A chapter from my memoir. Enjoy.
One Thursday when I am in the seventh grade, my dad picks me up from school.
This particular Thursday is very sunny and warm for a West Virginia November. The leaves have all fallen from the trees, but the grass is still a bright green and I am able to wear a short sleeve shirt to school.
As the sun shines on my bare arms and I laugh with my friends on the school’s front steps, Dad pulls the car into the carpool line, and smiles. I am talking and joking with a couple of guys, and I can see him through the car’s front window. I wave. He motions for me to come on over, so I leave my friends Jerry and David on the steps with a simple, “Later.”
When I open the passenger side door to his Ford Escort, I am greeted with this question:
“So, did you see any good-looking pussy today?”
I almost come to a complete stop, the door still open and in my right hand, my left leg just barely into the car. I slow my entry, but answer quickly, “Ewwww, gross, noooooooo!”
Falling slowly into my seat, I drop my backpack down in front of me, my eyes darting around to see if any of my 13-year-old friends had heard, then I shut the door.
“You didn’t see any good-looking girls at your school today?” he asks. There is a hint of concern in his voice, as if I didn’t know what a girl was.
“Sure I did,” I say, “I just didn’t see their….” I wave my hand in front of my pants. My face scrunches.
A good hearty guffaw rumbles from Dad’s belly and fills the small car, the driver’s seat holding together just enough to support him. The car convulses with his laughter. I fasten my seatbelt, he puts the car in drive, and we continue down the carpool line and behind the building.
“Pussy,” he says between laughs, “is a slang term for a girl.”
“Good-looking pussy,” he has to catch his breath, “means good-looking girl.”
His laugh continues as we circle the school and pull out onto the main road.
“Oh,” I say, and begin laughing too. Dad’s guffaws die down to chuckles, but even those are loud and infectious.
We continue our giggles for a few minutes. Stoplights and slow traffic make the ride home take longer than usual, but it beats the hell of out 40 minutes on the bus.
After the laughter stops, and we are about halfway home, Dad begins to scratch his beard.
“I want you to know,” he says, “there’s only two things you could ever do that would make me disown you.”
I sit up a little straighter in the seat, scratch the side of my face and pull on my ear.
“What does disown mean?”
He clears his throat.
“It means, I wouldn’t claim you as my son anymore,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to have you in my life.”
“Oh.” I slump back into the seat. Through the side-view mirror, I can see there are suddenly rainclouds in the sky behind us.
We come to the last stoplight, before we will turn onto the road that leads to our neighborhood, just as it turns red.
“There’s only two things you could do that would ever make me disown you,” he repeats. He often repeats things when he wants to make sure I understand his point. “If you grow up to be gay, or if you marry a black girl.”
“Oh,” I say. “Ok.”
“Don’t be gay, and don’t marry a black girl. That’s it.” He moves his hand in a slicing motion across his lap.
The light turns green and he turns the steering wheel left, taking us onto Prosperity Road. The 100-foot-tall green water tank looms over the entrance to the community like a massive Roman column leading into the heart of the city. It is the first thing that lets me know I am almost home.
Large looming objects scare me. I can never stop myself from imagining being atop them and falling. Skyscrapers are the worst, though of course living in Appalachia meant the only time I saw skyscrapers was on television. We went to New York once when I was a kid to catch a plane to Denmark. Those three hours in the Big Apple were terrifying.
The water tank always fills me with mixed emotions. I yearn to see it, even if it does scare me, because it means I am almost home. But I am afraid to look directly at it, to see myself in my mind’s eye standing on top of it, and falling fatally to the ground below.
The next morning was a Friday, and no one really wanted to be at school.
First period was band class, with my favorite teacher Mr. Madison as the band director. He was a handsome, six-foot-tall African-American man with a melodious voice and kind brown eyes. For whatever reason, he really liked me, and I often stopped by his classroom during my lunch break just to chat.
When we came to stand at our appointed positions in band class that morning, preparing to practice for our halftime performance at the upcoming final football game of the season, a white boy named Jackie stood beside me, and a black girl named Latonya stood in front of me.
Latonya played the trumpet, just like me. Her hair smelled like coconuts, and reminded me of the beach. She would frequently say “Hi” when we passed in the halls, and would giggle at some of my corny jokes when we were in band class. Once, during a break at a band competition in Charleston, we spent five minutes laughing at each other’s fake fart noises before Mr. Madison made us both do ten push-ups for “poorly representing the band” in public. Latonya was my friend, but we never had spent any time together outside of band events.
I had told her once that I thought her dress looked nice, and she had smiled and said thanks. Today, she was wearing a purple shirt with really short sleeves and tight blue jeans. The blue jeans had holes in them, right at the side of her thighs, and standing behind her in band class, I realized for the first time that she was beautiful. She had the kind of skin that looked like it was blemish-free from head to toe, as if she didn’t have to bathe, the dirt would just be repelled by her beauty. The purple shirt hung loosely from her shoulders, and I could tell she was wearing a black bra. Her hair was short. I could see the muscles in her neck as she laughed at something the girl next to her said.
