The Age of Innocence

Chapter 4

The Anti-Bullying Club signed up twelve members. What surprised me was it included eight girls and four boys. Noah and I were two of the boys. I hadn’t expected Noah to join, but he told me privately Amy had insisted. She’d told him it would give him cover if he had to squeal on anyone bullying him. Part of the oath we decided on as a group—that we all swore allegiance to—was that any bullying we saw, no matter who was doing it or who was receiving it, we’d tell our vice principal.

An oath is something kids our age can respect.

This one meant Noah had to tell if someone was hassling him, which should have been a great comfort to him. It wasn’t. I’d found a time and place to talk to him with no one else around. I’d told him to feel free to come to me if anyone was bothering him or if he simply needed someone to talk to. That was when he told me that he was worried about this telling-on-someone business.

“If I do that, they might just pound me when I’m not on school property. How does that oath make me safe from that?”

“It doesn’t. But there is a way to avoid that.”


I put my hand on his shoulder. He was the sort of boy where it felt very natural to do that. He looked like he needed protection—or maybe a hug, one or the other. Or to invent an older brother, a fierce one. But I suggested something more practical. “What you need is a friend. Get one of those, stay together, and your chance of being bullied is minimized to almost nothing. That’s because not only is it two against one at that point, but because instead of it being your word against his that he attacked you, verbally or physically, it’s now your and your friend’s word against his. And this is true even if it’s more than one guy at a time picking on you. Bullies know that if you’re with someone, they need to find a safer target.”

He thought about that and said he’d been in Catholic school before this year and didn’t know any of these kids. How was he supposed to find a friend, especially being a little shy?

“It’s not as hard as you’d think. Just watch the other boys in your grade. You’ll see some that look like good targets. They’ll eat alone at lunch, or they won’t have a buddy they hang with in the halls, or there’ll be a boy in Gym who looks lost or scared in the locker room or showers. Just keep your eyes open. Some kid could start talking to you in class or at your locker. Most kids are friendly. Just be friendly yourself and approach a likely friend-candidate yourself if they don’t approach you. This’ll happen, Noah. Say something to a possible friend. Give him an opinion on something so he can respond. Once you’re talking, you’re home free.”

I was a good one to talk, of course. I was kinda friends with a lot of the boys in eighth grade but none that I could hang with after school and on weekends. I’d had one, but he was now breathing in perfume fumes and no longer available. I did have Lina, however, and she didn’t show any signs yet of abandoning me. I was very thankful for that.

Having Troy, though, had meant I didn’t have anyone else close, and when he evaporated, I was alone. Then came Lina. She was really all I had now to avoid odd-man-out status. Not a good situation. But I did have her, and I was glad I did, even with all her objectionable qualities. After our come-to-Jesus talk and my making something up to please her—though I realized there was some truth in it—she was now on the lookout for someone to satisfy the major want I told her I had. I didn’t know how she was planning to do that. But she was a very determined girl.

“What are you looking for in a girlfriend?” she’d asked. “I know about the boobs. But what personality traits do you like? Is hair color important? How about athletic or bookwormish?”

I’d laughed. “You don’t know anyone here. Even if I gave you specifics like that, which I won’t because I can’t, it’s all too vague, so what difference would it make? I hope you’re not planning to interrogate anyone or everyone.”

“Not if you won’t tell me what to look for. I guess the best I can do is just find someone who’s nice that I think would suit you.”

“Yeah. Do that. Then give me your list of all possibilities. I’ll do the final judging.”

Sure I would! This was not the way to find what I wanted, and I didn’t even want it that badly. Mostly I was—what’s the expression—soothing Lina’s savage breast. Even if she didn’t have that much going on up there. But giving her this chore would look like I was going along with her plan and, more importantly, get her off my back.

In the meantime, this was supposed to be about the ABC. I hadn’t joined any of the clubs at the school during my first two years there. I guess I just wasn’t much of a joiner. Also, I really didn’t feel much enthusiasm for or have any interest in any of the ones that existed. I was more than a little excited about the Anti-Bullying Club, though. I really did hate bullies. This club might do some good at the school, and I could be part of that.

