“Did you and your mom finally kissed and made up?” Jackie asked as we sat in the cafeteria eating lunch Monday morning.
“We made up, Smart Ass,” I replied smugly, “but we didn’t kiss. I’ll let you do that.”
“Ew.” She wriggled her nose, “That’s gross. I ain’t a lezzie.”
“I don’t know,” I shot back. “When’s the last time you had a date. No wait. When did you ever have a date?”
“You have a lot of room to talk,” she responded. “You’ve never been on a date, either.”
“I’m not the one who’s boy hungry,” I said. Just then Donovan walked across the cafeteria. He was wearing shorts, and I was staring at the dark hair on his legs. His calves were well-developed, as you would expect an athlete’s legs to be. He walked on his toes with a boyish bounce. I had never noticed that before.
“Then the alien came down, took me up in his spaceship and flew me to a far-off planet.”
“That’s nice, Jackie.”
“And a pack of wolves ate the Grinch who stole Christmas.”
“You’re not listening to a word I’ve been saying.” Jackie waved her hand in front of my face, bringing me back to reality. “Damn, James. Why don’t you just strip him with your eyes?”
“I don’t have to,” I said dreamily. I’ve already seen him naked, remember? I’m just remembering what he looked like.”
“I hate you,” huffed Jackie. “Next time take a picture with your cell phone.”
“If I did that,” I grinned, “I’d never leave my bedroom.”
“Damn, James,” she responded disgustedly. “Too much information.”
I watched as Donovan sat down at the jocks’ table and began talking to his basketball friends. Suddenly, he stopped talking and looked over at our table and waved. Jackie immediately waved back.
“He just waved at me,” she swooned. “I think I’m going to die.” I was puzzled. Even though it wasn’t apparent who he had waved to, I was sure it wasn’t Jackie. I turned to see who was in back of us, but there were only a few computer geeks sitting at a table. I was sure he hadn’t waved to them.
“Ask him for a date,” I kidded, just to get her more excited.
“I can’t do that!” she squealed. “We’re talking Donovan Michaels here. I’d kill myself if he said no.”
Just then the bell sounded, and everyone headed to the exits. I said goodbye to Jackie and hurried to my fourth period class. Suddenly, a hand clamped down on my shoulder. I turned and looked up into the smiling face of Donovan.
“Hey, Little Dude,” he grinned. “You like my show yesterday.”
My face immediately began to redden. How could I even begin to answer a question like that? I was sure he hadn’t seen me looking at him, but apparently he had. I tried to pull away, but he gripped my shoulder tighter, holding me back.
“It’s alright, James,” he leaned down and whispered in my ear. “I was hoping you would look.”
I managed to stammer, “I better get to class, Donovan.” I tried to pull away from his grip, but it he clamped down harder on my shoulder.
“Me and you need to hook up sometime,” he whispered as he looked around to make sure no one was listening. “You’re a cute guy. We could have some fun.” He released his grip on my shoulder and patted me on my back. I picked up my pace and almost ran to my class. My heart was pounding from Donovan’s words. I couldn’t believe that Donovan Michaels had just asked me to go out with him!
I don’t think I heard a thing that was said in any of my classes the rest of the day. If someone had asked me my name, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell them that either. All I could think of was Donovan’s hand on my shoulder, and him whispering in my ear that he thought I was cute, and we should get together sometime.
On Saturday my alarm went off again at 5:45 in the morning; but this time I had set it. Unlike last weekend, I was looking forward to going. All week I had thought of Mr. Wilbur. I want to say I feel sorry for him, but that would be a poor choice of words. He appears to be quite cheerful and happy with his life. I guess it is hard for me to imagine what it would be like to have to live in a nursing home and not be able to go places when you feel like it.
When I went to the kitchen to grab some orange juice, there was a note on the table with three one-dollar bills. I picked up the note and read it.
Have a good time. Here’s the money you lost to Mr. Wilbur last week. I’ve left a little extra, but I hope you don’t lose it too. Love, Mom
I smiled and pushed the money into my pocket as I headed out the door. It wasn’t raining like it had the previous week. Fifteen minutes later, I was hiding my bike and heading toward the back entrance. As I began to enter, I saw Dion walking toward the building.
