The first time Alex sees another man's penis, a naked woman is sliding it into her mouth. Alex is sitting on the floor, crossing his legs, and leaning forward towards the television screen. His wide blue eyes are watching the woman's face as her head bobs up and down. Her long blonde hair has hundreds of tight curls, her smooth legs stretch across the bed, and her small pink nipples look like puckering lips. Alex looks at her face. She closes her eyes while the penis is in her mouth, but does not clinch them shut. He thinks she looks asleep.
The man is smirking and biting his lower lip. The thick, wiry black crescent of his hair gleams in the lighting and deep furrows line his face. He has broad shoulders, a layer of black hair covers his body and forms a T on his chest, but he is short and a lip of stomach flab hangs over his waist. However, it is his penis, not his face or body, which is the star of the movie. Alex has no frame of reference for its shape and size. Some boys catch glimpses of their father's penis, but Alex never has. His eleven-year-old penis is long, but he never wonders about its size until today. In his mind, he thinks everyone has the same penis as him. The ugly man on the television screen buries that idea forever.
His penis is a thick, glistening pink shaft as long as an infant's forearm. Bulging blue veins weave under the skin and the curving crown looks like a fist hidden in a coat sleeve. Alex feels his heart pounding whenever he looks at it. He asks himself how it can be so big. He wonders if there is something wrong with the man, or does he have a problem? When he grows up, will his penis look like that? He hopes it will. It is so big that Alex wonders how the woman fits it into her mouth without gagging.
Alex unbuckles his pants, slides them down his thick hips, and looks at his penis. It is limp, dangling towards the floor like a drooping middle finger, and three tufts of black hair are growing from his sternum. When Alex runs his fingers through the hair, it feels like the bristles of a hairbrush. He takes his penis in hand and looks at the television screen. The woman is on all fours and the man is behind her. He is on his knees, his hands clutching her hips, and thrusting his crotch into her. The camera angle shifts and Alex sees the man's penis plunging deep into the woman's vagina. Alex looks down at his own penis. There is hair growing, he notices his penis growing thicker and longer in the last two months, but it is nothing like what he sees in the movie. The woman is moaning, rolling her head from side to side, and arching her back. Alex knows his penis cannot make a woman do any of those things. He thinks it never will. It will be too small like his stomach is too fat and his legs are too slow. Alex sighs, pulls his pants up, and turns off the video cassette player. He presses the rewind button and, when the tape finishes rewinding, ejects it, sticks it in its sleeve, and slides it back onto the shelf with the title on the tape spine facing out. The title, Talk Dirty To Me, is in small, jagged black letters.
Of all the things Alex can be in this world, to be himself is the least appealing of all. He is tall for his age, but hovers between twenty and forty pounds overweight. The other kids never let him forget it. Complaining, sobbing, and stomping his feet does not stop a few hundred spitballs from smacking the back of his head or block a dozen dodge balls from hitting his stomach by his eleventh birthday.
The attackers are boys; girls are another matter. He falls in love with every girl he meets. When they stand close to him, his eyes slide away, his head sags, and his stomach flutters. It feels like a small bird is stirring to life inside of him, swelling, shaking its wings faster until his entire body is trembling, weightless, and wavering. They laugh at his stuttering, stumbling, and fidgeting, burying their faces in friend's shoulders to stifle their snickers. They do not shoot spitballs at him, call him names, or sling dodge balls at his stomach, but every girl he loves stare at the boys who do.
He thinks about the girls he loves late at night more than any other time. After he climbs into bed, the house quiet, Alex turns on a small radio and listens to love songs. He listens with a thumping heart to lyric after lyric about losing, finding, and renewing love. The girl he loves this year is Heidi and he wants to kiss her, wrap his arms around her, and hold her hand. He is swinging and watching her jumping rope at recess when one of her friends, a short girl with glasses and long red hair, walks over to him.
"Hey, Alex, Heidi wants you to come over where we are."
Alex puts his feet down and stops swinging. A slight, mocking lilt in her words raises his eyebrows. "How come? She never talks to me."
