“You’ve made a fool of my team, my organization, your father, and worst of all me,” the red faced old man said as his strings of spider veins brightened and crawled under his ridiculous looking white goatee.
Lowering my head, I allowed my mind to drift into another world. Have you ever had a dream about doing something? It could be achieving a goal, or to make a parent proud of you.
Perhaps after a lifetime of disappointing your father, your dream was to be his assistant coach as he coached his team to an NFL championship. Just as the clock counts down, he turns to you for the play that will win the game. And having waited for this your entire life, you pull out what you’ve been working on for months.
“A hail Mary pass?” He’d say to you.
“It will work, Coach,” you’d tell him unsure of yourself but sure that it was the right call.
“I don’t know about this. The game is on the line.”
“Trust me, Coach,” you implore.
When he looks away with doubt, you grab his shoulder and say, “This will work, Dad.”
And because of a lifetime of working together, he puts the championship in your hands and calls to the quarterback who initiates your play.
As the players blitz and settle, the quarterback launches the ball. Airborne, it travels 30, 40, 50 yards. And just as you drew it up, the receiver shakes off his defender, leaps, and then snatches it out of the air, falling into the end zone and winning the game.
Cheers and streamers follow. The other coaches lift you onto their shoulders victorious. And your father, who might have had his doubts about you, looks you in the eyes and nods as if to say, that’s my son and I’m proud. …Or, you know, some less oddly specific dream than that.
Well, I’m not too proud to admit that that might have been my dream. I’ve never been my father’s favorite. You might even say that my father thinks of me as a bit of a disappointment.
Yes, I am my father’s assistant coach. And after having a stellar Division 2 coaching career, the miracle that is ‘being offered an NFL team’ occurred. But that is where my dream ends. Because after two years of circling the drain, my father’s career might be over before it really started.
Worse than that, as we played our last game of the season, the one that determined our playoff chances, my father ignored me completely and called a play that lost us the game.
That was fine. Our team was used to losing. It is what it is. But suddenly unburdened by game preparation and everything else football, something else found its way into my mind. After months of ignoring my boyfriend, I remembered that our relationship was on the rocks. Like my father’s coaching career, it was circling the drain.
With those thoughts overwhelming me, something unexpected happened, my face appeared on the giant screen. This had happened before. When games are televised, the cameramen are always looking for reaction shots.
The only problem this time was that they had chosen to focus on me because, like a world-class homo, I was crying. I hadn’t even realized it. And if you’ve ever thought that there was no crying in baseball, I can assure you that, unless your son just won you the NFL championship, there is definitely no crying in football.
“You fuckin’ cried? On my football field? What type of god damn queer bullshit is that?”
The team’s manager looked at the team’s owner knowing he had just crossed a line. Of course, he didn’t say anything about it. The team’s owner might as well have had his hand up the manager’s ass for how much of puppet the manager was.
“You’re an embarrassment to my team. And that is saying a lot considering how much of a fuckin’ embarrassment this whole season has been. But do you know why it’s been an embarrassment? I said, do you know why it’s been an embarrassment?” He asked me.
“Because our blitzing is weak. We’re not deep enough to compensate for injuries. And our quarterback can’t complete a pass to save his life?”
The 72 year old man sneered at me with disgust.
“No, you piece of shit, know-it-all, pillow muncher. You god damn, fuckin’ pansy ass, Mary. It’s because your father is surrounded by shit-for-brain assistants who would prefer to stare at the players in the shower than coach a football game.”
Prickles of heat crawled through me. Every muscle in my chest clenched making it hard to breathe. He had found it. The thing I have always feared hearing the most, he had spit at me like venom.
I wasn’t always open about being gay. I was the son of a football coach. Working for my father since I was a kid, I joined him in locker rooms. There were times when he would give his end of game talk with half the team naked. That’s just what happened in football whether it was at the college level or the pros.
So, would things change if everyone knew I was gay? I certainly wouldn’t be welcome in a locker room. Trust was an important part of game. We had to trust that the players prepared themselves adequately for every game. And the players had to trust that we weren’t staring at their swinging dicks and jacking off to the thought of them when we were alone at night.
In short, gays weren’t welcome in football. But here I was, the openly gay son of a losing coach whose crying had been broadcasted to every television in America. I felt humiliated.
For so long I had tried to be the man my father had wanted me to be. For so long I had laid in bed dreaming about my father finally treating me like he was proud instead of embarrassed of me. Yet time and again, I kept letting him down.
I missed things I should have noticed. I cried on national TV giving ammunition to people like the team’s owner to use in exit interviews and contract negotiations.
