I learned in the summer between fourth and fifth grade that I was going to be bussed to a new school. I’d been attending Lloyd Estates Elementary. Even though that was still the closest school to our house I was going to start fifth grade at Rock Island Elementary School. I was 11 years old and knew nothing about the problems surrounding integration or the problems associated with Rock Island. To me it was all just a grand adventure, taking a bus to school instead of walking.
Rock Island was absorbing new students from three different schools. In order to make room for all of them, starting this year it taught only kindergarten and 5th grade. Students in grades 1 through 4 would still go to the schools they always went to. I'm sure all the other fifth graders in my neighborhood were bused to Rock Island but none of them was in my classroom. The first four years of school my class advanced together from one grade to the next. For the first time I was being place in a class based on standardized test scores. All of us were considered "bright" and being at the same level made it easier on Miss Martin, our teacher. We all benefited from it academically but I started school not knowing any of my classmates. It’s always been hard for me to make friends, so for the first several days I was very lonely.
That changed in the lunchroom the third week of school. Each week a different teacher served as the Lunchroom Monitor. The Lunchroom Monitor walked between the tables, making sure no food fights broke out, and that no one was talking too loudly. Most of them were harmless but Mrs. Love was a tyrant. Whenever she dispensed evil, she couldn’t help smiling. When she was on duty no one was allowed to leave the table without first eating every scrap of food on the tray. The cafeteria ladies weren't interested in hearing "I don't want that" or "I don't like peas". If you bought your lunch at school, you had no say-so about what they put on the lunch tray. It was all or nothing. Eventually we learned that when Mrs. Love was the Lunchroom Monitor it was best to bring lunch from home, but that third week of school we were still learning the ropes.
Mrs. Love’s table patrol route brought her to my table early in the meal. I was sitting at the very end of the bench. To my left was James, a tough guy who thought rules weren’t for him. Next to James was Ed, whom I didn’t know very well, even though he was also in Miss Martin’s class. Both of these boys had gone to Oriole Estates Elementary so I’d never met them before. Mrs. Love stopped in front of us and smiled her evil smile. She said, “Boys, you know you can’t leave until you eat all your Brussels sprouts.”
Perhaps Paula Dean can make Brussels sprouts taste good, I don’t know. But I can assure you, the Rock Island Cafeteria Ladies weren’t up to the task. Ed and I grimaced and groaned and heaved and gagged, but we choked them down. James waited until Mrs. Love’s attention was elsewhere. He mashed his sprouts to a liquid pulp with his Spork, and then scooped them into his milk carton. Ed and I, who had turned almost as green as the sprouts, were outraged. When Mrs. Love made her second trip to our table she congratulated all three of us for not wasting food and said we could go.
“Mrs. Love,” I said. “James hasn’t finished his milk.” Mrs. Love refused to leave the table until James upended the carton and drained its contents. Now that James was the same shade of green as Ed and I he muttered at me, “You're dead,” and went to empty his tray.
I wasn’t worried. Ed was in my class, but James wasn’t. He didn’t ride my bus. I was certain the Brussels sprouts would kill me long before James could.
I’d forgotten about recess. They wouldn’t start calling it Physical Education until middle school. Three classes took combined recess at the same time. I’d been tagged out at dodge ball and soon Ed joined me. He said, “That was pretty funny when James had to drink his Brussels sprouts.” I agreed but before I could say more James himself appeared and repeated that I was dead. As he raised his fist Ed stepped in front of me. That was the first time that Ed, who was a good six inches taller than me, saved me from a beating. After that how could we not be best friends?
Even without James, we would have been best friends. We had everything in common. We liked the same books. We watched the same television programs. We both wanted to be reporters for the school paper. (He made it; I didn’t. The rule was only one reporter per classroom.) We were both named after our fathers and we both wished we hadn’t been. “Edwin” was Ed’s middle name. His full name was Green Edwin Ashurst III. My middle name is Dalton. “Dalton? What kind of name is that,” I complained to Ed. “The only Dalton I ever heard of was an outlaw. They named me after a bank robber!”
“Oh, shut up!” Ed said, “I was named after a crayon!”
My family moved to a bigger house across town at the end of fifth grade. I now had a bedroom of my own. I also once again was walking to school, this time to Lauderdale Lakes Middle School. Happily, Ed also lived within walking distance and in the mornings, whichever of us got to the crossing guard first waited wait for the other, and then we walked the rest of the way to school together. Likewise, at the end of the day, we walked together as far as 31st Avenue and then he turned south and I turned north, each of us toward our respective homes.
