By Stephen G. Eoannou
I stood outside the pool crouched forward, thin arms and skinny legs spread wide to cover as much wall as possible, my pubescent balls dangling like a target, waiting for the water polo game to begin. I don’t know why we swam naked, but I suspect it was a way that Mr. Jackson, our gym teacher with the “Smokey and the Bandit” mustache, could keep forty teenagers in line and submissive. There were no co-ed gym classes and the girls didn’t have to swim nude because of “female reasons,” an excuse we boys found both unfair and unsatisfying. Instead, they received school-issued swimsuits color-coded by size: the petite girls swam in red suits, the average girls in black, and the heavy girls in an odd shade of blue that everyone called “Hippo Blue”.
Mr. Jackson, dressed in sweat pants and a golf shirt, blew his whistle and tossed a rubber ball, the same red one we used in dodge ball, into the middle of the pool to start our version of a water polo match. The two teams, one in the deep end and one in the shallow, dove in and raced towards it to gain possession. Unlike real water polo, three naked, shivering goalies stood on the deck on either end of the pool. Points were scored when the ball was thrown and hit the wall below the painted black stripe, about waist high. Sean McFarland, Ryan Connolly, and I had volunteered to guard our goal on that first water polo day. I wanted to play goalie because I was a poor swimmer and guessed that anyone with the ball would be forced underwater by a bunch of naked boys trying to wrestle it free, a thought that terrified me. Sean later said that he’d volunteered because the chlorine stung his eczema, the scaly pink patches that scarred his body and made him the object of ridicule in swim class; I think Ryan just wanted to keep his back to the wall, hiding the welts that crisscrossed his buttocks and back, the angry raised stripes left by his father’s belt.
As I stood in my crouched position, determined to be the best damn water polo goalie because I was the worst damn swimmer in the entire school, I watched my classmates fight for the ball. It was impossible to tell which naked freshman was on my team and which was not. All I could see was splashed water, bare limbs and asses, and smaller kids like me and Ryan getting shoved underwater by the early developers and the kids who were held back, the hair under their arms and across their chests making them easy to spot.
The ball finally squirted free and Mark Jankowski grabbed it and began swimming towards me. No one tried to stop him; my teammates treaded water and let him pass. Jankowski was repeating the ninth grade for the second time and was the biggest kid in class, almost the same size as Mr. Jackson. Cradling the ball in one arm, he side stroked his way to the shallow end of the pool until he was about five feet from me. He stood up, cocked his arm, and yelled as he threw the ball as hard as he could. The wet rubber smacked me in the shoulder, knocking me against the wall. The ball bounced back to Jankowski, who grabbed it and fired it at me again, this time catching me in the thigh and leaving a stinging red mark. Both teams cheered as I fell to the deck holding my leg.
After that, no one tried to throw the ball below the back stripe; they followed Jankowski’s lead and aimed at the goalies instead, cheering loudest when the wet rubber ball left welts, smashed us in the genitals, or if we slipped on the slick deck and went sprawling, our tailbones and elbows striking the tiled floor, our heads banging against the wall if they were lucky.
I didn’t try stopping the shots after Jankowski’s first two throws; I tried to protect myself, punching the ball away or blocking it with my forearms, and even that was painful. Ryan and Sean didn’t fare much better. One throw tore open an eczema scab on Sean’s arm and one of Jankowski’s bullets smacked Ryan right in the gut.
“What hurts more, the ball or the belt?” Jankowski yelled to Ryan as he back stroked away.
The ball finally made its way down to the other end of the pool. I squatted and hugged my knees for warmth, my thin shoulder and thigh still stinging from Jankowski’s shots, and tried to make myself even smaller as I watched the other team’s goalies become the naked targets. I was happy it was them getting bombarded and not me, and I hoped the ball stayed in their end for the rest of the match.
Afterwards, I didn’t say anything to Ryan or Sean as we showered our battered bodies, the bruises already forming; I was too embarrassed for them and myself to even make eye contact. But the next day, Ryan did something so extraordinary that it made me want to become his friend.
Swim class started normally. We had to shower before entering the pool. Mr. Tabor, the school janitor, stood in the doorway between the lockers and the shower room and Mr. Jackson stood opposite him in the doorway between the showers and the hallway leading to the pool, both of them watching us. They said they did this to keep an eye on us, to make sure there was no horseplay. Mr. Tabor grinned, as he always did, showing his dead front tooth, the faded tattoo anchors on his forearms visible, his hands buried in his pants’ pockets.
Then Ryan walked past Mr. Tabor into the showers wearing a pair of swim trunks. Conversations ended so the only sound was falling water. I turned to Mr. Jackson and saw his face darken, his Burt Reynolds mustache twitch.
“Connolly!” he boomed, his voice bouncing off the marble walls. “What are you wearing?”
