I knew he would mean something to me from the minute we met.
We were in a play together. Nothing fancy, just some community theatre thing. I had never been great at sports for all that I had the build of a linebacker, so my parents figured I could use an artistic outlet to “find my voice,” never mind that everyone in my third grade classroom made fun of me for it.
Still, when I got to the community center all that faded away. The kids there were all very talented and social, ages ranging from five to eighteen, though the oldest (or most talented) kids had their own branch for more advanced shows with more production than our little plays warranted.
The first thing I noticed about him in particular was that he was almost my complete polar opposite as far as looks were concerned. He was as dark as I was fair, as thin as I was plump.
Not that I was hugely overweight or anything. He was just a scrawny little thing, dwarfed by an oversized sweatshirt with his messy black hair sticking up at all angles. He had olive-colored skin and dark eyes that looked as if they were almost drowning in his face and his eyelashes were longer than a girl’s. I was instantly jealous of how thick and dark those eyelashes were—being blonde, my eyelashes looked almost invisible.
He seemed content to be on his own, very much in his own little world. But when he did talk to other kids, he would have them all laughing within seconds and his laugh was always the loudest and most carefree of them all.
I had always prided myself on my ability to start conversations with others, but there was something different about him. I never wanted to interrupt him when he seemed to be enjoying his own company, and I felt awkward trying to insert myself in group situations.
I felt a bit like an outsider everywhere I went there in the beginning. At the community center, my jock looks seemed to make me stick out like an awkward thumb. I think at least half of those kids thought I was there as some sort of punishment. And then at school, the fact that I was engaged in theatre rather than football like every other self-respecting little boy in Georgia meant I was a sissy and I was ostracized and ridiculed accordingly.
But I loved the theatre. I loved the too-cold dressing rooms and the smell of makeup backstage; I loved the feeling in the pit of my stomach just before I went on stage; I loved the feeling of paint drying on my hands from spending all day painting sets pieces.
More than all of that, though, I found I loved to sing. There was a certain freedom when I lifted my voice in song. It wasn’t always perfect, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I found myself singing all the time—in the shower, walking down the streets, even during recess. I didn’t care what anybody else thought in those moments. As it turned out, theatre did help me find my voice—literally.
But I think my unapologetic singing was the last straw for my classmates. It was as if my newfound confidence and lack of fear of being myself drove them nuts—as if it were an insult that I no longer allowed myself to feel that same level of awkwardness they wished to thrust upon me. I was a freak in their eyes, so shouldn’t I feel ashamed of that? But I didn’t.
One day, though, a couple of bullies decided to try and teach me my place.
I knew they were jerks. Everyone in my school did. Their names were Donny and Mike Costello; they were brothers, both with watery eyes and hair done in spikes with hair gel that smelled like burnt rubber. Mike was in fifth grade, but he had been held back a few too many times and was already getting acne though nobody dared point it out or make fun of him for it. Donny was in my class, and though he hadn’t been held back and didn’t have acne yet, he was definitely burlier than any third grader had any right to be.
At first, I didn’t realize they were following me. On Tuesdays, my parents both worked and so I had to walk myself from the school to the community center where my dad would pick me up after finishing up his shift. It wasn’t that far, and I’d walked the path enough times that I felt reasonably confident doing it entirely on my own despite the fact that I was only eight years old.
Just as I turned the corner and the community center came into view, however, Mike called out to me. “Hey, sissy! Is that your little faggot club over there?”
I cringed at the use of the word. Mike had a foul mouth, and though it wasn’t that much different from what others were saying on the playground, he managed to induce extra venom in each syllable so that even the relatively mild “sissy” came off as the bitterest and vilest insult imaginable.
I tried to ignore them, ducking my head and walking a little faster. The community center wasn’t far. If I could just get in…
“Hey, don’t be rude,” Donny chimed in. “My brother just asked you a question.”
“Yeah, punk, you can’t just walk away!”
That was exactly what I intended to do, but I could hear their footsteps hurrying behind me. I didn’t think I could walk fast enough, but I tried to infuse just a little more energy in my step. I just had to keep going; if I kept going, I knew I could escape.