As I felt the tears threatening again, I did everything I could to hold them back. I couldn’t cry. Not now. Not here. I had to make it through this like a man. I had to be the son my father wanted me to be.
So, as the owner berated my sexuality, and my intelligence, doing everything he could to make me quit, I bit my lip. I wiggled my toes. I did everything I could to distract myself from the thought that sat in the back of my mind, ‘what he said about me was right. I didn’t belong here’.
‘Don’t cry, Merri. You won’t cry!’ I told myself desperately willing it to be true.
I could do this. I could get through this. And when I did, I’d prove that I belonged here. I’d show my father and everyone else that I wasn’t a screw up. I wasn’t an embarrassment.
I’ll show them that I’m a person who belongs in football as much as anyone else. And as the wet streaks slowly rolled down my cheeks and broke my heart, I knew exactly how I’d do it.
As early morning sunlight fanned over the mountains whitening the clouds, a mist filled the air. Stretching out my hamstrings one last time, I took a deep breath and began my run. Falling into rhythm in both breathing and pace, my mind settled. This morning was it. I had thought about doing it for so long and today was the day.
Rounding the mountain roads and entering the neighborhood, I went over my plan again. This was where Cage began his run. Casually bumping into him, I would invite him to join me and then do it.
There was no question that something in my life had to change. When I had first come back home, I had enjoyed the isolation. I had needed time to think. But two years of it have been too much.
Yes, I had my Facetimes with Titus and Cali, but they weren’t enough. If anything, getting to know my new brothers had been what was awakening this. I wanted to be more social. I was beginning to need it.
Why had I chosen to approach Cage?
It was because we were at a similar stage in life. Since graduating from university two years earlier, we had made similar choices. Out of everyone in this small town, he was the one I could most easily see as a friend.
Besides, he and his boyfriend were the center of my brothers’ friend group. Cage and Quin hosted a lot of game nights. When Cage had first moved to town, he had invited me. But after turning down one too many, the invitations had stopped.
Step one, bump into Cage. Step two, invite him to join me on my run. Step three, casually bring up game night and express an interest in joining them. It seemed so simple. Yet, it was only now, weeks after coming up with the plan, that I had mustered the courage to try.
Perhaps this was what finding yourself at the end of your rope looked like, an early morning jog meant to ask for something you desperately missed, human connection and a friend.
Doing my best not to overthink this, I picked up my pace and rounded the neighborhood streets. With my heart thumping, Cage’s house came into view. I had timed it correctly, I could see Cage stretching on the driveway.
As I stared, my chest hurt. Caught under an avalanche of panic, I struggled to breathe.
I couldn’t do this. Not now. Not today. And just as Cage looked up noticing me jogging up his street, I turned around. Changing direction as if it had always been my plan, I jogged in the opposite direction.
I was a coward. There was no doubt about it. But worse than that, I was alone and would continue to be alone. Why couldn’t I get out of this? What was wrong with me?
Returning home and heading upstairs into the shower, I stood naked with the water pooling in my curly hair. How had I become this person? University had been so different. I had had friends and a life. Now, back home in small town Tennessee, I was…
“Come downstairs when you’re done,” my mother said knocking on the bathroom door. “I have a surprise for you.”
Snapped back to the here and now, I looked up. My mother had a surprise for me? What did she mean by that?
Shutting off the water and getting dressed, I opened the bathroom door. Immediately the smell of roasting Arabica beans hit me. God was it good. But I hadn’t set it to brew.
“Surprise!” my mother said after I headed downstairs and entered the kitchen.
In one of her hands was a coffee mug. In the other was a muffin with a lit candle stuck in it.
“We’re celebrating,” my mother said enthusiastically, with her brown skin aglow from the candlelight.
“What are we celebrating?” I asked wondering if I had forgotten a birthday.
“We’re celebrating you moving into your new shop.”
I smiled despite myself.
“It’s really not that big of a deal, Momma.”
“Of course, it’s a big deal. You’ve worked out of our living room for the last year, and now you’re going to have your own office. “
“Which I’ll be sharing with Titus,” I reminded her.
“What does that matter? You’re now a thriving business owner and you have your own office.”
“That I share.”
“Claude, take the muffin,” she said handing it to me. “And the coffee. I asked Marcus what type you like. He told me it’s your favorite.”
I smiled. “Thank you, Momma.”
“You’re welcome,” she said with a smile. “I have a few minutes before we have to leave, why don’t we sit down and enjoy a coffee together.”
“Uh oh,” I said taking a seat.
“What, uh oh? There’s no uh oh. Can’t a mother spend a few minutes sitting with her handsome son?”
