. I know I gained his respect. The harassment didn’t stop immediately, but he eventually got tired of having to deal with me, and became big brother friend rather than my big brother enemy.
Instead, he turned on his former ally Keegan, our middle brother, who was tough, but not as tough as me or Troy. After getting pushed around by Troy, Keegan took things out on me. But he was just two years older than me as opposed to Troy’s four years, and I had no problem letting him know I wasn’t going to be his punching bag either. The three of us eventually managed to maintain a peaceful co-existence.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t always avoid being our father’s punching bag. Like I said, when he got drunk, he often got mean. His meanness was a big factor in making my brothers and me closer even as we fought each other. Troy went from bully brother to protective brother as dad’s drinking got worse. But that story doesn’t become important until later as far as the relationship between Larry and me went.
At school I was just about the smallest boy in my class, at least as far as height went. But I was a stocky little guy, with a strong chest and strong legs. The bullies at school who saw me as an easy mark quickly learned they weren’t going to get their way with me.
My dad was in the army, so we had moved a few times by the time I finished fourth grade. I went to a different school every year from kindergarten through the fifth grade. Sometimes we lived on base, and sometimes we lived off base. We often lived in tough neighborhoods and I went to tough schools, where I had to establish myself each time I started. I was a callous, tough little kid. I was much better at making enemies than I was at making friends.
Our latest move had been just before I started fifth grade. We moved to a suburb east of Tacoma. We all hoped that this would be our last move. Troy was starting high school and Keegan was in middle school. They wanted to stay put and make friends that they wouldn’t lose after a couple of years.
When I started fifth grade at my new school, I found the kid to challenge; or it could be said he found me. His name was Carlos Perez and he was a chunky, sturdy kid. He had a big gut, but it made him look bigger and stronger rather than soft. I lived within walking distance of school, and so did he, although not in the same direction.
He stopped me in the hall on the first day of school, looking down at me. He was maybe 5’2 and in the 140 range. I had just turned ten and was 4’4 and 70 pounds. “Hey, midget, I hear you’re a faggot.”
I didn’t know what a faggot was, but I knew it wasn’t good; but I did know what a midget was. I doubt that he was real sure what a faggot was either. I ignored him and kept walking down the hall. He grabbed me.
“Hey, shrimp, I’m talking to you. I need somebody to do me some favors.” He acted tough, putting on as good an act as a ten-year-old could. It was not going to win any Oscars, but I could see he was pretty good at intimidation. The problem for him was I learned about intimidation from the best: my brother Troy.
“Fuck off,” I said with the best snarl I could muster. I had the wording down, but it was hard to be really nasty when you had a high soprano voice.
“I’ll be seeing you after school. You better hope you got a big brother around or I’m gonna beat your sorry ass.” I did have a big brother; in fact I had two big brothers. But as far as I was concerned my sorry ass wasn’t going to need their help. And I picked up a hint of cowardice from Carlos’s wording—as in if I had a big brother, he’d leave me alone.
That’s how we ended up in an empty lot a couple of blocks from the school a few days later. He had three of his cronies along to support him. I still didn’t know anybody at that school, so I was surprised to see a couple of kids standing on my side of the lot. I figured curiosity brought them out.
I think Carlos was surprised I had actually shown up. He was even more surprised when I started the melee instead of waiting for him to come after me. I went right after him with a vengeance, not holding back a thing. I have to give Troy credit for helping me with my fighting skills and attitude in a battle. Once we decided to quit fighting each other and be family, I learned a lot of important things from him. It’s not like we didn’t argue, but they weren’t fights to the finish. Troy ended up feeling somewhat protective of me. I know he demonstrated things to both Keegan and me that big brothers often show their little brothers and it didn’t all have to do with juvenile warfare.
When the dust settled, I had my battle scars, but Carlos looked a lot worse. I had him on the ground pounding on him. I was crying and screaming, a little package of adrenaline with probably a bit of testosterone thrown in. Even though he was twice my weight he didn’t try to knock me off of him. When one of his buddies started toward me I screamed at him that he’d be the next one I’d bloody up and he backed off.
Carlos finally begged me to stop and I got off of him, guarding my rear. His nose was bleeding and his face was cut from my blows. I didn’t look much better. I looked at Carlos and his buddies. “I won’t tell the whole school I kicked your ass if you leave me the fuck alone.”
“What about them?” Carlos asked, pointing to the small group of curious spectators.
“Any of you guys say anything, me and Carlos will both kick your asses.” Carlos got up off the ground, giving me a look of grudging admiration. He started feeling his obviously sore ribs with his right hand. “But you better let everybody know not to mess with me,” I said to Carlos, “because I can kick your sorry ass again.” My defeated rival acknowledged my words with a nod.
