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Authors: Brent Hartinger

Geography Club

BOOK: Geography Club
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Brent Hartinger
 
Geography Club
 

FOR MICHAEL JENSEN

 

My own journey begins and ends with you

 
Contents
 

Chapter One

I WAS DEEP BEHIND ENEMY LINES, in the very heart…

Chapter Two

I’d made a mistake. I must have come to the…

Chapter Three

The next night, I IMed Kevin and asked him to…

Chapter Four

“You like him,” Min said to me a few minutes…

Chapter Five

But I did talk to them again, the very next…

Chapter Six

“The first session of the Geography Club will come to…

Chapter Seven

Terese was pissed. “All right!” she demanded. “Who talked?”

Chapter Eight

“Join what?” Min said to the fat girl with the…

Chapter Nine

I got to third base. At baseball practice the following…

Chapter Ten

“Middlebrooooook!” Ramone said to me in the locker room after…

Chapter Eleven

Min didn’t talk to me in that hallway after school,…

Chapter Twelve

At least I still had Kevin. He was the one…

Chapter Thirteen

And so began the worst day of my life. Suddenly,…

Chapter Fourteen

Needless to say, I didn’t go to baseball practice. Instead,…

Chapter Fifteen

First thing at school the next morning, I ran into…

Epilogue

So you probably want to know if I ever saw…

 

 
 

I WAS DEEP BEHIND ENEMY LINES
, in the very heart of the opposing camp. My adversaries were all around me. For the time being, my disguise was holding, but still I felt exposed, naked, as if my secret was obvious to anyone who took the time to look. I knew that any wrong action, however slight, could expose my deception and reveal my true identity. The thought made my skin prickle. The enemy would not take kindly to my infiltration of their ranks, especially not here, in their inner sanctum.

Then Kevin Land leaned over the wooden bench behind my locker and said, “Yo, Middlebrook, let me use your shampoo!”

I was in the high school boys’ locker room at the end of third period P.E. class. I’d just come from the showers, and part of the reason I felt naked was because I
was
naked. I’d slung my wet towel over the metal door of my locker and was standing there all goosebumpy, eager to get dressed and get the hell out of there. Why exactly did I feel like the boys’ locker room after third period P.E. was enemy territory—that the other guys in my class were rival soldiers in some warlike struggle for domination? Well, there’s not really a short answer to that question.

“Use your own damn shampoo,” I said to Kevin, crouching down in front of my locker, probing the darkness for clean underwear.

Kevin stepped right up next to me and started searching the upper reaches of my locker himself. I could feel the heat of his body, but it did nothing to lessen my goosebumps. “Come on,” he said. “Where is it? I know you have some. You always have shampoo, just like you always have clean undies.”

I had just found my Jockey shorts, and I was tempted to not give Kevin the satisfaction of seeing he’d been right about me, but I was cold and tired of being exposed. I sat down on the bench, maneuvering my legs through the elastic of my underwear, then pulled them up. I fumbled for the shampoo in my backpack and handed it to Kevin. “Here,” I said. “Just bring it back when you’re done.” Kevin was lean and muscled and dark, with perfect sideburns and a five o’clock shadow by ten in the morning. More important, he was naked too, and suddenly it seemed like there was no place to look in the entire locker room that wasn’t his crotch. I glanced away, but there were more visual land mines to avoid—specifically, the bodies of Leon and Brad and Jarred and Ramone, other guys from our P.E. class, all looking like one of those Abercrombie & Fitch underwear ads come to life.

Okay, maybe there was a short answer to the question of why I felt out of place in the boys’ locker room. I liked guys. Seeing them naked, I mean. But—and this is worth emphasizing—I liked seeing them naked on the Internet; I had absolutely no interest in seeing them naked, in person, in the boys’ locker room after third period P.E. I’d never been naked with a guy—I mean in a sexual way—and I had no plans to do it anytime soon. But the fact that I even thought about getting naked with a guy in a sexual way was something that Kevin and Leon and Brad and Jarred and Ramone would never ever understand. I wasn’t the most popular guy at Robert L. Goodkind High School, but I wasn’t the least popular either. (Kevin Land at least spoke to me, even if it was only to ask for shampoo.) But one sure way to
become
the least popular guy was to have people think you might be gay. And not being gay wasn’t just about not throwing a bone in the showers. It was a whole way of acting around other guys, a level of casualness, of comfort, that says, “I’m one of you. I fit in.” I wasn’t one of them, I didn’t fit in, but they didn’t need to know that.

Kevin snatched the shampoo, and I deliberately turned my back to him, stepping awkwardly into my jeans.

