"Are you sure you're up to this?" Corb asked me, as we made our way downstairs, and the overpowering sound of what seemed a thousand screaming teen-aged girls started to fade.
I nodded, looking around cautiously, peering down the stairs to make certain the coast was clear, that the corridors were empty. I was half expecting a janitor to pop out from some dim corner, sweeping a broom, accosting us with a "Hey! What are you two doing down here?"
But the halls appeared to be empty. The corridor was dimly lit, with only one overhead at the bottom of the stairs. The rest of the area was shrouded in darkness.
Corb stopped on the last step. "Which way do we go?"
"To the right."
To the right. A short walk, and then an entrance to an even darker corridor, and then a quick right into what used to be the boy's locker room.
"Do you want me to stay out here?"
"No, it's okay," I said. "I don't need to do this alone. I just want to see what it actually looks like, now, after all these years."
Nevertheless, I paused for a moment, staring at the open door in front of me.
He wants you, Eddie...
I shrugged it off and entered, and Corb followed me, into the darkness. We fumbled around in the dark for a few moments, looking for a switch; finally finding one right by the doorway. I remembered, when I had been in junior high, we used to wait there at the entrance after class, waiting for the bell to ring. I'd hear the yells and laughter of the guys in the showers, getting ready, although I would always just hurry up and change.
Corb snapped the lights on, and the darkness was washed away. And with it came a new reality. That place. THAT place. Now.
I was amazed at how small the area looked. Maybe it was because the locker room was no longer used for gym activities, but as a storage space. There was no need for a locker room, any more, ever since the had been downgraded to an elementary school, after the new middle school had been built. The lockers still remained, rusted and decaying, but they were mostly hidden behind boxes of Xerox paper, classroom seats, and cans of paint.
But even so. I found that I could still raise a few ghosts, if I tried hard enough. A few feet away, to our right, was the corner where I would always change for class, near Josie's brother Chris with the hairless underarms, and Morris, and Randy. To the right, leading into the showers, was the--
Back when I was smaller, pathetically skinny, the room had seemed so cavernous. Not any more. It's amazing how the demons of your past shrink as you get older, as you grow up. And I thought back, to the one and only other time I had made this journey...
Tonight we went to the Community School in the center of town, to sign Tiger up for camp.
I remember the Community School well, although my memories of it were as the town’s Junior High, back in the late seventies. Even now, walking up those stairs (which seemed so steep when I wore smaller shoes) and passing through those double doors, the shadow of the haunted child that I was, and the ghosts of the battles that I fought within those walls, continue to linger within the dim corridors of that old brick building. At least, I can still feel their presence.
I have a few friends that have told me truly courageous stories of how they stood up and challenged the bullies and cliques that form the bread and butter of every junior high. I can only sit there and listen in dumb amazement; because the plain truth is that I didn’t possess that courage. Instead, I just sat back and passed each miserable day in silence, hoping that the day ahead would somehow be better than the last, all the time counting each day until summer vacation, like beads upon a rosary.
The few times that I’ve been back to the school since I graduated in 1978 have always been spent in the auditorium, usually for some type of assembly. The auditorium had not changed in 25 years. Same decaying stage. Same creaky old chairs. And each time I go, I sit in the creaky old chairs, staring at the decaying stage, and every time I’m consumed with the desire to get up and break away and walk through the corridors. Just to see. Just to see what it would feel like to hear the echoes once again, to see if I could still will myself into numbness, as I did so many days trudging my way to class.
Tonight I had the chance. The speaker for the summer camp program, a very chatty Portuguese man with a broad smile and full cheeks and a firm belief that he could sell anyone on anything, decided to launch into a slide show of the camp activities and devote fifteen minutes to each slide, detailing his plans for the future and casting snide aspersions upon the previous Director of Park Activities. “Here’s the entrance…click click…here’s the baseball field…” would have sufficed. Instead, he turned the pictures into a verbal three-ring circus.
By the tenth slide, Tiger was getting extremely fidgety. He would jump out of his seat next to Josie, which resulted in a loud squeak, then move down a row to where I was sitting and sit next to me. Then he’d chat with my a bit, then move back to Josie, chairs squeaking, Tiger’s voice raising until Josie turned to me and
“Could you bring him outside?” she asked, with her teeth on edge. “I’ll just fill out the forms and pay, and then we can leave.”
“Sure,” I said, and took Tiger by the hand.
“Want to go on an adventure, pal?” I asked after we were out of the auditorium, in the main lobby, staring across at the outside of the principal’s office. The principal is your pal!
“I want to eat,” Tiger grumbled.
“I know, and we will in just a few moments,” I said, “But first…”
We made our way, to the left, into a corridor weakly lit by a few overheads and the light of the auditorium. This was the corridor that I spent most of my eighth grade walking down. This was the corridor that led to Mr. Pontillilo’s classroom. Mr. Pontillilo was my homeroom and English teacher. Next to his room, my favorite of all places, the library. Mrs. Hanold had been the librarian. She had always been remarkably chummy with “Mr. P.” I used to make snide comments to my cousin Lisa that she was cheating on Mr. Hanold (my gym teacher) with Mr. P.
