It was time. The railroad tracks were the dividing line for which high school you went to. All of my friends lived on the other side and went to the school on the south side of town. I had to face this alone. I had on new designer jeans and a black shirt. I'd grown over the last summer and didn't look very skinny anymore. Still a little short for my age, but I was filling out pretty well, and I thought I looked tough.
My bus stop was only about a block from the house. I had never had to take the bus to school, so this was a first. There were two girls waiting at the same stop, but nobody said anything. When I got on the bus, there were only a couple of other kids there, but it stopped every few blocks and more kept getting on. Somebody finally sat in the seat next to me. He looked to be about sixteen or seventeen years old, and probably Italian. He was pretty tall and solid looking, and wore jeans and a jeans jacket over a dress shirt. He held out his hand to shake. "Rafe."
"Hi. I'm Dave."
"Yeah. Rafe's your name?"
"Yeah. Raphael. Raphael Anziano."
Rafe looked me over, "New in town?"
"No. Just to this neighborhood. We moved here last summer."
I shrugged, "Kinda. It's nice to have stores right outside the door, though. The East end didn't have anything."
Rafe eyed me suspiciously, "You smoke?"
"Yeah ... you know, like weed?"
I shook my head. "I never tried it."
"Maybe after school we can go blow a joint."
"Uh, sure. Why not?"
When we got to school Rafe took off. I went in and followed the signs to Freshman Orientation, which was in the auditorium. It was mostly a lot of talking about rules and code of conduct and things like that, then we went to the gym where they had tables set up by the alphabet, where we got our home room and locker assignments and our class schedules, plus little maps of the school. Then it was off to the home rooms to get situated there, and hear more school rules. This took up all of the first two periods, so I started classes with third period English. I was a little nervous, and everything seemed kind of boring. In every class we just signed out textbooks and heard each teacher's classroom rules, and little talks about what we were going to learn.
At lunch I had to figure out how the cafeteria line worked, which wasn't hard, then a little about lunchroom protocol. When I got out to where the tables were you could pretty well guess where you couldn't sit. Things were pretty much segregated by age and race and, to some degree by gender.
I was pretty close to the back wall before I found some kids I recognized as being in my freshman classes, then I had to find an empty chair. The kids I sat with seemed ok, and we ended up making a little small talk about how boring the morning was as we ate.
There were two more periods after lunch, then I was outside waiting to get on the bus. I looked around, but didn't see Rafe. When the bus came, I got on and sat next to a kid I didn't recognize. We didn't say anything to each other. I saw Rafe get on and sit down in the seat right behind the driver, then the bus started to move. After a few stops, when there were empty seats, I called to him to sit with me. When he got up I could see he had a bruise on his face, and that he was dirty and his shirt was messed up.
"Geez! What happened?"
"Did you win?"
"Dave, I can't win. It's just like last year. Too many assholes."
"Somebody doesn't like you?"
"I guess." His stop came up. "Still wanna smoke?"
"Sure." I got off with him. We were just ten blocks down from where I lived. We walked across the street and into an alley. It opened up into a little parking lot between some buildings. Rafe led me to a rotted looking loading dock and pulled himself up onto it. I sat beside him. He pulled a plastic bag out of his inside pocket and a pack of cigarette paper out of his shirt and rolled a joint. I knew what this was - I'd seen it. Ken's friend Jimbo smoked grass sometimes, though he never shared or offered to share with anybody but his wife. Rafe rolled a joint, lit it and inhaled. Then he handed it to me.
"You never tried it?"
"OK, first time. Let's see. Take just a little in your mouth, then open wide and suck in lots of air. It might be kinda rough at first."
I did what he said, but still choked a little. I handed it back to him and he sucked down some more of the smoke, then handed it back to me. I tried again and did better. I was already feeling it, and I started to grin at nothing. "Holy shit! This crap works fast!"
"It's good stuff." He took a drag and passed it back.
I looked at Rafe with a huge grin on my face. Suddenly the bruise on his cheek was hilarious, and I started to laugh out loud. He grinned back at me. "What's so funny?"
I just pointed at his face and went "heeee heeee heeee." It wasn't exactly like that, but I don't know how to spell what I really sounded like. Rafe didn't take it to well.
He frowned, "Think gettin' kicked around every day is funny?"
I thought what he said was funny. I thought the bricks on the buildings were funny. I thought the pavement was pretty funny. I was a giddy mess. I finally got it together. "Who hit you, anyhow?"
He hung his head, "No reason."
"Come on. I used to kick ass all the time, but I always had a reason. At least I thought I did."
Rafe looked at me for a long time before speaking, and it came out almost a whisper, "Ever beat on a faggot?"
"Once I thought I did, but I was wrong."
"Now you know the reason."
That shut me up for a second. Was he gay? "Are you gay?"
"Are you? I mean, I don't care." Damn! I sure wouldn't have said that a few years ago. Rafe was looking at me, a really strange look.
"You don't care? You don't care if somebody's queer?"
"No. I don't. One of the best people I know is gay, and I really don't give a shit. The kid I beat up is my best friend now. I used to think he was queer, but now it wouldn't matter if he was!"
"Timmy? No, he's not queer. Just kinda quiet."
Rafe looked at me again, kind of like he was trying to find something in my face. He had tears in his eyes. I did, too, but it was just from the grass, so I didn't think much of it. "Dave." Long, long pause. "Dave. I am gay. And I really need a friend."
