New York City – 2007
“Baby, why aren’t you dressed? You’re going to be late.”
Steve sat on the edge of his bed, dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees. It was his “uniform” at home, much more comfortable than the button-down white shirt, blue tie, and blue slacks he had to wear to school five days a week. It was Friday night…homecoming…and Steve had been voted homecoming king.
“I’m not going, Mom.”
“What? You have to go! You’re homecoming king!” She beamed with so much pride that Steve was surprised she didn’t actually light up the room. It was going to break his heart to tell her…but he couldn’t have her sitting in the bleachers and watching his humiliation from the sidelines. He’d put it off as long as he could.
“Mom…I’m pretty sure it’s a joke.”
She pulled her brows together. “A joke? I don’t understand.”
“Mom…they wouldn’t have voted me homecoming king on purpose, unless it was a joke. They’re going to do something to embarrass me, and I don’t want you there, watching. I don’t want to be there. I give them enough ammo at school every day.”
His mother looked crushed and it made his heart hurt. She sat down next to him on the bed and after a few silent moments she said, “Have you been getting bullied?” Steve had been bullied since the day he started middle school. He was from a whole different world than the rest of the students at the private school he attended. The neighborhood he lived in was an old one, the houses were run-down, the yards unkempt, and most people worked two jobs, or twelve-hour shifts, to support their families and still couldn’t make ends meet. The other students lived in high-rise penthouses in Manhattan, or old mansions in Chelsea. They were kids who had never known what it felt like to want anything. Steve had grown up wanting so many things…but mostly, just to be accepted.
He wasn’t completely alone any longer. He had two really good friends and he didn’t think he could have done any better than his mother for a parent…so things weren’t all that bad. But the rich kids found some kind of sick pleasure in constantly reminding him that he didn’t fit in…and he’d managed to keep that from his mother the whole time. That was the one advantage to having to take two buses to get across town to school every morning, and having a mother who usually couldn’t take off work to come to school events. She was so proud of him for his achievements, and he wanted to keep it that way. He never wanted her to know what an outcast he was…but if she was going to find out, it wasn’t going to be by watching her son get humiliated.
“No, Mom, they don’t bully me,” he lied. “Look at me, I’m huge. They’d be stupid to start anything with me.”
She put her hand on his big arm. He was huge. He was a senior in high school and already six-foot-three and over two hundred pounds of muscle. A lot of his time was spent working out with some old weights his brother’d left in the basement. It helped clear his head and it was how he got rid of the aggression that built up throughout the day. “But you’d never hurt anyone, and they can probably sense that. Steve, please talk to me.”
“I am talking to you, Mom. Things are okay. Mostly they leave me alone, but I’m different from them, you know that. I’m not even a little bit popular. I know this is a joke and I’d rather just stay home and skip the humiliation, okay?”
She nodded. “Of course. I’d never want to see you hurt like that. But please promise me you’ll let me know if there’s more going on, okay? I just get the feeling…”
“Nothing more is going on, Mom, really.” The phone began to ring, and he was relieved when his mom got up to answer it. They had a home phone and she had a cell phone, but Steve didn’t have one now. He had…he’d had a phone that his mother probably worked forty hours of overtime to buy for him. It had been tossed in the toilet at school by some of those kids who “didn’t” bully him. His best friend had kicked the guy’s ass and gotten suspended from school for three days because of it. Steve was called a coward by everyone else for not fighting for himself. He wasn’t a coward. He was afraid, though. He was afraid that if he threw that first punch, he wouldn’t be able to stop. He was afraid of killing someone.
His mother appeared in the doorway a few seconds later and said, “That was the school principal, Mr. Gamble.”
“What did he want?” Gamble was old money and he looked down on Steve as much as the other kids did. As part of his scholarship agreement, Steve had to work in the school office ten hours a week. Between that and the two-hour bus ride each way, he wasn’t even able to get a job after school and help his mother out. He couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of that school and out of New York, away from all the hateful, snobby people.
She sat down next to him again and she looked like she was going to cry. Laying her head over on his big shoulder she said, “You are so good. You know that? No matter what anyone tells you, you’re pure goodness, and if they treat you badly it’s because they’re jealous of your intelligence and your heart…”
“Mom, I love that you’re trying not to hurt me, but I’m a big boy. Just give it to me straight…what did he say?”
“The girl…the one who was supposed to be homecoming queen…she told the principal that you’ve made inappropriate advances toward her, and she wasn’t comfortable being queen to your kind.” Before Steve could say anything she quickly said, “I know it’s a lie. I told him, that’s not you. He said that without proof he couldn’t really punish you in any way…it’s a ‘he said, she said’ situation. But in light of what she did say, he had to disqualify you from being homecoming king.”
Steve’s chest burned with…hate, maybe? He wasn’t sure what the feeling was. For the longest time, he thought he was in love with one of his best friends, but when he figured out his two best friends were in love with each other, he promised himself he’d never do anything about that. Then, all of a sudden one of the prettiest, smartest girls at school started paying attention to him. He’d been suspicious at first, but she’d hung out with him and his friends more than once, and he had begun to believe she was serious about wanting to date him. Surprisingly, she invited him to her sister’s wedding. It was a huge affair that made him sick to his stomach, but at the same time he couldn’t remember ever being happier…because he was with Daria.
Also, surprisingly however, Daria drank at her sister’s wedding…a lot. No one seemed to notice the seventeen-year-old girl finishing off everyone’s wine, or champagne, or even their hard liquor except for Steve. He didn’t want to lecture her on their first date, however, so he kept his mouth shut too…until she took him up to her room on the floor that the entire family had rented in the hotel for the occasion. She started kissing him, and it was amazing. His teenage hormones were raging, and he wanted nothing more than to have sex with the beautiful girl. But she was drunk, and he knew that would be wrong. He’d never want to take advantage of her. When she started undressing and he told her to stop…she freaked out. She even threw things at him and told him he would be sorry. How dare a guy like him turn down a girl like her?
In the past, she had never been one of the group of kids who picked on him. But after that night, she was true to her word…and it was another reason why he was sure the homecoming king thing was a joke. They probably knew he wouldn’t show up. He was smarter than that…so this had been their back-up plan. She made him look like a predator when all he’d been trying to do was conserve her dignity. So yeah, maybe it was hate he was feeling…or maybe it was love, flowing out of his heart and turning into acid in his veins. Maybe love was going to be as elusive to him as it had always been for his poor mother. Maybe he was just that unlovable.