That was sheer fantasy. Because the truth was, Mr. P. was gay. He died of AIDS about ten years later. But of course, I was oblivious to his sexual orientation. I mean, I kind of suspected I was gay after one class staring at Mr. Papalardo (our history teacher) and his practically see-through salmon colored pants, or the time I spent sitting next to Rich McD. in the auditorium. He was a cherubic blond boy with a killer smile, and I would sit there, fascinated, my eyes glued to the hair on his arms. But I didn’t really consider the fact that one of my teachers could be like that.
Mr. Pontillilo had little use for me, anyway. He made no effort whatsoever to bring me out of my shell. I was worthless to him, a silent kid with greasy black hair, pale white skin, a bad case of acne, and thick glasses. Besides, he was too busy flirting with the popular guys. I do recall one poem I wrote that he took a fancy to—a parody of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky . Even then I had a flare for the absurd.
I loved to write, although he didn’t encourage that, either. I would spend hours all day long, during homeroom, during study, every break, ignoring the kids around me and writing furiously. It was a compulsion. I would write continuing series, short stories, comics, whatever. My favorite series to write was called, “Bus 21,” which was about the kids on the bus I took to school. Hey, if I couldn’t socialize in real life…
“Whose locker is this?” asked Tiger, touching a colorful purple locker with the named “Jasmine” written on construction paper shaped into a kite. Community School was now a kindergarten.
“Looks like Jasmine has this one,” I replied.
“Can you see a Ted?” he asked.
We looked through the lockers, looking for a Ted. I was searching for a different kind of Ted, though.
We made our way up to the second floor. There was Mr. Tucker’s classroom. Mr. Tucker taught me chemistry. Sort of. I looked into his room and thought, “He must surely be dead by now.” He was technically half dead when he taught us. He looked at the time as though he were 87. He wore the same striped gray suit to school every day. His idea of teaching chemistry was to hand out pages of scientific equations for us to solve, while he dozed at his desk. I read so much during his class. My favorite was “Lucifer’s Hammer,” which was about 800 pages. 600 of them were read in his class.
Mike Gonzalves used to do a dead on impression of Mr. Tucker, with his gravelly old man voice. Especially Mr. Tucker getting angry and screaming, which happened on more than one occasion. But then, Mike did a dead on impression of just about everyone. Just as he had nicknames for everyone. Squarehead. Zitpicker. Goatgirl. I don’t think I had a nickname, but he did write a limerick about me, which I will not repeat, even here.
And next to that, Mr. Ouimet’s room, where he spent two years, unsuccessfully trying to teach me French. I don’t think I ever pulled a grade higher than a D minus in his classroom. Of course, it was the teacher’s fault, because I eventually did well in French, in High School and College. Although I never learned to roll my R’s. (Tiger can, though!)
Oh! What a dork I was in those days. Hard to believe that the sexy beast that I have turned into (can I get a guffaw from the back row?) was once such an ugly, ugly duckling. I usually wore a turtleneck to school every day (my mother had bought a ton for half price somewhere), and by this point in time, my allergies had kicked in full force, and I spent half my classes fumbling around for Kleenexes, reusing the same ones over and over again, until they started to crumble and would end up upon my lap, looking like snowflakes.
“Look at Chris!”
“Chris, you don’t have any hair under his arms yet?”
“He wants you!”
“They call it Packer steel…”
“Daddy? Can we go down now?”
I pulled out of my reverie and stared down at Tiger, at his sweet calm face, looking up at me and tugging at the edge of my shirt.
“Yeah, we can go now. But there is one other place that we have to visit…”
And we proceeded down the stairs, to the first floor, then down another level. To the belly of the building. The basement level. This section wasn’t as well lit. Our faces were cast in shadows.
WE stood there, in the narrow corridor that I remembered so well. My body felt on edge. My head was slightly groggy from the awakening sting of memory. Yes, there was the boiler room. And beyond that, you’d reach the end of the corridor, and you’d push open a door into the boy’s locker room.
And there I was again, still waiting, through those doors. There I was. 25 years ago.
There I was changing into the same rumpled white T-shirt and baggy blue jean shorts, ones that I had thrown into a paper bag and kept in my locker, weak after week. With the same bath towel shoved into the bottom of the bag. Unused, of course. I dared not ever use it. Not in a million trillion years.
And I’d unbutton my shirt. And I’d keep my eyes down, careful not to look around. And I’d listen to the others.
“Chris doesn’t have hair under his arms!”
“I’ve got it where it counts, though…”
And I’d lift my T-shirt up, at the end of gym class. And I’d keep my eyes down, and I’d pray that I could get through this and get changed and put on my sneakers and then move into the waiting line for the next period of class, just in the nick of—
“Petey, you wearing a jock in gym class?”
“Of course I’m wearing a jock, asshole. I always wear a jock when I’m exercising.”
“I’m not. My balls were going jiggle wiggle all through gym class!”
