Okay, so, just do it. He's right there and you already know he's out so there really shouldn't be any nerves or embarrassment about this. Inhale. One foot in front of the other, nice and casual...exhale! Exhale before you turn blue! Okay, better. Not great, little dizzy, but better. You both play football, common interest so you already have that covered. Take the helmet off...chin strap first, moron! Okay, he's talking so just wait, be cool. Let him finish his captain thing up, whatever wisdom he's passing on...how does he do it? All these guys are paying attention like he really knows his shit and being gay doesn't matter...wait they are laughing, he must have been joking.
Okay, there they go. Okay, deep breath, just kinda reach out and get his attention.
“Captain? Um, Captain...Kutsenko?”
He turned. This was the guy; I mean THE guy. Brought the football team out of the dark ages and actually made a difference playing too. But his contributions on the field were nothing compared to the changes he'd made off the field. Changing perceptions, minds...making people really think. He smiled at me, and it was a really nice smile too.
I blinked. “What?”
“No,” he waved a hand at me in dismissal, “I will not give you a blow job.”
“I,” my mouth flopped open and closed as I struggled with a shift in gears I simply never anticipated. “I'm not asking...I mean I wasn't going to...I just...do people actually just walk up and ask you that?”
“No, never.” He burst out laughing and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I'm kind of disappointed, you'd think someone would have by now, right? So what's up? You're not on my squad?”
“Uh, oh, ah no I'm not.”
“Problem? Who's your Cap?”
“No, no problem with my Captain...uh, Captain Kutsenko.”
“Whoa,” he held up a hand, “It's Alec. Captain Kutsenko was...no, wait, was he ever in the military?” he put a hand to his chin and appeared to slip into thought.
“I need some advice.” I blurted.
His eyebrow went up as his gaze returned to my face. “I need some advice...?”
Pause. Pregnant was not the word. What was I supposed to say? “I need some advice, Cap...” No, wrong, eyebrow went higher. “Uh, Alec.” Smile.
“Advice huh? Not sure what I can do for you there.” Alec let his helmet dangle from the guard, leaning to one side. Steps approached, crunching on the crushed gravel of the walkway from the field to the locker room. Arms appeared around his waist and a face on his shoulder, framed by longish hair. Quick kiss, chaste, on the cheek. I reddened.
“In fact, I bet you could benefit a whole lot more from this smart guy right here.” Alec turned his face towards the newcomer, “He'd like advice.”
“From you?” Newcomers eyebrows shot up.
“Yeah, I know, I was shocked too.” Alec smiled, “I figured you could help though.” Alec started to step away but the arms around his middle held fast.
“I don't think so, Smart Alec.”
“Come on, we just agreed it was a bad idea!” Alec laughed.
“No, I just registered surprise. It depends on what he wants advice about,” and now the newcomers eyes settled on me. It was easy to see the attraction, even if he was a few years ahead of me. In fact the two of them together was so weird and yet I wanted it so badly for myself.
“He hasn't told me yet. I thought he wanted a blow job.” Alec smirked. Newcomer slapped him on the arm.
“You think everyone wants a blow job from you.”
“Well,” Alec began with a wide smile.
“Go! Go shower and come right back,” and in a lower voice, “You are in so much trouble, Alec.”
“Spank me later?” Alec smirked and trotted off to the locker room. Newcomer put his hand out and I reached reflexively, if slower than I would have normally. Sasha Buchanan was near the opposite of Alec – not athletic in terms of school sports and yet he managed to stay fit. His thick hair was somewhat long, but didn't hang down and block the sides of his face or his eyes. He had an easy confidence, a total contrast to Alec.
Alec Kutsenko would never be guessed as a football player. I'd heard plenty of adults say how the secret to Alec's on field success was his head and the fact that he used it. It was much easier to over-balance a big guy carrying the ball than it was to outright tackle him, and Alec wasn't exactly a bruiser. In fact if you saw him, you'd think swimmer or maybe soccer player. Last year the whispers of the locker room justice had been all anyone could talk about. Alec being gay and not quitting was the whole reason I decided to come out for football this year; 8th grade still meant freshman football, but I was on the team dammit!
Alec's lithe frame matched well with Sasha's as they were close in height and even in build somewhat though it was easier to see a difference with Alec playing football that his body was a bit...harder than his boyfriends.
“So, what's this about?” Sasha asked with a smile.
“Uh. I.” I was so totally not prepared for this. Alec yes, I'd been psyching myself up for Alec and maybe some of his famous smart ass responses. But this? This was not in the script.
“Listen...” Sasha left it hanging and, I realized, he didn't know what to call me. I could walk away now, he doesn't know who I am and probably would let this drop.
“Zap,” I gasped. Swallow, breathe, now speak. “Sal Zappala; everyone calls me Zap.”
“Sal is short for?” Sasha smiled and began to lead me to the bleachers.
“Salvatore,” I said quietly.
“A nice Italian name,” he smiled and sat down. “So tell me Zap, what's on your mind?”
He patted the bleachers and I slowly, uncertainly, took a seat a discrete few feet away from him. I was unbelievably nervous and I'd been thinking about this for at least half the summer; I can't imagine anyone trying to seek advice like I was on the spur of the moment; and I thought I was ready!