Our first meeting was pretty lively. We decided on the oath after a lot of ideas were thrown around. We came up with a good one, and then we all swore to it. Then one of the girls said we needed to make a list of what acts of bullying we’d report; that there were a whole range of activities that could be called bullying, and we needed to be sure of what we were doing and be consistent.

Amy pointed out that calling someone a name was bullying, but what if it was just kinda a bad name and the recipient laughed? Was that bullying? What about Facebook bullying? That wasn’t done on school property but was done to classmates. Do we report that or not? There were a lot of opinions about that, and Amy asked if anyone wanted to be the club’s secretary and take notes and keep track of all the suggestions.

That led us to appointing officers. Amy was chosen as club president. I was voted in as sergeant-at-arms. I thought that meant I was to keep the meetings civil and boot out anyone who became unruly, but the members thought it meant if one of us was needed to deal with any physical bullying in the school yard that needed stopping right away, I was the one to do it. They chose me because I was the biggest boy in the club. Little did they know I was a lover and not a fighter. Well, a wannabe lover, and a reluctant fighter. Anyway, we weren’t supposed to physically restrain any bullies, and I agreed with that wholeheartedly.

We did make a list of bullying acts we were to report and then voted on it and approved it. We decided that how the one being bullied responded to what was happening to them was something to consider. If they were able to laugh it off and not be bothered by it, we shouldn’t do anything. If the person was upset by it, we needed to report it.

We also realized that laughing it off could be a defensive response and so made it a rule that when we witnessed the type of bullying we didn’t need to report, we would also talk to the one who’d been maybe-bullied to see if they really hadn’t been bothered. If they’d been pretending not to be affected, we’d then report it.

All in all, it was a good meeting and we got a lot accomplished. When we agreed on the list of what to report, Amy said she’d give it to the vice principal and make sure he agreed. She did, and he did. She said the guy was easy to work with and not like some of the vice principals she’d read about in the YA novels she so loved. This guy was new this year. His predecessor hadn’t done much when bullying had been reported to him. Our hopes were that this guy would be more effective.

In the meantime, I thought it was rather impressive that Amy had taken the step to meet with him. I thought she was impressive, too. And she was a reader. As was I. I liked YA novels as well. Did other boys read them? I had no idea. I sure didn’t announce to the general population that I did. Somehow, it didn’t seem all that manly.

≈≈ ≈≈

We did have Sex Ed and Gym classes with mixed-gender attendance this year. That was hugely different. Lina was just as outspoken in Sex Ed as she was with me.

We also had a middle-aged woman conducting the Sex Ed class. Ouch.

I was still embarrassed with talking about some of the stuff we covered there, and it made it much worse having girls there listening. I wondered if maybe when I was fourteen or fifteen, this stuff wouldn’t bother me so much. Lina knew how I felt, and she delighted in asking questions that made me want to sink low in my student desk and cover my head with a blanket; I often wished I had one handy.

We did have a question-and-answer session in each Sex Ed session. We could raise our hands and ask when called on, or we could submit questions anonymously on unsigned notes.

Lina preferred simply asking. Like, “I’ve read that the average man has an erection that is about five-and-a-half inches. Is that true?”

Miss Winton said, “Yes, Lina, about that or perhaps just a bit shorter.”

Lina wasn’t done. “I know boys worry about how big they are. I’ve read that many of them think frequent masturbation will make them longer. Do you know if there’s any truth in that, Miss Winton?”

What a way to ask something! Not if it was true but if the teacher knew if it was. Lina was great at putting me on the defensive. Obviously, she had no qualms about doing so with teachers as well.

This was only our second Sex Ed class, but Miss Winton was already getting a little perturbed by Lina. She didn’t respond immediately this time to Lina’s question. Instead, she stared at her for a moment, her eyes hard. Then she said, “Could you rephrase your question, Lina, so it isn’t quite so challenging and rude?”

