The day I died in 9th-grade gym class

Growing up, the other black males in my family were angry, violent men who abused their loved-ones, while the white males on television were strong, handsome men who rescued people, hugged people, smiled at people and didn’t abuse their loved-ones. On top of that, the handsome white men on TV did some pretty terrific and adventurous things.

I was raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, in the 1960s and 1970s. The city’s passion was race cars and race car drivers. I dreamed of the Unsers and Foyts fighting over me in a custody battle, rescuing me from my angry, abusive family.

By the time I hit puberty, I was thoroughly convinced my fate lay in the hands of a white man whom I had yet to meet. He was going to be another boy at school. We were going to be best friends, as seen on TV and in the movies. Playing sports together. Horsing around together. Chasing girls together. Sharing secrets together. The Hutch to my Starsky. The buddy of my dreams, with whom I could survive anything, even my family, even puberty, even high school.

I dreamed of meeting that buddy freshman year. Didn’t happen. What happened instead served as inspiration for a short story titled The Original Quarterback Who Broke My Heart, as well as a flashback sequence in Bridge Across the Ocean and a pivotal scene in Walt Loves the Bearcat.

Here now, the story of a day that changed my life forever, as excerpted from Bridge Across the Ocean, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for Small Press Title.

The Day I Died in 9th Grade Gym Class

Robbie Roberts “happened” over ten years ago, during the age of disco balls, Farrah Fawcett-Majors posters and Chevy Chase falling all over himself as clumsy President Ford. That was also when the world knew me as Ezra, the name given to me at birth.

I had a crush on Robbie Roberts from the moment I laid eyes on him sitting atop Mr. Duffman’s desk in the gym teachers’ office. One look and I was swept away by his wavy, honey brown hair, his penetrating, deep blue eyes, his smooth yet confident face. My heart beat faster than I ever thought possible. I lost my breath and thought I would collapse from weakness. It were as if, for the very first time, I was seeing everything I had ever dreamed of, a handsome, perfect boy, rich with athleticism and masculinity, a golden halo surrounding his entire body. Robbie Roberts became my everything.

I went home from school that day and my body literally ached with thoughts of him, what he was like, all the best-buddy things we could do together. My desire wasn’t even consciously sexual then. I just knew that I wanted to spend every waking moment with him, that with him, my whole world would be complete.

Finding out he was the quarterback for the freshman football team only threw fuel onto the fire already raging in my adolescent soul. Robbie Roberts was a star-athlete and a leader. They didn’t come any more God-like in my adolescent mind.

“… I desperately wanting to impress him so we could embark on our lifelong friendship.”

It had been years since I’d thought about the day in ninth grade that changed my life. I wasn’t even sure I’d thought about it in my entire adult life. But I could still remember every awful emotion I felt that hot fall afternoon. It happened in gym class. A few weeks after seeing Robbie for the first time.

There were six basketball games going on at the six goals of the gym. I could still see the hazy thickness of the sweat-drenched air filling the gym, still hear the chaotic rumblings of about eighty ninth-grade boys all dressed in the same blue gym shorts and blue and white reversible tank tops.

I was ecstatic and terrified that I ended up in the same game as Robbie Roberts. We’d never said a word to each other, but my infatuation was at its peak. I was determined to play my heart out, desperately wanting to impress him so we could talk afterward and embark on our wonderful, lifelong friendship.

Early in the game, the ball fell into my hands, my chance to dribble and shoot and dazzle him. The next few seconds happened in a blur: swarming hands surrounded me, bodies bumped against mine, legs tangled with my own. An arm broke through and stripped the ball away from me.

Then he said it: “Jesus, another Bubba.”

Bubba Brown, who was also black, was the joke of my school. He had the size and strength to be a good athlete, but Bubba was born with some kind of physical defect.

No one at school knew the exact nature of his problems, but what we did understand was that he was partially deaf and couldn’t speak like the rest of us. His speech was almost indecipherable, his words slurred and thick with saliva. His coordination suffered, too. The ninth grade class assumed Bubba was retarded. Everyone made fun of him.

“The end of the world had come. I died but couldn’t let the rest of the gym class know it.”

“Jesus, another Bubba,” Robbie Roberts said in the flurry of action after the ball was taken from me. He didn’t say it to anyone in particular, really just to himself, his voice a mix of shock and disgust, as if he really couldn’t believe that, of all things, in his world of perfectly graceful athletes, another clumsy dope like Bubba existed.

To everyone else, the comment most likely blew carelessly through the stale gym air, becoming lost in the clamor of excitement. To me, a shrill siren had sounded. The end of the world had come.

I died, but couldn’t let the rest of the gym class know it. I went through the motions and played out the rest of the game, trying my best to remain as invisible as possible, clinging tightly to the emotions inside me lest they come bursting out uncontrollably.

Gym class was the last class of the day. I rode home on the school bus feeling apart from the others. They were laughing and making jokes with each other. They didn’t have to dream about having friends. Robbie Roberts hadn’t called any of them Bubba.

I got home and dropped my books on the table next to the door. No one was home. Like a zombie, I walked to my room and collapsed on the bed. I lay on my back, feet propped up against the wall, and cried for the next two hours.

My life was over. Robbie Roberts was never going to be my best friend. I hated the world. I hated Bubba for coming to our school. I hated myself. I was never going to be anything special, never going to be liked by anybody, never going to have a best buddy. Robbie Roberts had made it official: I was just another Bubba. In my irrational state, I decided that our unusual names were partially to blame for our outcast lives.

Ezra. Bubba. Bubba. Ezra.

Through the tears, I decided right then and there to change my name. I was going to have the name of a person that people would like, that people would want to be friends with.

I started with the A’s and went through the alphabet. Alan? Andy? No. Bob? Bill? No. Mike? Peter? Zeke? It had to be just right. I started over. Alex? Bill? Charles? Derek?

Derek. Perfect.

I imagined myself as Derek, sitting on the grass of the school grounds, surrounded by all the popular people. We were all laughing and joking, and I, Derek, was at the center of it all.

The next day, I went up to every one of my teachers and said,“By the way, when school started a few weeks ago, I meant to ask you to call me by my nickname … Derek.”

Thus the transformation began. The teachers followed my wishes. The students picked up on it. And eventually, if reluctantly, my family joined in.

As infatuations thankfully do, mine for Robbie Roberts eventually subsided. The only time we ever spoke was during one of the last weeks of senior year. He was in a deserted hallway, surveying his locker which some of his friends had decorated, covering the door with colorful streamers and signs wishing him good luck in college. I walked by as he was plucking a package of gum off one of the signs.

“Hey, Derek,” he said.“Wanna stick?”

I was shocked he actually knew my name.

“Sure,” I said. He handed me a piece of Juicy Fruit.

“So you’re going to California,” he said.

“Yup.” Everyone at school knew my destination. It wasn’t everyday somebody packed up and headed west. “And you, Alabama?”

“You bet,”he said.

For a moment,we stood there, him leaning on his locker, me holding the gum in my hand. Already we’d run out of things to say. I didn’t know what else to do except be thankful that we had spoken that much, so I just shrugged, said, “Thanks for the gum,” and left.

That was the last time I ever saw Robbie Roberts, and to the best of my recollection, the last time I’d given him much thought until Cancun and Rob Velarde.

I shook my head and let out a deep, long, restful sigh, then another, and finally one more, all in the name of moving on and not living in the past.

—from Bridge Across the Ocean by Randy Boyd, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for Small Press Title.