He passes out cards that say, Hello, I'm Philio X Macdonald. Come have lunch with me.
“Little kids are always calling each other 'weird'. This is hilarious because little kids are some of the weirdest people on the planet. I mean, you're still kind of a little kid, Kim, but you're getting there. I remember when you were so little we basically had to tell you to wear shoes and sleep in a bed. But that's kind of the point I guess. If you're a toddler, you spend your entire day getting told by adults that you have to do things the normal way, so maybe you think if you start telling other kids to be normal you become an adult.
I moved sixteen times before the age of ten. I got to be weird a lot.
Now that you're starting fifth grade, you're probably going to start hearing, from Mom or Dad or somebody, that everyone is weird and no one is normal. I mean, look at Mom, she's super weird and she makes millions of dollars off of it. But it's only sort of true that everyone's weird. There is a big, big difference between a kid who is weird because he can't walk, a kid who is weird because he can throw a hundred mile an hour fastball, and a kid who is weird because he likes to eat peanut butter and ketchup sandwiches, no matter how much the peanut butter and ketchup kids want to pretend we're all part of some big weird born-this-way brotherhood. Weirdness is not equal or fair. If normal is the sun, nobody actually lives on the sun, but some kids are Mercury and some are Pluto.
We all know how things ended for Pluto.
Being weird in the same way as somebody else can help a kid make friends, but it can also stop a kid from making friends. People will tell this kid it's not his fault, even though sometimes it's totally his fault. Sometimes his weirdness is that he interrupts too much or doesn't bathe. Other times the weirdness is out of his control, like a speech impediment, or a parent in prison. Life treats both of them the same.
At St. Anne's, for the first time in my life, I got to make friends and keep them. I liked it so much, I decided to help others do the same. I've helped over twenty kids find friends. But this weekend, I'm graduating eighth grade, and soon I'll be moving on to St. Francis, where I plan to start this whole operation over again on a much bigger scale. That's why I'm writing this Friendmakers manual, not just for you, Kim (although I think you'll be great!) but hopefully for years of students to come. Please keep St. Anne's a happy, welcoming place, future Friendmakers. This is my legacy to you, and hopefully some day the world.”
As I lounged at the top of the steps at recess on the last day of eighth grade, surveying my kingdom, surrounded by my crew, I could have no idea what fresh challenges awaited me in only a few months. I knew high school was going to change my life, but how? Was I going to get a gritty reboot, complete with beer and loose women? A fun, colorful anime world of quirky new friends? Comedy or drama?
Hard to say.
Today though, today I was in my element.
Lauren Etter, Sarah Rowland, and Maddie Rosenthal approached me together, a bit apologetically. I had barely spoken to them since two years ago, when I matched them all up. They needn't have worried though. I took it as a compliment when my former cases ceased all contact.
"Hi, Philio!" said Lauren.
I smiled. "Hi!"
"How's it going?" she asked.
"Pretty great," I said.
She paused. It was obvious the three of them had come to me because my reputation preceded me, but they couldn't seem to figure out how to say so tactfully.
"So ..." I said, helping them out. "I guess you guys probably want to get matched."
She nodded. "I'm going to St. Joe's, but Sarah's going to Immaculate Conception, and Maddie's going to St. Francis. It's a disaster!"
I smiled in sympathy, already flipping through my notebook. "Well, that's too bad. You'll be okay though. Half the class is going to St. Joe's, so why don't you try ..." I scanned the list. "Jackie Bozza? Do you know her?"
"Yeah!" said Lauren. "She's cool. We had art together last year."
"Good," I said. "Because I already told her to match with you. She'll be looking for a familiar face, too."
Lauren said, "You know everything, don't you Phil?"
"And Maddie," I said, turning to a tall girl in a short skirt, "I'm going to St. Francis, too, so you know I've got you covered."
"Great. I'm probably okay anyway; my older sisters both go there now and I'm probably going to join the same kind of fine arts stuff as them."
I made a note of this. "Right, good to know, I'll need to make some new contacts there so I can match the older kids."
"You're really going to match up all the friendless kids at St. Francis?" asked Lauren. "Even the seniors?"
"We'll see," I told her. "It's definitely a goal. Now, Sarah," I said, turning to a shy girl with a big fuzzy blonde braid, "I think you might be the only one going to IC, so I can't help you much there."