“I – I mean...” I began to stand, my more chicken side coming to the front when Sasha turned away and glanced out at the sports fields.
“You know I never liked football,” he smiled and turned his face towards me in profile. “It's true. My brother played and I did my best, I really tried. Don't you think it's kind of a cruel twist of fate that my boyfriend is a football player?”
“I like football,” I replied dumbly.
“I hope so, or is your dad making you play to learn respect?” Sasha laughed, “That's why Alec played last year you know. His dad made him.”
“He did?” I asked, curious in spite of my discomfort.
“Yeah. Bobby taught him respect though, by giving it to him when he earned it. Respect is a funny thing that way. You have to give it to get it.”
“Doesn't seem right to make someone play, though.” I said quietly, unsure if I was allowed to have this opinion.
“Oh, I pretty much agree. But it had some pretty good side effects.” Sasha fully turned his face and smiled and I relaxed. What was I afraid of? Sasha was his boyfriend, he'd understand!
“Yeah, I guess things worked out, huh?”
“Touch and go for a bit, but yes, in the end it was a very good thing.” He held a hand up, “Just don't tell Alec I said so, I'd never hear the end of it.”
I smiled reflexively, calmed by Sasha's demeanor. I glanced out at the torn up grass of the fields, the very same we practiced on to get ready for the weekly contests. Mine would be on Thursdays, the Varsity on Friday night. I'd watched Alec play last year and felt the inspiration as he made things happen, as people commented positively on him. I don't know if that could be me, but maybe.
“Zap? Did you want to talk about something?” Sasha asked.
“Yeah,” I put my head down, exhaled another breath I hadn't been aware of holding, and met his eyes. “I'm gay.”
“Really? I thought you were Zap.” Sasha said with a warm smile.
“Little of both I guess,” I grinned.
“Well, since you've got that part figured out...”
“Yeah, the advice part.” I sighed and broke eye contact for a moment and when I spoke I was dismayed to find that I was talking to the bleachers in between my feet. “There's this guy. I like him, or at least I think I'd like him but...”
“Don't know if he likes you?” Sasha offered.
“Well, sort of.” I brought my eyes back up, heart pounding. Remember to breathe, idiot. “I mean, I know he likes me okay? But I don't know if it's in the way I like him, you know?”
“Ah, yes, I see. Tell me about this guy?” Sasha leaned back against the riser behind him and I took a steadying breath.
“His name's Travis. Travis Armstrong. He, uh,” I licked my lips and looked away briefly before making eye contact again. “I've known him for a few years. We're not, like, besties or anything but we've talked. Hung out a little, mostly as part of a group, you know?”
“Birthday parties, group movies, stuff like that?” Sasha asked.
“Yeah, exactly. Not much one on one time, but we've talked a little. He's kind of...I don't know the word, he remembers stuff about people?” I held my hands out for help.
“Has a good memory?” Sasha chuckled, “I'm not sure what you mean.”
“We remembers things, little things. Like he remembers what people's favorite colors are and what their brothers and sisters names are. It's like he really pays attention to your conversation and he can almost always bring it up again – like if I said to him I was going to the movies with my parents, when I saw him next he'd remember that and ask me what I saw and if I liked it.”
“Ah, I think you mean he's conscientious. Courteous too, sounds like.”
“Yeah,” I replied miserably, “He's really nice.”
“Why do you make it sound like a bad thing?” Sasha smiled at me. I looked away.
“Because he's like that with everyone.” I glanced down and knotted my hands in frustration, “I don't know if he likes me because he seems to act like this with everybody.”
“Oh, I see.” Sasha nodded. “So is that what you like about Travis?”
“Partly, yeah,” I nodded.
“Maybe he'd like that quality in someone else, too. Someone who was willing to listen to what he found interesting.” Sasha mused.
“Uh...I never thought of that. Kind of feel dumb, now.” I sighed.
“Is he hot too? Kind of helps the whole package along?” Sasha grinned at me and I blushed some. Okay maybe a lot.
“Well, he is pretty good looking, yeah. ” I allowed.
“So what kind of advice are you after, Zap?”
“Well...see Travis and I are kind of opposites and so are you and Alec so...I was wondering how you guys managed to, I dunno, find each other?”
“Hm,” Sasha leaned his head back and consulted the clouds. “Not sure if our story would really help you. We're kind of unique, but then I guess we all are, in a way.”
“I mean...hell, I don't know what I mean.”
“Oh no,” Alec groaned as he mounted the bleachers. I started, not having heard him approach. “Sasha! Bad boyfriend! I thought you'd have this guys problems all sorted out by now so we could get back to my problems!”
“You're problems, lover-boy, are endless. They will never be solved.” Sasha grinned back and they engaged in a kiss. I mean on the lips, right there in front of me.
“So, what's the delay?” Alec asked as he plopped down behind Sasha.
“Well, I think what Zap is trying to ask me is how to try and get together with this guy he likes, or at least find out if he likes him the same way.” Sasha raised an eyebrow at me while Alec slid down so that Sasha was between his legs and draped his arms around Sasha from behind.