“Hey, Middlebrook!” Kevin said to me. “Nice ass!” Leon and Brad and Jarred and Ramone all laughed. Big joke, not exactly at my expense, but in my general vicinity. Some tiny part of me wondered,
Do
I have a nice ass? Hell, I didn’t know. But a much bigger part of me tensed, because I knew this was a test, the kind enemy soldiers in movies give to the hero who they suspect isn’t one of them. And from a guy I’d just lent my shampoo to, besides. So much for gratitude.

Everything now depended on my reaction. Would I pass this, Kevin Land’s latest test of my manhood?

I glanced back at Kevin, who was still snickering. Halfway down his body, he jiggled, but of course I didn’t look.

Instead, I bent over halfway, sticking my rear out in his direction. “You really think so?” I said, squirming back and forth.

“Middlebrook!” Kevin said, all teeth and whiskers and dimples. “You are such a fag!”

Mission accomplished, I thought. My cover was holding—for another day at least.

 

 

Once I’d finished dressing, I met up with my friends Gunnar and Min for lunch at our usual table in the school cafeteria.

“The paint is flaking off the ceiling in Mr. Wick’s classroom,” Gunnar said as we started to eat. “Sometimes the chips land on my desk.” Gunnar and I had been friends forever, or at least since the fourth grade, when his family had moved from Norway to my neighborhood. I’d always thought he should be proud of being from somewhere different, but kids had teased him about his accent and his name (they called him “Goony” or “Gunner”), so he desperately tried to ignore his heritage. Gunnar was a thoroughly nice guy and perfectly loyal as a friend, but—and this is hard to admit, him being a buddy and all—just a little bit high-strung.

“It’s an old school,” Min said. “The whole ceiling’s going to collapse on us one of these days.” Min was the school egghead. (She was also Chinese American, which is something of a stereotype, isn’t it?) But unlike Shelly Vorhaus, the school’s other egghead, Min had more than two shirts and actually wore makeup. In other words, Min and Gunnar were both like me, occasional visitors to the border region of high school respectability.

“You don’t understand,” Gunnar said to Min. “What if it’s lead paint? You said it yourself: this is an old building.”

“Lead paint?” I said.

“You know—the kind that causes brain damage if you ingest it?” Gunnar could also be a bit of a hypochondriac or whatever.

“So what if it is?” Min said. “You’re not eating it, are you?”

“Ingest doesn’t just mean to eat something,” Gunnar said. “It can also mean to inhale. Most people don’t know that.” He was right; I hadn’t known that. But if Min didn’t know it either, I didn’t feel so bad.

I liked Min and Gunnar. We had a lot in common, and for the most part, I felt comfortable around them. But I couldn’t help wondering how they’d react if they knew my little secret—my liking guys, I mean. I doubted they’d run shrieking from the room. But they were my best friends, and I couldn’t have handled anything less than confetti-and-sparklers acceptance. Which was why I’d decided never to tell them. But which was also why I guess I never felt
that
comfortable around them.

Suddenly, a blanket of silence fell across the cafeteria. Min, Gunnar, and I all turned to see what was making the lack of a commotion.

Brian Bund, a junior, was sitting by himself at a table in the corner, his hunched, bony back to the room. Someone had flung a big spoonful of chili at him, and it had spattered across the back of his white T-shirt.

As soon as people realized what had happened, they began to laugh. I glanced around the lunchroom. Ordinarily, there was a cafeteria worker or two around, cleaning tables or refilling napkin dispensers, but there were no adults just then—which was probably why Brian had been on the receiving end of the chili in the first place.

A lot of people were laughing at Brian now, but the jocks, sitting two tables away from him, were laughing the loudest. I was certain the projectile chili was their handiwork. Sure enough, even as the whole lunchroom was watching, Jarred Gasner lobbed a spoonful of chocolate pudding at the back of Brian’s shirt. And Nate Klane flicked a heap of vanilla ice cream at him. Kevin Land, snickering with the rest of the jocks, wasn’t throwing anything, but he’d probably been the one to throw the chili that had started it all. But at least I had to give those jocks credit for their aim, because everything they threw hit Brian square in the hair or back.

By now, the cafeteria was ringing with laughter. It was coming from every corner of the room. The cheerleaders at the Cheerleaders table. The druggies at the Druggies table. And the Girl Jocks, the Theater Crowd, and the Lefty Radicals at all their tables too. Even some of the kids at the Christians, Orchestra Members, and Computer Geeks tables were laughing. (For the record, Min, Gunnar, and I made up the Nerdy Intellectuals, and no one at our table was laughing.)

