Dad, Jimmy and I stopped at a Waffle House for a late breakfast. I was hungry after the ordeal in Mrs. Jarvis’s office. Instead of ordering my usual coffee and bagel, I had a complete breakfast with bacon, scrambled eggs, hash browns and wheat toast. Jimmy had the same thing, except he ordered a piece of pie for dessert.
My father shook his head as he watched us eat. He had ordered an egg sandwich and a cup of coffee. “I don’t know where you’re going to put all that.”
Jimmy rubbed his stomach and smiled. “I got plenty of room,” he laughed as he looked down at my thin waist. “Not sure where Zac is going to put his.”
“I’m tired of starving myself all the time,” I replied. “I have to watch everything I eat. Right now I’m going to enjoy myself.” Jimmy laughed as I hungrily scooped up another forkful of food and shoved it in my mouth.
My father became quiet and looked over at me. “We need to talk about your future, Zac.”
“What about it,” I asked. “You know I’ve been suspended for three days.”
“After that,” he said worriedly. “When you go back to school. You’ve still got track meets and then graduation at the end of May.”
“I know,” I answered. It had been something I had been thinking about myself. It was now March. Since talking to Marty, I had decided that I wanted to compete; but now that Kenny had outed me, I wasn’t sure anymore. Graduation didn’t concern me as much. If it weren’t for my parents, I would rather have just picked my diploma up at school after the ceremony. As far as I knew, they couldn’t deny you your diploma if you decided you didn’t want to march.
“After I drop you off at home,” my father announced, “I’m going to stop by Coach Templeton’s office and talk to him before I go back to work.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I responded. “If the guys don’t want me on the team, there’s not much I can do.”
He sat back and looked worriedly at me. “You’ve waited all your life for this moment,” he said. “You’ve got the state title in your grasp. I can’t just sit back and watch you throw it away.”
“Please, Dad,” I pleaded. “Let me handle this. There’s nothing you can do. I will talk to Marty when I get back to school. He’ll know what to do.”
“Who’s Marty?” Jimmy asked.
“My trainer at school,” I informed him. “He almost ran in the Olympics. He’s been working with me.”
“I hope he’s a miracle worker,” Jimmy replied, “You may need one.”
We spent the next half hour arguing about my father’s involvement. I knew he had my best interest at heart, but I couldn’t see where he could do much good. Again, outside factors were going to influence my future. I wanted to run, but I wasn’t sure if my teammates would want me around them. I could be a negative influence on them and create low morale. I knew Coach Templeton and Marty would support me, but then again, their support could be damaging. If they forced my teammates to accept me, then again it could be damaging to the team spirit. The best thing for me right now was to talk to Marty and Coach and see how they felt about the situation.
After dropping Jimmy and me at home, Dad went back to work. “We’ll talk more about this tonight,” he insisted as he left. Jimmy and I shot some basketballs for a while. Occasionally, I would look over at Kenny’s bedroom window. He had the curtain pulled back and was watching us. I didn’t say anything to Jimmy because I was afraid he would look over and flip him off.
“I got to get my fat ass in shape,” Jimmy gasped as he threw himself down on the lawn. I went into the kitchen and got us a bottle of water. He sat up and took a swig as he looked intently at me.
“Are you really going to be all right, Zac?” he asked worriedly. “I know you’re putting on this big act like you’re okay and all, but I can see through the bullshit.” He smiled. “I’m your big brother,” He laughed. “You learned from the best bull shitter.”
I lay back and looked up at the blue sky overhead. “I wish I could tell you everything will be all right,” I sat up and looked at him, “but I can’t do that. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week or next year.”
He started to laugh. “Who does?”
“Yeah,” I sighed, “Who does.”
Jimmy stood and started walking toward his car. Before getting in, he turned and pulled me into a hug. “You know I’ve got your back if you need me?” I nodded my head into his shoulder as he squeezed me tighter. He pulled away and stared into my face. “I mean it, Zac. If anyone gives you any shit,” he looked over at Kenny’s house, “You call me.”
“I will,” I assured him.
He got in his car and waved as he pulled out of the driveway. As he was driving down the street, I looked up at Kenny’s bedroom window. He pulled the curtain shut.
Since no one was home to keep me company, I spent most of the day surfing the internet. I went to a high school track site that kept the times of the fastest runners in each state. I soon realized that my time of 10.8 seconds in the finals last year was faster than some of the winners in other states. I began to wonder if I couldn’t possibly win the state title this year. No one in our district came close to my time. If I could beat the guys upstate, then the championship could be mine.