Sarah sighed. "Yeah, I don't know anyone else planning to go there. It's really small and nobody else really lives out that way."
I stood up. "Don't you worry," I said. "Small schools are easy. Just be your old sunny self and you'll be the most popular girl in school before long."
She knew I was just being cute, but she still gave me a big hug. "I'm going to miss you!" she groaned.
But she was lying just as badly as I was -- I hadn't talked to Sarah in months. So I told her the same thing I tell all my clients.
"No you won't."
And I hoped with all my heart it was true.
"The Friendmaking process is simple.
1) Meet everybody in your school
2) Figure out which kids don't have friends yet
3) Talk to them and figure out why they don't have friends yet
4) Introduce them to a person or group of people that you met in step 1
5) Repeat until your client finds an acceptable group of friends
Meeting everybody is tricky and usually takes some time. You don't need to become friends with everybody, but you need to figure out what they're into and what they can tolerate. Once you know everybody, it's easier to get on with your Friendmaking, but you still have to meet any new people right away and keep tabs on all the people you already know. You can't place your clients if there's nobody to place them with."
The first day of freshman year was ridiculous. Kids from a dozen different grade schools were starting at St. Francis, some Catholic, some public. The first day is easy mode for meeting people, so I got to school nearly an hour early, before the doors had even opened yet, and sat down on a bench, armed with a clipboard and a poll.
Polls are key. You have an excuse to approach people but only talk for a few minutes. Also if you choose them carefully, you can get a bonus peek at people's personalities.
I kept my pitch simple. "Hi! I'm Philio and I like to make polls. If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?"
"Hi!" said a girl with green eyes. "I'm Carly. Wait, I guess that's on my nametag now, isn't it?"
I laughed. "Oh yeah, I forgot we have those now."
"I was actually home schooled," she told me. "So I've never worn a uniform or a nametag or anything before in my life!"
"We didn't have nametags in grade school," I said. "Of course it was a lot smaller then. Everybody knew everybody."
"That sounds nice," she said. "I hope that happens here, too, after awhile."
I wrote down her name on my sheet, with 'homeschooled' in the 'grade school' column. "So, your superpower?"
She smiled. "I think I'd like ... a singing voice so beautiful that it could heal people."
"That's a good one!" I said. "Very useful. Well, I'm going to go ask that guy about his superpower."
She looked at me with doe eyes. "Can I come with? I could be your assistant."
I made another mark next to her name, a smiley face with two dots on the cheeks. I have a whole code of smiley faces, after a disastrous incident a few years ago when somebody found a list of names and not-so-flattering personality notes. Of course, there's nothing wrong with being shy, awkward, clingy, or overly loud, but I need to keep track of these things to help the friend making process.
"Hi!" I said to Jonas Borgaard. "I'm Philio. If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?"
"Are you a freshman?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said.
He smiled pompously. "I'm a junior."
"Cool story bro," I said. "Now about that superpower …"
Jonas laughed. "Fair enough. I'd go with super speed. That would come in handy on the football field."
"Oh, you do football?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said.
"Wow, you must know everybody!" I said, because a contact on the varsity football team would be very valuable.
"No," he said as we filed into the building. "High school football teams are, like, huge, Phil. Like ninety guys."
"Oh, well," I said.
"Why, do you have a fetish or something?"
I blushed. I wasn't really sure what a fetish was. Something to do with sex, I was pretty sure. I'd never even kissed anyone, or even really had any crushes, so my knowledge was limited.
"No," I said. "I just like knowing people I guess. Helping people make friends. It's kind of a hobby."
"That's really cool!" said Carly.
"See you," said Jonas, walking away.
"Wait!" I said. "Can you help us find our homerooms?"
I held out my schedule. "Oh yeah," he said. "You guys are that way." He pointed us toward the north end of the building. "All the freshman stuff is in those two hallways. Have fun." And he walked off in the other direction.
A few people had arrived already. "This is going to take forever," I told Carly. "I don't know any of these people yet and I need to know all of them."
"Great!" she said. "That's a really great mission. I'm glad I met you!" Together we approached an extremely short girl with a very large book bag.
"Hi!" I said. "I'm Philio. If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?"