She smiles and tosses her head back. "Hah! I'll tell you why! She knows you love her." Her eyes narrow and she wags her index finger at him. "She didn't say she wants to be your girlfriend or nothin', but she wants to you to hang out with us." The girl puts a hand on her hip and narrows her eyes. "So, are you comin', or what?"
He looks at Heidi across the playground. Her thick nest of bright blonde hair extends past her sloping shoulders and she has the slender body, long arms, legs, and narrow hips of a dancer. Splashes of small brown freckles on her cheeks accentuate her eyes. Alex loves her eyes. He thinks they are the color of twilight and look like teardrops turning on their side. She is twirling one end of a jump rope, singing as another girl skips over the looping rope. She glances at him, smiles, and says something to a girl standing next to her. Both girls look at Alex and laugh, but their eyes are wide, their round cheeks rise, and their hands are waving free at their side. He is sure Heidi said something nice about him.
"Sure, I'll come."
"Alright then, let's go!"
The girl turns and trots towards Heidi. Alex stands and walks away from the swing set and onto the basketball court. There are four goal posts and six boys are playing a loud basketball game, clanging shots, stopping and starting again, and screaming at each other. They glare at Alex as he walks across the other end of the court, but no one speaks. A freezing tingle shudders across his skin. Alex knows they are looking, but he does not look at them. All that matters are the quick, breathless steps across the concrete bringing him closer to Heidi. If they say something now, if they hurl their curses and insults at him, he will not face them, frozen or flinching, waiting for them to stop hurting him like so many times before. Instead, he will run to Heidi and hug her, kiss her, and ask her to make them go away. If she loves him, everything will be better.
She gives her end of the jump rope to the girl with red hair and turns to face Alex. She takes two steps forward and smiles at him. When he walks up to her, she drops her head, shuffles her feet, and giggles.
She peers up at him and raises her eyebrows. "What are you doin'?"
Alex notices his hands shaking and thrusts them into his pockets. His knees are twitching. "Oh, nothing. I was just swinging."
She raises her head, flashes him a smile, and looks away. "You've got a funny look on your face. You surprised I wanted you to come over here?" she says. Her soft voice rises when she asks the question.
Alex drops his head and kicks the dirt with his foot. His tongue is dry and his back itches. I don't know what to do, he thinks. I'm gonna say something wrong and she won't like me anymore.
"Yeah, I didn't think you liked me," he says. He talks fast and stumbles over the words when his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth.
She smiles and cranes her head downward to see his face. "Maybe I do like you. Maybe I always have and just couldn't say anything till now." When she straightens, Alex raises his head and looks at her. She smiles again. "I know you like me though."
Alex feels heat spreading across his face and Heidi laughs. What do I say? I can't tell her I love her, she'll laugh at me. "I really like you a lot," he says, whispering, his eyes wide and unblinking.
When Heidi laughs again, Alex looks away. The boys are still playing basketball. All six have their shirts off and the dull glistening of sweat covering their bodies looks like a thin coat of grease. When they are not playing, striding and stalking around the basketball goal, swinging their shoulders, and cocking their heads from side to side, the basketball court corrals them.
"So what do you want to do?" Heidi says.
She talks fast, sharpening the end of each word, and blinking in brief bursts when he looks at her. He licks his lips and shrugs. "I don't know, just hang out?"
She crinkles her nose. "I want to be doing things, not just hangin' out!" Her eyes widen and she pauses. "You wanna jump rope with us?"
Her voice softens, the words roll out slower, her eyes relax, and she smiles again. His eyes move from her to the girls jumping rope behind her. Fear swells up inside of him. He cannot do it. He reads books, watches movies, and listens to music. He never jumps rope or plays basketball before, but he wants to. People like basketball players and jumping rope more than books. He thinks he cannot do it because he reads books, because he is too fat, too slow, too ugly, too much Alex to jump over a swinging rope without falling on his face. However, he knows he cannot say no. If he says he does not like jumping rope, she will quit liking him. If he tells her he cannot do it, she will laugh at him. I don't have to do it long, he thinks. If I can jump it two or three times, I can stop and just hang out with her until recess is over.