The more I looked at the times, the more depressed I became. I had everything going for me this year. I had worked out all winter at the school gym. I had focused on developing stronger leg muscles so I could get a faster start. I was working with Marty who thought I had an excellent chance of winning the state meet. He was even talking about me competing in the Olympics in a few years.
Only one thing stopped me- I was gay. If I was an ordinary student, I could probably get by until graduation. I could hide in the background and go unnoticed. However, I wasn’t an ordinary student; I was an athlete. Students put athletes on pedestals and admire them from a distance. Just as trophies adorn the case in the gymnasium, athletes adorn the hallways, especially star athletes. I had always tried to stay out of the limelight and pretend that I wasn’t deserving of the attention I received, but deep down I secretly enjoyed it.
When I competed in the state meets last year, everyone wanted to befriend me. Rachel became jealous with the numerous girls who would stop me in the hallway and ask if I would pose with them for a picture on a friend’s cell phone. They would giggle and blush as I put my arm around them and then lean down and give them a kiss on their cheek just as their friend snapped the picture.
But now what? I looked at the clock. It was almost 2:30. School would be over in fifteen minutes. By now, everyone knew that Zachary Edward Barnes, track star, was gay. How could I possibly walk down the hallway with everyone staring that knowing look? I had seen it happen many times over the years. Not just the gay students, but also anyone who created a sensational story for the entertainment of other students’ gossip. The underclassman who became impregnated by the upperclassman. The boy who got drunk and puked inside his friend’s car. The girl who exposed her breasts at a Saturday night party. And now, the gay boy who couldn’t get it up for his girlfriend.
The ridicule would be unmerciful. It would be embarrassing and humiliating. Somehow, somewhere, I knew I had to reach inside myself deeper than I had ever before and find the strength to face what lay ahead. Being an athlete and a runner had taught me one thing- you never quit. Marty was right when he said you run the best fucking race you can; and win or lose, you finish proudly knowing you gave it everything you had.
Sounds good, right? Sure. Now the hard part is convincing myself I can do it.
When I went into the kitchen to get a bottled water out of the fridge, I heard a lawn mower. I looked out the window and saw Kenny across the street mowing his yard. He had his shirt off and his back was glistening with sweat. Occasionally, he would look over at our house. I don’t know if it was just by habit, or if he was trying to see if I was watching him. I walked from the kitchen and back to my room.
I was at my computer when Billy and Lonnie came barging in. “Watcha doing?” Billy asked as he walked over and looked at the computer screen. “What did you do, close out the porn you were looking at?” Lonnie sat down on Billy’s bed and started giggling.
I opened the history screen and scrolled down to a gay website. “I’m not the one who looks at porn.” I laughed as Billy’s face turned red after noticing the site I had opened. Lonnie ran across the room when he saw the naked teen boy on the screen.
“Holy Shit!” he squealed. “He’s hot!” He looked up at Billy. “You didn’t tell me you look at this stuff.”
“I…um…I don’t,” stammered Billy. I closed the site, leaned back in my seat and watched as Billy tried to explain his internet activities to his friend. “I was just surfing around one day and saw it. I didn’t look at anything, honest.”
Lonnie grinned up into my brother’s embarrassed face. “Well, the next time you do accidentally run upon a hot site like that, you’d better show it to me.”
I got up and shook my head. “You guys are pervs,” I laughed as I left the room. Before closing the door, I heard Lonnie whisper excitedly to Billy, “Open that site back up.”
I leaned inside the room and hollered, “I heard that!” Both boys blushed as I closed the bedroom door.
I was lounging on the sofa in the family room watching Jerry Springer when the doorbell rang. It rang three times before I decided that no one else was going to answer it. I rose and walked to the door. When I opened it, Valerie was standing on the porch with a large book bag hanging heavily off her shoulder.
“It’s about time,” she huffed as she entered and dropped the book bag on the floor in front of me.
“What’s this?” I asked as I looked down at the tattered bag.
“Your assignments,” she announced as she walked over to the sofa and plopped down. “I didn’t know seniors had so much work. I thought teachers quit giving homework when you got to be a senior.”
“Dream on,’ I laughed. “I’ve had more homework this year than ever. I think it’s a way for teachers to get a final revenge before we graduate.”
“Can I have a drink of water?” She began rubbing the shoulder that the heavy bag had earlier been draped over.
“Sure.” I went into the kitchen and got her a bottle of water. She sat quietly sipping it as I watched her.
“What is this anyway?” I went over to the bag and pulled out a couple of books. One was a trigonometry book; the other was computer science.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper. “Here.” I looked down at her ornate handwriting. It appeared to contain three days of assignments. When I asked her if it was my homework assignments, she nodded her head.
