Authors: Geoff Herbach
Justify Your Decision
The secret lodged itself in my chest like a fat chicken.
The following week was short due to Thanksgiving. Instead of going to school, I got the flu (might have been psychosomaticâcaused by the fat chicken).
Colleges called me. My Facebook and Twitter bubbled with recruitment. I watched TV and thought about Frisbees and mountains.
For Thanksgiving, Jerri and I ate grilled cheese sandwiches (burnt). Then she studied and I watched football on TV alone. Green Bay Packers.
The fat chicken pecked my lungs all Sunday.
things! Why can't I just celebrate this?
I couldn't stay home the next week.
“You like California, man?” Cody asked by my locker Monday morning.
The fat chicken choked, scratched. I blinked at him.
“Pretty cool?” he asked.
I pressed my forehead against the cold metal. “Yeahâ¦yeah, it was pretty okay,” I said. My face got hot.
“What's wrong?” he asked. “Did it go bad?”
“Not great,” I said.
“Screw Stanford, man. We want you in the Midwest.”
“Thanks,” I said. Here's what I wanted to say: Stanford is the most beautiful place in the world because there are bridges that disappear into the sky and old houses that look like they're made out of freaking candy, and did you know there are foggy mountains out there in the world, not just on TV, and little dudes in dresses who smile and say, “You're welcome,” when you order iced tea?
In Current Events class, while Mr. Farber warbled on about labor unions and corporate greed and crap, Karpinski leaned over and asked if the California bikini chicks were hot.
don't know what hot means because it's not bikinisâit's library girls in plastic glasses who smile when you make jokes!
I whispered, “Not at all.”
“Madison girls are totally hot,” Karpinski said, nodding.
“Karpinski, care to share?” Farber asked.
” Karpinski shouted.
“True enough,” Farber said.
My English teacher, Mr. Linder, who is not a football fan, stopped me after class and said, “Great writers at Stanford. You could learn from the best.”
“I don't know,” I said. “I'm not much of a writer.”
“Bullshit,” Linder said.
“California has earthquakes,” I said. I made a face.
Then Coach Johnson, Coach Knautz, Abby Sauter, Jess Withrow, Mrs. Callahan, Ms. Rory, etc., etc., etc., all pulled me aside to talk in private, to get the lowdown. Everyone wanted to know about Stanford.
While I thought,
I'm in love with library couches and red roofs and fist-bumping second-string kickers who talk smart about Louis C.K.
, I told them all, no, it wasn't that cool, which seemed like what I should sayâI was doing my duty to God and ESPN, keeping my secretâexcept Gus cornered me after he heard me tell Abby Sauter that Madison is prettier than Palo Alto (where Stanford is located).
“Felton. Shit,” he whispered.
“What?” I whispered back.
“Follow me. Now,” he said.
I followed him into the faculty bathroom, which was right across the hall from where Abby and I had been talking. Going in that bathroom made me totally nervous. (Gus does what he wants.)
“Jesus. It's clean in here,” I said, looking around.
He turned to me, lifted his hair wad, and said, “They are going to
“Who?” I asked.
“You're telling people that Stanford wasn't cool?”
“I have to keep the secret for ESPN,” I said. “It's my job.”
“But you're building expectations. You're making everybody think you'll be at Wisconsin. These are Wisconsinites, man! You know how pissed they're going to be if you dupe them like that?”
“Dupe?” Slowly his words sunk into my brain. “Oh.”
“Yeah,” Gus nodded at me. “Jesus. Just don't say anything. Just keep it to yourself. Can't you just hold it in a little? Can't you just be calm and in control?”
I swallowed. I thought. “No. That's not me.”
“Really? And who are you?” Gus asked. “Why does everything rattle you? You're rattled about liking Stanford, aren't you?”
I thought about it. “Well. Yeah. Sort of. I have a chickenâ¦”
“Where are you heading in life?”
I began to get a little hot, a little mad. “Why does that matter?”
Gus looked around, then whispered, “Stanford. It's great, right?”
“If you understood why Stanford's the best choice for you, if it was part of the larger plan, wouldn't you be calm?”
“As it stands, even this good news shakes the shit out of you and you walk around lying to people, acting like an idiot, causing trouble for your future because you know you'll have to justify your decision when you announce it and you
justify it because you have no idea why you make any decision.” Gus's face had turned totally red.
I whispered, “Oh.” I sort of hated it when Gus acted like my dad, but he was generally right.
“Go home and write a list of the reasons why you likeâ¦” Gus looked around the empty bathroom and whispered, “Stanford.”
“Yeah. Okay,” I mumbled.
“And then, when it comes time to make your announcement, you can earnestly tell the State of Wisconsin why you're destroying their dreams of Cheesehead Heaven, okay?”
Gus nodded. He dropped his hair wad and walked out of the bathroom.
I stood there and breathed for a moment. Then Mr. Linder entered.
“Hi-ya, Felton! Great to see you! Get the hell out of here!”
“Sorry,” I said and bolted.
My reasons for liking Stanford seemed ridiculous when I wrote them out instead of repeating them in my head.
Dude in dress served me iced tea.