I wasn’t surprised by any of this. Brian Bund was the unquestioned outcast of the school. The jocks teased him mercilessly, and almost everyone else watched and laughed while they did it. Maybe Brian would be one of those high school outcasts you read about who grow up, found some software company, and make fifty billion dollars. But for the time being, he was the lowest of the low, and all the future billions that he might someday make wouldn’t get me to trade places with him.

I’d like to be able to say that when I saw what was being done to him, I stood up and spoke out, stopping the humiliation with some cheeky quip. If this had been the movie of my life, that’s exactly what I would have done—a great way to establish what a plucky, likeable guy I am. But this wasn’t a movie, and the only audience was the other kids in that cafeteria, so I sat there like everyone else. It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. Nothing I could’ve said would have stopped what they were doing to Brian. The jocks just would’ve thrown stuff at me too, and when I took lifesaving, the first thing they taught us was to think long and hard before you approach a drowning person—that if you get too close, they can pull you under with them.

“What’s going on?”
The voice of a cafeteria worker cut through the din.

The food stopped coming, but the laughter didn’t.

Brian sat there for a second, the back of his shirt flecked with chili and ice cream and pudding. Then he stood up, and bits of food started dripping down to the floor. Brian turned and looked out across the cafeteria with such a mixture of bewilderment and sadness in his eyes that I felt a deep pang of a shame way down in my stomach, even though I was one of only about fifteen people who weren’t laughing at him. Incredibly, Brian took the time to carry his tray to the garbage can, where he dumped his trash. Anyone who couldn’t see the dignity in his sorting of his dirty silverware didn’t know what dignity was.

But most of the kids in the cafeteria just laughed louder still.

“Would you
look
at this?” said the frustrated cafeteria worker, spotting the mess behind where Brian had been sitting. “Who’s going to clean this up? Huh?
Who?”
The worker was saying this to Brian, which I thought was ironic. Talk about blaming the victim.

Gunnar, Min, and I turned back to our table, but none of us said anything. I wasn’t sure what Gunnar and Min were thinking. I knew they thought it was terrible how everyone treated Brian Bund. But let’s face it, Brian was weird. He had acne and he smelled bad. And to Gunnar and Min, Brian probably seemed so different that he was like another species. You care when someone kicks a dog, you feel bad for the poor animal, but you don’t feel that bad, because it’s not like it’s a human being.

Brian didn’t seem so different to me. Because I knew that’s how people might treat me if they ever learned the truth. It scared the hell out of me, because I was certain I could never handle being that completely alone.

 

 

That night in my bedroom, I logged on to the Net. I said I’d never actually been naked with a guy, but it’s possible that once or twice I might’ve gone to a gay chat room and maybe even gone off for a private chat with a guy or two. I refuse to say any more about this on the grounds that it may incriminate me, but I will say that mostly we really did just chat about innocent things, like how long had we known we were gay and which actor did we think was cute.

The fact is, there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely; I may not have been completely alone in life, but I was definitely lonely. My secret mission—four years in an American high school—had been an involuntary one, and now I desperately wanted to be somewhere where I could be honest about who I was and what I wanted. I had plenty to say on the topic, but no one to say it to—not my friends, definitely not my parents (don’t get me started). The Internet gave me people to say it to. Problem is, they weren’t real.

That night, I visited one of my regular gay haunts. Among the list of various chat rooms—“College Students,” “Bisexuals,” “Political Junkies,” etc.—there is a whole list of rooms categorized by geographic location. In other words, if you want to talk to a gay person in Boise, Idaho, there’s a room labeled “Boise, Idaho.”

I kept scrolling down the screen until I came to a room listing the town where I live. It hadn’t been here before—they must have just added it—and it caught me by surprise. My hometown is kind of smallish, and it had never occurred to me that there might actually be other gay people there. It made sense, of course—10 percent, gays are your friends and neighbors, all that crap. But I’d kind of assumed that that’s just talk and that gay people really only live in New York and San Francisco. Still, if there are gay people in Boise, Idaho, it stood to reason they’d be in my town too.

I entered the chat room. I may have been a tad more excited than usual.

There was only one other person in the room, which made sense to me, since I figured there was only about one other gay person in my whole hometown. His handle was GayTeen, which wasn’t the most original name I’d ever seen. Mine was Smuggler, for no reason I can explain.

Hey
, I wrote.


Sup
? he wrote.

Not exactly the most exciting conversation. But I admit, I was desperate.

Age?
I asked.

BOOK: Geography Club
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