I didn’t know whether to wait for him or to go upstairs without him. He had already seen me and had slowed his pace. I decided it was stupid for us to be spending Saturdays together and not talking to each other, so I was going to make one last attempt to speak to him.
I waited outside and watched him approach. He seemed hesitant to come toward me, and for a minute I thought he was going to turn and walk away. “Hey,” I said, blocking the door so he would have to speak to me.
“Hi, James.” He was looking down at his feet, waiting for me to step aside.
“Why don’t you like me?” It was meant to be a simple question, but when it came out of my mouth it was filled with a little more hurt than I intended.
“I don’t hate you.” He raised his head and looked into my face. His brown eyes sparkled in the early morning sunlight.
“Then what is it?” I asked. “We spent a whole week together in detention and you didn’t say more than a dozen words to me.”
“It’s hard for me to talk to guys I...” He suddenly stopped and stepped forward, trying to pass me. I reached out and grabbed his arm. He turned, and we stared into each other’s eyes.
“Guys you what?” I asked. I didn’t know what he was going to say.
“Nothing. Forget it.” He stepped around me and opened the door, leaving me to watch him walk briskly down the darkened hallway. The elevator door opened, he turned and our eyes met once again. We did not break the stare until the door closed.
When I approached the second-floor nurses’ station, Dion was talking quietly to his mother. They looked at me as I approached, then Dion walked away and headed down a hallway. He was carrying a large box.
“Good morning, James,” Nurse Dorothy sang out. Her greeting was melodic, as you would expect a nurse’s voice to sound. It’s no wonder her patients loved her so much. I had only worked with her one week, and I was already an admirer.
“Good morning, Mrs. Car..” One stern look and I immediately knew my mistake.
“Good morning, Nurse Dorothy,” I said with a smile.
“I talked to your mother and she told me how much you enjoyed visiting last week.” She walked from behind the counter and took my hand. “Most young people don’t like coming in here, even when they are visiting their grandparents.”
“To be honest, Nurse Dorothy,” I confessed, “I felt the same way when I first came in last week.”
“That’s not important now,” she replied as she patted my arm. “What is, is the fact you’re here and willing to help out. Mr. Wilbur will be so happy. He’s been talking about you all week.”
“I had a lot of fun playing games with him,” I said. “Besides, I have to get my money back.”
“What are you saying?” she asked. “He’s not gambling with a child is he?”
“I’m not a child,” I responded indignantly. “I’m old enough to know what I’m doing. Anyways, it’s only for quarters.”
She patted me once again on my arm and smiled. “Yes, but for the record, this conversation didn’t take place.”
“What conversation?” I grinned.
She clapped her hands together and said, “Now let’s get to work.” She pointed to a large box. “Take that down to the storage area, would you? Dion took one. He’s rearranging the room so we can store more supplies. Help him out for a bit before you go into Mr. Wilbur’s room. Will you dear?”
“Yes, of course,” I said as I picked up the box.
The storage room was an unused patient’s room. It was extremely cluttered. It appeared that people just randomly placed supplies in it. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could find anything in it.
Dion was struggling to place a large box atop a smaller one. He had turned his back away, and I noticed that it was going to fall on him. I dropped the box I was carrying, rushed over and tried to prevent the box from falling on him. As I did so, the weight of the box came crashing down on me, hitting me on the temple and knocking me to the ground.
“Are you okay?” Dion asked worriedly. He was lifting the box off me and inspecting me for injuries. “It hit your face.” He gently caressed the side of my face before giving me a surprised look. He stood quickly and looked down at me.
“Are you just going to leave me lying here?” I asked. He hesitated a moment before extending his hand to me.
“No, of course not.” He lifted me to my feet and held my hand a little longer than necessary. When I looked down, he quickly pulled his hand away.
“I need to get back to work.” He picked up the box and tried to find a place for it. I watched as he became frustrated.
“I have an idea,” I suggested. “Why don’t we rearrange the room so it will be easier to find things?” He stood back, shrugged his shoulders and waited for me to tell him what to do.
“First, we need to put everything in the hall and then sort things. We’ll bring them back in and place them in some kind of order. Go get a marker from your mother.”