It is important to note that most kids can make friends on their own, given a little time. Do not try to interfere with a kid who does not need help; it only leads to awkward situations. Your targets are kids who are actively floundering.
It can be difficult to spot them because they like to hide. They will choose to eat lunch in the bathroom rather than come out into the open and admit to their lonely state. Then again, would you?
Seek these kids out where they live. But go discreetly. And DO NOT try to make your hobby an official school sponsored club. You will be avoided like the plague.
Your other clients are kids who have bad friends. Do not allow your own prejudices to blind you here. A kid has bad friends when those friends are hurting him. He may not always realize this, but it will come out in his body language. He may defend even kids who are blatantly ruining his life because he has known them for so long, claiming they are just kidding. Do not be fooled. Bad friends are worse than good enemies."
Carly was going to be a long term. I'd held off a week on choosing any freshman clients, wanting to give nature a chance, taking the time to watch and connect with the emerging freshmen friend groups. But I figured it had been long enough now that I could sort out who was struggling, and she was definitely on my list. There was nothing wrong with Carly, exactly; she was just playing from a different rule book than the rest of us.
"I still don't get this," she said as we walked down to the cafeteria. "Why can't I just go up and say, 'Hello, I'm Carly Bode'? Why does everyone laugh at me for being polite?"
"I don't know," I said. "I guess because there are just too many people here to follow the same rules you would in a smaller group. You don't have time to introduce yourself to two thousand people."
"Well how did you meet all the people you know?" Carly asked.
"I introduced myself," I said.
Carly threw up her hands. "Why did it work for you then, Mr. Smartypants?"
I shrugged. "I did it right."
"Well how's that?"
"I'm a ninja at it," I said. "See, you can't make it too obvious you're trying to make a friend. It's too much pressure to put on someone."
"Why?" she asked. "I'd love it if somebody did that to me."
"Yes," I said. "You're trying to fill up your slots. A lot of people, well, they don't have as many slots open. One day you won't either. Then you'll avoid pushy awkward people, too."
Carly pushed her hair behind her ears. "I'll never get so popular I don't have room for one more friend!" she declared.
I groaned inside. I used to hold that same view. In the old days, I'd thought I could just adopt every stray that crossed my path. After awhile it had turned into chaos. I'd had dozens of 'friends', most of whom I kind of didn't like at all, and none of whom I had time to hang out with anymore. That's how I ended up in the business I'm in now.
My lunch table acted as a sort of waiting room. Sometimes people met each other there and left to start their own table. Others just took shelter for a few days or weeks until they made it into an existing group. And occasionally I did adopt one myself. I needed friends, too.
"Carly," I said, "the problem is, there's only so much of you. So much time, so much effort, so much emotion. There's only so much of anyone. Nobody wants to waste it on a person they have nothing in common with or don't naturally get along with. Oh, sure, you want to be nice, you want to help. But you don't get to just straight up lie about who you like, out of pity. That's not actually nice at all, see? For you or the other person. Believe me, they always find out, and the longer they've been hanging around you, the worse it is. You just have to try a few people until you find a good match."
She nodded sadly. "I guess."
I planned my lunch carefully that day: chicken chunks, fries, and Skittles. All foods you could share. I placed my trusty red stocking cap on my head for maximum recognition factory. I showed Carly my cards. They read:
'Hello, I'm Philio X. MacDonald. Come have lunch with me.'
For this trick, I needed a bit of advice. Jonas Borgaard was in this lunch period, so Carly I stopped by his table.
"Hey," I said.
"Oh. Hi," he replied.
"Hello, Jonas!" said Carly.
Jonas laughed. "Hello ... Carly," he said, clearly looking at her nametag.
"Question," I said to Jonas. "Where do people eat that don't want to eat in the cafeteria?"
"You can eat anywhere as long as it's on campus," he said. "Some people go to the courtyard."
"Yeah, but ..." I looked at him significantly. "Where do the loner kids go, where it wouldn't be obvious they were on their own? Like, at my grade school, some of them ate in the bathroom …"
"That's gross," said Jonas. "I don't think I've ever seen that happen here."
"Well, we weren't allowed to really go anywhere," I explained.