"Yeah, I'll jump rope with you." Alex hears his cracking voice falling into a hoarse whisper on the final two words. He clears his throat, rolls his slumping shoulders, and straightens his back.
The redheaded girl hands the jump rope to Heidi. Alex stares at the long, white nylon spool with round knots at each end. Both girls on each side are smiling and the rope curls in the dirt like a sun-bleached snake. I can do it if I time my jump right. That's all it is, I can do that, I know I can. Alex looks at each girl and smiles. He steps in front of the rope and spaces his feet an inch apart.
"Ready?" Heidi says.
Alex turns his head, nods twice, and looks at the ground. "Yup, go ahead and do it."
When Alex is bending his knees to jump, the rope swings over him and slaps his shins. He blinks and hears Heidi's friends laughing behind him. He looks at Heidi. She is pursing her lips together to hold in her laughter.
"That... was too soon," Alex says. "Let's do it again."
She lowers her head and widens her eyes. "The rope's comin', you gotta jump."
Alex frowns and nods. "I know, I know." He stares at the ground, furrows his eyebrows, and waves her off with his right hand. "Come on, let's do it again."
"Alright, get ready."
He knows the rope is swinging when the hair on the back of his head flutters and jumps. I did it! His chest is heaving. The rope swings around again, but when he jumps, it is too late. The rope loops around his left foot and pulls him off balance. He falls into the dirt, catching himself with his hands.
Laughter blasts him from every side. He hears the shrill giggling of the girls, Heidi cupping her hand across her face, her shoulders bouncing up and down, her head bopping from side to side. He hears raw laughter from the basketball court and turns his head to see the boys standing close together, their dark eyes glaring at him, slapping their hands against their legs and across each other's back, their chests swelling. Alex is on his hands and knees and staring into the dirt. The laughter does not stir his anger. Instead, his thundering heart is straining with panic. He cannot understand why they hate him for being fat. He cannot understand why they hate him for not playing their games or tripping over their jump ropes. He cannot grasp the reason why they are tearing him down with their giggling and laughter and the gnawing fear blossoming from that lack of understanding eats him alive. He is the problem. No one makes them change. Everyone wants him to change because there is something wrong with him as he is. If he stays fat and doesn't play their games, no one will ever like him. The laughter will keep coming, growing louder and louder.
He says nothing to anyone. While they continue laughing at him, Alex stands, brushes off, and walks towards the school doors. He goes to the bathroom, looks in the mirror, and wipes a smudge of dirt off his cheek. The panic gripping his heart loosens and tears well up from deep within. He clutches the sink and throws his head back while he sobs. When he lowers his head, he looks down and sees his loose, dangling shoestrings.
He watches professional basketball on television with his father. Jack, his dad, is a quiet man who seldom laughs or raises his voice. He tucks his shirt in, has a thick head of black hair that he combs often, a smooth, angular face. His father is a casual basketball fan who, if he cannot find something else to watch on television, watches a game. Alex likes basketball, but the time watching a game is two hours with his dad, and that makes it much more than a game.
"What do you think someone's got to do to be a good ball player, dad?"
His father has an open beer between his legs and is propping his feet up on a footstool. He turns his head and looks at Alex. "I don't know, son. Lots of things. Why?" He picks up the beer, takes a drink, and wedges it between his knees.
Alex shrugs. "I don't know. I was thinking I might want to try playing basketball."
Jack's eyes widen and an eyebrow arches. "Really? It's a lot of work." He frowns, lowers his head, and then looks at Alex again. "I'm not saying you can't do it. It's a commitment though."
"I think I can do it. I'll do whatever I've gotta do, dad."
When he sees Heidi later holding hands with a boy from the basketball court, Alex decides he will learn how to play. Heidi will love him then. He still hears her laughter, but she laughs at him because he is not good enough, not because there is something wrong with her. He knows he can be better. If he learns how to play basketball, he will be better. He will lose weight, the boys will stop picking on him, and she will hold his hand tight.
