Read an Excerpt
TRY TO FIGURE OUT WHICH boy I have the biggest crush on. Is it Quincy Slatton, the science genius sure to win a Westinghouse Scholarship? Is it Tally Higgins, the stoner who is always seen at school, but never in class? Is it Gary Burns, the shy introvert who blushes when you say hi but comes alive in the art room?
No, it’s none of them. Why should it be? There’s at least a slight possibility that someday I could date one of them. Instead, I’ve made it as difficult as possible for myself to ever fulfill my dreams of love. Yes, I, Justin Goldblatt, the school loser, have a crush on the oldest chestnut in the book--the unattainable star quarterback, Chuck Jansen! How cliche is that?
FYI, that’s pronounced “clee-shay.” In English class today, David Chasen was reading a Guy de Maupassant story out loud and pronounced it “clysh.” Everybody, including Mr. Fabry, laughed. Even though I felt bad for David, I joined in. It felt good to finally not be the reason the class was laughing. Usually after I speak in class, Doug Gool will cough “faggot” into his fist. He does it in such a way that the teacher doesn’t hear, but everybody else does. He’s been doing it for so many years at this point that he’s started to vary the words that he coughs--sometimes it’s fag, sometimes queer, sometimes gay. I guess I should applaud his creativity. Lately, he’s been using various themes, depending on what the class is focusing on: We’re studying Pilgrims in social studies, so he’ll cough “Thou art gay” in my direction, and since we’re learning the periodic table in earth science, I’ve gotten used to hearing a constant chant of “fagnesium” whenever I speak. Most annoyingly, though, recently in geometry, after I identified a shape as a “trapezoid,” he coughed “fagezoid” and received a round of sustained chuckles. I was outraged . . . not merely by the insult but at what passes for homophobic rhyming mockery. At least “magnesium” and “fagnesium” have the same vowel and final consonant in the first syllable, but “trapezoid” and “fagezoid” do not rhyme! How dare such shoddy workmanship bring down the house?
Anyhoo, I was raucously guffawing at David Chasen when, at the height of my openmouthed laughter, Doug Gool pointed his phone at me and snapped a shot.
He flashed it around. “Look at the piece of spinach in Goldblatt’s teeth!”
I quickly clamped my mouth closed, but it was too late. The proof was in his iPhone. He sent it to Jeff Horner as the bell rang, and Jeff had just enough time before everyone left to forward it to his entire contact list, which included the whole class. It was the only instance when I haven’t seen everyone rush out of the room. Instead, they suddenly had all the time in the world to stand around and look at their phones. The mild laughter about David Chasen’s pronunciation of cliche was nothing compared to the belly laughs my spinach-filled teeth got. That is what my friend Spencer calls instant karma.
“I’ve told you before, Justin. Karma means that whatever you do, the same is done back to you.” Spencer explained it to me (for the tenth time this year) in gym class later that day. He was wearing black shorts with a black Gap V-neck that, combined with his orange hair, made him look like a Halloween centerpiece. I know orange hair sounds crazy, but it’s eye-catching, fall-foliage orange, not Ronald McDonald orange.
Looks-wise, we’re totally different; he resembles a Midwestern farmer while I could easily be mistaken for someone applying to rabbinical school. On top of that, he’s around six inches taller than me but weighs twenty-five pounds less. I don’t know which I’d rather be: tall and crazily skinny like him or short and chubby in all the wrong places like yours truly. Also, I’m jealous of Spencer because when he gets older and fills out, he’s going to be great-looking, with his cute face and good hair. Since I’ve known him, I’ve seen his hair automatically style itself into something hip and trendy whether he’s sweaty from gym class or soaked from a sudden rain shower or refusing to put in any product in protest of the destruction of the Amazon.
I, however, spent all of seventh through ninth grades trying to straighten my hair every morning, but by third period, it would always go back to its natural curl. And I don’t mean the fun, bouncy curls you want to run your fingers through. I mean tight, Brillo-pad curls like . . . well, like a Brillo pad.