Cute guide didn't try to grab my wang.
Library had leather couches.
Kicker discussed Louis C.K.
Frisbee players were very good.
Fog on mountains.
I looked at the list and thought,
Maybe I'm gay. Is that why I'm so confused at this tender time in my life? Is that why my stomach hurts?
Then I thought about Aleah and knew I definitely wasn't gay, unless Aleah was a dude, which she wasn't.
An hour later, I noticed I was watching
An hour after that I went for a run, a hard run, and I felt better because running calms me down.
Then I did multiple sets of sit-ups and push-ups. Better.
Then I went to bed, but I couldn't sleep. My heart went back to racing. My stomach tweaked. I thought: Just tell them all Stanford was okay, okay? They're going to be so pissed. Cheesehead Heaven destroyed?
In the middle of the night, I got out of bed and emailed my list to Gus. I had to get it off my chest.
I saw him in the hall the next morning.
“Are you kidding?” he asked. “Are you having some kind of problem with your sexuality or something?”
“It's cool if you're gay, I mean. That would explain some of your confusion, right?”
“No. I love Aleah. She's not a dude.”
“Enough about her,” he said. “Get over it. You're seventeen. You're not going to marry her.” He turned and left.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I struggled all night long, every night, to get anchored, to be calm while the recruiters kept calling, and Bluffton kept nodding and winking and acting like it was all done and I'd play for Wisconsin, and Aleah didn't return my texts.
Eventually, not even working out helped to calm me.
I began to wonder if I should just make my Stanford announcement, just post it on Facebook, call ESPN and cancel.
Would ESPN sue me?
I had good news! Stanford was good news! Why couldn't I just love it and be cool? Instead of being happy, I felt like crap. Miserable about my full-ride scholarship to Stanford. Worried that I didn't know how to explain it without falsely implying I'd come out of the closet. Worried that everybody had abandoned me.
You know who didn't care about my worries?
Tommy Bode. He had no clue.
In our final senior mentor meeting before winter break, Tommy said, “You look like a superhero.”
“Oh yeah?” I mumbled, looking out the window.
“Definitely,” he said.
We met alone in Tommy's homeroom before school. We hadn't talked a single time about what high school was like or if he had questions. I never asked him about his classes. He never asked how to do anything. Pretty much he said weird crap and I watched him draw and then I told him, “Good job,” which he seemed to like.
“You have the muscle,” he told me.
“Yeah. Thanks,” I said. Outside, the first snow of the year fell.
“You looked like Batman when you hit Nolan Sauter on the neck against the locker that one time. I've been practicing that move on my brother. I can hit him against the wall and he doesn't even bounce off. I just stick him there and choke him.”
I turned to Tommy. “Choke? Doesn't your mom get mad? You can't just beat the living crap out of your brother, man.”
“Curtis doesn't care. He wants to take karate, but Grandma won't pay. He wants to death-chop everybody.”
“What about your mom?”
Tommy stared at me. He shook his head. “Why don't you ask me about my dad?” Tommy asked.
“What about him?”
“He's a bigger bully than Nolan,” Tommy said. “You should choke my dad.”
“Do you live with him?” I asked.
“Him and Grandma. Mom moved out two years ago. She works in Dubuque.”
“Oh.” I looked at Tommy, which I didn't like doing because looking at him made me sad. “Hey. Why does Nolan Sauter want to kick your ass?” I asked.
“Because,” Tommy said.
“Did you do something to him?”
“No. I'm fat. A fat ass little pig.”
“That's not true,” I said.
“You want to look at my ass?”
I couldn't help it. I laughed. “Uh. No.”
“Good because if you looked at it, you'd want to kick it.”
I stopped laughing. “No,” I said.
“But don't worry.” Tommy cocked his head down and whispered in this deep gravelly voice, “I will get my revenge on all of you.”
I stared at his fat-cheeked face. Patches of red grew under his eyes, on his neck. He blinked.
“Soâ¦What are you drawing today?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“Can I be your sidekick? Nobody would mess with your sidekick.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like Robin, you know? Superhero sidekick.”
“No,” I said. “I'm not a superhero. Not at all.”
“Please?” Tommy said. He chewed on his cheek. He wrinkled his nose. “Come on!”
“Hey, I have to talk to Coach Knautz about track this morning. I have to cut off our meeting a little early. Sorry about that,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Okay.” He stared down at his backpack for a second. Red flooded his face, then he pulled out his notebook and began sketching.
“Okay,” I said. “I'm gonna run.”
He didn't say anything.
Two hours later, between second and third hour, I saw this sophomore jackwad (Ben Fiedler) slap Tommy Bode in the back of the head. I lost my breath for a second. I turned around and walked the other way and my stomach tightened, my chest tightened. I couldn't breathe.
I turned back and waded into that crew of sophomores. Tommy wasn't in there anymore.
Jackwad Fiedler was though. I grabbed him by the collar and spun him around.
He said, “Oh shit.”
I said, “Don't ever touch Bode again.” I poked the poor kid in the forehead and his face lost all color. He might've shit his pants. “Asshole,” I hissed.