His father promises to buy a basketball and a goal when he gets his next paycheck. Alex does not wait. He wads up pieces of notebook paper into small balls and practices his shooting skills on waste paper baskets. One player Alex loves watching on television uses the skyhook as his signature shot, so Alex shoots skyhook after skyhook, pretending to dribble the paper ball, taking three steps, and arcing his right arm high into the air before releasing the ball. When payday comes and he starts shooting the skyhooks for real, the ball clangs off the rim when it touches it at all, but Alex does not stop.
When he walks off the school bus each day, he tosses his backpack down, snatches the ball up, and rushes outside to shoot baskets. After rolling out of bed on weekend mornings, he slips on his fraying sneakers and fills his hours practicing. Alex spends the evenings reading and watching television, but his thoughts sway back to Heidi. He thinks about her thick blonde hair, blue eyes, and the long curls of her pouting lips. Even if two weeks of shooting skyhook after skyhook fails to sharpen his basketball skills, he cannot shake the longing that causes his heart to race and his eyes to wander.
He thinks about her when he watches Talk Dirty to Me for the second time. It does not start out that way. When his dad and mom go grocery shopping on a Saturday afternoon, he stays home and plays basketball. It is a humid day in late April and sweat soaks Alex's clothes. He stops playing basketball a half hour after they leave and decides to shower. As he walks through his small bedroom towards the bathroom, he presses the power button on his stereo and a local radio station flares to life.
He yanks his wet shirt over his head and drops it to the floor, pulls his shorts and underwear down to his feet before stepping back, and kicks the pile of clothes against the wall. Sweat binds thick commas of his blonde hair together and his large stomach glistens under the bathroom lights.
There is a pop song pulsing out of the floor speakers and its thundering bass rattles the bathroom mirror. Alex is naked, tapping his foot, sliding his hand across his slick chest and gliding it over his large belly. The crisp snaps of the snare drum and short splashes of cymbal echo in his ears, but the bass drum has his head humming. He keeps stroking his chest and stomach, turning his open hand at every third beat, his drooping eyes staring at his face in the mirror while rolling his head in a slow circle. His body is warm, tall pimples are popping up from his tingling skin, and his rigid penis is like a small arm straining to push away from his torso.
He sees the woman in the movie, her bright red lips parting in the middle, the narrow tip of her tongue darting out and tapping the peak of her upper lip. His hand sweeps across his sternum when he pictures how she kisses a man, engulfing his mouth, twisting her head from side to side. Alex wonders if Heidi kisses like that. The bass drum thunders over his heartbeat as he thinks about Heidi's mouth lunging forward to meet his own, her thin pink lips parting at once. He closes his eyes and imagines pressing their moist lips together, the tinge of peppermint in her taste and the cool tangerine breeze wafting off her hair.
His right hand slides down to this crotch and cups his scrotum. He wonders what she looks like naked. When he imagines seeing her small breasts, his hand creeps up, clutches his penis, and begins stroking. He clinches his eyes tight and his breathing quickens when thinks about touching and kissing her breasts. Like the girl in the movie, he sees her reclining head and hears her moaning like someone sinking into a warm bath.
When the song ends and the volume drops, the radio announcer's rapid-fire voice shoots out of the speakers. A heavy throbbing reverberates through Alex's body and his panting hisses like short bursts of air squeezing from a balloon. He blinks and, when his eyes drift downward, he sees his right hand still gripping his swollen penis. He lets go, his hands drop to his sides, and he stares at himself in the mirror. His breathing slows and deepens, but the throbbing in his body does not stop.
He wants to see the movie again. He sticks the video cassette into the machine, presses the play button, and stretches out in his dad's recliner. The movie starts in the same place as last time and the first thing Alex sees is the woman straddling the man. The camera tightens its focus and her body fills the frame. In this scene, the woman's eyes are open, but they have no aim or color. She is throwing her head back and forth as she bounces on the man's lap. The camera angle shifts and Alex sees the man's penis sliding in and out of her. Alex slides his shorts down and strokes his penis.
