Teenage Crush: Part Two

Episode Nine

Teenage Crush: Part Two

One thing many people knew about Brittany and Travis is that when they had started grade twelve, a few months ago, they would volunteer their time at the Riverside Free Clinic, once a week after school.

At first, when Brittany asked him, “Do you want to put in some time there and help out?”

Travis had said, “The free clinic is where pregnant teens from the alternate class hang out.” 

And she told him, “If you volunteer, it’d look good on your resume when you apply to med school.” 

Those were the words that bought and sold his free labor at that clinic.

Every Tuesday, they would carry blood and urine samples to and from the lab. The clinic had the teenagers doing this because their municipal government had cut their funding. Other than the nurse and the doctor that were on-call, volunteers were all they could afford.

At this free clinic, the childhood friends handed out condoms to people. They filled the pamphlet trays lining the walls. They signed people in at the front desk so the nurse or doctor could see them. 

Most of their patients were gay men. Men who were closeted in their small town that had a large population of churchgoers. Church goers that would protest every small Pride parade these gay men had put on, every year.

It was a town so small the church congregation would show up much greater numbers than the LGBTQ+ crowd celebrating.

When running samples, Brittany heard about everyone’s health problems.

As she heard the Christian wife say, “He doesn’t have the time to find a woman so he could cheat on me.”

Once she saw a Christian woman come into the office wringing her hands. She had seen this woman at the Pride parade waving a sign that said, ‘Sodomy is blasphemy.’ She had seen this woman throw eggs at the gay men entering the one bar they had to safely drink at. She had seen this woman spit in the face of the town’s one lesbian couple picking up their kid from school.

And on that day Brittany hovered outside that tiny doctor’s office with the thin doors. She peeped through the keyhole as she stifled her giggles.

She heard a Christian wife say, “I don’t know where I got chlamydia, doctor.” The medical paper crinkled as the woman crossed her legs. She said, “It couldn’t have come from my husband. He’s a faithful, godly man. He works an honest job.” The Christian wife’s voice wavered as she said, “He gives all of his free time to helping the church lead the Christian men’s prayer retreats. He’s camping with men all the time.”

Outside the door, Brittany held her tray of clinking vials steady, stifling her laughter at this hateful woman’s ignorance.

As she heard the Christian wife say, “He doesn’t have the time to find a woman so he could cheat on me.”

The on-call nurse snuck up from behind Brittany who was still hovering by the door. She tiptoed up to her, close enough to say boo right in her ear. She decided against it when she saw Brittany holding a tray of urine samples. So, she just walked past her in an obvious way that wouldn’t spook her. The nurse rolled her eyes as she caught a glance from Brittany. The nurse whispered, “Would you want your secrets to be spread to strangers?”

Brittany hid her shame in an exaggerated smile, steadying her tray, she walked further down the hallway with the nurse at her side until they were out of earshot of the door.

“You’d hurt a lot of people if you did that,” the nurse said.

The nurse’s guilt trip churned Brittany’s stomach. She was the older sister Brittany had always wanted. She celebrated test scores with her after school. While Brittany’s dad would be passed out in front of the TV, tired from an early shift at the construction yard and stinking of cheap beer. The nurse cooked dinner with her on some nights. When Brittany’s dad was blackout drunk, sleeping in the flatbed of his truck, parked behind the town pub, the nurse was the only woman who Brittany could call friend. Everyone at school was busy spreading rumors about how her dad’s second home was the drunk tank. Or they were gossiping about the latest fight he picked with one of the stock boys at the only supermarket in town. The teens ostracized her from parties, extracurricular clubs, and study sessions cause they were afraid of her reputation rubbing off on them, and, of course, scared of her father showing up.

Brittany set down her samples in the lab room’s fridge. She pointed back at the closed doctor’s office door. In hushed tones, she said, “This woman has caused a lot of pain for our patients. She spat in the face of that nice couple who always bring us lemon squares just because they were lesbians picking up their kid from school.” She closed the door to the lab. “I hate this small ignorant town. If I wasn’t such a good person, I’d tell everyone she has chlamydia because her husband sleeps with closeted Christian men.”

