The Age of Innocence

Chapter 5

In the week following the dance, there was only one more bullying incident reported by an ABC member. It resulted in another suspension. I guess the word got out: the school’s vice principal was serious about stopping bullying. The ABC was becoming an effective deterrent. I was proud of being part of that and hoped there would be no more bullying at our school.

I hadn’t spoken to the boy I’d seen at the dance who’d so affected me. I hadn’t been able to. The idea of just chatting with him had been too much for me. If I’d tried, I’d have been tongue-tied and probably made a fool of myself. I simply didn’t know how to make that first move.

Sure, I’d told Noah how to go about making friends, but this was different. First off, this was me, not Noah, and it’s always easier to give advice rather than act on it. Second, inconsequential chatting with someone to see if there’s any mutual interest is much, much different than speaking to someone whose mere appearance seems to have changed your life in basic ways; speaking to him will have substantial effects, perhaps on the rest of your life. You can’t just walk up and start casually conversing. Well, I couldn’t, at least.

I still didn’t know who he was. Ours was a pretty large middle school. Nearly 1,400 kids. It had to be easy for any single kid not to be noticeable, and maybe that was why I hadn’t seen him. Too, it still was possible my guess was correct that he wasn’t a student here, that he’d simply been waiting for a friend when I’d seen him in the gym.

And then I discovered who he was.

He was in my Gym class! I hadn’t known because early on, the Gym schedules were still being finalized, and so roll had never been taken, and during the Gym periods we’d all been turned outside and told to jog around the school’s grounds. Boys and girls. Over a hundred kids in the class. We changed in separate crowded locker rooms into shorts and tees the school provided. They were dark blue shorts and light blue tees, the school’s colors. We were given lockers in the locker room for our school clothes.

We were finally going to be more organized, that is, to have separated gym classes for one day at least. As we boys were changing into our clothes for Gym, the mood in the locker room was a little tense. This was the day when we’d be showering for the first time, and the day jockstraps were required. We’d never had to strip nude before in the locker room. Now we did. We hadn’t been given much warning about that, just told yesterday that beginning the next day, jocks were required—we’d be checked that we had them on—and showers were mandatory.

I’d been going to school with many of these kids for years but never seen any of them naked. Today, that all was to change.

Okay, I’m making this a bit more dramatic than it really was. Yeah, we had to pull off our underwear and pull on our jockstraps, but we could have already put on our shirts by the time all the pulling would take place. It was the idea of it more than the actual doing that was awkward. Most of us donned ours while facing our lockers, so unless someone was really curious, no one could see much of anything but bare butts. And why would they bother looking? We’d all be fully naked in the showers later.

As noted, boys and girls would be separated that day. The girls would gather outside, and we’d be in the gym. This was so the coach—the Gym teacher wanted us to call him Coach, not surprising because he also was the school’s basketball team’s coach—could take roll and check that jockstraps were being worn.

I took an immediate dislike to the guy. He was loud and bossy and seemed to think we were raw military conscripts, not middle-school boys. He yelled at us to line up in a straight line along one side of the floor, yelled as us to be silent, and then called roll. That was when I realized the boy at the dance was in my Gym class. I saw him when he was saying, “Here,” when his name was called. Suddenly my stomach felt full of chicken grease. Was this the gooeyness Troy was talking about?

Coach had called out the name Micah O’Connor and the boy of my dreams—well, I had dreamed about him each night since I’d first seen him—answered, “Here.” He had a perfect voice to go with his perfect appearance; it was unbroken and cute. He was slim, slimmer than I was, and slightly shorter than I was. He appeared nervous, but that could have been my imagination, wanting him to be nervous, wanting him to be wanting someone—me, in fact—to rescue or protect him.