Lina had the courtesy to blush. “Sorry, Miss Winton. I know I tend to come on a little strong at times. What I meant was, does masturbating, or masturbating often, affect erection length?”

“Thank you, Lina. That’s much better. The answer is, it’s a common myth that frequent masturbation, or masturbating at all, has an affect on the size of a boy’s erection. While doing it, he’s erect and so longer than when he isn’t, but this length change is only temporary and is because he’s erect. What affects size is almost entirely genetics. As you’ve probably learned before in your Sex Ed classes, the size of the penis and thus erectile growth begins with the onset of puberty, or sometimes earlier, and will usually stop when puberty ends.”

She stopped but continued to stare at Lina, letting the tension build. Finally, she said, “And, Lina, if you aren’t more considerate with your questions, I could be just as disrespectful. I could ask you why you’re the one asking about erection size rather than one of the boys in here. I don’t ask you that out of common courtesy, which I expect you to extend to me as well.”

Wow! Lina was really blushing now. I’d never seen her put in her place as thoroughly as Miss Winton just did. I’d guess after this, Lina would be extra careful not to mess with her! Maybe she wouldn’t ask so many questions about dicks, either. Maybe I wouldn’t need a blanket.

≈≈ ≈≈

We had an assembly where all the kids were told about the ABC club. Amy was on stage, and she addressed the audience and told them what we’d be doing and asked for more people to join the club. Also, for them to talk to any of us if they were being bullied or had a friend who was. She also called the rest of us to the stage so all the kids could see who we were.

Then the vice principal spoke and told the kids that bullying behavior usually would be cause for a suspension on the first offense and expulsion on the second. He told them that everyone was starting with a clean slate, and he hoped it would stay that way all year.

It was a good assembly. Kids were talking about it. Since I’d been on the stage, I got asked a lot of questions afterwards. So did the others, and we added some new club members, too.

But as for keeping the slate clean, it got dirtied pretty quickly. It was only two days after the assembly that I was called to action when we were on lunch break.

Our campus consisted of a number of spaced-out classroom buildings with wide paved walkways between them. SoCal weather almost always permitted moving between classes walking outside without coats or umbrellas. It so seldom rained that this was common in schools in the area. Many of our lunch tables were also outside and randomly placed in the walkways and around the buildings. I was eating with Lina and some other kids when we all heard some raised voices coming from a table a short distance away.

“We’d better check this out,” Lina said, rising.

I started getting nervous. I hoped I wouldn’t have to break up a fight. Hoped really hard. I’d never been in a fight. Would I still be able to claim that a few minutes from now?

We came to the source of the noise very quickly. Two tables down from ours, kids had all gotten up, leaving half-eaten lunches scattered on the table. They’d formed a loose circle around two boys, one who was obviously a sixth-grader and the other a slightly older and larger boy. The smaller boy looked scared to death. He had his hands up defensively. The larger boy’s hands were hanging by his sides. He was speaking, his voice challenging.

“Go ahead. Take the first punch. You’re a sissy and a queer and your mother sucks dick. What are you going to do about it? Cry? Maybe you suck dick, too.”

For some reason, I stopped feeling scared. Anger took over. I walked into the circle and stepped between the two boys. I faced the larger of the two. “What’s your name?” I asked him.

He was larger than his opponent but inches and pounds smaller than me. You get that a lot in middle school. Still, he’d been looking forward to a fight, one he’d have easily won, and I guessed his adrenaline was still pumping.

“Fuck you,” he said, and turned to walk away.

I grabbed his arm. Maybe a little too tightly as he made a noise. I held on as I turned to the kids surrounding us. “What’s his name?” I asked, meeting eyes.

“Charlie Crawford,” one of the girls said. “Everyone calls him CC.”

“Thanks,” I told her, then turned back to the boy I was holding. I let go of his arm, and said, “You touch this boy, you’ll be in a world of hurt. You’re already up for a suspension. Leave him alone or it’ll be much worse. Understand? Your parents care if you get expelled? Do you care?”

