Okay, this one is rolling. Here’s a big ass chunk of raw red first draft meat, so copy edit away, please 🙂
CHAPTER ONE – JUST ONE MORE MINUTE
Roger weaved through the crowded paths on his bike, always looking, looking ten, twenty moves ahead. That chick standing on the grass with her back to the sidewalk? That dude who’s macking on her is going to move into her personal space, and she’s going to back up just a bit, narrowing your lane. Adjust accordingly. That guy with the campus map in his hand, he’s going to stop in his tracks right…now. That girl’s whispering in the other girl’s ear, something that’s going to make her crack up and turn and bend over laughing, bear right around the girl who’s talking.
It was practice without pads, running a route that never ended, always dodging and darting, relishing his incredible fast twitch reflexes, never missing, never colliding, leaving only an occasional indignant “Hey!” behind him as he came so close to someone who moved wrong at the last minute…but only close, calm down, I missed you, didn’t I? He broke into a big smile as he made three fast moves in a row to zigzag through an orientation herd, er, group. Who would ever sit on a couch with a video game when they could play this game?
With his helmet and wraparounds, he was anonymous, just another Cal student on a bike, zipping along to his first day of class. Not the BMOC, not the star, just a dude. Coach Orson had given him that secret, a way to be normal, anonymous, for a little bit of his day, the way he was told he never would be again in a year or two, when the NFL came calling.
He’d grown a beard over the summer, but would have to shave it off before the first game that weekend. “Image,” Coach Orson told him in his inimitable shorthand. “Wholesome, clean cut, they’re watching, they’ll pay more for squeaky clean.” Meaning, the pros, the sponsors, the big time, the big bucks. Everything had come to this, the cusp of fame and fortune.
Just a little more time, he thought to himself. Just a few more days. College Gameday would be live from Cal on Saturday, and that would be that. He’d had three years in the shadows, as a redshirt and then as a backup to Antoine Phoenix, the Sun King, the #1 draft pick. It had been great, to be out of the spotlight, to learn and grow, without the media, the other students, the pressure – not without the pressure to perform, that was pressure he put on himself with no prompting from coaches or teammates. But without the…bullshit. The yakity yak and the blah blah he was supposed to provide, and provide fodder for.
He drifted the bike up against the rack, old BMX skills, jumping off the bike before his leg hit the rack in a display of grace, finesse, the kind of stupid, unnecessary stunt an athletic young man performs…well, because he can. He locked it up, thanked the guy who held the door open for him, and took the four flights of stairs two at a time, not even winded at the top.
He’d estimated his time of arrival would be five minutes before class; he was off by one – six minutes early. Coach Orson had adopted the Tom Coughlin clock for meetings and practices – if you’re not five minutes early, you’re late.
“Dude,” Marcel said, and nothing more. They hadn’t seen each other all summer, hadn’t spoken, but it was as if they’d just had lunch.
“Dude,” Roger replied, sitting down next to him. “You start on the reading yet?”
“Done with Waley.”
Marcel shrugged his narrow shoulders. Roger was always amazed that someone so thin could stay alive. “It’s not the thorniest prose I’ve had to endure.”
“Good. I don’t have time for thorny.”
“No doubt. Oh, right, congratulations.”
“Thanks.” Marcel’s unenthusiastic congrats on Roger’s selection as the first string QB were really more a formality, as heartfelt as if he’d looked at someone’s new engagement ring, unable to avoid the necessary platitude even though he could give a shit. Frankly, Roger was surprised he even knew about it, though of course you’d have to be living under a rock to avoid the campus hype around the new football season.
Someone kicked his chair from behind. “I don’t care how famous you are now. You’re still a nerd, Roger.”
He turned around and smiled; Cherish had come through the classroom’s back door and taken her spot behind him, just as she’d done in every class they’d had for, wow, years now. “So I can stare at your ass,” she’d once told him, “and the nape of your neck, and your big broad shoulders, and have dirty thoughts for an hour and fifteen minutes every day.” Which, since she was a lesbian, was a pretty good joke.