One of Jonas' friends cut in. "Band room, locker room, the part of the library where you can have snacks ... Any place where you could pretend to be doing something else," he said.
Jonas looked at him.
"I spent like the first two months of freshman year eating in the library, reading magazines," said -- according to his nametag -- Elijah Salvi. I was starting to love nametags.
"Bro," said Jonas.
"Oh yeah, we didn't meet you until the end of the year," said their friend Morgan. "Now I'm glad we kidnapped you."
"Thanks so much," I told Elijah.
"Why do you ask?" he said.
I showed him my cards. "So I have this hobby …"
"Oh, got it," said Elijah. "That's kind of cool. But like, how's that going to work? You're going to spend half of lunch wandering around campus with a bunch of strangers trailing after you?"
"Yeah, that doesn't sound like a good idea," said Morgan. "High school is, like, different than grade school. People might not react very well to ... this. Those cards are kind of …"
"I kind of like the cards," said Elijah. "Just like, be low key about it dude. Maybe just try the library today, and then another room tomorrow."
"Okay," I said. I set off for the library. Carly came with me.
“Some clients cannot make friends because they don't know how. Others have either a Physically Displeasing Characteristic or a Mentally Displeasing characteristic.
A Physically Displeasing Characteristic can be all sorts of things: a bad smell, an ugly haircut, a neck brace, weird shoes, or anything that turns people off when they see it. Note that a lot of PDC's are not choices. Start a conversation with a PDC kid and half the time you'll discover poverty, illness, parental neglect, or a single mother with two semesters of beauty school credits. It may seem like the solution is to change the PDC. This is not always so. Unless the client actually asks for help, try, instead, finding somebody who you think wouldn't mind the PDC.
A Mentally Displeasing Characteristic is usually a lot harder, but the principle is the same. You can play it straight and match an angry kid with an angry kid, a spacey kid with a spacey kid, etc, or try to mix them. You are almost never going to be able to change an MDC. Get creative instead.”
The first person I met on my pilgrimage was Freshman Goth Kid (real name: Megan O'Rourke). I wasn't actually sure if she was goth or emo or what, but she was wearing a black uniform polo and black uniform pants, so she had to be something. She was sitting on a step stool in the stacks, flipping through an older looking paperback book. I handed her a card. She smiled.
“Sure,” she said. “Wait, you mean now?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Come on.”
The only other person I got to come with me was Trolljohn (real name: John Kiefer). He was hanging out in the computer cluster, not really working on anything, just playing Minesweeper with this sort of fake casual expression on. I waited until he had finished his game and then handed him a card, too.
“What?” he said after reading the card. “Why?”
I shrugged. “I like to meet people.”
“This ought to be good,” he said, but he followed us down to the cafeteria anyway.
There were no empty tables left, so we settled for the west edge of a table near the window, the other side of which was taken up by some friendly looking younger students I recognized as After School Specials. There was still half an hour left of lunch, plenty of time. I settled into the background to eat my chicken chunks and observe.
“So what's with the cards?” said Megan. “Is this some weird tradition?”
“It's a pity thing,” said Trolljohn. “Dude saw us reading at lunch and figured, oh, right, we must not have any friends.”
I didn't bother to correct him. He was here, after all.
“Well, fair enough, I don't yet,” said Megan. “I've only been here a week. Why, do you have a bunch of invisible friends we can't see?”
“My friends are all in a different lunch,” said Trolljohn.
“A likely story,” said Megan.
“It's not that unlikely,” said Carly. “If each friend has a one in three chance of being in this lunch, and John has two friends, there's a four in nine chance neither of them are in this lunch period. The odds go down with each additional friend though.”
“You like math?” said Megan.
Carly smiled. “I love it. I'm in the ninety fifth percentile. I was home schooled for grade school, so we didn't really get grades, but we had to take a special exam every year.”
“Why did your parents send you to regular high school?” she asked.
“Mom didn't feel like she could teach much higher than eighth grade,” said Carly. “We aren't religious nuts or anything. My parents just believe kids should get to run around and play more than they get to in regular school.”
“This must be weird for you then,” said Megan.
“It is!” said Carly. “I love it though! I got tired of seeing just my brother and sister all the time.”
“Religious nuts never think they're religious nuts,” said Trolljohn. “I bet you had all sorts of weird shit happen growing up that you didn't even realize.”