“You’d hurt a lot of people if you did that,” the nurse said, “That woman spat in the face of strangers just picking up their kid from school, imagine if she found out her husband was gay?”

“Okay. You made your point.” Brittany squinted at the door. “But she deserves to be embarrassed.”

“Okay,” the nurse said, “But look at it from a health community perspective.”

It was from that conversation at the free clinic where Brittany schemed the idea which would make Travis a pariah within their homophobic town.

The nurse was the reason Brittany wanted to work in a hospital one day. She loved hearing her point of view even when she vehemently disagreed with it.

“If you spread rumors about this woman, you disseminate stigma about chlamydia. It’s a very treatable infection.” 

Brittany had started working at the clinic after her mom had died of what her classmates called ‘being too thirsty’.

The nurse crossed her arms, “Do I have to mention how much gossip hurts you when your classmates do it?”

Brittany opened the door to leave. “I get it enough with the lecture. I was only joking.” 

“And what about your job? I might have to let you go. How do you think your reputation would affect your application to nursing school?”

Brittany sighed, sat down, and crossed arms, closing herself off, like she felt the nurse was doing to her.

The nurse continued, “If you make people feel uncomfortable about talking to others about an infection, like Chlamydia, by scaring them with stigma, then less people will talk about their condition for fear of embarrassment. Less people would treat their infection they might be suffering. One infection might become multiple infections. That’s how you get an epidemic. Gossip is infectious. If you told people about this woman’s condition you might ruin her life.”

It was from that conversation at the free clinic where Brittany schemed the idea which would make Travis a pariah within their homophobic town.

On the days, Brittany and Travis weren’t volunteering, they were at his football practice. Him, sitting on the bench. Her, watching him from the bleachers. 

After that embarrassing night of Brittany’s rejection, whenever the coach pulled Travis onto the field, Brittany leaned into the student sitting next to her. She pointed at her friend running onto the pitch. And she asked the student next to her, “Did you know Travis is gay?”

She hated weaponizing a person’s sexuality, but if she didn’t, the people who chirped ‘awkward’ at her in the halls might never stop.

They might keep stuffing her locker with herpes medication. Or slipping fake Valentine’s day cards with Travis’s face on them into the bathroom stall whenever she hid inside one. Or the boys might continue to jump away from her whenever she made her way to class. They might bully her all the way until graduation.

But spreading rumors about him being into guys wasn’t enough for her, that kind of gossip might only get him beaten up by his Football teammates. 

Every night she scribbled in her diary, “He’ll be humiliated. No one will ever kiss him again.”

She didn’t want him kissing guys either.

First people rolled their eyes whenever she sat next to them in the stands. She would eat from her overflowing popcorn bag. And she would push the bag at them. 

A growing teenager is going to take free food. And that’s what they did.

This other student sitting next to her would claw at her popcorn. 

And she would tell them, “You know, Travis?” She’d nonchalantly munch away. “He likes, likes, dudes.” She wouldn’t even stare at them as she did.

They’d sigh and dig at her popcorn, their stomachs rumbling from a long day of school as they held an exhausted lunch kit.

She’d say to them, “He enjoys the company of other men, but sure, don’t believe me.” 

Each student would inch away from her as they took their fill of snacks.

And she’d say, “His being gay is one of the reasons the coach has put him on the bench all season.” She would look at them. Then after a moment’s pause, she’d say, “The other reason has everything to do with how he hangs out at the free clinic all the time.”

Every moment she had alone, she would hunch over her journal, then write things that said, “High school is survival of the fittest and it’s better him than me.” Or, “He’ll move away after school’s over anyways.” Or, “He’ll be so embarrassed by what I’m doing to his reputation that everyone will forget what he did to me.”

During history class when another student leaned over her desk. They had asked, “Can I borrow a pencil?” 

She dug out a pen from her bag as she told them, “You know, he likes it up the ass.” Holding the pencil just out of their reach, she said, “From several men at a time.”

Between French and Physics class, she caught a group of girls in the bathroom looking in the mirror as they ran a red lipstick O-rings around their mouths. 

And she said to them, “He swallows, you know.”

The calendar had rolled around to the Wednesday before the fight. 