The camera turns its focus back to the woman's face and, when Alex sees her lips moving, he raises the television volume. Between her short moans, she is whispering, asking for it harder, mumbling about how good it feels, and sputtering out monotone pleas for more. Alex gasps, his breathing growing faster, hearing the words alone and discarding their delivery. He wants Heidi to say things like that to him. He hears her voice saying them. He sees her on top of him, her squinting eyes staring into his own, and her blonde hair whipping around. He is stroking faster, his breathing becoming shallow, his back arching in the recliner, and the throbbing in his body echoes in his ears. When his head rolls to the side, he sees eyes peering through the front door window and hears the knock in the same moment. The pair of eyes sees him, moves down to his crotch, and turns away.
Alex pushes the recliner down, springs to his feet, stops the movie, and pulls up his shorts. He walks towards the front door and tries to slow his breathing before opening it. When he turns the knob and pulls it open, there is a tall, muscular man in overalls standing on the other side. He is grinning.
"Your dad home?"
Alex looks down and sees the small bulge in his shorts. "Um, no. He'll be back later though." He talks fast and tries to avoid the man's squinting, laughing eyes.
The man nods, looks away, and rubs his hand across his mouth. When he turns his head around, he is still smiling, but looking down and dodging Alex's eyes. "Okay, just tell him Roger stopped by. I'll come back tomorrow afternoon."
The man nods and walks away from the door. Alex holds the door open, but when he hears him snickering as he steps off the porch, Alex slams the door shut. He stares at the door, his heart racing, and it is not until he hears the crunching gravel outside that he moves. He walks up to the window flanking the front door and looks outside. Even after hearing the truck driving across the gravel, his heartbeat does not slow until he sees the empty driveway.
Alex wonders if the man will tell his parents. If his dad and mom come home and ask him about touching himself, what will he say? He wants to go to bed, pull covers over his head, close his eyes, and go to sleep. If they come home and he is in bed, they will not say anything until he wakes up. However, the man's smile looms larger than any question, stretching across the forefront of his mind, obscuring all other worries.
He walks into the bathroom, pulls his shorts down to the ankles, and scans his naked reflection. His bulging stomach, flaccid penis dangling in its shadow, and his flabby arms are painful for him to see. When other kids laugh at him and see him wince, they laugh louder, harder, longer. When the man smiles and sees him looking away, red with shame, his smile turns into a harsh, cutting snicker. Alex turns to the toilet and urinates. He knows that the man is right. I am too fat, ugly, and slow. My dick is too small. Heidi will never love me. He pulls his shorts up, walks into his bedroom, and crawls into his bed. When he closes his eyes, he does not see the man's smile. He does not hear an echo of his snicker. Instead, his hand pushes through the thick cover, slips into his shorts, and strokes his shrunken penis until he falls asleep.
Despite the gray despair often clouding his mind, Alex keeps shooting his basketball and, over the next two weeks, the constant practice sharpens his timing and pushes the limits of his skill enough that he is hitting every third to fourth shot. When a teacher hands out applications for basketball camp, his progress thins out the despair and emboldens him. If he signs up, everyone will see that he likes basketball and can play okay. He thinks the skyhook will make him look cool. Maybe Heidi will notice and give him another chance.
Alex's mother works the second shift as a hospital nurse, so he spends the weeknights with his father. Sometimes Jack cooks dinner for the two of them, usually hamburgers or hot dogs, but often buys dinner when he is driving home from work. They are eating soft shell tacos and watching television when Alex starts speaking.
"My teacher handed out some applications to our class today, dad."
Jack turns his head sideways when he bites into the taco and his gaze bounces between Alex and the television. He swallows, wipes a piece of lettuce from his mouth, and nods. "Applications for what?"
"The school's gonna have a basketball camp for people who wanna learn how to play better. The teacher said that we have a week to turn the application back in."
Jack finishes his taco, dabs his mouth with a paper napkin, and brushes his shirt off. Despite working eight hours at a construction site on a humid spring day, Jack's dark hair is smooth and straight. His face has a dark tan and deep grooves accentuate his high, clean-shaven cheeks. He looks at Alex, arches an eyebrow, and smiles.