After the roll was called, Coach told us again about mandatory showers. “You’ll all take them, and none of this namby-pamby wearing bathing suits or underwear. That’s for sissies, and we don’t have any sissies in here, do we? You’re all boys and you’ll act like that. No need to cover anything up because you’ve all got ’em so no need to hide ’em. This is part of becoming men. This class will help you do that. I’ll make sure of that.

“Another thing. You all knew you were to have jocks today. We’ll have an inspection now, and you’d better goddamn well be wearing one. My word in here is law, and you’ll learn pretty damned fast to pay attention to it. Now, I’m going to walk down this line, and when I’m about to get to where you’re standing, one or two boys before I get to you, pull down your shorts so they’re halfway to your knees. I should be able to get to the far end of the line in less than a minute this way.”

The way he was yelling, the look on his face, had every one of us a little shaky. We weren’t used to this.

The thing was, I wasn’t used to feeling intimidated, and I didn’t like that feeling at all. I realized I was starting to feel a little bit of anger. No one had done anything to deserve the way he was treating us and especially not me. I was also a bit confused by the gooey feeling. So I decided to stop feeling intimidated. And for some reason, I did. I just allowed my anger to replace it.

Micah was in the first third of the line. I was in the last third. We all half-turned to watch the coach do his inspection. The first boys all were pulling down their shorts as the man walked by. And when he came to Micah, he stopped. Micah was the only boy in line so far who hadn’t lowered his shorts.

The coach was facing Micah now, and he shouted, “What’s your problem? You speak English, don’t you?”

Very nervous now, with a shaky voice, high and trembling, Micah said, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t have a chance to buy a jockstrap yesterday.”

“By God, you should have. Pull your shorts down. I don’t think you were stupid enough to come in here without one.”

“Uh . . .” Micah started to say, but I guessed that was all he could manage. He started to pull down his shorts, but then stopped and shook his head.

The coach said, “When I tell you to do something, boy, you’ll do it.” Then, he reached over and grabbed Micah’s shorts and yanked them down all the way to the floor.

Micah was now naked from the waist down. The coach wasn’t looking at anything but Micah’s face. He was yelling into it from about a foot away. “We don’t accept excuses here. We do what we’re told to do. Now, as you didn’t, you pay the price. Take off those shorts and spend the rest of the period running around the gym walls. You and these boys need to see the consequences of not doing what they’re told. Now go.”

Micah reached down and instead of removing his shorts, started pulling them back up.

The coach screamed even louder seeing that. He made Micah remove the shorts and start running. He even gave him a slap on his bare butt to encourage it.

We all were shocked into silence, watching the scene, then watching Micah run. I saw how humiliated he looked, and something snapped in me. The whole Gym class was frozen except for the sounds of Micah’s shoes hitting the floor. When he was halfway around, I’d decided what to do. Luckily, I knew the boy next to me. I whispered in his ear, looked him in the eye when I was done, and he nodded. He looked as upset as I felt.

Then I pushed down my shorts and my jock and started moving toward the gym wall. By then, Micah was about where I was, and when he got there, I joined him in his jog. I stayed next to him, more or less shielding him from the view of the guys more or less standing farther in on the gym floor.

Coach saw what I’d done and screamed at me to get back in line. I ignored him. Micah gave me a quick glance. I saw tears in his eyes. That almost broke my heart. I had to say something. These would be the first words I’d speak to him. It was important they be the right words. I had to think for a moment to get them right.

“You’re Micah,” I started. “I’m Scottie. Funny way to get to know someone, isn’t it?” I didn’t wait for him to answer; didn’t know if he would. “This is crap, Coach doing this, and if I have this figured right, this will be the end of him. What he’s doing is either illegal or should be. We’ll see. If I’m right, we only have a few more laps to go.”

Even having said that, I hadn’t expected what happened next. As we came around the gym close to where the rest of the class stood, watching us, four more boys peeled away from the pack and joined us. All naked below the waist. Wow! This was great and should make what I’d done even more effective. I grinned and kept jogging.