When he returned, we emptied all the supplies into the hallway. I had Dion mark on top what each box contained. We worked for the next hour, and neither of us said a word. Occasionally, I would notice him watching me work.
“There,” I said proudly after we finished. “Now it will be easier to find things.” I stepped back and looked into the room. Everything was organized and marked as to its contents. Dion stood beside me and smiled.
“It looks good, James,” he said admiringly. “Momma’s going to be surprised when she sees it.”
“Sees what?” I heard Nurse Dorothy from behind us.
“Look!” Dion pointed proudly into the room. “Look what James did.”
“My goodness,” she exclaimed as she walked around the room. “It’s been ages since I’ve been able to walk in here. And you’ve marked everything. How clever.” She walked over and gave me a big hug.
“Dion helped too,” I said quickly. I didn’t want her to think that only I was responsible. She walked over and wrapped her arms around him.
“This is wonderful,” she said. She kept looking back and forth at Dion and me. For some reason, I felt she wasn’t talking about the room.
“You boys deserve a reward,” she announced. “Follow me.” She led us down the hallway to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. She pulled out a couple of jello cups and two orange juices. “Now sit down and take a break. You deserve it.” She pointed to a table in the corner of the room. She left, leaving us alone.
I walked over and sat down. Dion held his juice and jello in his hand and looked around the room for somewhere else to sit.
“I don’t bite,” I said.
“I said, I don’t bite. You can sit down with me if you want.”
He hesitantly walked over and sat down. He opened his jello and started eating. We sat in silence for several minutes.
“I like your mom.” I was trying to break the deadly silence between us. “She’s cool.”
“Yeah, she is,” he mumbled.
“You known her very long?” I watched his face as he tried to comprehend what I had said. I giggled when I saw his mouth curl into a smile.
“See, that didn’t hurt,” I remarked.
“To smile. That’s the second time I’ve seen you smile.” Through his dark skin, I saw him begin to blush. He looked up at me and his brown eyes sparkled.
“Whatever,” he responded. He gave me a questioning look when I started laughing.
“I hate it when you say that,” I replied. “It’s so rude.”
“Whatever,” he repeated. Only this time he looked at me and grinned.
“How long have you been helping your mother here?” I asked. Since he seemed to have opened up a little, I wanted to keep the conversation going.
“A little over a year, I think,” he replied. “I did something at home she didn’t like, so she punished me by making me come here and work one weekend.”
I started laughing. He looked at me like I was crazy. It only made me laugh harder. “The same thing happened to me. My mom got so mad when I got in trouble at school, she made me come here.”
“So you’re not doing this because you want to?” he asked.
“Not originally,” I confessed. “But now I’m having fun. I like Mr. Wilbur.”
“Yeah, he’s a cool old guy,” he said.
“He swindle you out of any money yet?” I asked. “He got me for a dollar and a quarter last week.”
“He’s owed me ten dollars for about six months,” he replied, “and he still hasn’t paid me a dime.”
“Have you asked him for it?”
“Naw. It would take all the fun out of it if he did pay me. This way I can always throw it up in his face.”
“Maybe I’ll lose enough for him to pay you back.”
“Whatever.” He looked into my face and grinned.
“Yeah, whatever,” I smiled. We sat and looked at each other for a moment. I was trying to read what was going on inside his head. He seemed to be such a cool guy, but it was as if he was holding something back.
“Come on, Boys.” Nurse Dorothy peeked her head in the door. “I said a small break, not the rest of the morning.”
She shook her head slowly as we both shouted in unison, “Whatever!”
Mr. Wilbur was waiting for me to arrive. He had set up the checkers set and was playing a game against himself. He looked up and smiled when I entered.
“Good morning,” I said cheerfully.
“James!” he exclaimed, “I’ve got the board all set up. Get ready for an old-fashioned ass whooping.”
“In your dreams,” I replied.
“By the way,” he asked, “did you bring me the money you lost last week?” I reached in my pocket and took out a dollar and handed it to him. He looked at it and extended his hand.
“What?” I grinned.
“You still owe me a quarter,” he reminded me. I reached into my pocket and pulled out another dollar and handed it to him. He quickly stuffed both dollars in his shirt pocket.
