Back to college! I’ve been going around on the whole school name thing. If I send them to “Cal,” then I feel hemmed in by the Real Cal and its real history and its real baseball and football programs, their winning/losing seasons, quarterbacks, etc. So I Hereby Declare the existence of Cal State Berkeley, a fine university in Berkeley that is Not Cal!
As I finish Roger’s backstory, I’m getting a lot of ideas on what I need to do to give Brian more backstory, too. I’ll go back and add more detail on his home life, make the passingly mentioned AD at Lessing into a pervy old dude, give him some gay panic based on his father’s/family homophobia. But you’ll have to buy the final edition to get all that 🙂
Here’s today’s installment:
December 1st. Batshit crazy day for college football recruiters, as the Evaluation Period ended and the Contact Period began. Roger woke up at 6 am to the sound of the phone ringing downstairs. He smiled as he heard his dad say, “If you’re calling us at 6 am, we don’t think you’re the right program for us, thanks goodbye.”
The big game, the awesomeness of his winning fake play, the nickname that came with it, that photo outside the service… Sometimes things just all come together right, all at once. Roger was the It Boy of high school football, the quiet leader who’d sat behind the superstar QB, working hard, never a diva. The team’s story had been picked up nationally, gone viral.
The recruiters came and went, some low key, some keyed up, all of them effective, seductive, convincing. Roger and Jacob smiled and nodded and said little or nothing unless pressed hard, in which case they said “No.”
“I wish Lessing had a good football program,” Roger said over dinner one night.
“They do. For their division. But that’s not going to work out for you. And my God, Roger, you have to go big now. You’re like the heiress, and all these suitors won’t leave you alone until you marry one of them.”
“Yeah, no doubt, huh. Still…you know. A small liberal arts college, where football isn’t the be all and end all, nobody getting in my personal business…”
Jacob’s heart hurt at times like this. He thought of his moment in the children’s department at the library, the pretty librarian smiling at him, how he’d turned away from her and told himself, later, later when my son is grown. His son was so like him, that way.
“If you change your mind, if you don’t want to live this secret life you have planned, trust me, I’ll be as happy if not happier for you. I want you love someone, and be loved.”
Roger nodded. “I want that, too.” He looked up at his dad, who saw it then – the healthy white sclera, the diamond-cut eyes, the ambition. The decision, made. “Someday.”
“All the same,” Jacob said. “It might be good for you to pick a school that’s not…you know, clinically insane when it comes to football. Nothing in the SEC, for instance.”
“Yeah, somewhere there are a couple of pro teams, a lot of other big colleges, so the attention is a bit diffused. I want to go to school, too, for real. Be a history major.”
Jacob beamed. His son was so bright, so talented, and to see him follow in his own footsteps… “Cal State Berkeley has a great history department. Not as great as UC Berkeley, but…”
“And a good football program, too.”
“Well…” It suddenly occurred to Jacob that his son would be leaving him. Not today, but within a year, less now. “I think that’s a great choice.” It wasn’t that far away, he consoled himself. Just up I-5. He wouldn’t really be saying goodbye. Still.
Roger smiled. “Then it’s settled.”
CHAPTER FOUR – ARE YOU GUYS BROTHERS?
Brian took another pull off the Red Bull. His eyes kept traveling down the page, then sideways, burying themselves in the crack between the pages, folding themselves up in the crevice for a nice nap. Waley and Dean’s prose on the Italian City-States was allegedly famously awesome, but Brian was having a hard time with it. His mind couldn’t focus on tenurial changes to country property as a reflection of urban prosperity and self-image. He did like the parts about the podestas, the traveling-mayors-for-hire who could often find themselves barricaded in a town hall against a raging mob, or run out of town on a rail. You know, the exciting bits. But he loved history for the events, the personalities, and they were thin on the ground in this book.
But when he read about how the Italian nobility had no qualms about going into commerce, which he knew that most European nobility viewed as degrading, he wondered if maybe that wasn’t a good subject for that two-man class project, how maybe because the Italian didn’t look down on filthy lucre and commercial enterprise, that had been the prime mover behind the Renaissance…
He turned to his Macbook and started typing an email to Roger. They’d only met a few days earlier, but Brian had grabbed onto his new friend like a lifeline. Sure, he’d met some of the other guys on the baseball team at a meet-and-greet, and they were good guys, and he was looking forward to working with them, but it was Roger who’d become the focus of his attention. he’s probably already hooked up with one of those brainiacs for his project, you know, his enemy sneered.
Fuck you, Dad, he replied, knowing damn well who’d planted that dark seed in his mind. He typed up a quick note to Roger. What the hell, right? He was pleased with himself for having thought of it, and wanted Roger to know he’d thought of it. I want him to know I’m a smart jock, too.
what, is he your girlfriend? why do you care so much what he thinks?
Because he’s cool, Brian smiled, silencing the voice. He’s Joe Camel, man.