“Of course, Momma,” I said settling down. “Sorry. What do you want to talk about?”
Momma looked at me devilishly.
“Well, since you asked, are there any girls in your life that you’d like to tell me about?”
“Or guys. I know how everyone’s bisexual nowadays.”
“Momma, what makes you think I’d ever be into something like that?”
She gave me a side eye that asked who I thought I was fooling.
“No Momma, there are no girls or guys in my life right now.”
“And why not?” She said leaning forward.
“I can feel a lecture coming on.”
“There’s no lecture. I’m just gonna say…”
“I’m just gonna say that you’re smart, and kind, and now you’re a business owner.”
“Here we go.”
“There’s no reason you shouldn’t have people beating down your door.”
“Maybe I don’t want people beating down my door.”
“Your momma had boys beating down her door,” she said proudly.
“And on the topic of things I didn’t need to know…”
“You should be grateful your momma was hot.”
“Where do you think you got your good looks from?”
“I think this conversation’s over,” I said getting up.
“It’s over when you bring some hot piece of something home to meet me. I was sneaking boys into my room from the time I could get them through my window. Why isn’t Marcus ever crawling out of your window?”
I turned to her. “I’m on the second floor!”
“Claude, you need to open yourself up to people. Everyone likes you. Just give someone a chance. You’re too young and good-looking to be a lonely, old man,” she told me as I took my coffee and headed upstairs to my room.
Closing the door behind me, I had to admit she wasn’t entirely wrong. I mean, she was wrong about the bisexual thing, and Marcus. He was just my coffee supplier. But she was right that something needed to change.
This was not the life I had pictured for myself when I graduated university. Sure, I had what was becoming a thriving business, and I worked with Titus. But that was only spring through fall. The rest of the year, having coffee at Marcus’s popup was the only time I didn’t feel empty. Something had to change.
Waiting for my usual five minutes before we had to go, I headed back downstairs grabbing the car keys. With my mother at school all day, we shared a car. It worked out well considering I never went anywhere at night. But driving her this morning with her picking up her lecture where she had left off, I second guessed our arrangement.
Dropping Momma off and heading to my new place, I pulled into the parking lot and sat. Staring at the small log structure, I was expecting to feel more than I did. Momma wasn’t wrong, having an office to run our business out of was a reason to celebrate. But with my business partner still finishing his spring semester, I was the only one here.
Getting out of the car, I walked the dirt path to our front door. The place was the ultimate cabin in the woods. Surrounded by perfect pines still damp with morning dew, I glanced through the trees at the shallow river less than a hundred feet away.
This place had been an excellent find. The only thing that it would never have was foot traffic. But with our tour’s path beginning less than a quarter mile away, it would allow us to fit more tours into our day. The rental made a lot of sense.
Unlocking the door and looking around, I felt its vacancy. Had this been a good idea? How much more isolation did I need? Could I spend the rest of my life working here in this town?
Quickly wiping a tear from my cheek, I straightened up and got sensible. I had wanted a business and now I had it. If I wanted to open up and let someone into my life, I could do that too.
I could no longer doubt that I needed it. There was a part of me that felt like I was going to crack without it. I just had to figure out how to unclamp the hands hiding my heart.
I didn’t know why I always withdrew from people the way I did, but I was going to break through that. I was going to let someone in and together we would be happy.
I could do this. I had to do this. And as I wiped another tear from my cheek, I heard a knock on the door that turned me around.
“Merri!” I said, shocked to see his steel-gray eyes once again looking back at me.
“Hey Claude,” I said as if it hadn’t been two years since I had seen him.
God, did he look good. It wasn’t like I had forgotten how his gorgeous eyebrows framed his square jaw and full lips. It was more that, I had forgotten how staring at them made me feel.
Seeing him for the first time freshman year was the final thing I needed to convince me I wasn’t straight. The man’s complexion was the color of milk chocolate. How could someone not want to lick it?
Claude shook his head as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“What are you doing here?” He asked stunned.
“I was in the neighborhood. Thought I would stop by.”
“You’re in Tennessee!” He said still trying to piece everything together.
“What? Does Tennessee not have neighborhoods?” I joked.
“No, I mean, you live in Oregon.”
“Actually, I’m in Florida now.”
“Which still isn’t near Tennessee.”
I smiled. “You got me.”
“So, why are you here?”
“I thought I would stop by and say hi.”
“I got the keys to this place yesterday.”
“Is the place new?” I said looking around at the small cabin. “You run one of those river rafting tour companies, right?”
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“You have a website,” I told him as I explored the place.
“Of course. And I put this address on it.”