“I’m suspended,” I said. “Students aren’t supposed to be able to make up work.”
“That’s what most students think,” she said with a wry smile. “I did a little research and according to school board policy, suspended students can make up work at the discretion of the teacher.”
I smiled as I sat down beside her. “So let me guess,” I laughed. “You went to each of my teachers and just happened to let them know this information?”
“You’re half right,” she said. “I did go to your teachers, but they already knew the policy. They just don’t let it be widely known.”
“Isn’t that kind of deceitful?”
“Probably,” she replied. “When I went to Mrs. Jarvis to make sure I was right, she told me they don’t announce it because most teachers don’t feel that suspended students should have a right to make up assignments. However, if they ask to make up missed class work, then they have to give them the opportunity.”
I scanned the assignment sheet again. Valerie had them organized by teacher, period, date and detailed assignment. I was surprised that all my teachers had consented to let me make up the work.
I gave her a puzzled look. “They all are letting me make up the work? All of them?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Your computer science teacher was a bit of a bitch, but I was able to talk her into it.”
“She would,” I responded. Mrs. Hardaway had been teaching for at least a hundred years and hated seniors. It didn’t surprise me that she would be unwilling to help me.
She smiled slightly as I watched her take another sip of water. I had been afraid to ask Billy when he came home, mainly because Lonnie was with him, but I’d been thinking about it all day. “How bad is it?”
“How bad is what?” she asked.
“You know,” I looked away. “The rumors.”
My heart sank when she responded with a tone of bitterness, “Oh, that.” She turned and took my hands and stared into my eyes. “It’s not going to be as bad as you think. I did hear a few comments in some of my classes, but most people don’t seem to care.”
“So people do know?” I figured it wouldn’t take long for the information to get out.
“I guess,” she said sadly. “I’m not really very popular, so I don’t get told a lot of things. I just kind of pick them up from what I hear others saying.” She squeezed my hands tighter and smiled.
“On the bright side though,” she said. “When I went to your teachers, except for Mrs. Hardaway, they all seemed very willing to help you. They like you a lot. Most asked me how you were holding up. Of course, since I hadn’t seen you, I told them I didn’t know.” She started giggling. “So how are you holding up?”
“You’re silly,” I laughed as I leaned in and gave her a hug. “Thanks for what you did. That was nice of you.”
She seemed embarrassed by my display of gratitude. “It really wasn’t anything,” she dropped my hands and took another sip of water.
I also got up the courage to ask her another question that had been plaguing me. “How’s Adrian taking all this?” She didn’t have to respond after the sad expression that appeared on her face.
“That bad?” I asked.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Zac,” she replied sadly. “He’s tore up over this. He had hoped that the two of you could get together, but now,” she looked sorrowfully at me. “I don’t know.”
I held my hand to my ear. “Did you hear that?”
“What?” she looked around the room and gave me a puzzled look.
“Didn’t you hear that door slamming shut?” She listened as she looked around the room.
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“Never mind,” I said gloomily. I got up and walked into the kitchen to get two more bottled waters. She was waiting patiently for me to return.
“He needs time,” she said as I sat down. “Now that you’re out, he just thinks it’s too dangerous to be seen with you.”
I sat back on the sofa and roared with laughter. She looked worriedly at me as I tried to gain my composure enough to talk.
“I’ve lost everything because of Adrian,” I said with a tone of anger. “My world was safe and secure before he came into it. And now…and now you tell me he thinks I’m too dangerous to be seen with?” I wanted to lash out in anger, but Valerie wasn’t the person to unleash all the feelings I had inside me.
It didn’t seem fair. I had given up everything to be with him. The only thing I had gotten from it was some flirtatious glances and a kiss in my bedroom. I was boiling with anger at the thought that he could walk away from all of this unscathed while my world had come shattering down around me. And for what? Not a damned thing.
Fuck Door Number 3. I should have chosen any of the other doors. They would have been safe picks. At least if I had chosen them, then I’d still have Rachel as a girlfriend, Kenny would be my friend and I’d be back in school going to classes and preparing for track. I would be straight and Pandora’s Box would never have been opened. Evil would not have invaded my life.
I looked down when Valerie grasped my hand and looked worriedly into my face. “Are you all right, Zac?”
I pulled my hand away from hers. “Yeah, Valerie,” I answered sarcastically. “Everything is fine.” I stood and walked to the door and opened it. “You tell your cousin that his little secret is safe with me.”
“You’re not being fair,” she said tearfully as she approached me. “You don’t understand.”
“No,” I said angrily as she continued to cry. “I understand very well. He wanted to play the game until it became dangerous. Now he just turns his back on me and lets me face this alone. Adrian Lewis safely walks away while Zachary Barnes takes all the heat.”