Brian’s little panic attacks, that he’d had ever since moving into his dorm room, were dissipating now, thanks to Roger. His sense that he was out of his league here, academically at least, was kept at bay by Roger’s attention to him. The dude was a stud – a top-notch jock with a 4.0 GPA (he’d looked up Roger’s press – it wasn’t the kind of information Roger would volunteer). And if he liked Brian, that meant Brian wasn’t a loser, right?
To his shock, Roger wrote back within a half hour. Hey man, that’s a great idea. The only thing that concerns me is that we’d have to research a lot farther afield than just the Ital Ren, to go deep into say the French nobility’s anti-mercantile snobbery and beyond. I was thinking about doing something on the state’s role in people’s lives, how deeply regulated everything was from the price of bread to the length of men’s hair and the size of a miller’s stone. The medieval “nanny state,” you know?
Brian was exultant. Roger’s tone presumed that of course they would be working on the class project together. He took another chug of the Red Bull and turned back to the textbook to see what Roger was talking about.
Roger’s heart hammered in his chest when he saw Brian’s name on the email. Stop it, you’re acting like a teenage girl. He’s a friend. A fellow scholar-athlete a bit lost at sea in his first year in the big time. Someone who needs a mentor.
Right. Roger knew what that looked like, and this wasn’t it. He was in his fourth year at CSB, using his third year of eligibility, and he’d always been the guy on the team who hadn’t hazed the FNGs, never razzed a player who muffed a punt or a handoff or a pass. He had taken more than one poor dumb hick, fresh out of Redneck Valley High, under his wing and helped him learn the system. Systems, plural – the football system, the school system, the social system. And those guys had never ruffled his feathers, never caused a…stirring. Never sent him a mail that made his stomach ache just to see it, unopened, unread, in his inbox, all the possible things it could contain like a pile of leaves stirred up in a breeze inside him.
No, those decent young men had never done that to him. But in these years in a sophisticated environment, near a major urban center with a large and diverse population, he’d discovered something about himself that shocked him: he had a dark side. It wasn’t the heroes who made his guts churn, but the others, the bad boys. The guy who breezed into class with a new tattoo on his forearm, in the visible area! Where everyone could see it forever! He could never work in a bank! The guy whose black clothes smelled faintly of sex and weed, the guy with the smirk instead of a smile, the…the Jayces of the world. As sexually guilty as Roger was innocent.
And Brian. Brian reeked of sex, of that dark power. He was so big and tall, and his legs were huge. He wore those hiking shorts, and they rode up when he sat down, and his massive hairy thighs, holy crap, they were so pale where the board shorts he must wear covered them up all summer, such a typical straight dude, not at all concerned with getting an all-over-tan. And with his legs being so lean, so defined, Roger could only guess at his abs, six or eight pack? How much does he squat, more than me for sure… And his eyes, so alert, so attuned… Roger had watched them when a great-looking girl crossed Brian’s field of vision, he’d seen Brian’s eyes narrow like a predator’s, had felt the heat rising off Brian’s skin, the fierce lust, the dark energy…
Stop. No, I can’t think that way. He’d come up with a system for times like this, a numbering system for all the reasons to do, or not do, something.
One, NFL. That was always number one. The order never changed there. No more needed to be said.
Two, he’s straight. Three, he’s your friend. Four, you’re going to be his class project co-author. Five, I want him on top of me, all his giant weight on me, me on my back with my legs over his shoulders, his eyes boring into mine as he…
Shit! He opened the mail. His mind cleared momentarily as he analyzed Brian’s idea, picked it apart, thought of how best to tell him it was too much work, too ambitious. But as he did, he was already pinging Marcel via Google Chat.
>Dude. If I back out of doing the IR project with you, how bad?
Roger had made friends, decent friends, on the team. But the closet was…a barrier. A bigger barrier than he’d imagined. He couldn’t be honest with people, couldn’t let them be too honest with him in case he was required to reciprocate. But he had a rep as the good guy, the helpful guy, the quiet guy who wasn’t at the wilder parties because he was a straight-A student with a lot of work to do, because he was the guy who spent extra time in the weight room, in the film room. Not because he was the guy with no interest in war-whooping every time some chick took her top off.
Marcel and Cherish were different, though. He had to have real friends, had to tell someone. They didn’t bat an eyelash, of course, especially Cherish, being gay herself. And more importantly, they didn’t judge his decision to stay in the closet. They didn’t approve, but they didn’t condemn, they understood why he did it.
>The new guy, Brian, we’ve been hashing out some ideas.
It was 2008, and while much of young America had yet to discover that the Internet was forever, Marcel was ahead of the curve. He’d leave nothing on record to concern Roger later.
Roger smiled, well aware of the double meaning.
>Drawn and quartered?
>Close. You owe me a presentation at the History Students’ Club on the role of the scholar-athlete in society.
Roger grimaced. More work. But if it paid for more time with Brian…
He clicked Reply and started typing his response to Brian, fingers racing.