Chapter 1: How Bad?
That’s me, bent over a water fountain in the hall of Curtis Junior High. You’ll see my Dockside boat shoes, no socks, khakis and a tucked-in, ironed white Oxford shirt. My head was in the water-fountain. Nobody had pushed me in and I wasn’t getting beaten up. I was getting a drink.
I’ll tell you now that nothing violent happened to me. But I was scared that something would.
Of course I had no idea that in less than a decade I’d be waking up with a guy who loved me.
All I knew in the eighth grade was that I was afraid and alone. I thought I’d be like that forever.
My small group of friends had turned on me. One kid had started calling me Guthrie-gay and the rest of my friends took it up. Friends? By the eighth grade I didn’t really have any. I didn’t see people after school. I didn’t go to parties. Nobody came to my house. I didn’t go anywhere but swim practice.
Guthrie-gay. I wasn’t stupid enough to wonder how they knew. No matter how hard I tried I wasn’t a normal guy. I sucked at sports involving balls and if I had a choice I’d still hang out with girls because they were usually nicer.
Guthrie-gay. I thought I was better. I thought I was passing. That was all I wanted to do – pass. It didn’t matter that I was a guy who liked guys in the wrong way as long as nobody knew. I’d never do anything about it.
Guthrie-gay. At school I smiled stupidly and kept looking for new people to eat lunch with. The guys who’d been my friends last year? Two smart guys who’d been my best friends from third grade to sixth? I was running out of options.
No one could see my face because it was in the water fountain.
“Hurry. We’ll get him. Guthrie-gay goes this way.”
I kept slurping water until the rush of people passed and the get-Guthrie-gay-guys were at the end of the hall. I bolted in the opposite direction.
Get him? What did get him mean? Were they going to beat me up? I’d never been in a fight. I’d never punched anyone, but of course I’d punch like a girl, just like I threw a ball like a girl.
I made up an excuse to talk to a teacher and peppered him with questions until I heard the buzzer and the get Guthrie-gay guys were in class and no longer lurking in the halls.
“Where’d he go?” one of them said, eyeing me as I entered French class late.
From that day on all I thought about was getting beaten up. In order not to run into students in the halls, I was either the first or last to leave class. The first to scramble down halls before they teemed with potential attackers. Or the last when the halls were empty. Don’t talk. Don’t look at anyone. Avoid crowds. Avoid small groups. Avoid everyone.
The next day at lunch I asked one of the guys from elementary school where he was sitting. “Just go away,” he said.
I didn’t let my mother see me make lunch because I hadn’t brought lunch to school in years and she would have been suspicious. So every morning I filled baggies with cereal, crackers and nuts that I’d eat alone in an empty stairwell. There was an old song about a lonesome loser. Have you heard about the lonesome loser? He’s a loser, but he still keeps on trying. But I wasn’t trying to move out of loserhood. All I was trying to do was not to get beaten up.
No one at school asked where I ate lunch. No one asked why I didn’t go to the dances. No one asked me over. The only birthday party I went to was for the son of one of my mother’s friends and I faked being sick so I could go home early, no way was I spending the night with a bunch of guys who’d been calling me Mary-Anne.
I crossed out the faces of people in the yearbook who wouldn’t notice if I were dead. Ten people didn’t have “X’s” across their faces: neighborhood kids, a few kids of my parents’ friends who’d have to go to my funeral, and a big girl whom few people talked to but who was nice and laughed at the stupid jokes I told her in humanities class. The rest of school wouldn’t notice if I were dead. They might think it was sad that an eighth grader had died, but the next day they wouldn’t think about me. They’d never think about me again.
I forgot to think about the swim teams. My friends at the summer swim and tennis club were either a year older or a year younger, so they weren’t part of my daily life during the school year, my real life. And the year-round national team was in a different town, so those people didn’t count. No one in junior high cared that I’d made a national swim team.
My mother asked why I was so quiet. She asked if I was suicidal.
I hadn’t told her anything about school. No way could she know about Guthrie-gay.
I told her that wherever we go after we die had to be better than here.
“Don’t be stupid. You have a lot going for you.”
“Right now I don’t have the energy to point out what a perfect life you have.”
We were in the car, turning the corner from Sylvan Way to Ledge Road. Neither of us said anything else.
None of this sounds so bad. Only that one time did I hear someone say that he was going to get me. But I was afraid. I’d heard stories. I knew that the gay guy got creamed. I also knew that this was only junior high and that high school would be worse. If all freshmen got beaten up, what would they do to Guthrie-gay?
Trying to make myself inconspicuous, I felt invisible.
As if I didn’t exist.
As if there was no reason for me to exist.
As if I shouldn’t exist.
That would be easiest for everyone.
That was why I decided to electrocute myself.