"So you want to be in the camp, right?" he says.
Alex nods. "Yup, I sure do. I've been practicing a lot, but I can be a lot better." He pauses and his eyes widen. "The camp will be so much fun!"
Jack holds up a hand and puckers his lips. "Whoa, I know you've been really practicing, but wait a second, I didn't say you could be in the camp yet, Alex. I've got more questions. How much is it?"
When Alex hears the strong edge of caution in his dad's voice, he feels his heart sinking and struggles to regain his breath. It is like two enormous hands sweeping in from each side, slamming into him, and pancaking him in the middle.
"I don't know. It's on the application."
Jack leans back in his chair. "Well, bring me the application and let me look at it." When Alex stands, Jack raises his hand and leans forward. "Wait a second. I want you to know that I'm not promising you anything, but if the money they want isn't too crazy, you can join the camp." He lowers his head and stares into Alex's eyes. "Okay?"
Alex nods, goes to his school backpack, and brings the application back to his dad. Jack winces a little when he sees the cost, moaning a little about value for the dollar when high school kids are teaching in the camp, but it is okay. He fills out the application, seals a check up in an envelope, and Alex tucks both inside his backpack. He falls asleep that night beaming, clutching his pillow tight against his cheek, picturing his new future. Everyone will like him when he is a good basketball player. Shooting baskets in the driveway is fun, but he has to play with other people to get better. When the camp is over, he will shoot great skyhooks and the boys who hate him will let him take off his shirt and play with them.
Alex knows it is a mistake on the first day. There are four kids in his basketball camp. One is black, overweight like Alex, and cannot dribble the basketball for more than ten seconds without it bouncing off across the gymnasium. He is smaller than Alex is and moves quicker, but does not talk except for calling himself stupid when he makes a mistake or giving short, flat answers to questions. The other two are thin white kids with basketball team logos on their clothes and new white sneakers. They are quick, accurate shooters who smile a lot and call Alex and the black kid fatties or losers anytime the teacher is out of hearing distance. When the teacher is nearby, they smile for him and talk about basketball, what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, and what players they like. The teacher is a college senior from the local university and a backup on the team. Alex and the black kid spend their time on the basketball court shooting baskets alone while the teacher laughs, plays, and teaches the other kids. He does not teach Alex or the black kid much, preferring instead to smirk at them. The camp lasts six weeks and four pass before he remembers their names.
At the end of the six weeks, the school stages a program where kids from the various camps play against one another and take part in shooting challenges in front of their families. The school hands out discount coupons from local pizzerias and new basketballs as prizes. He makes the decision to go when he overhears Heidi talking to her friends during recess about how she is going to watch her little brother play. If she sees him making shots, she will think better of him and give him a second chance. Even if he is still fat and slow, even though he cannot jump high, misses shots, and cannot dribble while moving after six weeks of basketball camp, he wants to go.
It is Saturday and he is sitting in the backseat of the car while his dad drives him to school. His mother is sitting beside Jack. Paula is a short woman with broad shoulders and a head blooming with thick, curling brown hair extending to her shoulders. She is overweight, her stomach bulging against her blouses and sweaters, but she is never plodding. When Alex watches her walk through a room, she seems like she is gliding, never stepping. She wears makeup, even when she is home, but paints her dark eye shadow, dabs the rouge, and rolls the lipstick slowly, never straying outside the lines. Even when she talks and Alex hears her deep, warm voice, she speaks slowly, her brow furrowing as if she were weighing each word.
She turns in her seat, looks back at Alex, and frowns. "You should have had your things ready, Alex. We're going to be a few minutes late. I hope they let you dress out and participate."
Alex looks down at the car floorboard. "I'm sorry, mom."
Her eyes widen and she smiles. "It's okay, I'm not mad at you. I just want you to be able to take part is all."
Jack shrugs. "Don't worry so much, Paula. We won't be really late, just a few minutes," he says.
"Yeah, but he has to sign in, then get dressed, before he can even get out there with the other kids. I'm just worried is all. I just want this to go right for Alex, that's all." Her voice strains on the final words, almost whining.