“Yeah,” I nodded as I tried to focus on my issue before they made out or something because that would be seriously distracting...oh my god he's nibbling his ear!
“You! Stop it,” Sasha smiled indulgently at Alec as he gently pushed him back. “Incorrigible.”
“Corridge me, baby.”
“So I was, um, wondering how you guys...you know...if how you guys got together could help me...somehow.”
“I don't know, Zap,” Sasha frowned, “What do you think?”
“Sure, they just need something to unite against, bring 'em closer. Then they can find out what's what.” Alec snapped at Sasha's earlobe again and was met with giggles and a hand pushing him back.
“I don't get it.” I replied, trying to stay on subject. Alec was fresh scrubbed though, hair was even still wet and he was...oh, looking at me now.
“It's like this. First time Sasha smiled at me I was totally hooked. Unless he was straight I was going to do everything I could to get to know him and see if he was as nice inside as he was when he smiled.” Sasha blushed but his smile was completely genuine. I had the idea he'd heard this before but its retelling still brought happiness.
“I don't know what I could do that wouldn't be totally obvious!” I whined. “I mean, we're not on the same team, we only have a couple classes together plus lunch – if I call him up, like, to go to the movies and only we were there he'd know, right?”
“What team does he play for?” Sasha asked.
“That's what we're trying to figure out, beautiful.” Alec chuckled. Sasha smacked his leg.
“Track,” I replied.
“Hmm,” Alec looked up to the clouds and went still for a moment. “They usually run around the whole group of fields, right?”
“Where we practice? Yeah.” I nodded.
“Could you, like, point him out?” Alec asked.
“Duh.” I snorted.
“Okay, I have an idea.”
“What idea is in your twisted little head?” Sasha asked as he turned to face Alec.
“Little?” He leaned in and whispered in Sasha's ear and, while Sasha colored Alec nibbled again.
“Uh.” I shifted.
“Tomorrow, find me at practice. Who's your Captain?” Alec asked while Sasha playfully pushed him back again.
“Uh, MacPherson. Captain is MacPherson.”
“K. Tomorrow then, hit the showers.”
I stood uncertainly and walked towards the locker room. Seized by concern for whatever Alec might have in mind I turned to walk back but stopped dead in my tracks; Alec had pulled Sasha's head back and was engaged in a vigorous kiss that was...wow, I needed a cold shower. I turned quickly, feeling as though I were spying and headed in. All I could do was hope Alec wouldn't embarrass me too much.
I had a hard time falling asleep that night, nerves I guess. I was definitely nervous. What had I been thinking? Alec's reputation as a smart ass was the only thing that rivaled his football accomplishments. I mean – seeing him with Sasha comforted me, even though I was kind of shocked, even turned on by watching them. There is a huge difference, I found, between online porn and actually seeing someone kiss live and up close. There was a level of reality that HD just didn't quite get. Alec and Sasha weren't mechanical, they weren't forced – they were real. That, more than anything, made me realize that whatever little games they were playing in front of me – or that Alec was playing – he understood; he got what I was trying to say.
Travis was only in a few of my classes and I said hello to him each time, with a smile. He grinned back and waved each time, usually with a 'Hi, Zap' to go with it. His brown hair had grown light at the crown of his head, something my dad called summer blond, and his tanned skin made his blue eyes stand out more than normal. At lunch I ended up at the end of the table with him just to my right.
“Hey Zap,” He smiled as I sat down and he waited just long enough for me to respond before returning his attention to the conversation at the table.
“I can't believe you even watch that crap,” one said.
“It's not me, it's my parents!”
“So like, leave the room?”
“It was just funny, I happened to be going by, jeez!”
“Um, what are they talking about?” I asked Travis. He turned his face to me and shrugged.
“I think someone was watching a reality show or something, I missed the first part.” He took a chip from his bag, Frito's, and offered me one. I took one, thanking him.
“How's football going?” he asked.
“So far so good. I didn't know you knew I was playing,” I replied.
“Pretty sure you were talking about it over the summer. Maybe at Tim Gershon's birthday?” His brow furrowed as he thought. I was waiting for his brain to come up with the information when it occurred to me I could ask about him too, like Sasha suggested.
His eyes opened a bit wider before settling back to normal. Was it surprise that I took an interest or thought to ask? Was I normally so self absorbed that it was worth being surprised about?
“Pretty good, actually.” He appeared to slip into thought again, “Did I tell you I was running track?”
“Uh,” Shit. If I say I saw him running does that mean anything? Should I lie and say he told me at Tim's? No, instinctively, I didn't want to lie to him. “I saw you running. You know, sometimes coach has us take a knee, breath for a minute? I saw you guys running.”
“Of course, you guys are right there when we start and finish!” He made a face indicating how dumb he felt. “It's going pretty good though, coach wants me to try for the 100 meter and 200 meter events.”
“What position would you play there?” I asked while unwrapping my sandwich.
“No positions in track,” he smiled, “At least not unless you are in a relay. This is just running against other people so first is the only position that counts, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” I chuckled uneasily. “I guess I don't know squat about track.”
“So are you on offense or defense?” he asked while opening his lunch container – it looked like he had leftovers for lunch.