The statement was half a question – would he keep up, excel in class as he had so far? Would he slack off academically with his new athletic demands?
“I am still a nerd, Cherish.” He felt warm, safe, accepted, happy. These were his people. Just give me this normal life, just a little longer, he thought…
Just give me another minute, Brian appealed. But his feet didn’t listen, kept propelling him forward, his hand went to the door handle. I’m not ready.
It didn’t matter, he knew. He was here, the die was cast, as Caesar had said. He opened the door and walked in.
Look at them, he told himself. Brainiacs. What are you doing here? It was Cal, man, UC Fucking Berkeley. Not Party Hearty State College. Not Lessing College, where he’d at least been able to keep his head above water. He had a year of sitting out ahead of him, a year in academia alone for the first time in his life. Fucking insane stupid NCAA rules that deny an athlete a whole year in his prime, for what? To keep you chained to the wheel, for the benefit of the schools and the coaches and the boosters, never the student, no matter what claptrap they spouted about academic excellence, stay the course, blah blah blah.
There was nobody with a hand on his shoulder, nobody to whisper, “You belong here.” He was here on a baseball scholarship, or would be next year. This year he was here on a boatload of student loans. And like anyone else in his situation, when he’d made the change and it was too late to unchange it, his blood went ice cold and he thought, What have I done?
Everyone in the classroom was in their own little world, not even looking up at the new guy. Nobody looks at anybody, he thought, anywhere ever. Trying to make eye contact with people on campus was like a contact sport where the goal was to avoid contact. Some people were oblivious, in their own world, some people were shy, some people were assholes. But almost nobody wanted to look at you, nod, smile, say “Hey,” just be…civilized. Like you were going to ask them for spare change, or beg them to join your cult. It was the first time in his life he’d been somewhere he didn’t know anyone. And it sucked.
But one guy in the classroom looked at him right away. A fellow jock, no doubt – another guy always watching the patterns, the movements, making sure no detail of the action escaped his attention. Instinct or ingrained, at this point in their lives it didn’t matter, it was habit, permanent.
The guy nodded, Brian nodded back. The desk on his left was empty, and Brian took it. Something tense unknotted inside him, his first friendly moment of the day, of his new life, something he’d needed like a glass of water.
“Hey, I’m Roger,” Roger said, offering his hand. The guy looked familiar to Brian, his dark hair and big blue eyes, with the ultra-white sclera of a clean-living man, the pale skin of someone who either spent this last summer indoors or had sensitive skin. He looked to be just short of Brian’s own height of six foot four, but not as beefy as Brian. A firm grip, a big hand, a really big hand. Meaty and work-toughened, like his own. Football, Brian thought. Was he a wide receiver? I feel like I should know who he is…
“I’m Brian.” Roger looked at Brian, at his serious handsome face, tanned from a summer outdoors without any of the sunscreen Roger applied rigorously, took in his dark hair and dark eyes, felt his grip match Roger’s own. Put it back, he told himself. But “it” was out, he was young and horny and this guy was…hot. He’s a big bastard, he’s got to be 240 at least. All muscle, heroic shoulders and chest. Rolling on top of you, wrestling with you, pinning you down, one of the one tenth of one percent of guys in the world who are bigger than you, who can do that, who can win that fight, the fight you’d put up to make him prove his worth, all the while wanting to lose, refusing to lose, thrilled to lose…
And then what? he said, discipline kicking in like it did every time now, every time he met a hot guy. Walk it forward. And then you do it, and then you fall in love, and then you’re a couple, and then everyone knows you’re gay, and that’s it for your NFL dreams, buddy.
No. He’d put too much into it for too long, to lose it in exchange for a couple quick spurts. Nobody knows who you’re thinking about when you jerk off, he thought. That’s all you get for the next ten years. Just…remember him. For tonight.