Jack sighs, reaches across the seat, and pats Paula's leg twice. "It's going to be alright. Alex is gonna be okay," he says. He looks at Alex in the rearview mirror. "Is that right, Alex? You're okay, right?"
Alex raises his head and sees his dad's narrow eyes. His stomach flutters and he rubs his legs. They will be at the school soon and it makes him nervous. He nods at Jack. "Yeah, dad, I'm okay."
There are fifty kids in the school gym when Alex walks in with his parents. There are boys and girls alike, split up according to age, wearing red t-shirts promoting the sponsors and red shorts. The school pulls out rows of bleachers for the crowd, lowers each of the gym's six basketball goals where Alex sees groups of kids and adults gathering around each basket. Between the harsh clanging of balls bouncing off the steel basketball rims and the shouting, laughter, and voices rising and falling behind the steel rattling, the gym sounds like an industrial plant. After Alex signs in, Jack pats him on the shoulder. Paula stands smiling behind Jack, but the corners of her mouth are tight and her cheekbones are high.
"Good luck, son," Jack says. "We'll be watching."
Alex gazes around him and takes a deep breath. He looks at Jack and nods. "Thanks, dad."
Alex changes clothes alone in the gym locker room. When he steps back out into the gym, he looks around for Heidi and sees her sitting on the front row of a bleacher section. There are four kids at the goal to the right of her bleacher section and an older man holding a clipboard. His pounding heart makes him a little dizzy, but he shakes his head and regains his balance. He sighs and walks over to the basketball goal.
They are taking turns shooting the basketball, each shot they make worth one point and the first kid to reach twenty points wins. The older man looks in his early forties, but has the slim, muscular frame of a former athlete. When Alex asks if he can use his skyhook shot, the man smirks and says he can use any shot he wants as long as he stays inbounds. Alex scans the gym for his parents and sees them on the other side standing at a hot dog stand. When he turns his head and looks at Heidi, she is looking at him and smirking. Alex clinches his fists and looks away.
His nerves cause him to shake and miss shots. He is not timing his steps right and the ball is rolling off the side of his hand instead of his fingers. When he looks at Heidi, she is giggling and whispering to the redheaded friend sitting next to her. The other kids are missing shots too, but for every basket Alex makes, they are making two or three more. He finishes last in game after game and when the older man suggests that he try a different shot, Alex shakes his head and says no. Kids come and go, moving from game to game, but Alex stays at the goal near Heidi. By the end of the fourth game, he is missing every shot and pushing down tears.
A tall boy with small eyes, muscular arms, and large hands joins the fifth game. Alex knows him. Jerry rides the same school bus and shoots spitballs at the back of his head every morning and afternoon. He is the same age, but not in the same class, and tries to trip Alex anytime he spots him in the hallway or cafeteria. When Jerry sees Alex, he walks over to him, smiling when he sees Alex flinching at his approach.
"Hey fat ass. Why don't you go home with your mommy and daddy? Ain't there something you should be eating right now, like a house?" he says. Jerry lowers his voice so the older man will not hear him.
Alex frowns and closes his eyes. "Leave me alone," he says.
When he turns and walks away, he hears Jerry chuckling behind him. He looks at Heidi and she is pointing at a group of boys playing a two-on-two basketball game across the gym. He looks for his parents and sees them sitting five rows behind Heidi. Jack waves and Alex waves back. Alex wants to go home, he wants to get away from Jerry, but he wants to make one last shot. He wants to plant his feet straight, feel the ball roll off his fingers, and watch it float through the air before swishing through the net. If he can do that, Heidi will see it, and he can go home. The misses and chuckling will no longer matter.
It does not work. Alex cannot clear his head or stop shaking, and each time he looks at Heidi and Jerry alike, their wide smiles cut away at his dwindling self-confidence. As his confidence disappears, despair floods his thoughts. She will never love him. He will never have any friends. He will spend his whole life at home with mom and dad, reading books, watching basketball games, watching dirty movies, and being sad. He is fat, slow, and will never be cool.