“That’s 100 percent Packer steel, man…”
I remember that voice. His voice. Dana’s voice. He stood about a foot taller than me. His voice had already deepened, he was practically a man. What do you call his type? An ectomorph? He was a good-looking guy. Slim, and strong. Brown hair, slightly long. Feathered, of course. Smooth, long legs.
“He wants you, Eddie!”
I wasn’t going to make it to the waiting line, was I?
“Eddie, he wants you, Eddie, he wants you!”
Oh please God oh please God oh please…
Dana had it in for me since the practically the first day of junior high. Every day, he found some new way to torture me. To turn the class against me. But his best performances were in gym class; his finest moments down in the belly of the building, with Mr. Hanold upstairs on the basketball court and the guys all downstairs crowding around and—
“Eddie! Look at him! Look at him!”
And I’d look up.
And there he was, naked, his broad shoulders looming over me and a huge, sickening smile on his face. And his naked body, thrust forward, and his cock jutting out, semi erect, red and swollen and dangling through a mound of hair, his dick tilted at half-mast. He stood inches away from me. And all the other boys, gathering around and laughing, pointing and laughing, laughing at me, as I’d turn bright red and try to just keep on changing, to try to ignore him, to try and control the shaking in my hands and the sob in my throat and to try and pretend that I wasn’t so scared, so embarrassed, so ashamed, so, so, so…
“He wants you, Eddie! Touch him! Go ahead and touch him, Eddie! Go ahead!” His voice, so high at that point, the voice he always used for me, mixed with the sounds of all the other guys, doubled over, laughing.
I could feel their eyes on me, waiting for my next move.
Later, that night, jerking off in my bedroom. At the memory of his cock. And the sounds in my head. And I’d hate myself for wanting him. And I’d hate myself for being me.
“Touch it, Eddie...”
Another tug of my sleeve. Another break from yesterday.
Tiger, with a frown on his face. “Can we go back upstairs, Daddy? This place is scary.”
I looked around. We hadn’t gotten further than the furnace room. I turned around and patted the top of my boy’s head. And we moved away, of course. Out of the darkness. Away from the scary place.
Dana killed himself when I was about 28. At that point we lived about a block away from him in the center of the town, only a few blocks from the junior high.
On my way to work, shortly before his death, I noticed him walking down the street about a half a dozen times. Each time, he was wearing a tight sky blue baseball uniform. It was an odd outfit to wear, considering it was a workday, and early in the morning. Unless you were looking to attract work.
He’d always be hitchhiking, looking for a ride. I think he was looking for more than that. There were several times where I’d have to resist the urge to slow down and pull over. And then? Well, wouldn’t that have been a kick?
I didn’t exactly shed any tears when I learned that he died. Nor did I feel a sense of glee or satisfaction.
I had simply willed myself into numbness.
I was the one to break the silence. Corb gave me all the time that I needed.
"Thanks for doing this with me," I said, and hugged my big guy.
"Are you all set?"
"I am," I said. "This place doesn't scare me any more."
"It's just a place."
"I know," I said, holding tightly. It had always been just a place, too. I had just allowed it to carry more significance in my head than I should have.
But it's funny, looking back on the entry I wrote just four years ago. Back then, the echoes had been so pronounced, the wounds so close to the surface. All that has occurred since then, however, has gone a long way to helping those echoes fade, until they're nothing more than a distant rattle in the far of distance.
Finding myself, finding Corb, has gone a long way toward silencing those ghosts of the past, particularly my memories of junior high, particularly my infatuation with Steven. Nowadays, I tend to look at the angst I went through and think, what was THAT all about? As if it were nothing more than the afterglow of a party gone slightly out of bounds, complete with the sinking realization that I misbehaved horribly.
There are far, far worse things that could happen in a life, than boys behaving badly.
I actually did take one more trip, alone, two weeks later.
I wanted to take some photos, which I knew Corb would never have allowed me to do. So, one night after dropping Ashes off, I snuck downstairs. If the cheerleading coach (who I did speak to, both before and after), wondered why I was carrying a camera, she didn't say anything.
I shot the photos in the dark, so it was a bit of a guessing game. When I was done, I stood there for a moment, looking to see if I could catch one more ghost from the past.
But it didn't scare me any more. Because I realized that Dana had been even more closeted, even more troubled than me. What had driven him to approach me that day, after all? He had found himself sporting an erection, and needed to find a way to redirect his embarrassment onto someone else. Someone weaker than he was.
Someone that shared a bond.
That was of course why he always picked on me. He was what I was. And he hated himself just as much as I had.
And also, ultimately, he was the weaker one, not me. Because he was never able to move beyond that self-hatred. Ultimately, that's what consumed him. He tried drugs, he tried prostitution, but he was never able to find a way out of that maze.
What happens to monsters that lurk at the bottom of the stairs? When you expose them to the light of day, they're sad, really. That's what Dana had to face, when he looked in the mirror, day after day. But somehow, I made it through the maze.
I'll never have to make this visit again.