Looking back now, I know that it didn’t make sense. But I was fourteen and didn’t know how to look ahead. I’d once had dreams about a perfect life. But by the eighth grade I’d grown up and knew that those were stupid dreams. There would never be a place for me.
Seventh grade basketball was the worst. Even the girls were merciless that I couldn’t dribble. There was no way I was going through it again, this time in the eighth grade as Guthrie-gay. So for two weeks of basketball Tuesdays and Thursdays, I hid in the woods until I’d missed the bus and both of my parents had already driven to work. By walking an hour and a half from north to south Sudbury, I missed the first two periods of the day. I missed basketball.
I entered the cafeteria a week later for detention. The tables of regulars looked up as I walked across the room. “What’s he doing here?”
I went straight to the vice principal, handed him the detention slip and said that the school had made a mistake.
He reminded me that I’d missed four classes. I told him that my parents had written a note. They had for the first day that I’d walked to school. But I hadn’t told my parents about the other three days. I couldn’t tell them that I’d skipped classes. No way could I tell them about Guthrie-gay and that everyone at school hated me. The lie just happened. I couldn’t help it.
“You should have one note that explains everything.”
“We don’t have it.”
“I don’t skip classes.”
“We need a note.”
“I already brought one in. The school must have lost it. Do you want to talk to my parents?”
My mouth was moving without my brain working. But I’d said the right thing. My parents were difficult. They’d argued so much that the administration let me have what my parents thought were the best history and English teachers, even though they were on different teaching teams.
I repeated that the school must have lost the note.
The vice principal crumpled the yellow slip and told me to go back to class.
It wasn’t fair that I’d gotten out of detention, but I didn’t care because it was more unfair that everyone made gym class horrible. I had to lie. What else could I do? Talk to a school counselor? My parents? No way. A trusted adult? Who would that have been? My yelling-at-everyone swim coach? Someone at church? We’d stopped going there two years ago because my sister and I swam on the weekends. I’d never talk to anyone about Guthrie-gay. The point was to make him disappear.
I was tired of slinking through the halls and eating lunch alone in a stairwell. I was tired of being obsessed with not getting beaten-up. I knew my luck would run out.
My first impulse wasn’t to kill myself. The eighth grade poetry competition was at the end of the school year, and I’d probably make it to the finals as I had in the seventh grade. When I made it to center stage, instead of reciting a poem, I’d take out a gun and start shooting at the audience.
But parents would be there and they hadn’t done anything bad but raise jerky kids.
And not all the students were terrible.
And the boys who were mean to me were probably nice to other people, just not to me.
I was the only one who wouldn’t be missed.
No, on center stage, I wouldn’t shoot at the audience. I’d shoot myself. Then everyone could see what they’d been doing to me.
Where would I get a gun? I’d never even seen one. I’d have to go to the city. How? I was fourteen, Boston was a forty-five minute drive away and there was no bus, subway or train in Sudbury. And what would I do if I could get to a place in the city where you bought guns? The city was tough. People were killed there all the time. What would they do to Guthrie-gay?
On the news I’d heard about a girl who turned on a light switch in a flooded basement and was electrocuted. Perfect. I’d do the same and it would look like an accident and no one would have to feel bad. Instead of the basement, I do it in the bathroom one morning before school.
I remember the ice on the bathroom window blurring the pale orange sunrise. It was a beautiful day in a weird, sad, New England way. The perfect day to kill myself. I didn’t write a note because it would look like an accident. I pointed the shower into the room and drenched the floor.
Naked in the mirror, I looked at myself. I felt bad for him. He looked like a nice guy. Nothing was his fault. I wanted to apologize.
I splashed my feet to be sure there was enough water.
I flicked the switch.
Nothing happened. I was still standing there.
Idiot, was my first thought. Stupid, stupid, idiot.
I might be leaving Sudbury, maybe even leaving Massachusetts. Before all the Guthrie-gay stuff, I’d applied to boarding school for the next year. It was a new idea, boarding school. Nobody from my family had been to one before. I hadn’t heard if I’d gotten in. If I did, I’d be getting away from Sudbury. I’d reinvent myself.
Please let me get in.
I’d kill Guthrie-gay, not myself.
As if they were different.
I threw down towels to soak up the water.
If I didn’t get into boarding school, I’d try the electrocution thing again.
That fall my first year of boarding school began, my new life, the year I decided I was born, my Year Zero.
On Glee Kurt walks through a private school for the first time beaming and unbelieving that someplace could be so safe and comfortable. That was how I felt. Unlike Kurt, I never went back to public school.
Not that I had to go to a new school to reinvent myself. Maybe I could have done the same thing over the summer between junior high and high schools. But leaving for New Hampshire where no one knew me made it easy.
It was getting better.