But yeah, we’re still a little ways off from what you’re all waiting for. But I’m starting to block it out, The Big Scene. We’re building up to it. Patience, little ones!
CHAPTER FOUR – THE MARSHMALLOW TEST
“Well, Mike, I think we’ve known for a while that Ehrens has the skill set. But my problem with him has always been that he’s a very cerebral player. And that’s what a quarterback needs to be, no doubt. But this is the first night I’ve really seen him play with passion. In other games, we’ve seen him spike the ball or do a leap into the stands, but it was always…strategic, calculated. Tonight I saw a QB who’s ready for the NFL, who’s got the leadership skills and the…mojo to lead a professional team. Who was fired up, who had his team fired up. That in my mind is what led them to victory.”
Roger had gone into the game so full of joy he hadn’t been able to describe it. Everything was great in his life, every…single…thing. His schoolwork was first-rate, his body was functioning perfectly, he’d added 20 pounds to his bench press this week just from increased confidence in himself, and of course he had Brian. Well, yes and no, it was friendship not romance, but for now, that didn’t matter. He had love. He had a brother, someone who knew his deepest darkest secret and kept it.
Maybe what had amazed him most was that trusting someone with a secret didn’t mean its instant exposure, and the end of everything. Instead, Brian had shared his own.
It was late September, and Fall was in the air. But neither young man felt the cold as they took a long walk across town, through UC Berkeley’s vast campus, and up to the park in the hills above town, packing thermoses and a blanket.
“My dad was pretty liberal with the belt,” Brian said as the conversation turned to youthful misdeeds and their punishments. Roger’s father had been one for “restriction,” an enforced inactivity that had driven Roger crazier than any corporal punishment ever could have.
“For what, if you got caught shoplifting or something?”
“Ha. He’d pretty much break it out for any reason at all. If me and my brothers knocked something over when we were fighting, even if it didn’t break. If we yelled too loud during his TV show. If he had a bad day.” Brian lowered his voice even farther than his own deep rumble to imitate his father. “ ‘Gawd dimmit, you gawd dimm kid, get in here for a whippin’ you hear me?’ Belt to the ass time.”
“See why I’m jealous of your dad?”
“Yeah.” Roger hesitated, thinking of something but afraid to ask, afraid it would sound too…what? He thought about it, realized it was dumb to overthink it. “So, you know, Thanksgiving’s coming up. I don’t know if you’re going home to your folks or…”
“No. No way. I’ll just stay right here. Better a cafeteria turkey sandwich than having to deal with that mess.”
“Well, come with me. You know my dad would love to have you.” He held his breath then, afraid it had come out “too gay,” that it would sound like he was trying to take Brian “home to meet the folks.” But that was stupid, as if Brian didn’t already know Professor Ehrens.
Brian’s silence was killing Roger, who immediately climbed the “ladder of inference,” waiting for the “no homo, man” comment he was sure came next.
“Dude. Yeah. I would…that would be great.”
Roger let his breath out. He’d taken another risk, and it had paid off. And it was that confidence that took him into the game against Stanford.
…He rolled out, the defense was coming for him, they grabbed him, he twisted out of their grasp! Another second, and another guy coming at him, but Roger saw it, the perfect open receiver downfield, thew the ball a microsecond before he was tackled, his eyes never leaving the receiver even as he fell, touchdown!
…The hole opened in the line, he ran for it, he should slide as the Strong Safety came barreling at him, screw that, he leapt over the guy, hurdled him! Ran thirty yards for a TD! He’d never done that! Personal best!
…Fourth and inches, time to punt, screw that, coach! Come on, I can do this. And he did, plowed under the tight line that was waiting for him, held onto the ball as they tried to strip it from him, turtled himself around it as fingers gouged and pried. A first down that led to another five minutes’ possession, another drive down the field that brought the Barbarians another TD.
It wasn’t even the end of the second quarter when the ESPN ticker started to flash UPSET ALERT. This even led to cheers at Atilla’s Pub, where Cherish, Marcel and Brian had forcibly baptized a crowd of artistes into Barbarians cheerleaders. Brian gasped at the beauty of it, the masterful game Roger was running, dictating play on both sides. He watched with shock as Roger clenched his fists by his sides, screaming like a real Barbarian as his receiver went into the end zone – the total opposite of the calm, quiet Roger everyone knew. And the defense raised their game too, catching his enthusiasm, refusing to let Stanford’s offense cancel Roger’s tremendous gains.