“Hey!” I said excitedly. “You owe me seventy-five cents.”
“You’ll owe it to me at the end of the day anyway,” he responded. “I might as well hold on to it.” He was right. After five games of checkers, I owed him another $1.25.
“How about another game of Sorry?” he asked after he noticed me starting to tire of playing checkers.
“Sure,” I replied. “Sounds good.” I put the checker set away and grabbed the game of Sorry.
“Tell me how school went this week,” he said as I was setting up the game.
“It’s just school,” I replied. “What more can I say.”
“Are you a good student?”
“Yes, Sir,” I informed him. “All ‘A’s’ and ‘B’s.’”
“Good for you,” he remarked.
We started playing the game in silence. He kept looking at me, like he was trying to read my mind. “Tell me a little about yourself,” he said, breaking the silence. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, Sir.” I blushed. I felt a little uncomfortable with his questions. I wasn’t used to talking about such personal details of my life. Jackie was the only person who I confided in.
“But you like a boy?” He smiled when my face began to redden even more. “So you do? Who’s the lucky guy?”
“No one really,” I insisted.
“Please humor an old man,” he replied. “I want to know who has stolen the heart of my young friend, James.”
“All right,” I responded. “His name is Donovan Michaels.”
“Not THE Donovan Michaels,” he sounded surprised. “The basketball player?”
“Yes,” I replied. “He plays for our school.”
“He’s a really good ball player,” he remarked. “I’ve been following his career in the newspaper. Several big colleges are scouting him.”
“He asked me Wednesday to go out with him,” I admitted.
“No shit!” He sounded just like Jackie when I told her about our encounter.
“Yeah, he wants us to hook up.” I watched as the smile on Mr. Wilbur’s face turned to a frown.
“Yeah,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“Be careful of guys like Donovan Michaels,” he warned. “They can be dangerous.”
“Well, he only mentioned it,” I assured him. “It’s not like he’s ask me out on a date.”
We began playing Sorry. Nothing else was mentioned of Donovan; but I was puzzled by Mr. Wilbur’s warning.
We had been playing for about a half hour when Dion came walking in. He stood behind me and watched us for a few minutes.
“Would you like to join us, Dion?” asked Mr. Wilbur.
“No, Sir,” he answered. “Momma wants me to help her with another patient.” He turned and disappeared from the room.
“He’s such a nice young man,” remarked Mr. Wilbur.
“He’s kind of strange,” I said.
“Why do you say that?” He gave me a curious look.
“He doesn’t say much too me,” I answered. “We served detention for a week and he didn’t speak more than a few sentences the whole time. Even now, he will hardly talk to me. I don’t think he likes me very much.”
“Maybe he likes you more than you think,” Mr. Wilbur replied as he continued moving his piece around the board.
“You said that last week. What do you mean by that?”
He stopped and sat back, looking into my eyes. “Some people have trouble showing their true feelings. They wear a mask so people don’t know what’s going on inside them.”
“I don’t understand,” I confessed.
“Look at you,” he said. “You wear a mask.” I gave him a confused look. “On the outside you lead everyone to believe that you are a straight, young man. But behind the mask, you are a boy struggling with his sexuality.”
“I’ve never looked at it that way,” I replied thoughtfully. “So, what are you saying, I should tell people I’m gay? Take off my mask?”
“No, not at all,” he said quickly. “You wear the mask for others to see; just take it off for those who you want to know the real you.”
“But it’s hard to do that,” I replied. “Only two people know I’m gay- my friend Jackie, and now you.”
“But doesn’t it feel good to remove the mask,” he asked, “and show the real you?”
“Yeah, it does,” I confessed. “I feel more comfortable around you and Jackie than anyone else. I don’t have to hide my feelings.”
“You mean, hide behind the mask?” he smiled.
“Yeah, hide behind the mask.” I sat back and reflected for a minute on what we had just discussed.
“What does this have to do with Dion, though?” I asked after a minute. “Does he wear a mask, too?”
“We all wear masks to hide something,” he replied.
“What can he be hiding?” I wondered aloud.
“I don’t know,” he responded, “but if you’re lucky, maybe someday he’ll remove the mask and let you see.”
Thanks for reading Taking Off the Mask. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org I enjoy answering email.