Gotta Be More Careful

In high school, my backpack was never large enough to hold all my textbooks. Every day, I would manage to cram a few notebooks and textbooks in it, but there was so little time between classes, I couldn’t stop at my locker to switch them out. I’d have to carry all of my books for the classes I had before lunch, then during lunch, I’d grab the books I’d need for the second half of the day. This meant I’d inevitably have to carry a couple in my arms as I navigated the halls, creating a perfect opportunity for bullies.

As I bent over picking up my math book and notebooks off the floor, a soccer player, Mike, saw an opportunity and kicked the book further down the hall. “Gotta be more careful, fag,” he said mockingly, barely breaking stride as he continued to walk. He was so full of himself. Being one of the best players on the team afforded him a lot of clout in school. The fact that he was handsome with a great body made him think he was a god among insects.

“Screw you, Mike!” I called after him.

“Mr. Shea, that’s not an appropriate way to address a classmate.” One of the football coaches appeared behind me.

“Coach, he knocked my books out of my hands and then kicked it.”

“That’s not how I saw it,” he said, shaking his head. 

I don’t know why this surprised me. Jock types always stuck together, regardless of their age.

“Of course not. How convenient for him,” I muttered.

“Maybe you need an afternoon of detention to think about how to show people respect. My classroom. After school.” He didn’t wait for me to respond. He didn’t even attempt to help me pick my stuff up off the floor. 

***

Mike wasn’t done with me that day, even after the bell released us from school. I don’t know how I allowed my friend Stephanie to talk me into going to a school dance. I never enjoyed dancing. But someone always seemed to succeed in dragging me to these things. I typically found a place to sit and socialize with the few people who weren’t afraid to be seen with the school’s only openly gay student.

The school gym was packed with students dancing to Gwen Stefani declaring herself a “Hollaback Girl.” Stephanie was dancing with a guy from her Spanish class. I waved to her and pointed to the boys’ locker room, letting her know I was going to the bathroom. She waved, acknowledging me, and redirected her attention back to Spanish Class Guy.

In the locker room, I had to walk past a row of lockers and benches to reach the actual bathroom. As I stood at the urinal, I noticed the distinct smell of weed coming from one of the stalls and saw a pair of sneakers under the divider. This wasn’t uncommon. I don’t know why anyone would want to smoke weed inside a school bathroom. If you want to smoke, why not do it outside or in the car or something so you wouldn’t risk getting caught by a teacher?

I was washing my hands as the stall door opened and Mike emerged, his eyes looking as red as his hair. I tried to ignore him, but he didn’t want to ignore me. “What are you doing, fag? Hoping to see some dicks?” He pushed my shoulder, but I didn’t turn around. I didn’t want to engage. I dried my hands and tried to walk out, but he grabbed my shoulder, holding me back. “What’s the matter? You too cool to talk to me?”

“Leave me alone.”

He grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me closer. “Fag. Why don’t you leave the rest of us alone? You come in here hoping to check out another guy’s junk, and I’m just supposed to be okay with it?”

I could smell beer on his breath. “I wasn’t trying to look at anyone’s junk. I had to pee, you jerk!” He tightened his grip for a moment, and, with as much force as he could muster, shoved me in the direction of the lockers. As I stumbled backward, I tripped over the benches and fell hard to the floor. I don’t know what I caught my arm on, but it was now scraped with a small amount of blood trickling down. Not knowing what else he would try to do, I looked up at him. “What’d you call me, fag?” I asked. 

Mike calmly walked around me, making his way back to the gym. Before he left, he took one last look at my shocked expression. “You tripped. You gotta be more careful, fag.”

 ***

Seven years later, I clumsily placed four shot glasses on a table, drops of vodka spilling from each one. “Okay, kids, drinks are served!”

“Party foul!” Derek teased. “You gotta be more careful, dude. Just because you’re not done waiting tables doesn’t mean you get to spill my drink.”

Everyone grabbed a shot glass, but Samantha stopped us before we drank. “Here’s to Ian, selling his soul to corporate America for a few pieces of silver!” She held up her shot glass. We all laughed at her mocking toast before downing our respective shots.

I winced as the vodka made its way down my throat. I hated shots. “In my defense, I’m not selling my soul for a few pieces of silver. I’m selling my soul for a 401k and a bad-ass dental plan!”

We all laughed. It was Saturday night, and we were all in good spirits. I was starting my new job on Monday, and last night was my final shift as a waiter. I would never have to carry a tray of appetizers ever again. Despite her disdain for “corporate America,” Samantha was happy for me. All my friends were.

The club was busy tonight. We stood around one of the tables in the bar area, enjoying the music thumping through the loudspeakers. We could see the large entrance to the dance floor populated by couples and small groups of friends boogying the night away.

Derek put his arm around me. “Ian, I’m worried.”

“What are you worried about?”

“Now that you’ve quit waiting tables, who’s going to get my order wrong?” He burst out laughing at his joke. I tried to pretend I was insulted, but I couldn’t suppress my own laughter.

“Oh, come on, I wasn’t that bad!”

“Honey, I’m still waiting on my steak from three months ago,” Samantha said, chuckling.

“I told you, it’ll be out in a minute.”

Derek declared he felt like dancing. Samantha and Darcy cheered at the idea.

“You guys have fun. I’m going outside for a cigarette,” I said.

“You really need to quit,” Darcy said. “Your teeth are going to get yellow and gross one of these days.”

“That’s okay. He’s got that great new dental plan!” Derek laughed as they all made their way to the dance floor. Sam and Darcy wrapped their arms around each other as they started dancing.