Stanford! They were whipping Stanford! The students at “the real Cal” would be so jealous. Brian smiled as he thought about another conversation with Roger, this one outside the library, a break from their research on the laws that dictated every aspect of life in Renaissance-era Italian cities.
Roger had noticed that Brian was faltering, his eyes watering. He looked at his phone and realized that they’d been at this for three hours without a break.
“I’m not used to working this hard,” Brian confessed. “I was always the guy who’d fail the Marshmallow Test.”
Brian laughed. “Wow, you’re telling me I know something you don’t? You didn’t take Psych 101?”
“The Stanford Marshmallow Test,” Brian said, in a mock announcer voice. “What they did is get some kids and put each one in a room, and on the table in front of them was a marshmallow, or a cookie, or whatever. And the experimenter would say, I’m going to leave the room, and you can eat that now, or when I get back, if you haven’t eaten it, you can have two. They wouldn’t say how long they’d be gone, but it was usually about fifteen minutes.”
“So if you had self control, you’d wait, and you’d get two.”
“Or if you weren’t that hungry,” Brian grinned. “But yeah. And there’d be nothing in the room, no TV, no books. Just you and the marshmallow. So about 1 in 3 could wait it out. Then they did long term follow up and found out the ones who waited? Had higher SAT scores, less drug use, less obesity.”
“You’re not obese. And you’re in Cal State Berkeley.”
“Yeah, by the skin of my teeth.” He didn’t want Roger to know that he’d gotten a B- on his first paper in Ital Ren, and was trending towards a C- in Pre-Calculus. His overall C+ average was going to threaten his eligibility unless something changed soon.
Meet me at V Square? Roger texted him after the stunning 33-10 Barbarians win over Stanford.
Brian looked at Marcel and Cherish. “I don’t suppose you want to go to Victory Square to meet Roger.” V Square was the jock party central bar for CSB, enemy territory for sensitive souls like these two.
“You suppose correctly,” Marcel said. “Give him our best.”
The streets were nearly in riot state. Nobody was overturning cars yet, but buses were stopped in their paths by exuberant students screaming (and drinking) in the streets. Brian used his height and his mass to force a path through the crowd. People who remained oblivious to their surroundings got body-checked, turned around to cry an indignant “Hey!” then saw Big Brian barreling past them, and changed their minds.
V Square was worse. Even 240 pounds couldn’t press through the tonnage of bodies cheerfully crammed into the bar. But Roger could see Brian’s 6’ 4” head above the crowd, and got the team, who would have jumped off a cliff for him at this point, to form a flying wedge and part the red and gold sea to give Brian a path.
Brian hugged Roger hard, and Roger hugged him back just as hard, not thinking about his normally turbulent feelings for Brian. The thrill of victory had erased any little angst about…anything. Everyone was hugging everyone tonight – it was as if Roger had dosed the entire campus with Ecstasy.
“Holy crap, dude!” Brian shouted. “That was fucking amazing! NFL here we come!”
“Yeah! Fuck yeah! NFL! NFL!” The cry was taken up by the whole bar.
Finally, an hour later, Roger said to Brian, “Let’s go, I gotta get some air.”
They made their way through the crowd, Roger accepting maybe more handshakes, high-fives and hugs than he’d ever had in total in his life.
Outside, he took a deep breath. “Wow,” was all he could say.
Brian nodded, finishing off the Solo cup of beer he’d managed to get out of there intact by holding it high above his head. “Yeah. You killed it. You just…jumped to a whole ‘nother level tonight, you know that, right?”
Roger knew it was true. Brian was another athlete, knew what it looked like, felt like, to leave a plateau for a new peak. In time that peak would become a plateau, with another peak in sight, but not tonight.
“Yeah. It feels…great. Thank you.”
Roger’s wide, clear, sober blue eyes met his. “For…being my brother. I couldn’t have done this without you.” It was true, he realized. He needed this – needed love. He’d been stupid to think he could spend the next ten or more years of his life without it. Without sex, sure, probably – he’d gone this long! But he needed this, the emotional connection, yeah, with another man. And a straight man was perfect for his plan, right? A guy with whom he never had to worry about it turning into romance – the romance that would ruin all his carefully laid plans.