“Offense. I kind of suck at tackling but the coach thinks I can catch once in a while.” I glanced away for a second, a little embarrassed but I plunged on anyway. “Actually I kind of don't catch that well either. I think they are just putting me at wide receiver because I can follow a route so that means I can get in the way of the other team, basically.”
“That's still important, though,” He said between bites. “I mean, running backs can't do their job unless blockers do theirs, right? That whole team sport thing?”
“Yeah, I guess you're right when you put it like that.” I shrugged. “I only block cause I'm not good at anything else though.”
“No future in the NFL, huh? Well, join most of the world,” he grinned and pulled a fruit drink from his bag.
“Yeah, I'm so bad I should learn to be a ref,” I chuckled. This was great, I realized. Travis and I were having a real conversation – and all it took was doing more than just talking to him, it was listening too.
“Yeah? Your eyesight that bad?” he smiled.
“Eh.” I shrugged. “That ring new?” I pointed to his right hand ring finger where a thick silver band rested.
“Yeah, like it?” He asked while holding his hand out. I was sorely tempted to take his hand, like I was holding it in place to inspect the ring but didn't trust myself. Instead I leaned in a bit and looked at the ring and his hand. The skin of his hand was tanned like the rest of him and smooth with fine brown hairs dotting the surface. His nails were neatly trimmed and clean and his skin tone only served to make the ring stand out against it. The silver was etched on the outside band with nautical symbols like anchors and seashells and was dinged up as if it had been around for a long time.
“That's pretty cool. You like the ocean and stuff?”
“Never been, but I'd like to.” He said as he withdrew his hand.
“Where did you get it?”
“My grandfather. He passed away last December; it was his.” He said quietly and filled his mouth with food. I did the same, feeling embarrassed.
“I'm sorry, I didn't know.” I said gesturing with my chin to his ring.
“I know, it's not your fault. I was kind of close with him; still miss him sometimes.” He shrugged.
“Was he a sailor or something?”
“He was in the merchant marine is what my dad said, I'm not sure what that is though.”
I felt pretty good after lunch. Our conversation was just that – ours. I don't think anyone really tried to take Travis's attention away from me and we held a conversation the whole time. I was actually kind of sad to see lunch end because this time talking to Travis had been different – I'd listened to him rather than just answer a few questions. Before Travis would always carry the conversation by asking me politely about this or that and then it would die; because I didn't know how to talk to him. I wished I'd talked to Sasha a lot sooner so I'd have gotten this conversational idea down. Who knows what I'd find out about Travis over lunch now?
Once my last class was done I got down to the locker room and quickly changed. I was hoping to get to see Travis briefly before either of us started our practices, but it wasn't to be. First Alec collared me and had me point Travis out to him, then MacPhereson was waiting for our unit and started us in right away on the warm up exercises. I'll give him some credit though, he was doing the exercises with us; in fact the role of captain was to lead by example. In that respect I could really feel bad for Cap sometimes, he never seemed to let up on himself or us. The track team started off around the fields and I, just for a moment, saw Travis in the group – dark green mesh shorts and low ankle socks that contrasted so nicely with his tanned legs and torso that my mouth went dry. His necklace stood out, white against the tan and a sweatband on one wrist. Then he was lost in the crowd and our team was moving again.
Coach had us running drills, and then lining up against one another. At some point I became aware that the defense seemed to have someone new exhorting them to move faster and anticipate. As we lined up I realized that Captain Kutsenko – Alec – was the newcomer. What the hell was he doing? The play was called and in a rare instance my number was up. The ball was thrown to me and, as usual, I dropped it.
“Scared?” Kutsenko yelled at me. “See that D? You got the offense running scared, he can't even catch!” The defensive guys chuckled and MacPherson glowered at me. I felt like crap; what was Alec trying to do? The next two plays I concentrated on being where I was supposed to be, making my blocks and in general not screwing up. Unbelievably they called my number again and, on cue, I dropped the ball.
“Holy crap Zap! What the hell is wrong with you? Catch the damned ball!” MacPherson yelled. I cringed as Kutsenko rallied up the defense for a new effort and the offense was grumbling and getting demoralized. Kutsenko walked away from the defensive huddle leaving their normal freshman captain in charge. Stepping into our huddle he got a lot of guarded looks, some even hostile, but no one dared say anything – he was varsity and a captain, even if he was defense.
“Okay look, I helped those guys out but their heads are getting fat now so they need to come down a peg. Let me show you why the defense is so fragile, why they have to work so hard to stop you guys.” he held his palms out, “Look, anyone can score on these guys.”
“Not if you can't catch the ball,” I muttered.
“Anyone,” Kutsenko glared at me, “Can catch the ball. Watch.” He trotted over to the track team, who was now in cool downs and tapped Travis on the shoulder, beckoning him over. What the hell was he doing? They trotted back and Alec put a hand around Travis's shoulders.
“This guy isn't even on the football team, let me use him to show you how it's done. Mac, who is your worst receiver?” Alec asked. He knew who the worst one was! Why was he asking? Mac pointed at me and my heart sank; why were they doing this in front of Travis? For his part Travis's face creased, a frown dominating his features.