"Uh ... how good'a friend?"
He smiled a little and bopped me on the arm. "Just a friend, man. Just a friend."
I smiled, "I can do that. I need a friend, too. I mean, I have some, but nobody at this school."
"You really know somebody gay?"
"Yeah. Barry. He's a really cool guy. And you'd never guess lookin' at him or talkin' to him. Just a regular guy. You don't act faggy or anything. How's anybody know?"
"I ... told them. I figured it out a long time ago and told my parents. They were ok, but my dad freaked a little. Not because I was gay, just how things could be tough. He thought it's best to be honest. I'm a big kid. I can handle myself. I just didn't get his message right. He meant that if anybody asked I should just say yeah, but I thought he meant for me to tell everybody, which I did. I can handle most guys, but today it was like three at once."
"You don't have any other friends?"
"Yeah. I got a couple. We laugh and stuff, but they're pot heads. They'll show up here later and we'll smoke. That's about it. It's all we do."
I grinned, "It ain't too shabby, either! You got any more?"
He rolled us another joint. I was liking this stuff. "Let me stay near you. I can fight."
"You don't have to fight my battles."
"Hey! Three against one is hard. Three against two sounds pretty fair."
He chuckled, "That's fair?"
"I told you I can fight." I showed him my hands. "I can always take on two. You get the other guy."
Rafe snickered, "You're just a freshman ... what? Fourteen? These guys are a lot bigger."
"Maybe, but I'm real wimpy. I don't go around hurtin' little kids. I like the big wusses."
He put his arm on my shoulder and pulled me to him. He laughed a little. "You're somethin' else, Dave."
"You gettin' queer?"
He lit his new joint and took a drag. He passed it to me. He started laughing. "You just don't know, Dave. You don't know at all. You ain't my type." He started giggling real hard. I took a hit on the joint.
I put my hands on my hips. "Not your type? What the hell's your type, then?" I started laughing, too.
"Beeg str-r-r-r-ong Man." He rolled his r's.
"Ya sure ain't beeg.!"
"I'm beeg where it counts." I grabbed my crotch. Wrong move. He backed away from me.
"You're just makin' fun of me. I don't want your dick, Dave. I never had no sex. That's not it."
"I don't know. I just don't want to be some druggie where that's all I do. I want friends, just people. Anybody, anybody that understands. I'm nothin' special, I just don't wanna waste my life. I wanna do things, see things. I'm in such a hole now. I really fucked it when I told everybody. You just said you'd be my friend, now you're makin' fun."
"I ain't makin' fun of you. I was just foolin' around. You can meet my other friends this weekend. I promise they won't care about gay. They might like you and they might not, but bein' gay won't be the reason. You don't hafta tell 'em anyhow."
"What kind of stuff do you do?"
"All kinds. From collectin' antiques to blowin' up stuff. We always have fun. And you gotta meet Ken."
"Just this guy. He's older, but kinda the ringleader. He's like the oldest kid there is. He's always makin' somethin' happen, and he's got lots of toys."
"Yeah. Dune buggies, dirt bikes. You'll have fun."
Rafe seemed interested. "Where do you hang at?"
"Ken's house. He's got like a hundred acres near where I used to live. I been spendin' weekends there. I'll call him, but I'm sure you can come over."
"I don't know ...."
"Just come over. You'll like it."
Two kids were walking towards us. They looked about Rafe's age. They were dressed just like him in jeans and denim jackets. They looked pretty wiped, but they smiled when they saw Rafe.
"Who's the bambino?" the darker one asked.
"This is Dave. Dave, this is Eddie and Ron. We usually hang around together."
Eddie was tall, about six feet, with reddish hair and a bad case of acne. Ron was pretty tall, too, maybe five-ten. He was real dark, I figured Puerto-Rican. He had kind of buck-teeth, but a nice smile. He pulled a pipe out of his pocket and a little bag out of another one. He dropped some little brown chunks from the bag into the pipe, pressed them down, then brought the pipe to his mouth and lit it with a match. He sucked some in, then passed it to Rafe. Rafe took a big drag, then passed it to me.
"What is it?"
"Hash, man. Just a little different. You'll like it."
I took the pipe and inhaled some. I did like it. It was like the pot but different. I didn't feel foolish anymore. I felt quieter, more serious - deeper. Ron held up a half-pint of whiskey, and I grabbed it and took a sip. It was really hard to swallow, but after the burning went away I felt pretty good. We passed the pipe and the bottle around until both were gone. I felt real good. Like the secrets of the universe were mine. All I had to do was remember the questions. I remember talking for a while, about what I have no idea, but I'm positive it was serious and relevant. I got very tired and laid on my back. I fell asleep.
When I woke up it was almost dark, and I was alone and not exactly sure where I was. My schoolbooks were beside me. I picked them up and walked home. I felt pretty shitty, but I did ok. When I got upstairs in the house my mother started yelling at me, like where I'd been and what I'd done and was I hungry. I just kind of ignored her and went to bed. I laid there thinking about how cool the day had been. I started out as a little jerk freshman and now I had older friends. Friends that drank, smoked pot and hash, and were just about the funniest people on earth.
Maybe high school wouldn't be too bad.
... to be continued
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