“He loves you,” she cried. “You don’t understand.” I started laughing nervously.
“Loves me?” My laughter turned suddenly to bitterness. “Tell Adrian to go to Hell.” She looked at me tearfully. She started to say something, but walked out the door.
Before walking down the steps, she turned and said softly, “He really does love you.” I glared at her and then slammed the door shut.
I was angry, and when I get angry I do the only thing I can do- run. I hurried up the stairs to get my running shoes and shorts. When I opened the door, Billy and Lonnie were sitting in front of the computer with their pants down and stiff cock in hand. Both jumped and pulled their pants up when I entered.
“Hey!” Billy squealed. “You forgot the knock rule.” His face was red with embarrassment.
“Just shut up, Billy,” I said angrily. “I really don’t care what you guys are doing.” I entered my closet and retrieved my shoes and shorts. After putting on my shorts, I went to my bed and began tying my shoelaces. Billy walked over and sat beside me.
“What’s wrong?” I looked into his concerned face, but I was too angry to care what he was feeling.
“Nothing,” I said abruptly as I got up, walked to the door and slammed it shut as I left. I left the house and when I got to the sidewalk, I began to run.
I wasn’t even aware of where I was going. I was almost hit by two cars when I ran across the intersection in front of them. When one elderly man started screaming at me, I flipped him off and continued running down the sidewalk.
Before long, I had left the urban area and was jogging along countryside roads. I remembered as a young boy when Kenny and I would ride our bikes along the same roads, but that was many years ago. My lungs were beginning to hurt and my legs were starting to ache. When I came to a small town, I realized I had been running for over twenty miles. I stopped at a convenience store and got a bottle of water. Since I never ran with my wallet, I had no money on me. After making up a convincing lie about getting lost on a back road while jogging, a kindly woman paid for my water.
After taking a brief rest, I continued on. I couldn’t get Valerie’s words out of my mind. Adrian thinks I’m too dangerous to be seen with. Why? Just because I was gay? Is that how the straight world thinks? If you speak to a gay person, then people automatically think you too are gay?
I had been through hell and back, but one thing I was beginning to realize- I was still the same Zachary Barnes I had always been. Nothing had changed except the fact that I now realized that I was gay. I had fucked up by trying to prove that I wasn’t with Rachel, but other than that, I was still the same person I have always been. Only now people were going to use one word to describe me.
As I continued to run, I reached one of those monumental, enlightening moments that people come to once or twice in their lifetime. I wasn’t going to change because of one word. I was a whole person, divided into small parts. One part was gay, but the other slices were things I admired about myself. I had always liked being me, and I wasn’t going to change. If others couldn’t accept that, then that was their problem.
If Adrian didn’t want to be seen with me, then it was him who had to change. I wasn’t going to hide in a closet the rest of my life. I realized that Door Number Three wasn’t about Adrian. It was about me. I had made a choice and I wasn’t going to back away from it.
I grabbed my sides and fell to a soft, grassy spot on the side of the road. As I lay gasping for air, I looked into the clear, blue sky. Birds were singing in the treetops around me. After several minutes of trying to catch my breath, I rose to my feet and threw my arms over my head.
“I’m gay!” I shouted into the blue skies. With tears streaming down my cheeks I shouted once again, “I’m fucking gay! There’s nothing wrong with me! I’m gay!”
It took me three hours to return home. Since my legs had cramped up severely, I could hardly walk. I attempted to jog slowly a few times, but I had to sit along side the road and rest. After trying to rub the pain away, I would go about a mile until it returned.
However, as I walked, with each step I was gaining a new pride about myself. I had never before looked inwardly at myself. I had always seen myself as others saw me. I was a good son, a loving brother and a devoted friend. I was smart and did well in school. I was athletic and strong. I was dedicated to track and I never let my fellow teammates down. I cared about people and I would never hurt anyone, except for Rachel; and that I was beginning to deeply regret.
As I trudged toward home, I began to worry less what people thought of me. I liked me, and that is really all that matters. I am the one who has to live inside myself, and I was happy with me. I was gay- so what? It didn’t define me. If others couldn’t see my other qualities and only judged me on that one thing, then I didn’t need them. I had to be true to myself. For the first time in my life, I looked deep into my soul, and I liked what I saw.
I liked me. After everything I had been through, I would come out a winner. I was not going to win a ribbon or a trophy, but I’d won the greatest prize anyone could achieve. I had won self-respect. I could now look in a mirror and be proud of the image staring back.
I am Zachary Edward Barnes. I am me. I am gay. I am proud.