“Okay, Zap is it? Give me your helmet.” Alec demanded. Right then I hated him, I hated him so much! I was mortified and had to hold myself together as I handed over my helmet. He pulled a fresh mouth guard from a pouch on his hip and snapped it onto the face guard and handed my helmet to Travis.
“I don't think I want to do this,” Travis held up a hand. “This isn't right.”
“What's not right is Zap can't catch. I've tried to teach him, maybe if he watches you he'll learn.” Mac stepped up and glared at me. “He learns or he's riding pine.”
I wanted to wail about how unfair this was! I just couldn't catch! Travis gave me a sorrowful look and I nodded at him; I understood how he felt. He had to try or I was done anyway. He put the helmet on and Mac told me to lay out my route for Travis; the rest of the team broke to set up for the next play.
“I had no idea he was going to do this, Zap, seriously.” Travis said as soon as we were out of earshot.
“I know. What can I do though? Listen, when they call my number in the huddle, here's where you go.” I laid out everything I could and Travis gave me a nod and joined the offense on the next play. They didn't call my number and Travis just kind of wandered, getting in the way in the confusion. Kutsenko wandered over as they set up for the next play.
“Hate me yet?”
“Yes, Captain Kutsenko.” I replied coldly.
“Aww, come on Zap. It'll all work out in a sec.” He replied while slapping me on the back.
“Don't see how that is, Cap.” I kept my voice as frosty as I dared.
“Simple. He does like you, not sure if it's how you want, but he does like you.” He laughed at the shocked expression on my face. “Right about now he hates me as much as you do, for putting you on the spot and calling you out. Reality is, we drop balls all the time – but I know why you drop the ones that get tossed to you. At least I think I do. Plus,” he turned back to the field, “ I think your buddy is going to prove my hypothesis.”
The play broke from the line and Travis glided through the route I'd laid out for him – standing out doubly so since he was the only player with no shirt or padding of any kind – and caught the damn ball. Immediately the play was whistled dead, before anyone could get the idea to lay Travis out. Kutsenko grabbed my jersey and dragged me over towards the huddle and, as he did, he threw an arm around Travis's shoulders – making me insanely jealous as well as pissed off – and guided him over to me.
“Your hands are the problem.” He said authoritatively.
“No shit? And all this time I thought it was my feet!” I snapped.
“Nope, see? This is why you need me.” He turned to Travis who had pulled the helmet off his head. Alec unsnapped the mouthpiece Travis had used and began to put mine back into place. “Travis can I borrow your wristband there? I know, it's kind of gross, but trust me.”
Travis uncertainly slipped the light blue and black checkered band off his wrist and handed it to Alec, who promptly slid it on my wrist and pushed my helmet on my head. Dragging me towards the huddle he began speaking so just the two of us could hear.
“I think your problem is your hands are wet. The other receivers, in fact almost all, have sweatbands to stop their palms from becoming slick or they have wicking gloves. I think that's why you're dropping the ball.”
“Why didn't you just tell me to get a sweatband then?” I snarled quietly. “What's with making me look like a loser in front of Travis?”
“Simple, he hates me now too. You guys are united against a common enemy,” Alec grinned broadly. “Plus you have his sweat soaked band on your wrist which is kinda weird and kinda kinky all at once. Now, don't drop the ball this time, you know he's watching you.” So saying he swatted me on the ass – hard – and sent me back into the huddle.
“Welcome back, Zap. We're going no huddle, back to back plays. First will be running then I want a 44 right. Break!” Mac snapped out to us and we took our places on the line. At the snap we moved to create gaps for the running back which was really about being where you were supposed to be to block the other team. We then went no huddle like Mac wanted, just lining up for the 44 right, my number.
The defense went into disarray as they hurried to match up and I wiped my hands on my pants quickly. I glanced at Travis who was watching with concern from the sidelines next to a grinning Captain Kutsenko who was giving me a thumbs up. The ball was snapped and I charged between the defenders and cut across the middle of the field where the ball was waiting for me and, magically, I caught it. The play was whistled dead and the offense gave me a little cheer, a couple of slaps on the back and it was time for a new play.
By the end of practice the track team was gone, even the varsity had gone to the showers. The rest of the practice had been a solid one for me. I have no idea if the sweat was a real factor or not but having Travis's band on my wrist seemed to make me hyper aware – in fact I had it in the back of my head that he was watching me every play. I kept glancing down at the wristband and it would give me a strange twitch in my stomach – knowing I was wearing something of his.
I showered quickly and as I headed for the door a hand landed on my shoulder. I glanced up, broken from my self examination, and into Alec's face. It was furrowed with concern and as I opened my mouth to question him he pointed to the bleachers. I looked out the window in annoyance to see Sasha sitting with Travis. What the hell was going on here? I began to grow nervous that Sasha had told Travis I was interested in him, what would I do then? Would he do that? I glanced back at Alec.
“You think Travis is trying to steal Sasha away from me?” he said in a solemn tone.
“Are you freaking nuts?” I growled.
“Yeah, mostly,” Alec grinned and threw an arm over my shoulders while pushing the doors open and propelling me towards the bleachers. “Honey, I had a hard day at work.”