Dude is intense, Brian thought, feeling the force of Roger’s gaze. But he marked it down as “quarterback eyes,” scanning the whole field at once, taking it all in.
There was no more time for conversation, as the professor dashed in the door, hair and papers flying behind him. “Good morning, as they say on the plane, our destination today is the Italian Renaissance, if that is not your destination, you’re on the wrong flight.”
That broke everyone’s tension, the tension of a first class where you didn’t know if the professor was going to be a flake, or an asshole, or an idiot. Brian was relieved when he didn’t do the “let’s all introduce ourselves” bit, but just started lecturing. He watched some surprised students hastily pulling out laptops and note pads, none of them thinking that the first day would actually be a real class. The guy next to him, and his friends, had been ready, and Brian had looked and listened and followed their lead, his beat-up old Macbook fired up and ready to go.
“Now many scholars today question Petrarch’s view of Late Antiquity…” the professor said, and at that phrase, an alarm went off in Brian’s head.
“The Dark Ages,” Brian muttered under his breath, unable to restrain himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Roger twitch. He looked over to see Roger’s hand beside his thigh, giving Brian the thumbs up. A lifetime in the United States school system had taught Brian to keep a poker face, to never display feelings that might be classified as “hurtful to others” by the teacher, but he was grinning inside.
Brian hated that Late Antiquity bullshit. These were the centuries after the fall of Rome to barbarian invasions, and the idea that they weren’t a time of chaos, disorder, horror, and a regression into ignorance, but rather a time of “religious and cultural revolution,” in which Rome never fell but was “transformed,” was ridiculous.
The class was over before he knew it. Time flew when you were engaged in things, he knew that. It was just…so rarely that he was engaged.
“So,” the professor said. “As you’ll see from the syllabus, there are two options for your course project. For those of you who wish to work alone, you can contrast and compare three translations of Dante’s Inferno from different time periods. Details on what that will require to come. Or, you can pick a partner and the two of you can work together on a paper on a narrow field of interest – mercantilism in Florence, the sumptuary laws, whatever. You’ll need to run it by me first, of course. Oh, and you’ll both need to present a PowerPoint on it, so I know that one of you didn’t do all the work. See you next time.”
“You’re a Ward-Perkins guy?” Roger asked him as they packed up to leave.
“Yeah,” Brian said. “Hell, yeah.” Bryan Ward-Perkins had written “The Fall of Rome,” detailing in excruciating detail every technological and artistic accomplishment that had been forgotten during the, yeah, Dark Ages, how the collapse had sent people from homes of brick and stone to those of wood and dirt.
It was that awkward moment, Brian thought, where it could be “well, see ya,” or…
“Hey, you wanna get a beer?”
“Umm, it’s eleven thirty.”
Brian flushed. “Right, sorry.” This was Cal, man, you didn’t start drinking at noon here. Not if you wanted to keep up.
Roger looked at him, wheels turning. He was so used to it now, that sense of belonging here. But he’d never forgotten his first day, the whole shock of the big school, the big city, a different climate, a different, far higher set of expectations. Brian wasn’t a freshman, clearly, but he was new here, no doubt. It would be a kindness to accept his invitation, to be his friend…yeah, right, a kindness. You want him. You want his big body, and I bet he has a big cock to match…
“How about a coffee?” he said, ignoring the voice of lust.
Relief was apparent in Brian’s voice. “Yeah, man, that sounds great.”
Roger left his bike locked up; he’d be back to this building for his European Intellectual History class later. They walked down to Bancroft and went into Café Milano for coffee.
“So are you a history major?” Roger asked Brian after they were settled in at a table, facing each other.
“Yeah, sort of. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll finish.” He’d come to Cal fully intending to finish, but already, on his first day, he was dreaming of escape. I’ve made a terrible mistake! he told himself. I take it back! All he wanted now was to get through this third year of school so he could get back his eligibility for the big leagues.