Ed and I, along with a handful of other students, were placed in the gifted class, which for sixth graders meant taking a lot of classes with the 7th and 8th graders. At Rock Island everyone in our class was pretty much evenly matched intellectually. Not so in middle school. Being put with the older kids didn’t make us any friends with the other sixth graders. At the same time the older kids didn’t like being told we were in their classes because we were as smart as they were. Miss Martin had made us feel proud of being smart but no one was impressed with it here, least of all our teachers. In Social Studies Mr. Clodfelter asked if anyone knew what a peninsula was. Imitating a cross between Hermione Granger and Horseshack, I raised my hand and without waiting to be called on said, “A peninsula is an arm of land reaching into the water, surrounded on three sides by water.”
In 5th grade an answer like that would have earned me praise and glory. Those days were over. Mr. Clodfelter was not impressed. Nobody likes a know-it-all.
There was no more recess in Middle School. We took P.E. now, complete with Locker Rooms, gym clothes, and showers. Ed and I, two scrawny, eleven year old nerds, took P.E. with a bunch of 8th grade gorillas. We were terrified and never left each other’s sides in the locker room. Our first day in P.E., our designated hoodlum was also in our Social Studies class. He cornered Ed and me by the water fountain and said, “I’ll teach you to be so smart!”
“How are you going to teach me anything?” I demanded. “You don’t even know what a peninsula is!” He swooped in for the kill and Ed, two years younger than the bully, but a good six inches taller than me, saved me from a beating.
In 7th grade we were both student aides in the Library. Technically I reported to Miss Costello, the Librarian and Ed belonged to Mrs. Maraldo, the assistant librarian, but in reality we both hung out together, doing whatever needed to be done. One day Ed was telling a story that involved sweeping gestures and he knocked over Miss Costello’s Librarian of the Year trophy. We both adored Miss Costello, and even though Ed broke it, we were both mortified. Miss Costello saw the look of horror on our faces and laughed. She took a tube of Krazy Glue from her desk drawer and said, “Don’t worry. There are very few things that once broken, can’t be mended.” She glued the plastic school marm’s head onto her body and all was well.
Just before Spring Break, Ed and I were reshelving books. We were in the 900s, in the far corner of the library, which was empty of students. Ed looked around to make sure no one else was within earshot. “Can I tell you a secret?” He asked.
“Of course.” He didn’t have to ask. We told each other everything.
“You promise not to tell anyone?” I nodded my head. Whatever this was, I knew it went way beyond being named after a crayon. I wondered if he was was going to tell me he had cancer. He’d never scared me before but I found myself wishing we weren’t in such an isolated part of the library, in case I needed help. He looked over his shoulder, making sure we were alone. He spoke so softly I had to lean forward to hear him.
“I like boys instead of girls.”
With those six words I discovered we had yet one more thing in common.
But I didn’t share my secret with Ed. I’d spent the last two years doing everything I could to make it not be true. Hearing Ed give voice to what I had been denying frightened me. We finished shelving the books in silence, and as soon as the bell rang and Ed went on to our next class I went to Mrs. Maraldo and said, “Guess what Ed told me!” Exposing Ed’s secret and assigning it solely to him proved—to me at least—that I did not share the same secret, after all.
The next day when Ed and I reported to the library Mrs. Maraldo sent me to the desk to check out books for people and she took Ed to the back to fill out overdue notices that were sent to teachers each week. A little while later she came over to me at the checkout desk and said, “I asked Ed about what you said he told you and he denies it.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She’d asked him about it? I just stared at her and mumbled, “Okay.” I didn’t see Ed the rest of that period. He wasn’t in our next class either. When the final bell rang at the end of the day I walked home by myself for the first time in nearly two years.
Just as I approached Mrs. Cimino’s house Ed stepped out from behind her gardenia bush. Neither of us spoke. I don’t know how long we stood there looking at each other. Then Ed, who was a good six inches taller than me, gave me a beating.
I didn’t try to defend myself or fight back. I knew I deserved it. I don’t know if Ed thought my strategy was not fighting back would make him stop hitting me; it wasn’t. But it seemed to put him in a rage. He lashed out blindly, punching indiscriminately. He knocked me down and was on top of me, hitting without aiming, my face, stomach, sometimes, punching the dirt and missing me altogether.