Micah kept jogging, too, and I saw the tears had stopped coming now. We kept jogging, the six of us, the coach kept screaming, not just at me but now at the group of us, and then the door to the gym crashed open and the school’s vice principal and the boy I sent to get him both came through it.

They looked at us joggers, and the vice principal yelled, “What the hell is going on here?” That’s when I took Micah’s arm and told him to stop. All six of us did. In as soft a voice as I could, I said, “Guys, cover up with your hands. The more embarrassed we look, the better off for everyone!”

No one had a problem covering themselves up. We were all twelve or thirteen. It was the most normal thing in the world for us to display the modesty we all had. I had an ulterior motive as well. Now that the main excitement was over, I was very aware I was standing next to Micah and we were both basically naked. And I had feelings for Micah I’d never had before for anyone else, feelings that, with my being so aware of Micah standing next to me, were present even in this situation. It was like he was vulnerable and naked and I was there for him. Yeah, like that. I had a growing concern, and it was important to have my hands where they were doing the most good. This would be the worst time in the world for others in the gym to see my predicament.

The coach had finally stopped screaming. He did start sputtering to the vice principal, who wasn’t paying much attention to him. Instead, the man simply barked, “Ron, go to my office and wait for me. NOW!” He then came over to where the six of us were. He knew me from the ABC, so I was the one he spoke to.

“Why were you guys running with no shorts on?” he asked, and I was the one who answered. I told him the coach had made Micah do it, and when we all saw how embarrassed and upset he was, we’d joined him so he wouldn’t feel so alone. I also told him the coach had forcibly stripped Micah before slapping him hard on the butt and that I didn’t think any of that was legal in this state. Making a point, and if he took it as a tacit suggestion, well, it was after all the naked truth and no more needed to be said.

Then the vice principal addressed the entire group, told us to shower and get dressed and just hang out without making any noise till our next period.

That was the last we ever saw of our coach. He was terminated after the VP spoke to the principal, probably in the hope they’d avoid a lawsuit which they felt could be brought by Micah’s parents.

≈≈ ≈≈

But that was all ahead of us. All of us were left by ourselves as the vice principal followed the coach out of the gym.

I’m not a take-charge guy. Never was one. I’ve always been more comfortable behind the scenes. Playing backup and not being noticed. The past few days were very unusual for me; I’d stopped a fight, then come forward to help Micah. I was getting the feeling that I could do things like this if they were needed. Did I like doing them? I’d felt good afterwards because I knew I’d helped someone. But that didn’t mean my personality was now different or I had any interest being a leader. No, that wasn’t who I was.

I mention this because if a leader was ever needed, this was the time for it, yet I wasn’t assuming the role. We were all standing in the gym looking at each other. It would have been so easy for me to just say, “Okay, guys, let’s hit the showers,” and then lead the way into the locker room. I didn’t. That wasn’t me. I could have; I did entertain the thought. But I didn’t want to take on that responsibility; if someone else wanted to pick up the ball and run with it, I was fine being in the crowd behind him.

What did I want to do if not that? That was easy: I wanted to talk to Micah. It seemed to me we now had something to talk about, and I probably wouldn’t be falling all over myself trying to make him notice me, and, ideally, like me. What a thought that was!

But then reality, or maybe it was awareness, set in. I was standing next to him, and neither of us had our parts covered with anything but our hands. Just the internal acknowledgment of that was enough. The growing concern I’d had moments ago hadn’t been imaginary. Its enlargement may have been interrupted, but only momentarily. It wasn’t as stiff as it could be, but was again moving in that direction. Rapidly.

Micah, though, was still motionless. Almost frozen, it seemed to me. Needing to move, needing to change the mood, mostly needing to make sure no one, especially Micah, saw my cause for embarrassment, I turned away from him, then turned just my head back and said, “Let’s go get our shorts. It feels weird, standing here like this.” Then I moved. Quickly, no longer needing my hands so strategically placed for maximum concealment as my back was to him, I moved toward where I’d discarded my shorts. I picked them up, acting very normal, as if the former nudity hadn’t meant a fig to me. I didn’t want to look like a wuss in front of him.