Carly put her hand to her mouth.
“You have a problem with swearing?” said Trolljohn.
“I'm not used to it,” she said.
“Think I'm going to hell?”
Carly blushed. “I don't know who's going to hell. Nobody knows but God. And no, that doesn't make me a religious nut, John. I'm just a regular Catholic. You're at a Catholic school. Get over it.”
“No worries,” said Trolljohn. “You'll get over that eventually. They all do.”
Carly clenched her fists but said nothing.
“Well good,” said Megan. “Maybe you'll get over being a jerk.”
“Nope,” said Trolljohn. “Jerk for life.”
“Well that's a ridiculous thing to be proud of,” said Megan.
“What's your deal anyway?” Trolljohn asked Megan. “So you're a goth chick, but your parents won't let you get any piercings or tattoos or dye your hair?”
“No,” said Megan. “I love that you think you know me based on the color of my shirt though.”
“Let's everybody calm down,” I said.
This was the wrong thing to say.
“Oh, thanks, Dad. So he gets to be a huge troll and you want me to calm down?” said Megan.
“I said everybody,” I said.
“Fighting is a normal human action,” said Megan.
“I wasn't trying to fight with you,” said Trolljohn. “I'm just making observations and guesses. I must have touched a nerve though. Why do you wear black if you don't like people thinking you're goth? I mean,” he turned to Carly, “isn't that the first thing you thought?”
“I don't know why she's wearing black,” said Carly. “Maybe someone she loved just died.”
“Let's not speculate anymore,” I said. “Megan, is there a reason you wore black today?”
“Not really,” she said. “I just thought it would look cool.”
“There you have it,” I said.
“You though,” said Trolljohn to me. “I haven't figured you out yet. So you have some kind of Best Friends Club?”
I wasn't phased by Trolljohn. Some people come quietly when you reach out to them, but others manage to take it personally no matter how gently you tread. They'll take what you offer in the end, but they're not going to act grateful or anything. If anything I felt more sorry for the tough guys than the shy ones. A tough guy is usually just a shy guy who got yelled at for having feelings one too many times.
“I help people find friends,” I said.
“Like a matchmaker?” said Megan.
“Well,” she said. “are you going to, like, send us on friend dates? Or is this it? Because I'm not being friends with him,” she said, indicating Trolljohn.
“When I find someone I think you might like, I'll introduce you,” I said.
“You do a lot of this then?” said Megan.
“Yeah. Not always straight matching, but, you know, people sit with me sometimes. Everyone is welcome here,” I said.
“I'd come back tomorrow,” said Megan.
“How about you, John?” I asked.
He smirked. “I'll check my schedule.”
"The longer you wait to place a client, the harder it hurts their confidence. A kid with a good group of friends, a Sitter, is healthy and natural. She has a sort of lightness to her physical mannerisms. Her smiles come easy and her laughs last an appropriate amount of time. She doesn't worry too much when she messes up. A kid without a group of friends, a Pitter, starts to forget how to act like a Sitter."
On the first day of school, I had told my father there was no need to bother with the bus; he could pick me up at five when he got off work. From three to five, I was a madman. I scouted out all the clubs, trying to get a feel for lines of loyalty. I also chatted with the After School Specials, kids who had no car and no one to pick them up at three. As high school students are too old for daycare, they just sort of floated around the entrance way after school.
I'd gotten Carly to join a couple clubs, but she hadn't been invited to hang out with the kids in Concert Choir or Snowball outside of club time yet. Today, she didn't have any clubs, so she was with me.
"Are you going to match me today?" she asked, bouncing on her heels.
I shrugged. "Are you sure you need it? You were pretty good with Megan and John today."
"Yeah, but I want to be matched!" she said. "It sounds awesome! Like getting set up with a boy, but with less pressure."
I was beginning to realize Carly just plain liked hanging out with me. Which was okay.
"All right," I said. "I haven't matched anyone yet in high school, so I might as well start with an easy one. I'll try matching you with Maddie Rosenthal. She went to grade school with me and she's nice."
We approached together. Three girls were sprawled out on the ground, sitting on their sweaters, resting against their backpacks which rested in turn against the wall.