“Swim trunks, Coach,” Ryan answered, soaping his chest like this was just another day.
“Why?” Mr. Jackson boomed again.
“Going swimming, Coach,” Ryan answered, his voice calm and even, cooler than I could ever be.
“Take them off!”
Ryan rinsed off the soap.
“You know the rules, Connolly. Get rid of them!”
Ryan started shampooing his hair.
“Are you going to take them off, Connolly?”
“Can’t, Coach. Swim class today.”
The rest of us slunk out of the showers and towards the pool, not wanting to be caught in the middle of this. Mr. Jackson didn’t even inspect us—making us turn for him, bend over, ensuring we’d rinsed all the soap from every part of our bodies before entering the pool; he just waived us to the metal bleachers. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Mr. Tabor’s hands were out of his pockets and on his hips, his face as dark as Jackson’s; Ryan was still under the shower.
I crossed my arms against my chest for warmth when I entered the pool area, the chlorine smell sharp in my nose. I sat on the cold metal bleachers, trying not to let my shoulders or legs touch the naked boy on either side of me as we waited. Everyone was quiet, even Jankowski and the other big kids who threw the water polo ball the hardest. I had my ear cocked, listening for Jackson to start screaming at Ryan but heard nothing.
“What are they going to do to him?” Sean McFarland whispered.
“Nothing,” Jankowski said. “They’ll send him to the principal. Probably give him detention.”
Jankowski’s voice was deeper than the rest of ours and carried authority. He was always in trouble and walked the halls in black Levis and concert t-shirts—Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Rush—with the sleeves cut off. The taps on his square-toed boots clicked like a warning when he went by. He wore his hair parted in the middle and down to his shoulders like we all did, except his hair was thick and blonde like a Viking’s. If anyone knew what Ryan’s punishment would be, it would be him. So it surprised me a moment later when Ryan walked into the pool area, followed by Mr. Jackson, still wearing his swim trunks. He took a seat on the bleachers with the rest of us. Jackson called attendance, spitting our names through his teeth and checking us off on his clipboard with an angry wrist flick.
When he was done, he smoothed his mustache with his index finger and then slapped the clipboard against his leg. I jumped at the sound, remembering the time he had smacked it across my bare ass for running near the water’s edge.
“As you can see,” he said, “Mr. Connolly has decided to bring in trunks today. I told him this wasn’t necessary. I could’ve borrowed a red suit from the girls for him to wear.”
Jankowski laughed the loudest.
“Mr. Connolly declined this offer and he also declined to take off his trunks and swim naked like the rest of you men,” he said, even though Jankowski was the only one of us anywhere near manhood. “So, we’re going to sit here until Mr. Connolly takes off his suit and follows the rules.”
Everyone groaned, including me. The only way to stay warm during swim class was to get in the water. To sit naked and wet on metal bleachers for forty minutes would be torture and we all knew it.
“Asshole,” Jankowski muttered, not to Mr. Jackson but to Ryan.
In ten minutes, my skin puckered into goose bumps. In fifteen, my teeth chattered. It felt as if the metal bleachers were sucking the heat from inside me, drawing it from my marrow and out my legs and ass and scrotum as I squirmed trying to stay warm.
“Just take them off, Ryan,” somebody whispered.
“This sucks,” someone else said.
“Take them off,” Jankowski said, “or I’ll beat your ass like your old man does.”
Ryan rubbed his arms for warmth but didn’t make a move to take off his trunks.
More and more kids began whispering for him to come on, to take them off, that they were freezing, for chrissakes. A Joe’s Boy, a new kid who had transferred from St. Joe’s after getting expelled, sat a row higher than Ryan and kicked him in the kidneys and whispered Come on whenever Mr. Jackson wasn’t looking.
I didn’t say anything. My hands and head shook, but I wanted him to keep his trunks on, thinking that somehow his stand would make Mr. Jackson give in and we could all wear bathing suits. But Mr. Jackson didn’t budge and neither did Ryan and we spent the entire forty minutes freezing on the bleachers. I can’t remember ever feeling so cold.
“That’s the class, gentleman,” Jackson said, when the bell rang. “We’ll sit here like this tomorrow if Mr. Connolly decides to break the rules again.”
“Wear ‘em tomorrow and you’re dead,” Jankowski said to Ryan loud enough for Mr. Jackson to hear. Jackson said nothing. He just slapped the clipboard against his leg.
As each boy hurried past Ryan to get to the warm showers, they made sure to bump him with their shoulder, jab an elbow to his ribs, or whisper a threat. I patted his back when I walked by. He hurried and dressed and got the hell out of the locker room before Jankowski and the rest of them finished showering.
News of Ryan and his swim trunks spread through school. When I told the story, my friends’ eyes saucered in amazement until I got to the part about sitting on the bleachers, then they shook their heads, muttered what a jerk he was, and said they were glad they weren’t in that class. Ryan’s hall locker was about seven away from mine. Kids walked by, pointed, and some shoved him.