Everyone gathered in the cafeteria for lunch hour, Brittany and Travis sat together, chewing on their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They stared at each other in silence except for the sound of mastication coming off them. A chewing sound that melded with the cafeteria’s din. 

He cocked an eyebrow at her as he asked, “Is everything alright between us?”

She smiled and nodded, pretending it was. Then she swallowed. Changing the subject, she said, “Remember, that creepy, fat kid who wears the small glasses?”

He shook his head then bit into his sandwich.

“The one who’s always following people.”

He said, “Yeah.” Leaning in closer to her with that hungry-for-gossip look people use.

She said, “I heard a rumor that he was caught peeping in the girl’s locker room.” She lowered her sandwich, “And they’re actually letting him return to classes after only a week-long suspension.”

“Creepy,” Travis said, chewing. His eyes glazed over as if he was staring at a person waving at him standing a million miles away. Then he snapped out of it, and he asked, “Do you mind me bringing up what happened at the dance?”

Her heart skipped a beat, but she played the shock off as normal. Shrugging, she picked at her sandwich. She smiled as if to tell him the subject was as mundane as talking about the frog they split open during their biology lab that morning.

He said, “You’ve been avoiding eye contact with me since that night, at the dance.”

She locked eyes with him, her eyeballs itching to blink, and she kept her gaze on his freshly-dentist-polished smile.

She felt a cold heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach as she looked at him.

The moment he left Brittany alone, she found a student near her desk, and she whispered, “Did you hear that rumor about Travis?”

After that lunch hour, for the rest of the day, whenever he talked to her, she stared at him right in the face until her eyes dried out. She batted her eyelashes at him the way she used to when he made her heart flutter. She acted like she was still gah-gah for his grin.

It was after that that he stopped asking about the dance. 

But during their last period when she sat close to him in class and accidentally grazed his arm, she saw that he quickly pulled away. As soon as he pulled away, he moved to the other side of the room, and he talked to one of the other girls.

The moment he left Brittany alone, she found a student near her desk, and she whispered, “Did you hear that rumor about Travis?” 

The student rolled their eyes.

She looked that student in the eye, putting on a fake concerned look, she said, “Yeah, what you’ve heard, it’s true.” She nodded, “He has AIDS.” 

The student’s jaw dropped.

She saw the disbelief in their gaze shatter. And she kept going with it, saying. “It’s why he’s so skinny.” Then, “Why do you think he’s never had a girlfriend?”

Everyone was whispering the rumor about Travis having AIDS by the end of the class even the kid everyone called a fat-four-eyed-pervert.

She sat next to the fat kid with the glasses, the same one everyone said was suspended for peeping in on the girls as they were changing in the gym locker room. 

Brittany kept her distance as she told him, “Travis pulled away from me at the dance that night because of his d-i-s-e-a-s-e.”

The fat kid with glasses nodded along, his eyes shining like marbles as he leaned on his desk, listening to her. 

She said, “Travis didn’t want to give AIDS to me. That’s why he didn’t kiss me back.” She gazed at him across the room, she sighed, “What a hero.”

She knew passing AIDS to someone through just swapping spit was near impossible.

But the kids in her school were taught sex-ed by a local pastor. A man who encouraged them to use abstinence and scripture when approaching the topic of sex.

It made most of her fellow students gullible.

The fat kid with glasses gave her a broken smile as he watched her lips work around every spoken syllable that she shared with him.

She bowed her head, “It’s too bad,” she said, “It’s such a sad story.”

She spread these lies about her friend having AIDS for the rest of Thursday.

On the Friday of their fight, she sat next to Travis in detention hall. A detention she’d been given for passing notes in class. He had been late to school that morning. So, they were stuck together.

He grinned at her with his signature smile. Then he stared forward at the supervising teacher as he scribbled on a piece of paper in his lap. He passed it to her through the back of his chair.

It said, “Meet me by the river at sunset.”

Looking at the way he smiled with his dead round eyes as he nodded at her, it made her stomach toss and turn.

So, promptly after being let out, she went up to the cheerleaders coming off of football practice, and she asked them, “Have you heard anything going down at the river tonight?” 

They laughed and walked away. 

She asked the football players too.