A whole crowd of frightened sophomores glued themselves to the wall around us.
I let him go and walked away. Adrenaline poured through me. I trembled.
I only saw Tommy once the rest of that week. I'd just spent the first half of my study hall sitting in the locker room bathroom sending Aleah text after text.
We can take a break for a few years. Just not date others. Then? After that? Right? When we're adults?
Please? Shit! This is stupid! I don't want you to go.
Are you with somebody else? Is there someone, Aleah?
She didn't respond. I pictured Aleah walking, holding hands with some really good-looking twenty-five-year-old dude with glasses on because he's probably a lot smarter and more bookish and more adult than me, and I started sweating.
I jogged out of there and decided to lift weights to get the bad energy out. I got a pass from Coach Knautz.
On my way back to the locker room, I saw Tommy in the commons. He smiled and waved to me. I shook my head
I'm not talking to you
â¦and his face collapsed and he looked down at the ground, and my stomach ached and didn't stop hurting all the way through my workout and into the evening. I didn't think of Aleah, but I felt sad like I did about Aleah.
Why are you so messed up about Tommy?
I asked myself, and then I thought about Andrew when he was little and me and Gus and Peter Yang, an old friend, when he was little, and Andrew's friend Bony Emily's little wrists and how fragile everything in the whole world is, and that's when something dawned on me in this flash of light. I recognize Tommy because he's me. I was him. In some ways, I'll always be that kid. I still am. We all are.
you're supposed to protect that kid? All those kids? What if you are meant to be a superhero?
I called Gus. He answered. “I want to protect dipshits,” I said.
“Good for you. I'm studying.”
“I mean, seriously protect them, man.”
“For your life? Like your life's work?”
“As what? A teacher or something?”
“Maybe a teacher eventually.”
“Good. After your pro football career, you can be a teacher.”
“I'm going to act on this now,” I said.
“Oh. Okay?” he said.
I hung up.
I looked up Tommy's home phone number. Nervous as hell, I called.
Some kid picked up the phone. I guess that was Curtis, Tommy's brother. “What?” the kid mumbled. In the background, I could hear a man shouting like he was going to kill someone.
“Tommy. Get me Tommy,” I said.
“Okay,” the kid whispered.
The man in the background kept yelling for the minute I waited. (Yes, I wanted to hang upâI was sort of trembling because the guy was so whacked out.) He clearly believed something wasn't right in his house because he kept screaming, “That shit's not happening in my house. Not in my house. My house, my house, my houseâ¦”
Finally, Tommy got to the phone.
“Who is this?” he said.
“Felton,” I said, nervous and fast. “Listen, Tommy. You're my sidekick, okay?”
There was silence (except for the screaming in the background).
“You there?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Tommy whispered.
I began to lose air, lose my breath because of the screaming. “Did you hear what I said?” I asked.
“Okay. Okay. Good choice. You won't be sorry, okay?” Tommy said.
“Is that your dad screaming?”
“He'll go to sleep pretty soon,” Tommy whispered.
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” Tommy said. He hung up.
Holy shit. Poor Tommy.
But something felt right.
I sat down in my desk chair and grabbed a piece of computer paper. I wrote:
Felton Reinstein will justify his existence by:
Those kids deserve something from me because I'm so lucky (athletics-wise).
I wish I could say I spent the rest of my senior year being a big hero, but while I'm lucky, I also have problems. Serious problems.
At least in the short term (very short term because I'm not, in fact, a superhero who can adequately protect the weak), it worked for Tommy. Pig Boy.
I actually didn't see him for a few days, but the day before winter break, Tommy entered the senior hall, which takes a lot of guts.
I stood with Gus, ass against my locker, discussing Gus's upcoming nightmare trip to Venezuela to visit his long-dying grandma. He was flying out with his parents that night.
“We're going to be traveling for like three days and we're only going to be there for four days, man. What's the point? Why would theyâ¦” Gus said.
Out of the mob of seniors, Tommy emerged. He wobbled up to us. My classmates stared at him, confused that he had wandered into their domain. He wore a T-shirt with a Sharpie drawing of a pig on it. (The drawing was pretty awesome.) The pig wore a cape and held a crossbow. The words “BULLY ME” were written above the pig. The words “PIG BOY” were written below the drawing.
Gus stopped in mid-sentence and took in Tommy's odd presence. “Can I help you?” Gus asked.
Tommy didn't look at Gus. He addressed me. “It's working,” he said.
“It is?” I asked.
“Nobody's dicked me over all week. They're running scared.”
“Who are you?” Gus asked.
“Pig Boy,” Tommy said. “I'm Felton's sidekick.”
I nodded. I'd slept better since I told Tommy he could be my sidekick. “Gus,” I said. “Meet Tommy. He's myâ¦”
“Sidekick,” Tommy repeated.
“And mentee,” I said.
“Wow,” Gus said.
Tommy nodded solemnly. “Running scared,” he repeated. Then he turned and wobbled back down the hall. My football number, 34, was drawn on his back. He knew more about me than I thought.
Gus turned to me. “You're protecting him?”
“That's pretty cool,” he said.