I was lucky that, finally, someone in the main group had headed for the locker room. Others followed, meaning they all had their backs to me other than Micah, who was behind me.

I knew I had to thank the other four guys who’d joined us jogging, and I thought Micah would like to as well, but that was for later. Right then I had a boner to deal with. Putting on my shorts certainly wouldn’t hide my problem. They were thin and not of the down-to-the-knees style the NBA players now sported. Without some sort of extra cover-up, all would be revealed. I’d have a tent large enough to house a three-ring circus.

So I didn’t bother to put them on. I picked them up and held them against my crotch to show modesty, but mostly so I could press my protuberance up against my body. That allowed me to turn and watch Micah pick up his shorts.

That was when I realized I’d never really looked at him, all of him, while he was running. I was watching his face, watching his humiliation, and feeling all sorts of emotions, and somehow, I just hadn’t taken the opportunity to observe what I’d guess most boys my age would have looked at first. Now, I could have looked while he was putting his shorts on. His eyes were down; he wasn’t looking at me at all, so he wouldn’t have known. But I didn’t. It seemed wrong. I didn’t stop to think why it was; it simply seemed that way. To me, he belonged on a pedestal. He wasn’t a picture in a smutty magazine, or on a website I wasn’t supposed to be old enough to view. He was alive and human, and amazing and, to me, pure and innocent, and so looking at him without his knowledge just didn’t seem right. Perhaps that seems weird, or unreal, but I didn’t look.

When he had his shorts on, I walked with him to the locker room. He stopped before we got to the door and reached out to take my arm. He was touching me! Yeah, I know, I had it bad. Really, really bad. But his touch sent shivers up and down my body. The initial response to seeing him at the dance hadn’t worn off at all. I couldn’t say it was stronger now because I don’t think it could have been. I was still in awe, smitten with him, and a little ill at ease just being near him. And now he was touching me.

“What’s your name?” he asked. I loved his voice! It was soft and breathy and sounded like it was in the process of breaking, or that it soon would be. Right now it was light and airy and wonderful and, as my impression of him was that he was either shy or timid, I thought it perfectly suited him.

I’d told him my name when I’d joined him on the run, but it made perfect sense that he’d been so out of it, he hadn’t heard me. “I’m Scottie,” I said. “And I know you’re Micah because I was watching the kids I don’t know when roll was being called. You must be new here.”

He nodded but looked like he had something to say, so I let him continue. “I was really hurting out there, and then you came, and my whole mood changed. You truly gave me new heart. I don’t know why you did it. But that isn’t important. What’s important is that you know how grateful I am. I can’t say thank you strongly enough.”

What should I say? I couldn’t tell him I did it because of how I felt about him. That would be absurd. But I didn’t want to minimize it, either. I liked him feeling he was grateful to me. It gave me an in with him. I wanted us to be friends. That was prime with me. It was a first step towards I didn’t know what, but something monumental, I was sure. Luckily, I thought of something to say that might bring us closer. The truth is usually your best bet as long as it doesn’t give away too much.

“I saw tears on your face as you came around the first time, and it made me so mad, so pissed at the coach, I just had to do something, even if it got me kicked out of school. You looked like a good guy, one I could be friends with, and the coach was bullying you to make a point and not thinking of the effect that had on you at all. I hated him for that and hated what you were going through. I didn’t even really think about what I was doing. I just did it. I joined you. If you were in trouble, I thought maybe I could be, too, and save you a little of what might follow.”

Wow! For me, that was the speech of a lifetime!

He didn’t seem to realize that and didn’t react at all, instead just responding to the last bit.

“You wanted to save me?”