Sasha looked up and rolled his eyes at Alec and Travis seemed relieved to see us. Me? I glanced at Sasha suspiciously but his face gave no indication with respect to my fears. Alec grabbed him and planted a kiss on his lips before taking his hand. “Want to go grab a burger or something? I'm starved.”
“Sure,” Sasha smiled at us, “It was nice to meet you Travis. Bye Zap.” He waved and Alec fixed me with a look.
“Good job, 44. I think you'll do fine.” So saying they wandered off hand in hand.
“He's a pretty nice guy,” Travis said as he stood from the bleachers. “I gotta get walking home, leaving?”
“Yeah,” I said while watching them go. “He is.”
“So what was with that Alec guy yanking me in to play football?” Travis smiled. I tried to return it as we settled into walking home.
“I guess he thought I needed a sweat band. He claims that's my problem, anyway.”
“Why did he have to get me involved then?”
“I really have no idea how his mind works,” I said truthfully. “He's a very strange guy.”
“His boyfriend is nice, Sasha he said his name was. Super nice guy, intelligent too.”
“What did you talk about?”
We moved through the turnstile at the end of the field that was supposed to be there to stop people from bringing bikes in – not that it worked. Once through we settled in side by side again.
“He was talking about the practice – get this, he hates football!” Travis shook his head, “I always thought guys who kinda made their girlfriends come to watch them play were like cavemen. Sasha says it's probably some primal form of showing off for a potential mate.”
My eyes widened but I kept facing forward. Was that what I had been doing? Is that why I played so much better, was so much more focused? Or was it just the embarrassment? I stumbled over the curb and Travis caught my elbow until I steadied and then let me go.
“Kind if weird though, that Alec guy? He knew my name. He picked me out from the track squad and he also said it in the huddle. That's kind of weird.” Travis opined.
“Yeah, pretty strange.” I racked my brain trying to find something that would move us to safer ground, something that would let Travis talk and me be a listener. “How was practice?”
“Same old. My time wasn't any better than yesterday, 'course everyone one is teasing me now – asking if I'm going to defect to the football team.”
“Well, you can catch better than I can,” I sighed.
“You did fine after. I don't know why you worry so much, it's just high school football.” Travis shrugged, “Not that much longer and none of this matters, really.”
“I guess.” I muttered. I was kicking myself mentally. This was my chance! I was blowing it by trying to dance around what Alec had been up to. Maybe it would just be best if I come clean.
“Careful, dog crap,” Travis pulled me into the road as we skirted the mess on the sidewalk. I glanced at Travis, his pretty features and glowing skin – and decided it was time.
“So, about Alec?” I started.
“Yeah, kind of a jerk. I mean, no one deserves what happened last year but, he was kind of mean to you.”
"Yeah, see the thing is, he was trying to help me.”
“Didn't seem like it,” Travis snorted, “He could have just suggested a damn sweatband. Oh, when you wash that can I have it back?”
“Yeah, sure thing. But listen...” I stopped and Travis took a few more steps before coming to a stop as well and turning to face me with an expression of curiosity.
“See with Alec,” I sighed, “What he did was the dumbest thing in the world, I mean I have no idea why he ever thought it was a good idea.”
“Okay wait, you went from defending him to criticizing him.?” Travis held a hand out in question.
“Yeah. No – I mean, yes I am but.” I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “He was trying to make you hate him.”
“That's dumb. I thought he was being a dick but I didn't hate him. Plus why would he want me to hate him?”
“He was trying to ...” I sighed, “Give us a common enemy. You and me. To make us closer.” Jesus this was painful.
“Why would he do that?” Travis took a step closer to me. “Zap?”
“Travis,” I hated the tremble in my voice, god I did. But I met his gaze, “I made the mistake of asking him for advice. Instead of giving me advice, like Sasha did, he decided to pull this...bullshit.”
“Okay, still not understanding though. Zap,” he took another step. “Are you crying?”
“Not yet,” I said as I wiped my eyes which were indeed heavy with embarrassment. “I asked him how I could tell if someone liked me...another guy.”
Travis cocked his head to one side. “Guy? You're gay?”
I nodded, wiping my eyes again which seemed to not be able to stop.
“Okay, but why is that...oh.” He put a hand on my shoulder and I looked away. “Am I that guy, Zap?” He asked softly. I merely nodded, unable to look at him but it wouldn't have mattered as tears completely clouded my vision.
“Oh jeez, Zap. I'm sorry, I had no idea.” Travis's hand moved to my back and he stood beside me. “I wish I'd have known though I still have no idea what Alec thought he was doing.”
“I'm not sure he knows,” I sighed through my hitching breath. “I just...I wanted...”
“Yeah.” Travis said softly. His arm moved to my shoulders and he started me moving again, slowly up the sidewalk. “So wow, I've never been someone's secret crush before.”
“So...you're not mad? Or weirded out?” I asked. I barely heard my own voice and it sounded like a strangers to my own ears.
“No, not at all. I mean, sure I wasn't expecting it but...” He shrugged. “I guess it explains why you were so different at lunch today.”
“What do you mean?” I knew I was stalling. He probably did too, but I was putting off what he wasn't telling me yet, that he was politely saying he wasn't interested.