“Okay, that explains how you found the place. But that doesn’t tell me what you’re doing here.”
I looked back at my old friend wondering which I should go into first. A lot had gone on between us before he told me he was choosing to graduate early and leave the team. And I’ll admit that I didn’t handle his leaving well.
“I’m here because I have a proposal for you,” I said with a smile.
“And what’s that?”
“I don’t know if you know this, but my father became the head coach with the Cougars.”
“I didn’t know that,” he said in a way that told me that he also didn’t care.
“Okay. He did. And I became his assistant.”
“Like at university?”
“Sure. Although the pros are really different. If I told you some of the things…” I looked up and paused at the sight of his uncaring eyes. I looked down. “Not the point.”
“What is your point?” He asked coldly.
“My point is that he got that head coaching position, in part, because of you.”
“You aren’t surprised by that?”
“We had a good season.”
“We had three good seasons. And all of them were thanks to you.”
“I still don’t know what you’re doing here.”
With the moment at hand, I struggled to breathe. “I’m here because I’m inviting you to a workout.”
“A what?” Claude said caught off guard.
“You know, a tryout for the team.”
Claude’s tension dropped.
“For the Cougars?” He asked confused.
“Yeah,” I said excitedly. “Papa knows that he owes a lot of his success to you, and he thinks you have what it takes to play in the pros.”
“Merri, I haven’t touched a football since…” he looked away to remember.
“Since you won us our third division title?”
“You just put it down and never picked it back up, huh?”
“What was the point?”
“Don’t you miss it? You were so good out there. The way you could find a pocket and wait until the perfect moment to throw the pass…? It was amazing.”
“It’s a part of my past.”
“But, it doesn’t have to be. I’m here telling you that if you want it, you could have it again. I’m offering you an invitation back into it. I know you loved it. I’m sure you would love it again,” I said wondering if I was still talking about football.
Claude stared at me not expressing much. I could feel my confident persona melting under the heat of his gaze. He always had a way of seeing through me. I wasn’t sure how he did it.
“Look, Claude,” I said looking everywhere but in his eyes, “I know I don’t have the right to ask anything from you, especially because of the way things ended between us. But, it would mean a lot to me if you considered this. I’m really not in a good position right now with the team…”
“So, this is about you?”
“This is about us… I mean, what we had. We had a good thing going back then, right? I was your quarterback coach and trainer. You were the star player. You shined and everyone loved you.”
“That’s not why I played.”
“Then, why did you play?” I asked sensing a way in.
“It doesn’t matter. That part of my life is over.”
“But it doesn’t have to be. Again, I know you don’t owe me anything. But I’m asking you to at least consider it. It would mean a lot to me. Papa too. We would both love to work with you again. And, two years or not, I know that what you had is still in there. You were just that good,” I said ending with a smile.
I could tell I got through to him when his gaze finally lowered.
“I’ll consider it.”
Rushing forward, I threw my arms around him.
“I knew you would. I knew it,” I said overjoyed. “You were great back then and you’ll be great again,” I told him as I released him.
“I only said I’d consider it,” he said coldly.
“Of course. Right,” I said pulling myself together. “I’m just really happy right now. Look, I’ll be in town for a few days before I head to my next meeting. How about I call you in a day or two? We could do dinner. It’ll be my treat.”
“You have my number?” Claude asked confused.
“Everyone has your number.”
“It’s the one from the website, right?”
“Then, I have it,” I said heading for the door. About to leave, I stopped. “Hey, remember sophomore year when we took that camping trip to Big Bear.”
“It’s hard to forget. When we arrived there was half a foot of snow on the ground. It was the middle of spring.”
I laughed. “Yeah. And we ended up doing a hike around that lake?”
Claude thought a moment and nodded. “When we got there it was lightly snowing.”
“Remember how the sun was at a perfect angle to make the water sparkle? And do you remember the snow-topped mountains in the background.”
“Yeah,” he said losing himself in the thought.
“You know, I’ve traveled to a lot of cities since then and that is still the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. We had a few good times together, didn’t we?”
Claude grunted pensively.
“I’ll call you,” I told him before taking a final look at my once best friend, and then walking out.
I stared as my reason for leaving university early retreated to a rental car and drove away. My heart pounded. A prickling heat washed over my skin, rattling my bones. Taking a deep breath, I struggled to breathe.
I couldn’t take this. Feeling caged within the office, I needed to run. I leaped to the door and flung it open. Before I knew it, I was running with all the strength and speed I had. Losing myself in the trees, all I could think about was the feeling as my leg muscles drove me forward.