I backed my way out of the lot, giving the half-dozen or so spectators another glare, making sure they knew I was a little bad ass. I started in the direction of home, still wary that a friend of Carlos might follow me and try to finish what Carlos couldn’t. I sensed somebody behind me and closed my fists. I turned to confront my tail, and saw that it wasn’t a member of Carlos’s gang. Instead, it was one of the spectators, a blond haired kid who was as almost as small as I was.
“Thanks for beating up Carlos,” he said. “He’s the meanest kid in the school.”
I grunted, not sure what to say. I had never been thanked for winning a fight before.
“My name is Andrew, but you can call me Andy. I live close to you. I saw you move in.”
“Hey, I’m Phil.”
“Carlos makes me do stuff, like carry his books to school and bring him snacks, and do other stuff to him. He beat me up once last year when I forgot his snack. I keep hoping he won’t bully me ever again.”
“He won’t bug you as long as I’m around. If he gives you shit you let me know.” There I was in the new role of Phillip the Protector. I didn’t bother to tell Andy that I didn’t know how long I would be around since my family kept moving.
That was how Andy and I became best friends. He was the first real best friend I ever had. It was a friendship that wasn’t to last, however, because of a move. Only this time it wouldn’t be me doing the moving. Andy’s mom got remarried and he left for a new place a week before we were supposed to start middle school.
But before that we hung out together for all of fifth grade and the summer after. The school bullies left me alone knowing I was somebody they didn’t want to mess with, and, except for one time, they left Andy alone knowing he was my friend and I’d taken the skinny little geek under my protective wing.
For the most part, though, my fifth grade year and the following summer were good. I played baseball for the first time because of Andy, and immediately fell in love with the sport. I also fell in love with a position nobody else wanted to play, and that was catcher. I might have been little, but I was tough. The position demanded toughness, and that appealed to me.
The relationship between me and Troy kept getting better. He was fourteen and I worshipped him. He was more my life mentor than my father was. He also acted as a buffer between me and our father when he could. The relationship between Troy and me had changed a great deal from the time I was a toddler and he was a bully of a big brother. Like I said, he taught me a lot of things a boy should know, along with some things he probably shouldn’t know.
Keegan and I liked each other okay, but we were so close in age that we fought as much as anything. Troy was usually the one to break up our squabbles, although they rarely deteriorated into real violence. Keegan knew who would win any full-fledged fight between us.
The loss of Andy was on my mind when sixth grade started. My fight with my father a couple of nights before was on my mind, a battle that was as nasty as we’d ever had, mostly because Troy was away spending the night with a friend. I was angry—angry at Andy for moving, angry at my father for being an asshole, and angry at Troy for being at his friend’s house doing things he wasn’t supposed to be doing instead of being home standing up for me.
I knew a few kids at my bus stop, but I didn’t bother to talk to them. I wasn’t in the mood for talking. Keegan rode the same bus, and I ignored him as well. I didn’t recognize anybody on the bus when I got on, but I could see right away, just from their clothes, that they were west side kids.
One kid grabbed my attention as I looked for a seat. He had brown hair and brown eyes. Even my eleven-year-old self could see he was a very attractive boy. He sent a quick shot of feeling though my gut. They were the same kind of feelings I’d get when I was around Andy. They were the same kind of feelings that left me very confused even after they made me feel giddy. I could tell he was looking me over, and I did my best to ignore him, which was not easy to do.
The school had an orientation that I was supposed to go to, but my mom was working and my father wouldn’t give me a ride because he was busy drinking, so I skipped it. But the problem with not going to orientation was that I didn’t know where my homeroom was, which made me even angrier. I asked a couple of big kids for help and they both commented that the new sixth graders were stupid little shrimps. The dudes were lucky I didn’t just kick the shit out of them. I finally got directions from a teacher and walked into the room even angrier than when I’d boarded the bus earlier in the morning.
I walked in trying to look like I knew exactly what I was doing and ignored everybody in the room. The problem with ignoring everybody was that it made it hard for me to look around in order to find an empty seat. I saw a couple of seats by the window. I also saw the kid I’d noticed on the bus sitting in front of the empty seat I wanted. I thought about taking the other empty one behind it, but that would have stuck me in an isolated seat and I didn’t want to be where the teacher would notice me, so I sat behind the kid.
The kid pissed me off even more by talking to me when I didn’t want to talk. The fucker introduced himself to me, like I cared. I finally asked him who the best fighter in the sixth grade was, hoping he’d say it was him so I could kick the crap out of him. Nothing would have made me happier than to get kicked out of school on the first day. That was the kind of mindset I had.
He told me he didn’t know who the fighters were, so I told him he was dumb, hoping to make him mad enough to fight. Right then I wanted to bloody that pretty face of his. Before I could push things any farther the teacher came in right when the bell rang for home room to start. I sat back and did my best to look angry and tough, which wasn’t hard for me to do at all.
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