“Well, I don't mean to sound like a jerk but...you have never,” he giggled a little, “Ever asked about what I was doing. So when you asked about track I was kind of like, who are you?”
“Great, so I am really self centered and shallow,” I groaned.
“Well, maybe we can just say you weren't a great conversationalist. I guess only you can decide if you didn't care what someone else was doing.”
“I always wanted to know more, I was just afraid if I started asking...I'd never stop. And you'd know.”
“Well, it's not the end of the world, you know, having a crush.” I felt him shrug and pat my back before letting his arm drop. “I liked you a lot more when it seemed like you cared what I was doing. You were never a bad guy, Zap, just kind of...distant. I guess that makes some sense now.”
“How are you so together? Like, this is just no big deal to you?” I glanced at him and his tan deepened slightly.
“It's only a big deal if you make it one, really. I'm flattered, actually – no one's ever said something like that to me. I never really thought of myself as, what, intimidating?”
“I never said you were.”
“No, I know. I mean – how can I put this?” He sighed, “I always figured if someone liked me that I was approachable enough for someone to just say so. Maybe that was dumb, after all who just says so?”
“I guess I just did,” I replied.
“Yeah,” he bubbled with laughter, “After getting your football captain and his boyfriend involved!”
“Okay, so maybe not the brightest idea...”
“I'm willing to blame it on Alec if you are?”
“Deal,” I smiled. “But...what about the rest of it?”
He frowned and looked away. “Look, Zap, I don't know you that well really. You took a big risk doing what you did, I get that.” He shrugged and met my gaze, “But I barely know you. To be fair, you really don't know me.”
“But I know you well enough to know I like you.” I replied.
“Oh really? What do you think you know about me?”
“Well, look, this is embarrassing but I like the way you look,” I started as I held a finger out to tick off the things I liked about him.
“Yeah, see, that's the shallow part talking.”
“What?” He stopped and this time I had to turn around to face him.
“Look, it's easy to fall for a nice package or whatever, but I've never really been like that. I like people; I like them from the inside out not the other way around. If I was going to consider dating anyone it'd be because I like who they are, first.” He shrugged, “You just like my outside.”
“Okay, wait, let me finish,” I replied with a little fire in my voice. “Sasha asked me yesterday what I liked about you and before I said anything else I told him how you always pay attention.”
“What are you talking about, Zap?”
“Like when we were talking at lunch, you remembered I told you about trying out for football and asked about it. You pay attention to people, make 'em feel like you care and are listening to them.”
“Okay, but still...”
“Look.” I put a hand to my face and glanced up at the sky for a minute to gather myself. “Here's the thing,” I said as I dropped my gaze to meet his. “I know enough about you to like you and to want to know you better. I just wanted to find out if there was a chance you might want to know me better too.”
“Why didn't you just say that? Why go get your Captain to do...whatever the heck that was?” He held up his hand to forestall me, “Wait, I know that's a circular argument. Look,” he took a breath, “I never really thought about you as more than a casual friend. I don't really care that your a guy either. I know you look nice and I'm flattered, like I said, that you're interested in me.”
“But? That's what's coming next, right?” I said while putting my eyes back to the ground.
“Well, yeah there's a but!” He blurted out. “I don't mind getting to know you better, but I'm not saying there is going to be anything beyond the friendship we have now.”
I looked up. “But are you willing to try for a better...relationship?”
“Of course I am,” he sighed. “And I'm not so worried about the...” he waved his hand at me, “Packaging as I am the person inside. I'm willing to try and get to know you better but that's the part that interested me most – who you are.”
“What?” he asked suspiciously.
“Maybe, once we get to know each other, you could...like me?”
“Maybe.” He allowed. I smiled. More than that, I smiled from the inside out.
The rest of the walk home I peppered him with questions, allowing myself to find out who Travis was and what made him tick like I could never have allowed myself to do before. After all, he knows now, so there is no reason to not ask; no reason to be guarded. He usually had a counter-question like if I asked him about his grandfather, since he'd mentioned him at lunch, he'd ask about my grandparents in general. So we swapped some information, but in the back of my mind I knew this wasn't what he was talking about.
Sure, I knew a lot more about him and his family. I knew his grandpa was really important to him and that they'd had a special bond and that Travis really missed him. None of it went to the core of my goal, though, which was to show him that I was a good person – more, I needed to show myself I was a good person. Someone worthy of getting to know and more than anything I wanted Travis to want to know me. So I tried to block out how attractive he was on the outside, which was really hard, and try to concentrate more on the inside of him.
At lunch he almost always had Fritos, so I asked if they were his favorite. I asked about his other foods, about favorite colors and what he wanted to do after high school. As the days passed I realized I was getting all kinds of information, but I really wasn't getting to the center of him; not the way I was trying to. I also realized that asking all these questions could probably, rightly, be interpreted as me gathering information. I was making some progress, I'd met his parents and sister and tried to take polite interest in each of them, as they were important to Travis. I noted he'd done the same with me.