I could feel the wind whip past me when I was up to speed. Around me, the world slowed down. This was how I had felt with the football in hand and a defensive line fighting to get past our offensive’s wall. If I had ever had a secret weapon, it was this.
I sprinted for as long as I could. As I slowed down, I fell into a still brisk pace. I couldn’t have guessed how much seeing Merri again would affect me. At one time he had meant so much to me. But after he showed me who he really was, I had realized that I had never known him.
At university, players had joked that the reason I was so good was because I was a robot programmed to throw a football. That implied that I had no heart. I did have a heart, and it broke after the things Merri had said to me.
Exhausted and feeling like my legs were on fire, I eventually stopped. Bent over with my hands on my knees, I struggled for breath. I remembered this feeling. It was how I had felt when the loneliness got too much for me.
When the world felt like it would collapse around me, I ran. Running was the only thing that would help me do my duty. Running quieted my mind enough to be the person I had to be.
Standing as my swirling mind slowed, I looked around. I knew where I was. I was at one of the stopping points on Titus’s tour. In front of me was a pond that connected to the stream that flowed by our office. Further upstream, it connected to a river that began at the mountains. With the lush green trees surrounding it, it was beautiful, peaceful.
Needing to talk to someone, I pulled out my phone and checked for a signal. Finding two bars, I called the only one I knew would answer.
“Claude, what’s up?” Titus said in his usual cheerful voice.
I paused before I spoke. Why had I called him? I had needed to hear his voice? Did I just need to know that I wasn’t alone?
“Yeah, sorry. My phone slipped.”
Titus laughed. “So, what’s up?”
“Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No. I just left class. I’m walking back to my dorm. Is Cali with you?”
“No. I was, ah, I was calling to let you know that I got the keys yesterday. We officially have an office.”
“That’s fantastic! Does it feel like home?” Titus joked.
“It feels like a practical space to work from,” I clarified choosing my words carefully.
Titus laughed. “Of course you’d say that. Well, I’ll be up tomorrow to help you move the equipment in. I’m sure Mama will be happy to have it out of the yard.”
“I’m sure she will.” I paused considering what I would say next. “You know, a funny thing happened when I got there this morning.”
“What? Is it leaking already?”
“Nothing like that,” I said as I turned to walk back to the office. “Someone was there.”
“Yeah? Who? Was it a customer?”
“No. It was someone I knew from university. He was an assistant coach on the football team.”
“Really? How did you know him?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, what do I mean? How did you know him?”
“He was an assistant coach on the football team and I played on the team. Although, I guess I knew him socially as well.”
There was silence on the other side of the phone.
“Wait. Back up for a second there. You were on the football team at university?”
“Yeah,” I said knowing that I had avoided the topic until now. “Haven’t I mentioned it?”
“No you haven’t mentioned it!” Titus replied stunned. “Are you telling me that in all of the time we’ve been working together, you’ve heard me talk about everything going on with my team and you never once thought to mention that you played ball at university?”
“It didn’t come up,” I told him.
“It didn’t come up? Don’t you think that’s one of those things that you bring up?”
“It really wasn’t a big deal. I was hoping to put that time behind me.”
“Rough games, huh?”
“I guess. Anyway, the assistant coach showed up at the office. Apparently he got the address from the website.”
“What did he want?”
“He wanted me to get back involved with football.”
“I’m not sure,” I lied, not wanting to get into it.
“So, he just wants you back in the sport?”
“Seems like it.”
“And how did you know him?”
“He was an assistant coach on the team. And, I guess you can say that we were friends.”
“Friends? Wait a minute, you had friends in university?” Titus joked.
“Yes, I had friends.”
“What type of friend was he? Because guys don’t show up out of nowhere trying to get you back for no reason.”
“I assure you, we were just friends,” I said clearing up any misunderstandings. Both Titus and Cali had boyfriends, so I always felt the need to remind them that I was the straight brother.
“Doesn’t sound like it,” Titus teased.
“That’s all we were. Though…”
I faded off.
“Don’t leave me hanging.”
“He and I were best friends. And there might have been a few times when he gave me the impression that he was attracted to me.”
“Really? And how did you feel about him?”
“He was a friend. That’s how I felt about him.”
“So, this long lost friend, who you haven’t talk to in how long?”
“Since I left school.”
“This long lost friend who might have been into you, and who you haven’t talk to in two years, shows up at your place of work trying to win you back.”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“Are you sure? Because that’s what it sounds like.”
I thought about that for a moment. Titus didn’t have all of the information, but was he wrong? There had been times when Merri and I were hanging out that I had caught him staring at me. It had happened more than once.