"Hey, Maddie," I said. "How's the pencil sharpener situation today?"
"Hi," she said, smiling at me. "My mom got me a pack of those cheap sharpeners. I still think we need more on the walls though. There was, like, one every ten feet at St. Anne's."
"Oh, good," I said. "Hey, those are really cute!" I added, noting the little puppy face on the top of the dime store pencil sharpener she was showing me.
Maddie blushed. "My mom still thinks I'm a little girl I guess."
I laughed. "Hey, this is Carly. She was home schooled for grade school."
"Client?" Maddie asked.
"Client and sort of assistant now," I said. Carly beamed.
"Well, hi!" said Maddie to Carly. "I'm Maddie."
"I'm Claire," said Claire.
"I love puppies!" said Carly. "We have three at home."
"Oh, what kind?" said Claire.
Everyone smiled brightly and continued to talk. I sat with them for about five minutes, then continued on my rounds.
In the corner, I spotted a girl with long blonde hair writing in a notebook.
“Hello,” I said. “I'm Phil.”
“Hello,” she said, then turned back to her notebook.
“Doing homework?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, not looking up. I saw that her name was Riley Stanley.
“Want to take a break?” I asked, getting annoyed.
“No thanks,” she said.
I left her be, deciding I would work on her later.
The next people I encountered were Mike Ziemann and Aiden Ronayne. They were sitting quietly, playing cards at a table in the cafeteria. I watched them for a moment. When they hit a break, Aiden looked up at me politely.
"You can slap in if you want to play," he said.
"How do I do that?" I asked.
"It's real easy. If you see two of the same value card, slap them before someone else does."
I sat down and observed them carefully. Aiden had the most cards and won almost all the slaps. He was inhumanly quick at spotting doubles. When the game was almost over, I finally got about five cards, but within a minute I had lost all of them. Finally Aiden had won all of the cards.
"Nice," said Mike.
"So you guys are After School Specials?" I asked them.
Aiden laughed. "What's that?"
"You hang around after school every day," I explained.
They both laughed.
"Yeah," said Aiden. "I'm super special. My parents work until five. We're all the way out in Seventh Lake, so I just chill here and wait for them."
"Same," said Mike. "It's not too bad. Sometimes Mrs. Smogor gives us leftovers to snack on from the cafeteria."
I played another round of cards with Mike and Aiden, which took forever. They were nice guys. As we were nearing the end, I noticed a boy at the next table, practicing a magic trick. He was trying to make a coin disappear, but I was sitting at such an angle that I could see the trick to it. His hands were rough, his hair dark and curly, his face covered in freckles, his frame tall and thin. I was not close enough to see his eyes. I though about going over to network, but something stopped me.
Aiden was looking at me funny.
“Oh, hey, man, are you ...” he said.
I looked up, surprised. “Am I what?”
Aiden gestured toward the boy and back at me, flustered. “It's totally fine if you are.”
“Oh!” I said, understanding. “No ...” And I stopped.
As noted before, I had zero experience with dating or crushes. I used to think such things would happen when I was older. Well, now, it seemed, I was older.
I risked another quick peek at the boy. I realized with no small amount of surprise that I liked looking at him. I liked watching his expression change. I didn't even know him, but for some reason I really wanted to go over and talk to him. Not to add him to my web of contacts, but for the pleasure of it.
I knew, of course, that some boys liked other boys. In eighth grade, in the wake of certain current events, they'd sat us down at St. Anne's and explained the Catholic church's point of view. Gay people were children of God, our teacher had stressed. We were to treat them with respect. The church condemned violence against the gay community. They were simply called to a life of celibacy. It had all seemed very abstract. When I pictured a gay person, it was always an adult, usually a rather feminine, awkward sort of man around thirty in a teal polo shirt. I imagined him living out his life of celibacy contentedly, pleased to be accepted by the church despite his misfortune. God truly was generous.
Now, I imagined feeling this same burning longing I was feeling right now on and off for the rest of my life, never able to act on it. And suddenly I wanted to throw a rock in God's face.
“I don't know,” I said to Aiden, a wobble in my voice. “This has never happened before.”
He smiled a reassuring smile. “Don't worry,” he said. “Your secret's safe with us.”
“Yeah,” said Mike, “don't worry.”