After school, I was at my locker grabbing my jacket when I looked up and saw Ryan hurrying away. I didn’t blame him. Fast-deserting hallways were a bad place to be when you were a target. The new kid from St. Joe’s flipped the books out of Ryan’s hand as he rushed by; his notes scattered across the floor. Other kids heading for the exit stepped on them. Someone kicked his history book all the way to the drinking fountain.
“Don’t wear your bikini tomorrow, asshole,” The Joe’s Boy called over his shoulder as he walked away. Some girls, sophomores, laughed.
I helped Ryan gather his papers and tried to straighten them and brush away the dusty footprints, the treads and sneaker soles clearly visible across the pages. Ryan’s face was blank, unreadable. If he was mad or scared he didn’t show it. Only his lips, pressed together in a hard line, revealed anything.
“Wearing the trunks took some guts, man,” I said, and picked up his science notes: delicate sketches he had made of the leaves we were studying—Petiolated, Sessile, Lobed—and rosebuds, shaded red in colored pencil.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, trying to shove the papers back through the binder rings.
“Swimming naked is fucked up.” I handed him his notes.
Ryan looked at me, his eyes flat, gray. “Then wear yours tomorrow.”
“If you think it’s fucked up, which it is, wear your suit. If a bunch of us wear them, what are they going to do? Send us all down to the office? Big deal. Getting yelled at or detention is still better than swimming naked or getting killed in water polo.”
Now it was my turn for my eyes to saucer. “You’re going to wear them again?”
Ryan nodded. “And so will you if you have any balls.” He turned and headed to the drinking fountain to retrieve his history book, a jumble of notes under his arm. I stood there, my body electrified with the idea of taking a stand.
For the rest of the day, my mind kept drifting back to the idea of wearing swim trunks to class. I imagined strutting past Tabor like he and his hungry eyes didn’t exist. Different comebacks, each one cooler than the previous one, came to me when I thought of Mr. Jackson asking me what the hell I was doing. I pictured the other kids, after seeing me and Ryan in our trunks, pulling their own swim suits from their lockers and putting them on, so only Jankowski and the other assholes were standing naked with their dicks hanging out. Their stunned expressions floated before me like plates to be smashed with a baseball bat.
The next morning I hesitated before packing my trunks in my book bag, pushing them to the bottom, covering them with notebooks and folders.
I saw Ryan before homeroom, but I didn’t tell him about the swim trunks in my book bag. His black eye and swollen lip made me turn away. As I worked my hall locker combination, my fingers trembling a bit, I wondered who’d beaten him, Jankowski or the Joe’s Boy.
I wondered how badly they’d beat me if I wore my trunks that afternoon.
Then I stopped turning the dial and stared at my closed locker. Maybe it wasn’t anybody from school who had blackened his eye. Maybe Mr. Jackson had called Ryan’s parents and told them what a trouble maker their son was and his father had decided to use his fist instead of his belt this time.
My head snapped around when I heard the unmistakable sound of a body being slammed against metal. The hall went quiet. Jankowski had Ryan jacked up against the lockers, a fistful of shirt in his hand. He was shouting in Ryan’s face not to wear his trunks today, that he wasn’t going to freeze his ass off again. Ryan turned his head. I’m not sure how big Ryan’s dad was, but he must have been bigger than Jankowski because there was no fear in Ryan’s eyes, just resignation.
I was half the size of Jankowski, but if I came from behind, grabbed his shoulder and spun him, I knew I could get a punch off, one good shot to his nose or mouth. It wouldn’t be enough. He wouldn’t hold his hands to his bleeding lips and run away; he’d come for me, and I wouldn’t be able to stop him. Neither I nor Ryan was strong enough to beat a guy like Jankowski, but together I knew we could take him. Ryan, I swear, nodded at me, as if he was reading my mind, urging me to do it, to spin Jankowski’s shoulder, to throw that one good punch. Then I saw Ryan’s black eye and the way Jankowski’s arm bulged in his cutoff Stones shirt, and I didn’t move. A long moment passed and Ryan nodded again, as if he was accustomed to no one saving him. Jankowski kneed him in the balls then let go of his collar. Ryan crumpled to the floor. The warning bell rang and I headed to homeroom, feeling smaller than I ever had.
For the rest of the morning, I avoided going to my locker between classes, afraid I’d run into Ryan, afraid he’d call me a coward, just afraid in general. In each class, I’d pull out a binder or text book, being careful to keep the trunks covered so no one could see them, point to them, tell Jankowski about them. I regretted bringing them, and my regret added to my shame.
I made it to lunch without running into Ryan again. There was a seat open at the table where Sean McFarland sat so I slid across from him, my tray piled with pizza slices, mashed potatoes, and chocolate pudding with perfect whip cream dollops. Gorging myself was my latest attempt at gaining weight, at getting bigger.