He wasn’t going to answer, but I grabbed his arm again. “Understand?” I asked again.

“Yeah,” he muttered.

“Okay, if you’ve finished eating, go away. If not, grab your food and then go.”

I let him go, but stood there, waiting. He gave me a dirty look, then spun away and bumped through the onlookers and was gone. I turned to look at the smaller boy and saw Lina was speaking with him and that he was smiling.

Lina and I went to the vice principal and told him what we’d seen and done. After a quick investigation, CC got a week’s suspension. I ended up feeling pretty good about myself. Amy congratulated both of us. I didn’t mind that at all, either.

I’d been thinking about Amy some lately. I sort of fantasized, thinking of her and me in various situations. What I found interesting was, when I tried to put her in bed with me or naked in a shower with me, she didn’t seem to fit. Troy had told me when he was getting together with Alyson, that just thinking about her made him feel all gooey inside. And too, he thought about her naked a lot.

Amy didn’t evoke gooeyness at all. I liked thinking about her as a friend. Us doing things together like maybe bringing down archvillains. Maybe solving murders on transcontinental trains filled with spies and creepy baddies like in a book I’d read. But not being gooey together. I didn’t feel that way about her, nor anyone else, for that matter. Maybe Troy was just different when it came to goo. Maybe some guys were like that and some weren’t. Maybe I’d never feel that, but then, who wants to be gooey?

Or maybe everyone did and I was abnormal.

≈≈ ≈≈

“You’re taking me to the dance Friday night, aren’t you? Should we wear matching outfits?”

I gave Lina a pitying look, even while thinking she was pulling my chain. I knew how to play this game, though. “How’re you ever going to find yourself a mate of your own peculiar sort if you’re on my arm? Besides, I don’t have a dress that fits.”

She ignored my sarcasm. “They’ll know looking at me that I’m only with you to help your ego. They’ll see how unfortunate you are and that I’m being very kind. Basically, they’ll ignore you altogether and be struck by my elegance and charm.”

“Even if that were true, which it isn’t as I’m better looking than you and have much greater charm, it still wouldn’t allow anyone who has the same passions you have to realize how very available you are.”

“The fact is, Scottie, that in finding a partner, I’ll do the choosing and the wooing. They don’t need to come after me. I’m not as shy as you are.”

“I see. And for the record, I’m not shy; I’m selective. But I’m not sure any girl I’d be interested in would be happy seeing I have a bulldog on my arm. They’d be afraid of being bitten. I think perhaps I’d like the shy and retiring type, the ones needing a protector, the ones who’ve been known to swoon now and then. A swooning, virgin beauty with a rich but dying father and no mom or siblings. That’s what I’m looking for, and they’d almost certainly be looking for me; they’d be attracted to my strong, protective vibes. So no, I won’t be escorting you to the dance. I’d be willing to walk with you to the door, however, and home again as I very much doubt you’ll find someone who’d lure you to a more private place once the music’s stopped. Or someone you could woo into your web.”

“So you’re admitting you won’t find that special someone, either?”

I grinned. “I seriously doubt it.”

The Friday night dance in the gym was just one of many the school held. They knew boys and girls our age were serious about finding someone. Those hormones steadily dripping away. We wanted a mate, and for most of us, the hoped-for sex we’d get from that mate was more important than the person. The boy-and-girl partnering part was secondary. But intermingling before sex was necessary. It was the part that let us know who else wanted sex.

Of course, we were a little less forward than that, less obvious, which made the hunt that much harder.

We did as I’d told Lina we would; we separated before walking into the gym.

I was wearing regular clothes. Well, nice regular clothes. Instead of jeans and a tee shirt, I had on a pair of medium-dark khakis with a crease in front and a polo shirt, a bright blue one that was supposed to bring out the color of my eyes. Instead of sneakers, I had leather shoes which I’d shined myself. I’d brushed my hair. It wasn’t comb-able. It was a mass of curls, not tight ones, thankfully, but it was curly, wavy hair that was sort of the fashion these days when worn kinda of long, though it was best if one kept it clean, and sometimes even brushed. I’d brushed and arranged it just so for the dance, and it looked fine. I thought, all in all, I looked pretty hot. Well, at least lukewarm, which was about as good as I could get. Hot was for the popular boys. I was sort of a subset of that. I’d learned that word in Math.