With the end of football and the winter months settling in I finally struck on an idea, something that would show him who I was as a person and what I'd learned. I developed a pattern of asking how he was and, in the evening, asking him about his day. Frequently we'd sit at one house or the other and just talk about stuff. It wasn't always interesting, and sometimes it was hard to keep my focus; but Travis was pretty understanding that not every single topic would be fascinating to me. I can admit sometimes it didn't really matter what he was saying, I was just enjoying staring at him.
Usually when that happened he'd say something off the wall, just to catch me out. I was okay with it, though, because he didn't get annoyed with the whole 'skin deep' part of my attraction to him. In fact at one point he even admitted that it wasn't a bad thing, just that it wouldn't matter if the person was rotten inside. I took this as permission to stare.
Travis joined the wrestling team and I took advantage of his being busy to work on what I wanted to show him. On his first day of practice I headed over to see his mom, who worked from home several days a week.
“Hi Zap, come on in. Travis is at practice, but you can wait for him if you want.” She told me as she let me in.
“Actually I wanted to talk to you, Mrs. Armstrong.”
“Me? What for, Zap? Is everything okay?” Her forehead crinkled with concern as she closed the front door.
“Everything is fine. I was just thinking about something I wanted to give Travis and I thought maybe you'd be a good place to start.” And so with her help, the internet and several emails and about a month of gathering and polishing, I had my gift to him. I came to see him on a cold day in November, a Sunday afternoon before dinner. I went up to his room where he was cleaning out the inside of his computer with the vacuum. I sat on his bed and waited for him to shut it off, and once the room was quiet, I greeted him.
“Jesus Zap!” he jumped and then laughed, “You scared the crap outta me!”
“I'd apologize, but I half did it on purpose.” I grinned.
“Yeah, I'm sure. What's up?” He asked while unplugging the machine and starting to stow the cord.
“I have something for you, and I wanted to talk a second.” I frowned a little, as this was the tough part. “When we started to hang out a few months ago and you told me, basically, your philosophy on how you determined if you liked people...I've tried to work really hard to be someone you'd like.
“I know you have,” He said as he set the vacuum aside and took a seat next to me.
“Problem is, everything I'm doing is kind of going against that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you think about it, me doing these things – trying to be someone you'd like – it's kind of selfish I guess, 'cause that's my goal.” I met his eyes, “You're my goal. So I guess it kind of makes everything I'm trying to do sort of shallow anyway.”
He pulled a leg up and smiled at me, “You're over thinking it. I mean, yes, I see what you're saying but you can only do that so long. Either every second of what you've been doing, asking, and saying is all lies or some of the real you got out when you weren't looking.”
“No, really, you want to argue this with me?” he chuckled.
“Not argue, really, but...you know I had an ulterior motive.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Doesn't that make everything I do...suspicious?” I frowned again.
“Well, I think that's a bad word for it. Maybe it was your motivation, but the end result is that I can still see the kind of person you are; the kind of person you're trying to be. Hopefully that also means you're finding out the kind of person I am.”
“Well, I hope this helps my cause then. I've been busy while you were at wrestling,” I held a folder in my hand and I waved it for emphasis.
“What's that?” He asked with curiosity.
“You told me that your grandpa died last December, back when you were showing me your ring. Remember?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You said that you'd been close to him, and that you still missed him. You also told me he'd been in the Merchant Marine, but that you didn't really know what that was. So,” I opened the folder in my hand and started to recite.
“George Elliot Armstrong enrolled in the Merchant Marine on his eighteenth birthday in 1939. Even then there were clear indications of war brewing. The Merchant Marine is responsible for shipping during times of war, and is a critical part of any war effort. In World War Two they were the supply line for almost everything our troops needed. No less than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the Merchant Marine the 'Fourth Arm of Defense'.”
“Really?” Travis's eyes were wide and he leaned in to look at the papers in my hand. I started to read a bit more to him.
“On April 4th in 1942 your grandfather was stationed on the SS Byron D. Benson which was torpedoed off the coast of North Carolina. Of the crew of 37, ten died.”
“His ship got sunk?” His hands reached out and pulled the folder from my hands and he began to eagerly devour his grandfathers history. I scooted back on the bed, with my back to the headboard and watched him read. All the research into his record, all the resources for the Merchant Marine had just paid off watching Travis's face. I stayed like that for a few minutes, just soaking in his excitement and happiness; his curiosity satisfied. Then I got up, patted him on the shoulder and headed for home. I think Travis and his Grandpa deserved a little time alone.
The next week was thanksgiving and between my family goings on and Travis's, it didn't matter much that school was out. Travis showed up at my house Friday afternoon, though, just as we'd finished lunch.
“That folder,” he said right after the polite greetings were done, “Was amazing. I shared it with the whole family – and you know what? Some of my Uncles knew more stuff that grandpa had done and they promised to write it up so I can add it to what you did.”
“That's awesome,” I smiled at him.
“I'm sorry I didn't really get a chance to say thank you, I was really kind of slammed with family this week – and I can't even start to tell you how many times I wanted to call and just couldn't.”
“It's cool, we were pretty busy here too.” I smiled.
“I kind of thought...maybe we could head to the movies or something though, if you weren't busy.”
“Sure, when? Who is going?”
He smiled shyly. “Just us?”