Brian was already emotional, from the victory, the beer, and this pushed him over. He looked away. “Shucks, ma’am, tweren’t nothin’.”
“Bullshit,” Roger laughed.
“You’re bullshit,” a drunken man said, wearing a Stanford t-shirt.
“Fuck off,” Brian said, ignoring him. Even in his colors, the dude was safe here, the victory had been too complete for anyone to do any more than mock him.
“Fuck YOU!” the idiot said.
Brian looked at him. Drunk or not, he was a big fella. Probably not a Stanford student, probably never had been. A little beer-bloaty, but not a pushover. Brian’s anger management classes, forced on him at Lessing after too many fights, had taught him some skills, and he was in too good a mood tonight to ruin it with fisticuffs.
“Look, man, I know it sucks when your team doesn’t win, but you know, you’re in our town right now, and…”
“FUCK THIS ASSHOLE!” the drunk shouted, moving faster than Brian expected, cocking his fist to take a swing at Roger.
Brian didn’t think. He stepped in front of his friend, took the blow on his chest. And lost control. Rage filled him and he fired a jab at the drunk, connecting with his jaw.
Snick. He heard it before he felt it, two seconds later, the crack of the bones in his hand. Index and middle finger metacarpals. Shit.
The guy dropped. Drunks cheered. Brian winced.
“Holy shit, are you okay?” Roger asked.
“Yeah, fine, fine. Come on, let’s get out of here before the cops come.”
Roger looked at the crowd, addressed them in his loudest QB voice. “HEY! You didn’t see anything. RIGHT?”
“RIGHT! YEAH! WHOOO!”
Brian had to laugh as they dashed down the street, even though the throbbing was getting worse in his hand. “They don’t know who I am anyway.”
“Yeah. But they could pick you out of a lineup.”
“That’s not gonna happen.”
“Cameras, dude. Security cameras.”
“Don’t sweat it.”
Roger stopped when they’d gotten far enough away from the crowd. “Let me see your hand.”
“You broke it. We need to get you to the clinic.”
“Yeah, okay, sure.” Brian knew there wasn’t any choice about that. The pain was accompanied now by swelling.
“Shit,” Roger said, realizing something. “That’s your right hand.”
“How are you going to play ball?”
It hadn’t even occurred to Brian. How could he practice? How could he work out? He’d have to…sit there. Watching. How was he going to make a name for himself, hard enough to do in a sitting out year?
“Fuck it. It’ll be fine.” Something occurred to him. “When they find out I took one for the football team, saved the QB’s ass? I think they’ll cut me some slack.”
Roger laughed. “That sounds gay, you know. Taking one for the team.”
“Yeah, it does, huh. Sounds like a gay porno. Brian Rauch in ‘Takin’ One For the Team’!”
They headed back to campus, to the student health center where Brian’s injury treatment would be covered under the student plan. “How do you know what gay pornos are called?” Roger teased him.
“Internet, man. You can’t help but see some shit like that. Little clips of guys banging in a sidebar ad, when I’m trying to look at titties. They don’t usually mix them up but yeah, sometimes you get a look-see.” Brian teased him back. “So don’t tell me that not only are you a virgin, but you don’t watch porn?”
“No, I don’t, Brian.”
“Wow. Dudley fucking Do-Right here.” He put his uninjured arm around Roger, his hand on Roger’s shoulder, and it seemed to dull the pain in the other hand. “We need to hook you up, my man.”
Roger smiled, laughed with his friend, but he was unable to put it out of his mind. It’s my fault, he thought. What if I just let Brian ruin his career, his future?
And yet another voice asked, What would have happened if he hadn’t stepped in? The star QB with a concussion from a street fight, after his first big win? An instant label of being a guy with “off field issues”? All your dreams would be over.
Brian could sense the tension in Roger. “Hey,” he said. “It’s fine. I’ve got plenty of time to heal.”
Roger nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”
Brian squeezed him. “So you know what this means, right?”
“You’re going to have to type my fucking papers.”
Roger laughed. “Yeah, okay, you got it, buddy.”