I love weight training. I would love it even if weight rooms weren't crowded with guys with spectacular physiques.
No hurling projectiles, no complicated scoring, no spectators stomping "We Will Rock You," just the clack of barbells in the early morning light. Zen-like in its simplicity.
I discovered the weight room at Washington Junior High, when I went out for wrestling and the Jump Quiz. At Rocky High, when I was working as an athletic trainer, I hung out in the weight room during practices.
But it was hard to find a regular workout buddy. I wouldn't work out with someone I was dating, so Verne the preacher's son was out.
Darry would go nowhere near a gym; he insisted that "Girls don't care about muscles; it's what's beneath the belt that counts."
Aaron, the rabbi's son who didn't know he was gay, joined me a few times, but working out with him was embarrassing: he kept staring at guys' muscles -- and my crotch. I had to keep telling him "Look up here!"
In my senior year, I finally found a regular workout buddy: a sophomore, my brother's age, but taller than me, with broader shoulders and bigger biceps. To the surprise and perhaps the dismay of my lunchtime crowd, he was Black.
About 20% of the students at Rocky High were African-American, but, like the town itself, they were segregated, steered away from the Academic Track into classes in Business Math and Auto Repair, omnipresent on sports teams but absent from Student Government. They sat by themselves in the cafeteria, and dated only other African-Americans.
In September, just after classes started, I saw Tyrone working out by himself, and wondered why he wasn't on a team. He had the physique for it? So I approached, said I was an athletic trainer, and asked if he had considered playing football.
"Why?" he snapped. "Just because I'm Black, you think I'm a natural athlete?"
Turns out that Tyrone was a Black activist. Big time. His real name was Michael, but he thought Tyrone sounded more ethnic. He decried racism everywhere he found it -- of course, at Rocky High in 1977, it was everywhere, but sometimes Tyrone was a little over-zealous. The cafeteria runs out of pizza? Racist lunch lady. The book he wants is checked out of the library? Racist librarian.
We started working out together, but he was always leery, scrutinizing every word and every gesture for tell-tale signs that: a) I didn't like him because he was Black; or b) I liked him because he was Black.
I thought he was embarrassed by being friends with a white guy, but turns out he was still leery.
In October, I went over to talk to him while he was playing cards with his friends. Nazarenes didn't play cards, so I had no idea of the rules or vocabulary.
Someone cried "You reneged!"
"I did not!" Tyrone protested.
"You reneged! You reneged!" His friend repeated.
I had never heard the term before, but, trying to be funny, I said, "Just admit it, Tyrone! You're a...."
What do you get when you turn "renege" into a noun, "someone who reneges"?
I found out after the word escaped from my mouth.
Until November when out of nowhere he said "The Black Student Union is having a Harvest Dance on Friday. Want to go?"
Nazarenes weren't allowed to dance. Besides, dancing involved girls, and I didn't date girls, if I could help it. "With you?" I asked, hopefully.
"Double date. Me, you, and the girls."
Shades of Verne last year! But Tyrone was glaring at me, daring me to refuse, and I realized that this was a test. "Sounds like fun," I said. "I'd be happy to go."
“ It’s not one of Their dances! Why would They even hold a dance? They hate women, so who would They be dancing with?”
My face began to burn as I realized who she meant. Not Swishes at all. “What do you have against black people?” I asked.
“What do you mean? I don’t have anything against them." Then she started in on every stereotype I had ever heard of, and some I hadn't: flashy clothes,gigantic Afros, gigantic penises, talking funny, sexually voracious, violent, killing white boys who wandered into the West End (the run-down edge of Rock Island where most African-Americans lived).
I was shocked. And unconfortably reminded of my conversation with Aaron a couple of weeks ago, when he challenged me to find the gays at Rocky High. But Rhonda was just bigoted. My hatred of Swishes was based on solid fact. . .wasn't it?
When I told Tyrone that I couldn't find a date, he nodded solemnly, as if he understood,a and offered to forego his own date: "We'll just be lonely." But I insisted on picking him up at his house on the West End.
The All-Purpose Room on the east side of the school was tightly-packed with bodies, hard sweaty shirtless torsos swaying in semi-darkness, massively muscled arms raised, gold watches and bracelets glittering, hips and thighs bumping. There must have been women there, but later I didn’t recall any.
We danced together, or side by side, and Tyrone grinned and mouthed the words of “Lady Marmalade”: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?”
Did he know what he was asking? ("Do you want to sleep with me tonight?").
Sweating, dizzy from the music and the press of bodies, I couldn't remember: were people upset because Tyrone was gay or black or both?
Or were they the same thing, demonizing difference?
Later, in the dark, deserted parking lot, I found out: like Todd back in 10th grade, he was more than happy to let guys go down on him, in the dark, in the silence, in the night. As long as the dawn brought raucous calls of "Girls! girls! girls!'