“I’m a transfer, baseball, sitting out my year this year. With any luck the majors will come knocking, you know? Before I’m close to graduating, anyway.”
“You seem like a pretty smart guy. You should graduate, you know what happens in sports, no guarantees of a career lasting beyond your first injury.”
“Or your first big fuckup.”
Roger laughed. “Yeah, that too.”
“You on the football team here? You look like a receiver.”
“Yeah, I am.” He blushed. “On the team. Quarterback, actually.”
Brian’s eyes widened. “Oh shit! Now I recognize you!”
“Shhh,” Roger said, smiling. “Let’s keep that a secret.”
“Ha. Starting QB for Cal, you’re not much of a secret, man.”
Roger shrugged. “I got a few more days, before the shitstorm hits. One way or the other. Either I do okay, or I tank and…”
“The hero or the goat,” Brian nodded, knowing that scenario well.
Roger laughed. “Yeah, exactly. Charlie Brown, man. Anyway. So where’d you transfer from?”
“You’ve never heard of it, some rinky dink college. I mean, it’s a good school. But no shakes in the athletics department, you know? Good teachers, for sure. That was where I really got into history. I’ve never been too…academically adept. But I really got into history. I had the most awesome teacher, he used to say about that whole ‘Late Antiquity’ thing, ‘How can anyone say that it’s ‘vibrant religious and cultural debate’ when all you’re debating is how long a monk’s haircut should be or…’”
Roger finished the sentence along with him, eyes goggling. “ ‘…Or what the exact date of Easter was!’ Dude! That’s my dad! You went to Lessing!”
“Get out,” Brian said, floored. “Ehrens is your dad?” He laughed. “Small fucking world, man.”
“Yeah, he’s my dad. And yeah, he’s a great teacher.”
“Not much of a football program there, huh? I hear the coach is a pretty cool guy…hey, that’s right, he’s your uncle. Damn, dude, you could have stayed there and coasted.”
Roger blinked. A flicker of doubt about Brian crossed his mind when he heard that. Who wants to coast? “Coasting” wasn’t something that had ever occurred to him, anywhere, ever.
Brian saw the change in Roger’s eyes. Shit, a serious person, I forgot. He’d embarrassed himself, exposed his own proclivities.
Then it dawned on Roger. “You could have, too,” he said. “You didn’t have to challenge yourself, transfer to Cal.”
“Yeah,” Brian said, looking away. “I could have coasted, too.”
In reality, Brian had nearly coasted right out of Lessing. Well, run out of town on a rail might have been more like it. His coach, Jarvis Blaine, had shaken his head at first – boys will be boys, and what boys did in small college towns was get drunk and fight. Once, if they were scholar-athletes. Then they learned their lesson, straightened up, flew right, and had a story about a night in jail to tell their grandkids.
“You seem to be a fight magnet,” Coach Blaine rumbled in his office one day, looking over Brian’s head at the wall where a photo of his own grandfather, a Negro League legend, hung in pride of place, then down at Brian as he held an ice pack on his swollen eye.
“I’m a douche magnet, Coach,” Brian said. “These guys, they’re…they’re tools.”
“I know that. Frat boys who aren’t actually jocks, but walk around like they are. And you’re bigger than they are, and stronger, and they think they’re UFC fighters because they bought that t-shirt, that says AFLAC or whatever.”
“Whatever. And they’re going to pick a fight! Brian, you’ve got to walk away. Shrug and tell them to fuck off and walk away. Or,” the coach said, leaning forward, his eyes forbidding Brian’s eyes (well, the open one) to look away. “Or, you could not go to these bars. Stay home or go to the movies or…something.”
“Not much else to do around Santa Vera on a Friday night.”
“Well then stay home and drink, for God’s sake. I’m not going to give you that story again, dammit, you know that one too well.” It was true – Coach Blaine had told him how he’d been a drunk, how it had cost him his shot at the majors, how getting sober had saved his life, never mind his life in baseball. “But you just…” He ran a hand over his shaved pate. “God damn it, Brian, you know and I know it’s not fair. That you get totally shitfaced on a Friday and then hit two home runs on a Saturday.” He held up a warning finger. “And don’t you tell me about Babe Ruth, either.”