I couldn’t help but chuckle as I walked outside. The club had a back patio that contained a series of tables and overlooked a river. At night, it looked really pretty. You couldn’t tell how polluted it really was. The patio wasn’t anything elaborate, but it served its purpose. About a dozen people were milling around, some smoking, some just sitting and enjoying their drinks. Two women sat at a table, holding hands, looking as if they were in the middle of a deep conversation. I stood at the edge of the patio, lit my cigarette, and looked out at the water. I wasn’t interested in mingling, so I just enjoyed a moment to myself.

My moment of peace was interrupted when a guy approached me asking if he could use my lighter. He was taller than me, wearing a Tom Brady jersey and Patriots cap. It wasn’t the typical attire I was used to seeing at gay clubs. He lit his cigarette and handed me my lighter back. “Thanks. You’re Ian, right?”

Mike stood before me, smoking a cigarette, holding a bottle of beer. I wasn’t sure what to say. It took me a moment to realize it was even him. His athletic body was a distant memory. His face was much rounder than it had been back in school. The Tom Brady jersey was loose-fitting, but it didn’t hide the fact that his stomach was a lot rounder than it used to be. The Mike I went to high school with was at the gym after school virtually every day. I wasn’t sure how to react seeing him now. High school was years ago, but some memories never fade. “Wow. Mike. Hi.”

“I thought that was you! How you doing, man?” Mike’s tone was cheerful, even friendly. I was confused. He spent four years addressing me as “fag” more than my actual name. What was he doing at a gay club?

“I’m good. I’m good … I’m here with some friends … they’re inside … hi.”

Mike seemed to sense that I was uncomfortable. He shifted his weight to his back leg and tried standing more casually. Maybe he was trying to put me at ease. He took a long drag of his cigarette.

I wasn’t sure what to say. I wasn’t even really sure why he had approached me. “So, um, what are you up to? What are you doing with your life?”

“Uh, well, I’m not working. Rough economy right now, you know? How about you?”

“I’ve been waiting tables for a couple of years, but I just had my last day yesterday. I’m starting a new job Monday. I’m going corporate.”

“That’s great. Good for you.” 

This was ridiculous. Why was he trying to talk to me like we were old friends? “Mike, what are you doing at a gay club?”

He seemed taken aback by my bluntness. “It’s a good place to meet guys,” he replied as if it were the most obvious answer in the world. He shifted uncomfortably. I don’t know what he had expected, but this little reunion didn’t seem to be going as planned. “I guess you’re surprised I’m into guys considering …” He didn’t seem to want to finish the sentence. It was as if he was just now realizing the irony of what was happening.

“Considering how much you tormented the token fag in high school.” I didn’t see any need to hold back. We weren’t kids anymore.

Mike shrugged his shoulders. “Oh come on, man. That was high school. We were teenagers. That was a long time ago. Let me buy you a drink.”

Dropping his cigarette to the ground and snuffing it out with his shoe, he put his arm around my neck as if to lead me inside to the bar. I used my free hand to remove his arm, uneasy that he was trying to be so friendly. He was right. High school was a long time ago. And yeah, we had been teenagers, but was that a valid excuse? Did that change how badly he had treated me? Had I deserved what he had put me through?

“Yeah, it was a long time ago. But you were still horrible to me. And then you walk up to me like we’re old friends and nothing happened? What did you think would happen?”

“I don’t know. Say hi, have a drink, see where the night takes us? I mean, your ass does look really good in those jeans.”

“No. No, it doesn’t work that way.” I took one final drag of my cigarette and put it out in one of the smokers’ outposts.

“Come on, man, it was just high school. Don’t be that way.” He sounded sincere like he genuinely wanted to talk. He was attempting to downplay the past, but I didn’t want to hear him downplay it. I wanted to hear him to apologize. But it didn’t seem like those words would ever come out of his mouth.

“Good to see you, Mike.” I began to walk back inside, but he stopped me, putting his hand on my shoulder again.

“Don’t walk away like that. Let me just buy you a drink so we can talk,” Mike insisted.

I spun around, getting in his face. “You and I don’t have anything to talk about. I’m not your friend, and you sure as hell aren’t mine.” He stood in stunned silence, thrown off by my anger. My outburst had earned the attention of some of the nearby patrons, who were discreetly trying to listen to us. I didn’t care at the moment. “You spent four years going out of your way to bully me and push me around any chance you got. You were a bully. Maybe you had some kind of self-hating homophobia you were dealing with, but frankly, I don’t give a damn. You tormented me and you had fun doing it. You loved that I was too afraid to stand up for myself. I got news for you, Mikey, I’m not scared of you anymore.”

Mike looked sheepishly at his shoes, shoving one of his hands inside his pocket as he took another sip of his beer. “I don’t know what to say,” he humbly admitted.

I took a deep breath. As calmly as I could, I answered him, “How about ‘I’m sorry.’”

His lips parted as if he were about to say it, but something stopped him. He couldn’t make eye contact with me. Was he really unable to utter two little words? I shook my head, too aggravated to say anything else. I turned my back to him and returned indoors.

Inside, I tried to make my way to the bar, but my friends spotted me and coaxed me to join them on the dance floor. After a few minutes, Derek leaned in closely, speaking directly into my ear, trying to make sure I could hear him over the music. “Hey, see the guy in the Tom Brady jersey at the bar? He keeps checking you out.” I looked where Derek pointed and saw Mike staring at me as the bartender handed him another bottle of beer. A group of girls pushing their way to the bar bumped into him, causing him to drop his beer.

“Party foul!” Derek laughed.

As I watched Mike use his hands to try and wipe the beer from his shirt and his arms, I leaned towards Derek. “Dude should be more careful.”



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