It all fell apart.
It all fell apart because I was too stupid to keep a secret, or maybe too fat to keep anything under wraps, because what could cover up me, him, us together, and what we did.
It all fell apart because I forgot how to be a man, and hid from my fears, too terrified of exposure to stand up with pride, and besides, who wants to see the fat kid stand up for his rights?
It all fell apart because I forgot how to speak, even though he was the only one I could talk to about not fitting in and never feeling wanted, until he came around. Instead of talking it out and making sense of it all, which he probably could have done, because he did that to every other problem I came up with, I cowered away, too scared.
It all fell apart because I got comfortable with him, with what we did, and with who I was when he was around-and then I got comfortable with who I was period, fat and clumsy and just a little bitter at the world, but a good friend, a good comedian for comic relief, and a good hugger, and when you're bigger than the norm, you don't get to be comfortable, and if you ever are, someone will always try to take it away.
It all fell apart because someone found out.
Russ and I lived together in the dorm for over a year before anyone figured anything out. It was awkward, at first, because he had been in California for a month, after his last visit. Each reunion was strange, as if we'd forgotten how to interact in the time we'd been apart, though we never forgot how to feel.
We'd requested each other as roommates, and though Charlie and Connie and Guy all had problems with getting the roommate they requested (no one was surprised that Guy didn't end up where he wanted to be-there are no coed dorms on campus), Russ and I had no problem at all. We didn't even get stuck in a tiny, middle-of-the-hall, noisy-neighbors-on-both-sides room; instead, we were put in the corner room, with just a little bit extra space because the closet was stuck in at an odd angle, and the rest of the walls had been moved out a little to make room for it.
We settled in, first our things, then our bodies, and finally our routines. Up each morning for calisthenics, class all day, practice in the evenings, homework at night-even though study time usually ended up being time to pull pranks on varsity.
Alone in our dorm, we'd turn on the stereo, or flip through the television channels, looking for some old film-Russ's favorite type of movie-ever hopeful that we'd stumble on a forbidden channel.
We never did get to look at tits and ass while together, just a couple of red-blooded American boys, strong enough to share our bodies with each other, but never our emotions.
Any weekend we had time off, I'd take him to see my parents. They knew how to welcome a friend, and Russ was a familiar face. They'd feed us, slip me some money, and send us on our way, with no worries and no time to be in (expect for the knowledge that we had homework due Monday and that they locked the front doors at midnight).
I missed working at the deli, missed being with my family any time I wasn't playing hockey, but with enough distraction, I was doing ok. Russ was plenty of distraction.
That first year went by in a blur of hockey games, problems with varsity, inner-team fights, and forgetting about it all with Russ at night. We put ants in varsity's bedrooms, Russ and I came home to our dorm and pushed our beds together so we both had room, to stretch out and to be together. They tricked us into washing dishes to pay for dinner, he rubbed my back for an hour afterward, even though his hands and arms were as sore as mine. Julie took my spot at goal and Russ held me all night, squeezed tight in the darkness at just past three a.m. when it was the worst, but never said a word. We lost Banks, we gained him back, and Russ had me howling late into the night with his preppy jokes. And he even likes Banks, thinks he's a good player.
The second year started the changes. I spent most of the summer with Russ, only coming back for the last month to live with my parents again, because my mom wrote me sad, sappy letters until I knew I had to come back to her. It was different, out there with him. We had no room and no privacy and no time to be alone, because his brothers were always around or we were out playing street puck or making trouble at the beach or out eating-one restaurant for every meal of every day of every life I'd ever had, and I'd never have to repeat one, I don't think.
When we came back, school was easier and hockey was easier, because we were used to the Coach and to the rules and to being a little fish team in a big fish pond, but social life was harder. Connie and Guy split up, and it got a little colder on the ice and then Guy and Julie started dating, and there were screaming matches in the locker room, where Connie threw things and yelled and Julie just sat there, indifferent as a cat.
Luis spent the semester hiding from varsity, stealing their women, and coming to us only for practice and sometimes not even then. No one was surprised when he was put on probation and benched for the rest of the season.
Adam and Charlie were put together and promptly started to fight all the time. No one could blame them; Charlie the Slob destroyed their room and Adam the Anal kept moving his stuff around. They kept their problems off of the ice-for awhile.
Portman and Fulton almost got kicked out four times a week and it looked like we'd lose our enforcers much of the time. They'd pull a prank call on the dean or stroll naked through the courtyard the first day it was warm enough to eat outside or shake the walls with their music at three a.m. Nothing new, really, but they got wilder with each moment.
Only Russ and I were the same, quiet about our reality. He'd crack jokes at lunch and I'd play with my food, build sculptures and try not to grin like crazy whenever anyone laughed at his punch line; I knew how much putting himself out to the public like that bothered him at night, once it was all over.
We got sloppy, I guess that's how we changed. He touched my hand in the locker room once, and when he got checked into the boards hard enough to crack his helmet, I was the first one on the ice at his side, even though I'd just come off and had been sitting in the back.
He gave me birthday presents, a couple CDs I wanted and a book on the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the Victorian era. He'd dragged me to a couple art museums over the summer, trying to get me to understand why he enjoyed art, and those had been the only ones I really liked. I think it was because the painters understood body image-every woman was curvy, with padded hips and arms and thighs, and I figured the guys were, too, though they weren't naked nearly as often. I checked.
But he gave me birthday presents, and understood what I wanted better than anyone, and when I thanked him, I might have smiled too much or hugged him too hard or stood too close.
Whatever it was, someone had an idea.
And started to watch us.
And then we got really sloppy, and when everyone else had left the locker room after our last victory of the season, a game always scheduled right before Christmas break, we hung back, not even promising to catch up later, just invisible to our teammates, who were eager to celebrate and pack and leave.
It wasn't the best idea, giving him a celebratory hand slap. But he was leaving for the month long break, and though we'd tried, we weren't able to get a visit together. And I didn't want to admit why it was so important that we try or how much I'd miss him.
It was easy to move to a hug, easier to squeeze him and kiss him, sweaty and breathless and hard.
It was easier still to hear the gasp, to look up and see shocked eyes, hanging open mouth. Easier to back away from each other, look at the floor, the ceiling, the walls, anywhere but him. Easier to let it all fall apart.
I left without saying goodbye, or maybe he did. Either way, we were both gone before we knew if the Ducks had found out, but of course they had, because gossip spreads fast and faster through a team.
He didn't call at Christmas. I picked up the phone, but couldn't dial, and couldn't remember who was supposed to call whom. When I came back, Fulton sat on the bed on the other side of my room, his stuff transplanted over my memories of Russ, and wouldn't look at me.
I didn't say anything. What was left to say? Everything, but we'd never been good at speech. So I let it go, settled in, and didn't once look for Russ. Not in class, not on the ice, not at night in our favorite spot by the lake. Not once.
And it all fell apart.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Dedication: To Sarah for encouraging this, and helping me through it, one baby step at a time. And to everyone who commented on "On Being Real" because your encouragement means a lot to me.