Brian grinned. The Babe had been a hard liver too, and it hadn’t hurt him any.
“That was then, man,” Coach said. “Back then there weren’t that many guys who were that talented, and none of them had much discipline. Never mind a healthy diet or strength conditioning. But now? Natural talent ain’t shit when you get to the bigs. If you get to the bigs. The scouts are watching your behavior, too, you know. And I’ll tell you. There’s some pressure on me. The athletic director has inquired about you more than once.”
Cold fingers snuck down Brian’s spine. Foster Dutton was one of those old pinchy-faced, bow-tie-sporting, WASP assholes always braying about “the purity of the game,” while they swilled scotch and popped Viagra and screwed their mistresses. But the rules of purity were intended for Brian and the other athletes, not for those who enforced the rules.
Brian shrugged, turning into himself, turning away. “Well, he’s a prick. There’s no pleasing him unless I become…fucking Tim Tebow or something.”
Coach Blaine snorted despite himself. “Well, he’s got power. Power over me, and that means power over you. So no more fighting, dammit. Do you want to play ball, Brian?”
Brian looked up, met his Coach’s eyes. “Yes sir,” he said, meaning it.
“Do you want to go to the show?”
Coach Blaine nodded. “Okay, then.”
Fighting. He should be better at it, after all this time. Should have taken a class in it or something. Gotten a belt. I did, he thought, walking out of the building, the throbbing building in his no-longer-iced shiner. I have a black belt in Bro Fu.
That’s what they did at his house, growing up. He and his two brothers duked it out over everything from the day he was out of the crib. What cartoon to watch? That’s a fistfight over the remote. Who gets the last popsicle? That’s a fight. Fight over the shotgun seat, fight over who’s adopted, fight over who Dad loves best.
Oh yeah, definitely that. Because Dad loved best whoever won the fight. “That’s my boy,” he’d say, and the implication to the other two was clear – you’re not.
And Brian had another strike against him when he was a little kid. He sucked at sports. Well, he was good at soccer, but his dad just snorted at that. “Try a real game,” he said, and Brian gave up soccer, and tried football, where he got creamed, tried hockey, where he got creamed, tried baseball, where he struck out with metronomic predictability. Dad had been a minor league ball player, still had the memorabilia from his AAA season, still told those stories about big league guys he’d known, seen coming and going up and down on the farm teams. Dad had drank his way out of that job pretty fast, ended up back home, working in the industrial laundry.
All of those failures just meant Brian had to fight more – fight his brothers, fight at school, because a note from school about a fight was better than any report card would ever be.
“Did you win?” Dad would ask, his eyes never leaving the game, whatever game, while he ate his dinner off a TV tray, home after seven most nights after a day working a ten hour shift. If the answer was yes, then Dad would look away from the TV, smile, rub your head, ask for details. You didn’t dare lie because Dad would tell the story the next day at work, and if the other kid’s dad knew the truth, you’d get the belt on your ass the second he got home, steaming with rage.
And then, adolescence. He grew five inches one painful year and gained thirty pounds of mass with no explanation; they almost worried it was gigantism or something awful. But that was fine with him, whatever it was, if it meant now he could beat up his younger and older brothers.
Oh, yeah. And that was when he suddenly stopped sucking at baseball. Totally stopped sucking. Started hitting foul balls and popups, hey, I made contact, holy shit. Then groundouts. Then fly balls. Then base hits. Then home runs. Then a lot of home runs. Then he was definitely Dad’s boy, and Dad let everyone in the stands know it.
“You need to work on your fielding,” his high school coach would say. “Or,” he said, seeing Brian eating every sandwich still left in the cooler after practice, “become a catcher. You’ve got the size for it.”