Her skin looked like it would be so soft to touch, and I could see myself running my hands down her arms, running my fingers across her exposed thighs. Her curves made me woozy. I felt myself getting aroused, and I tried to clear my mind. I didn’t want anyone to notice. I was sure everyone would notice.
She smelled like sunscreen and warm sand, and I closed my eyes and tried to think of ugly things, or weird things, anything to calm me down. I was taking deep breaths through my nose, exhaling loudly through my mouth, and didn’t notice when Mr. Madison said, “Attention everybody.”
I was drawn out of my daze by some giggles around me.
I was the only one not standing at attention, the only one whose breathing was loud enough to be heard by several fellow trumpet players around me.
“Mr. Otte,” Mr. Madison said, “attention.”
Thrusting my trumpet up between my hands, I assumed the attention position, holding the horn like a rifle in front of me, legs stiff and together, arms stuck in a V-shape from my shoulders out to my elbows and back in again. My best friend Jerry, a member of the drum line standing three rows behind me, snorted.
Mason, the boy who stood beside me, was the only openly gay person I knew. He got all kinds of hell from everybody about it. I had never talked to him, and this was the first band routine we had done where he would be standing beside me.
“You got busted,” Mason whispered loud enough for me to hear.
“Whatever,” I said.
We practiced our routine, played our school fight song, and played the national anthem for about the thousandth time. I didn’t look at Latonya anymore.
After class, Jerry came up to me as I was putting my trumpet back in its case.
“Did you fall asleep or something, man?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?” I said, though I knew what he meant.
“At the beginning of class. I’ve never seen you zoned out like that. Sounded like you were snoring or some shit like that!”
I closed the trumpet case and slid it under the storage table, grabbed my backpack and stood up next to Jerry.
“Yeah, I guess I’m pretty tired,” I said. “Haven’t slept much lately. No good reason. What are you doing after school today?”
Some people won’t let you get away with changing the subject, and will hound you until you cough up whatever secret you were trying to swallow.
Jerry was my best friend. He understood.
“I think I’m going to my Grandma’s house,” he said as he put his backpack on his shoulder. “My dad’s working late again.”
Just as Jerry and I were walking out of the band room’s front door, Latonya walked back in. I bumped into her, knocking a book out of her arm.
“Oh, man, I’m so sorry,” I stammered. “Let me get that.”
I picked up the book and handed it to her. Her hand brushed mine as she took it from me.
“No big. I forgot my notebook,” she said. She smiled and walked around me. “See ya later.”
I smiled. “Later,” I said, and turned back toward Jerry. We continued our walk toward second period. I know my face had to be red. Jerry didn’t say another word. But out in the hallway, I saw Mason. He winked at me. I smiled, nervously, and then bolted for class.
At the end of school that day, I met Jerry outside of the front door to the school. We began to walk down the steps and head for our respective buses.
“So, do you like Latonya?” Jerry asked me with a hint of a giggle in his voice.
“No,” I said quickly. “Why would you even ask that?”
He smiled. “No reason.”
“Look man, I gotta go,” I said. “I really don’t want to miss getting my seat on the bus.”
We did our special handshake, two smacks on each side of our right hands, then a high-five. “See you Monday.”
I walked around to the side of the school. The doors to bus #189 opened, and I was the third one on the bus. The first two kids headed straight for the back, so I got my seat behind Marlene.
“Hello sweetie,” she said with her tooth-filled smile. “How was your day today?”
It was out of my mouth before I could stop myself, “I saw some good-looking…. I mean, I saw a pretty girl.” My voice trailed off. “I mean, nothing.”
“That’s nice dear.”
I didn’t say anything else to Marlene on that ride home. It was a quiet, thankfully uneventful ride. I dug into my backpack and found the science-fiction book I’d been reading, A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony. It was about a boy who lived in a land of magic, but didn’t think he had any magical skills. He was banished from the land, because everyone who lived there had to have at least a basic magical ability, and “Bink,” apparently, had none.
When I got off the bus, Dad was waiting for me at the post office, sitting on the rear bumper of his car, reading a book. When he lifted his body off of the car, the bumper raised up at least two feet.
“Hey Dad, I didn’t think you’d be here.”
He closed the book and smiled. Standing, he opened the passenger door for me and gave me a pat on the back.
“Got done a little early, so I figured I’d meet you here,” he said. “How was your day?”
“It was ok,” I said.
“Anything exciting happen?”
I thought about how to answer that question. I had gotten an erection over a black girl, and a gay guy had winked at me. My best friend noticed that I liked Latonya, and I didn’t know what the hell Mason thought. Was he flirting with me? Did he think I “got busted” flirting with him? Did he not know I was looking at Latonya? Was he winking because he knew I like Latonya?
And out of all of it, for which one would my dad disown me?
“Nope,” I said, and sighed.