Spencer and I were essentially by ourselves outdoors. We were supposed to be running track, but we weren’t. We were jalking, which is a word we invented that means moving much slower than jogging but one iota faster than walking. That’s why most of the word is from walking, but the j is thrown in because there’s a little essence of jogging. Once in a while, Mr. Hasley would blow his whistle at us and we’d go from a jalk to a jog.
Spencer continued explaining. “You were laughing at David Chasen, so your karma was to then have people laugh at you.”
I didn’t want to hear the rest of the explanation, so I feigned being out of breath and waved for him to keep moving. He stopped. He considerately waited until I stopped panting to finish his lesson in why I deserved what I got.
“Sometimes it takes a while . . . ,” he continued, and then took a moment to think of an example. “Like when DeeDee Gosling returned that wallet she found and months later was crowned homecoming queen even though everybody thought Tricia Hansberry was going to get it.”
He was right. That crowning had to be DeeDee’s good karma. It certainly wasn’t based on her twice-monthly-washed hair.
“Sometimes, however, it’s immediate, or what’s called instant karma.” He stopped and pulled out his phone to show me what he meant. “Like this.”
I stared at the shot of my gaping mouth that featured what looked like a whole head of spinach in my two front teeth. I spoke with detachment. “I’m glad to see your phone has such good pixelation. I can see not only the spinach but also remnants of the processed cheese used in the cafeteria’s vegetarian lasagna.”
He peered at the photo. “I don’t think that’s because my phone is so great. I think that would be pretty obvious even with half the pixelation.”
Mr. Hasley blew his whistle three times to signal the end of class, giving me a break from learning more details about why my school-wide humiliation was my own fault. The other boys hit the showers, but since Spencer and I broke nary a drop of sweat, we just went to the locker room and put our school clothes back on.
I looked at myself in the mirror. Hmm . . . maybe if I cut my hair short, my natural perm wouldn’t be so big. And if I ixnayed my enormous post-homework bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, I could lose some of my gut. As the saying goes, “My diet starts tomorrow.”
But I didn’t mean that as a homily that people mysteriously found humorous enough to reproduce on refrigerator magnets. I was serious! I’m sick of looking the way I do. Spencer appeared in the mirror behind me. His hair was a mess . . . and it looked great. While he fixed it for no reason, I waved and left the locker room quickly so none of the boys could accuse me of lingering and looking at them (which I wanted to do). Spencer joined me in the hall and told me he wanted to get a PowerBar from the vending machine before his next class. I watched him sprint toward the cafetorium. Ironically, his running after gym class was thirty times faster than his “running” during gym class.
I had the next period free and decided to go to the library. The reading area has super-plush chairs, and I wanted to snuggle down and lose myself in A Tale of Two Cities. I hoped the plight of Charles Darnay would help me forget my latest school-wide humiliation. I got there right after the bell rang, and luckily my favorite chair was available. I opened my Charles Dickens but couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking about the latest picture of me being texted to everyone. Was it passing through the air particles surrounding me? Why did this kind of thing keep happening to me? I closed my eyes and tried to focus on what exactly was keeping me on the bottom of the social ladder.
On the surface, this would be a perfect problem to work out with Spencer because he’s so smart, but I always have to remind myself that his advice starts out helpful and then gets annoying. Especially about social issues. Yes, last year he helped me accept being gay, but two minutes later he couldn’t understand why I wanted to be popular. Infuriating.
And yet, maybe there was something helpful he said that day that I’ve forgotten.
Hmm . . . I decided to remember back to that afternoon in the park to see if there were any nuggets of wisdom I’d let slide by me.
I had spent all of freshman year in denial of the growing feelings I was having toward boys. I absolutely didn’t want to grow up to be gay. I had been called a fag ever since fifth grade, and it had always made me feel awful about myself before I even knew what it meant. Realizing that I probably was what the name meant was too much for me. By the spring, I had successfully suppressed thinking about it.
Until that afternoon in late June.