Knowing him and the circles he traveled in, I had dismissed it as him being awkward. Merri could definitely be awkward on occasion. But if he had been into me, could his invitation to workout for the team be something else? Was the workout even real?
“I don’t know,” I told Titus honestly.
“Well, I don’t know him. But I know you. And I know that you don’t know the effect you have on people. If there is a long lost best friend who has shown up out of nowhere trying to win you back, I would say, be careful.
“And, do you even want to be involved in football again? It couldn’t have meant that much to you considering this is the first time you’re bringing it up.”
“It had its moments.”
“Be careful. You might not think so, but this sounds like it has more to do with him getting into your pants than him offering you some generic football position. This sounds questionable as hell. I mean, is there really even a job?”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“As a guy who spent most of my life in the closet, I’m telling you I am. Unless you’re looking for your first gay experience, I say pretend it never happened… And I’m not just saying that because you’re my business partner and I couldn’t run the business without you.”
I smiled. “Of course not. Your advice isn’t biased at all.”
“Seriously, though. It sounds like there’s more to the story than you know.”
“Got it. And you’re right. It does seem like there’s more to the story. Maybe I’ll let it go. Thanks, Titus.”
“You’re welcome, Bro. That’s what I’m here for.”
“I’ll see you this weekend.”
Ending the call, I considered what Titus had said. He was right about one thing. There was more to the story. Did Merri have an ulterior motive? I had always known him to be a straight forward guy. One of the things I liked best about him was that I had felt like I could trust him. That is until I couldn’t.
So, did I entertain what Merri was offering? And, what exactly was he offering? When we were at school, I thought that Merri was a friend I would have for the rest of my life. He was the one guy I felt like I could be myself with.
It had been because of him that I had the success on the team that I did. In high school I had always felt the need to keep a low profile. I was the only black kid in the school and on the team. The best thing I could have done was blend in.
But during my freshman year as a walk-on, I was nervous as hell at tryouts. Throwing the ball around trying to shake off the nerves, this smaller, blonde guy with steel-grey eyes walked up to me and asked if I was trying out for quarterback. After I had told him that I played as a wide receiver in high school, he suggested that I switch positions.
I wasn’t about to do that. The quarterback was the focus of the team. Not only had I never before played that position, it would require a lot more attention than I was looking for.
Keeping an eye on him as he wandered around the field, I later noticed him talking to the coach. At one point I saw both of them look at me and when it was my time to line up with the other walk-ons, coach said, “You, what’s your name?”
“Claude Harper, sir.”
“Merrill tells me you have an arm,” he said in front of everyone.
I looked over at the guy who had seemed to be the water boy.
“I’m trying out for receiver. I have a pretty good sprint.”
I had been doing a lot of running by that point. My 40 yard dash times were what I was hoping would get me on the team.
“Well now you’re trying out for quarterback. You have a problem with that?”
“Good. Go warm up.”
I did what I was told and warmed up. I didn’t know much about the team considering division two teams didn’t get national coverage. But what I did know was that they were set as quarterback. Mark Thompson was a senior and was a lock to get the spot.
“I’ll warm you up,” Merrill told me when I headed to the nets.
“Why did you tell him that? I told you I wasn’t trying out for quarterback. Are you making sure I don’t get on the team?”
He looked at me startled.
“No. That’s not it at all. He’s my father. He told me to watch everyone and tell him what I see. I saw that you have a great arm.”
“Yeah, but the team has a quarterback. You probably even have a backup.”
“We have Mark. But he gets injured a lot. And our backup can’t hit the side of a barn. We have fast receivers and a strong offensive line. So, if we could shore up our quarterback position, we have a chance at a division title.”
“But why’d you tell your father to consider me? I told you, I don’t play quarterback.”
“Because you haven’t played it yet doesn’t mean you can’t. I feel like you’re one of those guys that has more going on than you let on. I know something about that.”
“Yeah. You’re the coach’s son pretending to be the water boy.”
“I am the water boy. Papa doesn’t believe in giving me an unfair advantage. I have to start from the bottom like everyone else.”
“Everyone else who has a job waiting for them as soon as they prove themselves?”
“What do you mean?” He asked clueless to how unlike everyone else his position was.
“Well, if you want, I can run and you can hit me on the move.”
“Sure,” I told him sending him long.
After a few passes flew left and right of him, he came back to me.
“I told you I’m a receiver,” I said hoping he would get me transferred back to where I belonged.
“Are you trying?”
“What do you mean if I’m trying? I’m throwing it, aren’t I?”
“You’re throwing it like someone is forcing you to try out for quarterback.”
“Someone is forcing me to try out for quarterback.”
“Okay, fine. But, are you telling me that that’s all you have?”