The older man walks up to his side. "The event's almost over, Alex. You want to take your last shot or are you done?" He closes his eyes halfway when he speaks and a faint smile creases his face.
Alex looks at Heidi and their eyes meet. When she snorts and looks away, something snaps inside of him. A wave of heat sweeps across his skin and his despair turns into anger. Her snort and short flick of the head digs deep into his heart and unleashes a blast of rage that clears away his tension, steadies his hands, and sharpens his focus.
He nods fast. "Yeah, I want to take my last shot."
"Okay, go ahead then, it's your turn."
The older man hands Alex the ball and moves out of the way. Alex dribbles the ball a few times. He keeps the ball at waist level while walking over to the left side of the baseline. He stares at the basketball goal and tries picturing the shot in his mind. Take two steps across the baseline, stop, and shoot. Alex sees Jerry standing on the other side of the baseline. He mouths the words "go home fatty" and smiles. Alex wants to throw the ball at his face, but puts his head down and dribbles the ball. He swings his left foot backwards and starts moving. He dribbles without looking at the ball and feels each step landing at the right time. He stops, arches his arm into the air, and feels the ball roll off his fingers. The net snaps when the ball passes through the basket. The ball bounces off the gym floor and rolls over to the older man. He scoops it up, walks over to Alex, pats him once on the back, and smiles.
"Good shot, Alex. Nice job."
Alex is smiling and staring at the basketball goal. "Thanks," he says. He looks over to his parents and sees them smiling. However, when he lowers his gaze to look at Heidi, she is no longer there and his swelling pride deflates. It is his best shot of the day and she never sees it. He hopes someone will tell her about it. When he looks up at his parents and sees them smiling, his pride swells again, smaller before, but spilling through his body and lightening his mind.
When the program is over and the boys are walking back to the locker rooms to change, Jerry bumps into Alex and starts walking beside him. Alex tries to move away and Jerry follows him.
"You got lucky, fat boy. You can't play basketball. You're a loser and everyone knows it," Jerry says. Some boys that Alex does not know snicker behind them.
Once they are in the locker room, Alex tries to find a private corner, but Jerry still follows him and starts undressing next to him. Alex's heart races and his hands are shaking again. If anybody, especially Jerry, sees how small his penis is, his life is over. They will tease him even more, shoot more spitballs, and throw dodge balls at his crotch. They will tell every girl and no one will ever love him. Alex freezes while Jerry takes his shirt off. Jerry laughs.
"Why aren't you taking your clothes off? Afraid everyone will find out you have a small dick? Huh? Or are you just watchin' me cause you're a homo?" he says.
The words jolt him. He cannot win. He has to return the uniform he wears for the event, so he cannot keep his clothes on. If he does anyway, Jerry will tell everyone he is scared or that he is gay. Alex pushes back the urge to cry and pulls his shirt over his head.
"Look at your stomach! You're huge!" Jerry says.
His laughter makes Alex's head ache, but when Alex pulls his shorts down, Jerry abruptly stops laughing. Alex looks up and sees Jerry is naked. He is staring at Alex's crotch, his mouth hanging open a half-inch, and his head leaning forward. When Alex looks at Jerry's crouch, he gasps. Jerry has thin, random patches of pubic hair on his torso and his penis is the size and width of a small earthworm. Alex looks at his own penis and gasps again. The pubic hair spreading across his torso is darker and thicker. His penis is much larger. When he looks up, Jerry is staring at him. He opens his mouth to speak, but closes it and looks down. He shuffles his bare feet on the floor, turns, picks up his belongings, and walks away.
Alex stares into space and does not move. The shock wears off after a few seconds and Alex smiles. One day he will have a penis like that guy in the movie. Things will not always be like this. One day no one will call him fat anymore, he will have friends, and some girl will love him. He laughs and finishes dressing.
His parents are waiting for him outside the locker room. When Jack sees him, he spins around and gives Alex a short hug. Paula leans down and kisses the top of his head.
"You did great, son. Ready to go?" Jack says.Alex smiles and nods. "Yeah, I want to go home."