My mom told me I looked dapper. I had to look that up, but from Mom, that was quite a compliment.

I roamed, mostly. A couple of girls asked me to dance with them, and I did, even though dancing wasn’t a strength of mine. I wasn’t sure what was. I didn’t have a lot of strong points, other than being young and available. That would have to be enough.

I grabbed a couple of cookies and a cup of punch and stood at the side of the room, watching the crowd, especially the girls. So when I saw him, my eyes naturally moved on by. But then, on their own volition, they snapped back.

He was across the gym from me, leaning against the wall as I was. Except he wasn’t scanning the crowd. What he was doing was almost unimaginable: he was reading a book! Who comes to a school dance and then reads a book? No one, that’s who. If you don’t want to get involved with any of the other kids, you don’t bother to come. You stay home to read your book. I think there are rules about that. Maybe unwritten ones, but still . . .

But as he wasn’t looking around and there was no chance of our eyes meeting, I was able to focus on him without fear of being caught.

To use a single word to describe him, it would have been one I had to dig out of my subconscious, one I’d never ever used before. The word was radiant. He seemed to glow. Well, to me he did. He was amazing. He had dark hair, perhaps black; I wasn’t sure due to the dim dance lighting. It wasn’t as messy as mine was. It had probably been brushed, and it wasn’t as messy as mine. I made a great effort to make mine look casually messy, like I paid no attention to it at all. It took a lot of time to get it just right. His looked natural, too, that is, not messed with, but somehow it fit the shape of his head perfectly and was a very good, well-mannered, slightly curly mess. It suited him perfectly.

His face was slightly elongated rather than a Charlie-Brown-like circular one. Clear skin, lightly tanned, regular features with nothing that predominated. I was seeing him across the expanse of the gym floor, but all of his features fit together like they'd have been imagined by a sculptor when creating the ideal young teen boy. Even at a distance, it appeared his lips were pouty, the sort that invited kissing, his nose was straight and not curled upward or too long, his eyes—I wished I could see them, but they were looking down into the book. I needed to see those eyes!

It was a perfect face. I couldn’t tell what his personality was like from fifty feet away in a noisy gym, but his looks alone were so attractive, he was so appealing, it felt like he was a magnet and I was a piece of iron.

Just looking at him, studying him, I felt something inside, and, shockingly to me, felt swelling where it had never had happened before when I was looking at a boy.

I didn’t know him. He was obviously an eighth grader. I couldn’t explain to anyone why I knew that, but I did. I also knew every eighth-grade boy in the school, at least to identify as one of us and by name, and so knew he was a new student this year. Then it occurred to me like a sock in the stomach that maybe he was an outsider who had accompanied a friend here and was just waiting for her to get her fill of being sociable or dancing so they could leave. The book shouted out clearly that he wasn’t interested in getting to know anyone here. Maybe I’d only see him this once, tonight, and he’d be gone forever.

While thinking that, I also wondered if it was a boy or girl he was waiting for. It had to be a girl, I thought. He was way too beautiful not to have already been snatched up by any number of girls. He’d probably even been approached by boys, looking like he did. But somehow I felt he was a chick magnet and was playing for the straight team.

But that didn’t make any difference to how I felt. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I didn’t want to take them off. Which was good because I didn’t seem able to. I’d never been affected like this before by anyone. Ever. I was aware what this meant. I was fascinated, or more than fascinated, and consumed by this boy. And it was a boy. Not a girl. That took some getting used to. Was I finally feeling the passion I’d always wondered if I’d ever feel? And was it really for a boy? I was captivated by a boy? What in the world was that all about?

It was too much to think about. I could only handle one thought at the moment. That was: I had to talk to this boy.