“That’s what I got.”
“So, you’re saying if your girlfriend’s life was on the line…”
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Then let’s say your mom. If it meant saving your mom’s life, would that be how you threw the ball? You don’t have anything beyond that?”
I looked at him knowing what he was talking about. Yes, I was holding back. I always held back because you never want anyone to know what you’re truly capable of. You want people to underestimate you. It was how my mother taught me to survive as the only black kid in small town Tennessee.
But staring at the guy who looked at me with unusual interest, I remembered that I was no longer in Tennessee. I was at a university in Oregon. A key to survival was being aware of your surroundings and my surroundings had changed. What did that mean for my survival?
“I might have something past that,” I said bringing a smile to Merrill’s face.
“Then, let me see it,” he said jogging down the field.
Centering myself as he ran away, I dug deep and locked in. As soon as he turned and crossed, I let loose everything I had and hit him in the chest. It felt good.
Giving me the ball back, he ran 10 yards further and crossed again. Letting it fly, I hit him in the numbers. No matter how far away he ran, each time I landed the ball exactly where I wanted it. My play had even surprised me. Until then, I was never sure of what I was capable of. I had discovered it thanks to Merrill.
“Call me Merri,” he told me as we returned to his father. “He’s ready, and he’s really good,” Merri said enthusiastically.
“Oh yeah? Let’s see it,” Coach said sending me onto the field.
Sitting at my office desk, I was snapped out of the memory by a notification on my phone.
The text read, ‘Hey Claude, Merri here. This is my number in case you need to get a hold of me. Let’s grab a bite to eat.’
I stared at the message. Why was Merri here? Was there actually a workout? Or was there something else going on like Titus had suggested?
‘Let’s meet tonight. There’s a diner on Main Street. I’ll be there at 7,’ I wrote back.
It wasn’t long before his reply arrived.
‘Excellent! Can’t wait. Thanks.’
My chest clenched reading it. What was it about Merri that got me to do things I didn’t want to do? I didn’t want the spotlight from playing quarterback. But he convinced me and we won three consecutive titles.
I had walked away from football. Yet, here I was… Hell, I didn’t know what I was doing.
All I knew was that I had been happy having Merri out of my life. Well, maybe I wasn’t happy, but I was figuring it out. And now, here I am excited about seeing him again.
I didn’t want to be excited about seeing him. He had said awful things to me. Was I so desperate to connect with someone that I was going to overlook what he did? What he had said?
This wasn’t me at all. I felt like I was slowly losing myself. Clearly Merri still had some type of power over me. And if he could convince me to ignore what happened the last time I saw him, what else could he convince me to do?
I sat in my room still buzzing from seeing Claude again. I had forgotten how good he looked. I mean, he was hard to forget, but somehow he still made my heart thump. Looking at my hands, they were shaking.
No one else has ever had this effect on me. That was why I ran away from my feelings for him back at school. Every day that passed I was losing my grip on the image I had worked a lifetime to maintain.
I was the son of a football coach. All I ever wanted to do was follow in his footsteps. If I were gay, I could never have that. So I thought that if I could fight my feelings for Claude, my dreams would come true.
How had I made such a mess of things? Not able to take my mind off of Claude’s text, when my phone rang, I immediately answered it.
“Hello?” I said hoping to hear his voice.
“So you decided to pick up?” the caller replied.
“Jason?” I asked.
I looked at the caller ID. It read ‘Unknown’.
“Expecting someone else?”
“No, I… I was waiting for a business call.”
“I bet you were,” he said with the venom that had brought me to tears at the end of the last game of the season.
“I’m not cheating on you if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I wasn’t. But it’s good to know where your mind’s at.”
“What is it Jason?” I said not wanting to have this conversation.
“Is that how you’re gonna talk to me? You leave town without telling me and that’s what you’re gonna say?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“How about that you’re sorry? Or that you’re going to stop being such a dick to me.”
“I really don’t have the time for this?”
“And that’s the problem, you never have time for me. During the season you make the excuse that you’re preparing for games…”
“I have to prepare for games!” I insisted.
“Then when the season ends, you take off without a word like I don’t matter to you, even a little?”
“Of course you matter to me.”
“Then why don’t you act like it? Why don’t you ever act like it?”
I knew the answer to that question. It was because there was always a part of me that believed I would end up with Claude. I knew it wasn’t fair to Jason, but I had always had one foot out the door with him. I was never all in.
“Nothin’, huh? Figures,” he said after my long silence.
“What does that mean?”
“That means I don’t think I want to do this anymore.”
“This! Any of this?”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I wanna break up.”