“Catchers can’t hit,” he said through a mouthful of ham and swiss. “Piazza, he’s the only one.”
So they put him in left field, where he could do the least damage. And any ball he muffed or let go by him or lost in the sun didn’t matter, because he’d make up for any scores he let on the board by hitting another one or two or three run homer.
And that’s where the problem started, maybe, probably. He learned what he could get away with. Learned what he didn’t have to work so hard at, because what came easy, what came natural, would make up for that. Started showing up for practice a little late, because he didn’t need to be there, did he? Could have worked on his fielding, but he could get away without having any fielding, hitting like he did. And if a coach said, you need to show up on time, you’re not a team player, he’d say, well, play the team without me then. They never did.
So why had he gone to Lessing, not straight into A ball or at least a Division I school? Because they saw it, the recruiters, the scouts, his halfassery, his devil-may-careness. They didn’t want him. It shocked him, like a freezing cold Gatorade bath, only this was the feeling of defeat, not victory. His grades sucked, hard, because he was going to be a ball player so fuck algebra. And that meant his academic eligibility would have been on thin ice every day and the big schools knew it.
One day some old guy, a talent scout, was there when he casually waved to a couple of girls in the stands, who giggled and waved back, and it was clear he’d nailed all three of them, maybe all at once. The guy looked at him and said, “Character counts, you know.”
Brian snorted, literally rolled his eyes. Another thing old men said to young men, a fucking bumper sticker. He didn’t get it – yeah, it sounded like do as I say not as I do, but really it was something else. Something you couldn’t understand until you were older. It was really saying, I fucked up, I didn’t make it, but you can, you can do what I couldn’t, I want to see you be the other me, the one who made it, I want to see that.
But soon he was reeling. He was a senior in high school and he was going nowhere. How could this be? Then he’d met Coach Blaine. Who’d showed up and seen his talent, who’d heard all the “unreliable, unstable” reports. And offered him a scholarship to Lessing.
Brian looked at him. “Why?” was his question now, hard to believe anyone wanted him, teenage gloom and doom replacing cocksure arrogance just like that.
Coach Blaine put a hand on his shoulder and smiled kindly. “Because, son, I am the man who is going to turn you into the man who stops not giving a shit.” It wasn’t the greatest syntax, but the intent was clear.
“I’ll think about it,” he said, and turned away, overwhelmed. This kind of father figuring wasn’t in his range of experience. Someone who gave a shit. What was that?
His dad snorted. “Lessing? That’s all you could get? Hell, you’re not even leaving town. Might as well admit it, you’ll be like your old man. Be working in the laundry in a couple years, if that.”
He froze. Stunned. His future unfurled in front of him like a black banner, reeking of solvent. He rode his bike to the campus, found the coach’s office.
“I want in,” he said.
Coach Blaine looked at him. “I am going to work your ass. I am not taking any shit from you. You are going to keep your grades up. I don’t expect a 4.0, but I expect a 3.0, because you can get that with hard work alone. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” He held his breath; Blaine was looking at him almost as if reconsidering his decision.
“What changed your mind?”
He had to trust someone, had to talk to someone. It had dawned on him that he didn’t have anyone like that, but then he’d never needed it before.
“My dad. He…he says I’m going to end up at the laundry, like him. And that was…like an…” He fumbled for the words.
“An emotional concussion.”
Brian laughed. “Yeah! That’s it!” A wave of affection came over him for Coach Blaine. This guy gets it. He’s not full of shit like all the others.
Blaine nodded. “I know about difficult fathers. Here’s the deal. Two years with me. Then they’ll come knocking, the big schools. I won’t stop you. Once you enroll in college, you need three years in school before you can go pro, unless you turn 21 first, and I know some big ass school is going to want to pick you up before I’m done. But you promise me two years.”
Blaine believed him. “Okay. I’ll start the paperwork in the morning. Don’t let me down.”
“I won’t, sir, I promise. And thank you.”