In between punches I caught glimpses of his face. I saw no anger, although he had every right to be angry.
He looked sad and hurt and betrayed. Not the betrayal of someone wronged by an enemy. I saw the pain of one who had been betrayed by his best friend. When I saw that wounded look I knew that I had broken something that couldn’t be mended.
When he was too tired to hit me any more he got up. Neither of us had said anything still. I wanted to apologize. To tell him, “me too!” But I didn’t. I don’t know what, if anything he wanted to say to me.
Ed stopped speaking to me after that day. We didn’t hang out anymore or laugh and joke like we used to. We were still in the same classes though, and every time I saw him I was reminded of my betrayal. Soon the guilt I felt mutated into shame. In May his dad was transferred out of state. Ed left before the end of the school year. When he left, I thanked God. I thought not seeing him anymore meant I would no longer be reminded of what I had done. I was wrong.
Everyone else at Lauderdale Lakes went to Boyd Anderson, the high school next door, but I went to Fort Lauderdale High School, and once again, had to start making friends from scratch. Soon I had a new best friend, and once came very close to sharing my secret with him, but in the end I was too afraid that he would prove to be as worthy of confidences as I had been.
I went to college. I married someone I had no business marrying. I had a child. I got divorced. My father died. I worked in retail and as a telex operator and I tried and failed to sell waterbeds. Eventually, at the ripe old age of 29 I joined the Navy.
And every time I had a crush on someone, every time there was a gay storyline on a TV show or a gay headline in the newspaper, I was reminded of how I had betrayed Ed.
I finally came out, more or less against my will, while I was in the Navy. It was during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. They asked, anyway. I didn’t tell, but they figured it out, anyway and kicked me out.
It sucked, but it was also freeing. Now that I was out, I was Out with a capital O. I ended up in Birmingham, Alabama, ready to pick up the pieces, find a job and get on with my life. I wasn’t walking around waving rainbow flags and throwing glitter, shouting, “I’m here, I’m queer, Get over it!” but I wasn’t hiding who I was, either.
But this newfound honesty made my old betrayal even harder to live with. I desperately wanted to find Ed and apologize.
It had been over fifteen years since his family had moved and I had no idea where they had gone. I didn’t even know if he was still alive. I didn’t know where he was, or how to get in touch with him. It was hopeless.
Then one day when I should have been looking for a job, I was at the public library and discovered they had “public use” computers. I’d heard of the internet but it wasn’t as ubiquitous in 1996 as it is now. I’d never been online. The librarian got me started and showed me how to navigate, bragging about their new 56k modems. Eventually I stumbled onto a “people search” section of Yahoo and it hit me: I’m not trying to find John Smith. How many Green Edwin Ashurst the thirds can there be?
It turns out, only one. And his email address was public. A library is where I’d betrayed my best friend so long ago. Would I find redemption in another library?
I created a hotmail account and composed my very first email. I’m willing to bet not one other person in the world can remember the first email they ever sent. I’ll never forget mine.
I reminded Ed who I was, and what I had done. I told him that what made my sin even worse, was that I’m gay, too. I tried, perhaps too hard, to convey the profound remorse I’d been struggling with ever since.
I hit “send” and then immediately began hitting the refresh button, to see if there was an answer. All too soon my hour on the computer was up and I had to relinquish my seat to someone else.
I returned to the library the next day, but all of the Public Use computers were in use by the public. I put my name on the waiting list and 4 hours later was finally able to log on.
There was an email from Ed:
Bob, I remember the events you described and yes, you hurt me very much. But you didn’t ruin my life. It sounds like this has caused you far more suffering than it’s caused me. Please don’t suffer any more. I forgive you. Your friend,
I didn’t realize just how much weight I’d been carrying until I actually felt it being lifted. I sat there on the second floor of the downtown branch of the Jefferson County Public Library, laughing and crying, until the librarian came and asked me if I was okay. All I could do was point to the computer screen. She read the email, not knowing any of the details behind it.
“I’m so happy for you,” she said and hugged me. I just cried that much harder.
That was twenty-two years ago. Since then I’ve been to Atlanta several times to see my friend Edwin, most recently three months ago to see him in a community theater production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Like me, he’s put on some weight since middle school. Unlike me, he still has all of his hair.
He’s still a good six inches taller than me. And he’s saved me from much more than a beating.