They laughed just the same and they walked on.

She saw the fat, bespectacled kid tucked away in the entrance to the band portable. 

He was flipping through a folded-up pulp, science-fiction novel. 

The only time she’d ever talked to him was to tell him about Travis’s fake AIDS.

Until she felt a tear roll down her cheek.

He pushed his novel into the back pocket of his brown corduroys. Then he awkwardly shuffled up to her. He cleared his throat but avoided eye contact with her as he said, “Your friend knows you’ve been spreading gossip.”

She took a step back, crossing her arms, pinching her shoulders to her ears. She shook her head as she said, “What are you talking about?”

“He plans to get back at you,” said the fat bespectacled kid, “I’ve been watching him, but I still don’t know how he’s going to do it.”

“You’ve been watching him?” She said as she stepped away from him.

As it turns out, he was keeping tabs on every single person Brittany had spread the rumor to.

The fat kid looked at her over his glasses slipping down his nose. “His Football buddies don’t high-five him at practice anymore.” He cracked a tiny smile, “Most girls who he talks to, their eyes get big, scared, and watery, then they run away weeping.” The kid breaks out into a full maniacal grin. “His favorite math teacher locks his door between classes when he sees Travis walking towards it.”

Each thing the fat kid with glasses said about how she’s destroying Travis’s life, etched a frown deeper into her face. Until she felt a tear roll down her cheek.

She ran away from the creepy fat kid, all the way home. She jogged into her bedroom. She tugged her favorite white lace summer dress over her head, getting stuck for a moment. Then she slipped on her shiniest metal rings from the collection of the ones that Travis had bought her. He gave her one every year they had been friends. Once she felt she looked fabulous, she opened her bedroom door, getting a last glance at her diary peeking out from under her pillow.

She rushed over to it. She flipped it open to the pages repeating itself as it said, “He’ll never touch another woman in this town, ever.” Or, “No one will ever kiss him once I’m through with him.” And she scratched all those brooding revenge fantasies out with her blue pen. She tucked it back under her pillow with a glowing smile. She pulled it out again, ripped up every page that promised vengeance against Travis, she crumpled them into paperbacks and she shot each one into her wastebasket.

Before leaving to meet Travis, she went up to her dad and she asks, “Can I borrow the car?”

He slumped forward in his barker lounger and the leather groaned. He sat there with his arms draped over his knees looking at her. Then he paused the TV playing a recorded boxing match. He said, “No car tonight. You’re going to walk because you’re going to be home before the sun goes down.”

She rolled her eyes, crossing her arms in a pouting stance, she said, “Fine.” Then she headed towards the door. 

“Hold up a second, you’re going to see that Travis boy dressed like you two are going on a date.” He gave her a sardonic stare. “Then you’re going to show your old man you still know how to throw a punch.”

He wrapped his calloused construction worker hands around her basketball-calloused fingers and he closed them into a fist. Correcting her thumb, he wrapped it around the outside of her fingers. He told her, “Plant your feet, keep them in contact with the ground at all times as you swing.” He raised his hands in front of his face. “Be sure to protect the noggin when you’re not throwin’ punches.” He said, “And when he tries to kiss you, swing all your body weight through your first few knuckles. The best spot would be to jam your fist right into this poor sucker’s ball bearings.”

She sighed and rolled her eyes at his attempt at humor.

He held up his dirt-crusted palms like a boxing coach. Then asked her, “Plant a few into your old pop.” He nervously laughed, “Try to avoid hitting me in the cajónes.” Pointing into his free palm, “Right into the mitt.” 

She moved to punch him in the nuts and his knees twitched. He laughed at it. “Clever girl.”

She planted a few knuckle sandwiches into his open palm which made him smile with the only dirt-free part of his body that shone clean, his recently brushed teeth.

Then he picked up his beer, “Good,” he said. He sat back down in his leather chair and slurped at it as he returned to his boxing game running on the TV.

Closing the door, she heard her drunk father call out, “When you watch the sun go down, you should be doing it from inside your bedroom.”

She closed the front door on her dad’s yelling. Looking at the road leading to the river, she decided she still had time to do one thing before she had to meet Travis. So, she left for the direction of the free clinic.