So maybe I’d said too much. See what happens when you open your mouth? Keeping it zipped is the best policy. So, now what?

I blushed. I wanted him to see that, see some of my emotions. “I wanted you not to feel what you were feeling, what we could all see you were feeling. I knew you didn’t want us to see you crying. You have to hate doing that as much as I do! We’re supposed to be past that, even though we aren’t. Anyway, yeah, I was feeling sympathy for you, even though I didn’t know you. You looked like you needed help. Maybe not exactly to be saved, but helped, and I wanted to do that. Hey, it worked! I joined you, and bam! No more tears.” Saying that, I raised my hand for a high five. He saw it, grinned, and slapped my hand.

Damn! I did it again. I never talked like this. It had to be him and his effect on me. But, oh man! That grin! I thanked heaven I had such a tight grip on my shorts. What was underneath was as hard as I’d ever known it to be, and it gave a sort of jerk, a spasm brought on by the grin. No, not that kind of a spasm, just a reminder it was there. In my whole life, I’d never been harder.

I covered up by even more talking. “And then the other guys came, and it all turned out about as good as it could be. I can’t imagine the coach ever picking on you again. I’ll be very surprised if he continues on staff here.”

“I hope not,” Micah said. “He’s intimidating!”

“Sure is,” I agreed, realizing I was actually talking to him. As equals! What a wonderful accomplishment.

“I guess we ought to go in and shower and get dressed. I’ll admit to you, I’m a little uncertain about the showers. I’ve never taken a group shower before.” Damn, I was doing it again, and it felt right! Who was this Scottie kid? No one I knew. “At least, most of the other guys might be done by now. That should make it a little easier.”

That was no lie: I didn’t know how I’d react to being with a bunch of naked, wet guys. Well, I didn’t think it would have been a big deal prior to the advent of Micah. They’d just be naked guys, and I’d be naked, too. Now? How in the world would I be able to handle this, naked with and exposed to Micah? Then I had another thought. Perhaps he was feeling the same thing. I’d guess most guys at thirteen would be nervous about this. Maybe I could help us both.

It took much less time thinking that than writing it down. So when I spoke, it was like continuing with what I’d just said.

“You know, I’ll bet some of them, maybe a lot got hard. I might, too. Just the situation and the fact I get hard all the time now for no reason at all. And if I see someone else get hard, I just know I’ll get hard, too. I guess we just have to get past the embarrassment.”

“We?” He looked at me, and I’m sure I must have looked really weird. Yeah, I’d just more or less said I expected him to get hard in front of other guys, even putting it out there that maybe it would be because of the other guys.

He was looking at my face, and suddenly broke into laughter. When he could, he said, “Gotcha!”

“Oh, man, you did! Got me really good. I didn’t mean—”

“Of course not. And maybe you were even trying to save me again. Giving me a reason not to be embarrassed if I get hard, and I probably will.  Is that why you said that?”

Well, that was putting me on the spot, but a spot that seemed at first glance one I’d only benefit from, no matter how I answered.

“Well, maybe a little. I think I’ll get hard in there, probably will, and if it’s only the two of us showering, that boner will be doubly embarrassing and maybe give you the wrong idea. But I thought that if I figured I’d get hard seeing a boner, you might, too, and I wanted to make it so neither of us would be too embarrassed or get ideas. Knowing what’s what, neither of us should care that much. So it was saving us both, actually.”

He grinned at me again. Damn, he needed to stop doing that. Then he pushed through the door into the locker room. I’d been right. The shower room was empty but still misty. Showering had gone on. I didn’t know how many boys had showered and how many hadn’t or if anyone had worn anything while showering. None of it mattered. Micah and I were now going to get totally undressed and shower together. Alone together. Naked. Wet and naked and, and . . .

My problem was I was already mostly naked. And hard as a rock. How was I going to strip the rest of the way, meaning my shoes and socks, then walk to the shower room with my steel girder leading the way?