“Okay. Whatever,” I told him not wanting to fight anymore.
“So that’s it, huh?”
“You’re the one who said you wanted to break up.”
I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I heard Jason begin to cry.
“Fine. Bye, Merri.”
“Bye, Jason,” I said ending the call.
Tears rolled down my cheeks before I could do anything to stop them. The reason I hadn’t spoken to Jason before leaving was because I was trying to avoid this. The reason why my tear-stained cheeks had been broadcast nationwide was because the season was over, and I knew that we would eventually get to here.
Jason had been my first gay relationship. I had started dating him when I thought being cute and gay was enough to sustain a partnership. After a year together, I realized that it wasn’t.
We were different people. If we were stereotypes, he would be the sassy, party gay while I was the closet-case. It wasn’t like I was ashamed of him or anything. He was successful and hot. I just wasn’t looking for our families to get together at Christmas.
The truth was that he deserved better than me. Everyone did. I was a lousy boyfriend. I worked all of the time. I didn’t like PDA. And I was hung up on my straight best friend who I hadn’t talked to in two years. Why would anyone want to be with me?
I sniffled and wiped the tears from my face. I had created this situation and now I had to deal with it. I had created everything bad that had happened to me recently, and I was going to have to figure my way out of it.
So although it seemed daunting, there was no better place to start than where it all began, with Claude. Knowing him, he walked away from the team and me and never looked back.
I guess I should just be grateful that he still remembered my name. Claude had a way of blocking out anything that he didn’t like. And for the past two years, I was sure that he didn’t like me.
Feeling my phone buzz, I looked at it expecting it to be Jason again. It wasn’t. It was a text from Papa.
‘Make any progress with Claude?’
I had been honest with Claude when I told him that both Papa and I wanted him back. Sure, we each had our own reasons, but the desire was real.
If I wanted to figure my way out of the mess I was in with Claude, I was going to have to start with a few truths. Because on top of being gorgeous and a super athlete, he was also one of the smartest guys I knew.
He had to know that I wouldn’t have shown up out of the blue like I had just to offer him a workout. And if I was going to go from closeted-gay to well-adjusted gay, I had a lot of work to do. That work was going to start with Claude.
Crap – why was my life always such a drama? I guess I really was a stereotype. But that ended tonight.
Having arrived at the diner early, I sat at a booth that faced the wall of glass and the door. Having seen the car he had driven away in, I knew what I was looking for. When it arrived, I felt a tightness in my chest and a lump in my throat.
I didn’t know why I felt like this, but I did. I would like to say that it was because of the inevitable confrontation we would have. But I knew that feeling. It would have felt like stress. I was feeling something else. Something I hadn’t felt in a while.
Waving to him when he turned my way, he smiled and came over. He looked way too happy to be here. Maybe Titus was right. Maybe this conversation was going in a direction I didn’t foresee. How did I feel about that?
“You’re here,” he said looking down at me from the other side of the table.
“I said I would be.”
“You did. And, you always do what you say you’re gonna do.”
Nodding with a grin on his face, Merri stared at me awkwardly.
“Are you going to sit?”
“Yeah, of course,” he said sliding beside me and again being awkward. “Hey, do you remember that pizza joint we used to go to?”
“That’s right, Palermo’s. We couldn’t get enough of it.”
“I remember. When you folded the slice, grease pooled on the cheese.”
“And it wasn’t just a little, either. You could fry a whole other pizza with it,” he said with a laugh.
“Yeah,” I said resisting his trip down memory lane. “So, is that why you suggested this, so we could talk about pizza?”
“No. No, that is definitely not why I asked you here.”
“What can I get for you two?” The big bellied cook asked us.
“A burger for me, Mike.”
“And for you?”
Merri retrieved the menu from its holder in the center of the table and quickly scanned it.
“You know what? I’ll just have whatever he’s having.”
“Two burgers medium, coming up,” Mike said, not writing it down.
“You know him?” Merri asked me.
“It’s a small town. Everyone knows everyone.”
“What’s that like? Where I grew up there were just over 10,000 people. That’s not a lot compared to almost anywhere else, but you can go a lifetime without meeting everyone.”
“Yeah, it’s a little different here. My high school had 100 students and it was the only one for 40 miles.”
“So you met everyone your age on the first day of kindergarten?”
“That’s wild. So, everyone knows your business?”
“It’s not much they don’t know.”
“How does that work with dating?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do all of you, like, have to take turns dating the same people?”
Against my better judgement, I laughed.
“No, there is no dating requirement here.”
“But there can’t be a lot of options.”
“Yes, options are limited.”
“So, what do you do about that?”