“You going to eat all that?” Sean asked, nodding to my tray. As usual, he wore a long-sleeved turtleneck, trying to keep any eczema on his arms and neck covered, saving the ridicule for swim class.
Before I could answer, everyone in the cafeteria rose and cheered like at a football game. A fight had broken out. A tight circle of students formed to keep the teachers and cafeteria monitors from breaking up the brawl too quickly. Sean and I jumped to our feet and pushed to the ring of students. In the center of the circle, Ryan and Jankowski fought. Each held the other’s shirt with their left hand and traded wild right hand punches to the other’s head. The crowd cheered as each blow landed. They began chanting Fight! Fight!, and I wasn’t sure if they were egging Ryan and Jankowski on or if they were calling for others to come and watch. Ryan held his own for the first couple exchanges, but Jankowski’s size and strength was overwhelming. Ryan’s left ear was already red from the battering. He sank to one knee, his own punches lifeless now and without snap. Jankowski was holding him up with one hand, the other like a piston as he punched downward, catching Ryan above his left eyebrow again, and again, and again.
I pictured myself leaving Sean’s side and crossing the distance to the fighters. I’d grab Jankowski by the right shoulder and spin him around until he faced me, like I should have done in the hall earlier that morning. My punch, crisp and clean like Sugar Ray’s in the Olympics, would smash the bridge of his nose, spreading it wide across his face. He’d stumble backward, the blood already flowing as I moved forward, driving home a left to his stomach, doubling him over in pain. Ryan would look at me from his knees. I’d meet his glance and nod before grabbing Jankowski by his Viking hair and shoving his head downward until his face met my rising knee. I saw it all so clearly, like I was watching a movie.
Standing next to Sean with everyone still chanting Fight!, my fists clenched. I took one step forward but was shoved aside as Mr. Tabor and Mr. Ring, the assistant principal, shouldered past, breaking the circle. They pulled Jankowski off of Ryan, the anchors on Tabor’s forearms moving as he grabbed him. Ryan slumped to all fours. Blood dripped from the cut above his blackened eye and landed on the cafeteria floor, the drops the color of sketched roses. He saw me staring and swallowed a few times. Kids clapped and cheered as Tabor took Jankowski away, his arm raised in triumph. Mr. Ring yanked Ryan to his feet.
“I was going to help,” I said, my voice low, hoping only Ryan could hear. “I brought trunks.”
As he was being led away to whatever punishment the school and his father had waiting for him, Ryan turned and looked at me over his shoulder.
“Wear them,” he said.
I froze, afraid someone might have heard.
“Wear them,” he said, louder, and was gone.
Kids jostled me as they headed back to their seats to finish their lunches. They laughed and said it had been a great fight, that Connolly had really gotten what he deserved, that he’d be swimming naked like the rest of us now. I don’t know how many were eating in the cafeteria that period, but I felt alone as I stood in the middle of them.
I had a science test before swimming. The questions—naming the extended part of the leaf, defining the margin, midrib, and stem, identifying blade types—were easy and ones that I’d studied, but my thoughts kept sliding to the book bag at my feet and the trunks inside. Ryan’s words pummeled me like two tiny fists: Wear them. I had survived in middle school and so far in high school by staying out of the way of guys like Jankowski, by playing goalie outside the pool instead of fighting for the ball inside it, by swimming naked like everyone else. I knew what would happen if I walked into the showers wearing those trunks. Perhaps the beating wouldn’t come in the cafeteria. Maybe they’d catch me in the deserted parking lot, or after school at the bus stop, or in the second floor lav where Jankowski and his friends smoked in the stalls, the wooden doors kicked in and splintered so many times the school stopped replacing them. The beating would come and I was afraid.
Science class ended and I turned in my test with half the questions unanswered and headed to the boys’ locker room. My book bag felt heavy on my shoulder, as if it contained everything I wanted to be and everything I truly was.
I undressed in front of my locker, the floor cold puddled from the previous swim class, oblivious to the sounds and conversations around me. One-by-one, my classmates stripped down and drifted to the showers, some with towels wrapped around their waists, trying to stay covered as long as they could, until I was the last one in the locker room. I knew that Mr. Tabor and Mr. Jackson were already at their posts on either side of the showers—Jackson slapping the clipboard against his thigh and fingering his mustache and Tabor grinning his dead smile, his hands busy in his pockets, both looking for troublemakers, both watching for rule breakers, both of them waiting for me.
Stephen G. Eoannou earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and has taught at both Ball State University and The College of Charleston. His work has appeared in the Barely South Review,Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program, Pulp Modern, and will be forthcoming from Echo Ink Review and The Cleveland Review. Eoannou lives and writes in Buffalo, New York.