But I was very worried, more worried than I'd ever been in my life.
“Friendships go through stages. They usually start with casual interest before getting to the serious bonding later. Try to take shortcuts when you can.”
I decided to tell my dad. I needed help, and I trusted him. He was the one who put his foot down when I was ten and said it wasn't right to keep moving me around the country. He and my little sister were all I had.
When we arrived home, I said, “Dad, I have something to tell you.”
He sat down on the couch. “What's that, Philio?”
“Well … I think I might be gay or bisexual.”
Dad nodded thoughtfully.
“There was this boy at school today,” I said. “He was … I felt drawn to him. I think this must be what crushes are. So that means … that means I'm probably gay, right? Or bisexual. Maybe I'll start having crushes on girls, too.” I was talking about twice as fast as normal.
“Maybe,” he said. “How long have you felt like this?”
“It just happened today, while I was waiting after school,” I said.
Dad smiled. “I'm glad you felt like you could tell me,” he said. “A lot of kids worry about this kind of thing for years.”
I sighed in relief. “I know that you'll love me no matter what,” I said.
“You're right about that,” he said, smiling benevolently at me. “I love you, son, and I will always love you.”
“Dad, I don't know what to do. Mr. Bobrowski said gay people were called to a life of celibacy. But I don't know if I can do that. When I saw that boy … I don't even know his name, Dad, but I just wanted to get close to him. I wanted it more than I thought I could want anything. What if I feel that way forever?”
Dad put a hand on my shoulder. “Philio, whether you're attracted to men or women, you'll never be able to get close to everyone you feel attracted to. You'll find yourself drawn to lots of people who won't feel the same way about you, or won't be available to date you. You'll get used to dealing with that when you get a little experience under your belt.”
“I know,” I said. “But I guess I always thought in the end I'd end up with somebody. Now I might have to end up with nobody!”
“Well … yes,” he said. “Maybe.”
I cut to the chase. “What do you think is right, Dad?”
“I don't know,” he admitted.
I stared at him. How was that possible?
“I'm no expert on Catholic doctrine, Philio. To be honest I hadn't given the matter much thought before today. These things were never spoken of when I was growing up. Most Catholics do think that men marrying men is wrong; that's how it was for hundreds of years. But others think it isn't wrong, and that group is starting to grow.”
“Have you ever met any gay people?” I asked.
“In passing,” he said, hemming and hawing. “Old neighbors, people who worked with your mom. It never pays to get involved in other people's personal business, son.”
“So …” I said heavily.
“Philio,” he said, “you are a bright boy. If you are concerned about this, you should look into it. Pray, read your bible, speak to Father Gries, look up what the latest encyclicals from the pope have to say, whatever you have to do. It seems like every pope has a different take on the matter, and between my death and yours no doubt it will shift further.”
“Popes can disagree with each other?” I asked.
Dad laughed. “They can and have. You might think of the church as some kind of eternal rock, but if you study your history you'll find that the powers that be have changed their position a time or two. Slavery, feminism, saying mass in Latin … Some say God only reveals the path a little bit at a time. A few years before I was born, they had a big convention called Vatican II, where they changed all sorts of little rules. The older folks thought the whole church might die out. But it didn't. It survived, Philio, and it will survive the gay civil rights movement. In the meantime, you will have to decide what is right for you.”
As pleased as I was that this conversation hadn't turned ugly, I felt a little let down. How was I supposed to know the right thing to do if my dad didn't?
The next day at school, I was a little on edge. Every corner I turned I had an eye out for the freckled boy, not sure if I feared or wanted to see him more. And every time I approached a boy to ask him to have lunch, I searched myself for that warm feeling.
I sure didn't find it in Trolljohn.
“Where's Carly?” he asked.
“I matched her,” I said. “She's over there.” I pointed to Maddie's friend's table.
Megan and Trolljohn were for once united in being weirded out.
“So she's not our friend anymore?” asked Megan.
“People can have more than one group of friends,” I said. “She asked to be matched.”
“So she didn't like us,” said Trolljohn.
“You made it pretty clear you didn't like her,” I told him.
“I told you, I'm an asshole,” said Trolljohn. “That doesn't mean I don't like people.”
“Well, you scared her away,” said Megan.