That was when Donny suddenly sped up even more and grabbed my backpack, using it to turn me around and then push me up against the nearby wall. “We don’t like it when people don’t listen,” he said. His breath smelled of French onion dip and I had to fight to keep my lunch down at the odor.
“I-I didn’t hear you,” I stuttered, trying to squirm away. “I’m partially deaf in my right ear.”
That much was true. I’d been born a couple months premature and so my hearing wasn’t perfect. What I neglected to tell them, however, was that it had been surgically repaired and the deafness had been greatly reduced so that I could hear accurately for the most part.
“You hear that, Donny,” Mike chortled, having caught up. “He’s partially deaf. Maybe that’s why he sings so badly.”
That one hurt. I’d gotten rather proud of my voice and I’d even started taking additional lessons at the community center to improve my range. My vocal coach complimented me regularly, even hinting that he might be able to pull some strings and allow me to sing backup at a recording studio in Atlanta for some country musician that was on the rise.
“What do you know? You’re just some dumb hick that couldn’t even pass kindergarten,” I returned, having taken leave of my senses temporarily and forgetting the position I was in. The reaction was swift, but time seemed to slow as Mike’s face turned bright red, his zits seeming to catch fire, and he lifted his fist.
I clenched my eyes shut and tried to cover my face as Donny held me in place…but the hit never came.
Instead, I heard the sound of a rock smacking into the side of the building and bouncing off to hit Donny in the eye. Surprised and in pain, he yelped and dropped me onto the ground. I chanced to open my own eyes then and beheld the scene:
Two massive bullies, staring in surprise at a small figure standing there with another rock clutched in a small fist and a rather disconcerting grin on his face. “Na na na!” he chirped. “Bet you idiots can’t catch me!”
I recognized the small figure as the black haired boy from the community center, but it took several moments to even process that much because it just seemed so strange and out of character. What did he think he was going to accomplish?
Mike growled and punched Donny in the arm in what I assume was caveman language for ‘let’s get ‘im!’ and they dashed off after my savior.
I was frozen in surprise for a moment, unsure what had happened, but then my senses caught up with the rest of me and I shot to my feet, tearing after the Costello boys. I couldn’t imagine what they would do to my new friend if they caught him. He seemed so fragile and breakable, and the last thing I wanted was for someone to get hurt on my account.
I don’t think I ever ran so fast in my life. I suppose I had some sportsman in me after all, which I was sure my parents would find thrilling when I told them.
I caught up just as they had cornered the black haired boy. He didn’t look afraid. He looked defiant for all that he was probably about to get killed. His weapon lay off to the side of Mike’s booted foot; I assumed he’d tried to throw it and had missed, and wondered if his earlier hit on Donny had been an accident. If that were the case, what had he been aiming at?
But there wasn’t a lot of time to analyze the situation. So I did the only thing I could think to in that moment: I jumped on Donny’s back.
He grunted in surprise and the black haired boy rushed forward, going for Mike’s ankles. It was a short fight, all told. I wish I could say that it had gone well, that we surprised everyone and came out on top. But the truth is that each of us took about a single hit from the Costello boys and crumpled, moaning, to the ground. It probably would have gone worse, too, but as it turned out, we were saved by none other than Mike’s stomach.
“I’m hungry,” he declared just as Donny advanced on us. Donny paused, looking at his big brother.
“Now?” he asked, sounding disappointed.
“Yeah, I haven’t had anything since lunch,” Mike complained.
“You ate at least four lunches. How are you already hungry?”
Mike shrugged. Donny sighed. “I guess these loser fags are already done anyway. Let’s go,” he said, and then the two of them left.
I don’t know how much longer it took for us to compose ourselves. I only know that I got up first and moved over to help my attempted savior to his feet.
“Thanks for helping me,” I said stiffly through my discomfort.
“Well, us fags gotta stick together, don’t we?” he said, grinning even as the blood dripped steadily from his nose. He wiped at it with a too-long sleeve.
“Oh, I’m not…I mean, I’m not really a…”
He arched his eyebrows at me and I blushed, realizing only then that he was being sarcastic. I took a deep breath, mustering what little dignity I could after what had transpired. “I’m Teddy,” I said.
“Julian,” he said. “But everyone calls me Jules.”
And from then on, we were best friends.