Trolljohn. “Not my fault if she's sensitive.”
Someone was approaching our table. I recognized Elijah Salvi from the other day.
“Hi,” he said. “Have you got room for one more?”
“Sure,” I said. “Where's Jonas?”
“Off campus. The upperclassmen get to go off campus for lunch on Fridays, but I'm only a sophomore so I have to stay here.”
“That sucks,” said Trolljohn. “So you don't have any friends in your own class?”
“Not in early lunch,” said Elijah.
“Oh, right, same,” said Trolljohn. “You should get Philio to match you with some. He already pawned off his friend Carly on some other people.”
“Oh for Pete's sake,” I said. “She wanted to be matched and I matched her.”
“So you don't have, like, any permanent friends, do you?” said Trolljohn. “Kind of ironic.”
“Hey, cool it,” said Elijah. “No one's making you sit here.”
“Yeah, can we, like, evict John?” Megan suggested. “I feel like he's bad for business.”
“I'll evict your face, bitch!” said Trolljohn.
Megan stood up. “What is your deal?”
“I think we'd all like to know that,” said Elijah.
Trolljohn just folded his arms and glowered at the other two. But I wasn't fooled. I'd known a lot of Trolljohns in my life.
“He's upset about something,” I said calmly.
“Yeah, Megan's face,” said Trolljohn.
“That's not going to work on me,” I told him. “Tell us what you're upset about.”
Silenced by curiosity, Megan and Elijah stared at him, too.
“So on top of everything else, you're Gandhi and Freud, too?” said Trolljohn.
“No,” I said. “This is about you.”
Trolljohn said nothing.
“You want to tell someone, don't you?” I said. “You don't have to. But you want to.”
Trolljohn said nothing.
“Whatever it is, terrorizing Megan and Elijah isn't going to help,” I told him.
“You condescending prick,” he said.
“I am, aren't I?” I replied. “But this is still about you.”
“How incredibly convenient that you get to decide whose turn it is all the time,” said Trolljohn. “That way it never has to be your turn, does it?”
“Taking a turn isn't a punishment, John,” I said. “I want to help.”
“Oh, it isn't?” he said. “So why don't you want to take one?”
“I do,” I said. “We can all have a turn.”
“Oh, like show and tell?” he said.
“Feel and tell,” said Elijah. “I like it.”
“Is this Barney?” said Megan. “Are we on Barney right now?”
“I agree with Megan,” said Trolljohn.
“Fine then, don't play,” I said. “Elijah, how are you feeling today?”
“I'm all right, Philio,” he said, grinning. “I'm a little jealous that my friends went to Tostada Tunnel without me, but mostly I understand. I'm enjoying getting to know all of you. Say, how are you feeling today?”
“I'm pretty stressed out,” I said. “I'm trying to help a bunch of people be friends, but it isn't going too well. Also, I just realized yesterday that I might be gay.”
That got everybody's attention.
I wasn't sure why I'd said it exactly. Maybe I wanted to win at Feelings Chicken. Maybe I just have no filter. But I'd said it, and I'd forgotten to be afraid until afterwards.
“What happened?” said Megan.
“Saw a guy, felt funny, put two and two together,” I said nonchalantly.
“What guy?” Trolljohn asked.
“I don't even know his name,” I said.
“Exciting!” said Megan. “I've never met a gay guy before. Are you going to ask him out?”
“Not sure how I feel about it yet,” I said. “Good Catholic boys don't ask out other boys, do they?”
“Screw good Catholic boys,” said Trolljohn.
“Maybe don't screw them until the second date,” said Megan, laughing.
“Just a minute,” said Elijah. “Maybe Philio's right. You've all read the bible.”
“Hold up,” said Megan. “Are you homophobic?”
“No,” said Elijah. “I don't fear or hate gay people. But that doesn't mean I think they should do whatever they want.”
“Well, when you're all finished deciding if I'm going to go to hell for thinking about freckle boy,” I said. “John, it's your turn.”
He waved a hand. “I was just worried about some family stuff.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“Parents … might get divorced … normal stuff,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks for sharing.”
“You too,” he said. “Takes some balls, doesn't it?”
Megan giggled. “I bet Philio takes some balls.”
“Little too soon for innuendos,” I said. But I felt better somehow.