They call it Friends Group. But there are no friends, and there is no group. Just me, a state-funded Social Worker, and another sixth grader the kids call Sweaty Teddy. We sit in a converted cinderblock office between the furnace and the chapel and listen to the muffled sounds of the rest of the middle school having actual recess outside. On the desk, Ms. Judi has placed a stress ball, a point-to-the bad-touch doll, a box of tissues, and a bowl of candy. She has been meeting with me individually every Monday, for forty-five minutes of stress-inducing awkward silence, since I transferred from Rosa Parks Elementary. Teddy is a Friends Group veteran. According to Tommy Stanick (my assigned locker partner), Teddy has been going to the nut ward since third grade when he threatened a teacher with an X-ACTO Knife in art class.
Ms. Judi decided to put Teddy and me in a group session so we could dialogue. So far I’ve learned that dialoguing usually just means Ms. Judi repeats the last thing I say in the form of a question.
“How are you feeling today, Roosevelt?”
“I dunno. Little anxious I guess.”
“So, you’re feeling a little anxious?”
I nod. She writes something down. Teddy unwraps another piece of candy and pops it in his mouth. To escape his hard candy crunches, I do what I always do when I don’t know what to do – I pick up my book and begin to read.
“The Strenuous Life,” she says.
“Still reading it,” she says.
“Can you read us something?”
I open the book to any page and close my eyes, “far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
“That’s impressive,” she says.
“Teddy Roosevelt was an impressive man,” I say.
“No, that you memorized that passage.”
Without looking up, Teddy slides one of the hard candies he has taken from the bowl over to me. I accept the gift. As I place the book back into my backpack, the edge of another brittle page flakes off and flutters to the floor. When the firemen left, they gave me and my mom anything of my dad’s that they could salvage. His fifteen years of service watch from Wayne State, a few teaching awards, his master’s degree diploma, and his soggy, signed first edition of The Strenuous Life, which he read to me every night before bed - the book from which I can recite not one passage, but any passage. And that is impressive. But I do not feel the need to tell Ms. Judi that.
“Teddy, why do you think you’re here?”
This catches Teddy by surprise. He clears his throat and for a brief second the Sour Ball in his mouth goes down the wrong pipe. A series of coughs, snorts, and breathy exhales follows. He regains. His cheeks flush red. His uniform shirt is suddenly more sweat-soaked than usual, hopelessly untucked and hovering above an ever-descending pair of khakis that no longer fit. “I think we’re here because I’m fat and he’s black.”
We both look up from our laps at Ms. Judi. Waiting for her to say, so you’re saying you’re fat and he’s black? But instead she opens up both of our files and begins to write.
The walk to school was always the same. I’d pass Michael Drostey and Ronnie Bootrie getting high on the corner of Westwood and Tireman. At Derby Hill, I’d see Gina and Tammy, two white girls who wanted to be black, listening to Controversy. They shared a pair of foamy orange Walkman headphones, listening with wide eyes and shrieks of delight like they were getting away with something. And they were. Controversy was controversial in Copper Canyon – our little corner of Detroit that had no copper and no canyons. Just house after house of Detroit Police officers who had to live in the city they pledged to serve and protect. So, they begrudgingly colluded to live in one neighborhood, a white island, that shone like a new badge, with St. Agatha’s at the center of their planned community.
I was not part of the plan. After the fire, my mother had to go back to work. She applied for a job in Mayor Coleman A. Young’s office as an executive assistant to the Head of Human Services. The day of her interview, she was armed only with an associate’s degree from Wayne County Community and a ten-year old resumé. After I helped her pick out her clothes (three times) and put on her makeup (twice), I slipped a note in her purse to calm her nerves:
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood – T. Roosevelt.
Except I changed the word man to woman, and added a bunch of fireworks and flowers and hearts. I think it helped. She got the job. This meant we had to move to the city. But we were done with Corktown, so we came to The Canyon to be safe.
I get to the top of Derby Hill, and by the graffiti-covered cannon, he is standing there. Teddy. We stand for as minute facing each other. I pull my inhaler out of my pocket and pump it twice. Teddy Roosevelt had asthma too. Mine acts up when I am near dust, mold, or confrontation. I’m not sure about Teddy Roosevelt’s asthma. I have not been able to find adequate detail on his symptoms or triggers. Tommy Stanick passes by on his Mongoose. He flips me the bird. I don’t know why.
“He’s a dick,” Teddy says.
Teddy reaches into his backpack and tosses me a Sour Ball. I pop it in my mouth, put my inhaler back in my bag, and start to walk toward school. With Teddy.
Theodore Roosevelt began boxing at age fourteen when a couple of bullies taunted and manhandled him. I started at eleven. He trained with the Boston Strong Boy, Jim Sullivan. I trained with my mom. He went from a sickly kid with asthma to fighting in the Harvard Gym Championship on March 22, 1879. I have asthma and have settled for trying to teach Sweaty Teddy how to punch. In the hours between school and dinner, Teddy and I are pretty much on our own. My mom works until six or seven most nights and Teddy’s dad is a real gung-ho hoorah cop who was put on a special narcotics division in my old Corktown neighborhood. He is a gang buster, ballbuster, Teddy says. Total badass.
“It’s a pillow,” Teddy says.
“It’s a punching bag.”
“Made from a pillow. This is stupid.”
“This will get them to stop calling you Sweaty Teddy.”
I hold my homemade heavy bag. Teddy punches.
“That was terrible. You have to rotate. You punch with your hips, not your arms. Watch.”
He holds the bag. I throw a combination.
“Damn! And you’re so skinny.”
“You think I hit hard, Teddy Roosevelt was –”
Teddy throws a left to my chest. “Fuck! Teddy! Roosevelt!”
“Oh it’s on.”
We wrestle to the ground laughing, rolling on the burnt-out grass of my yard, throwing jabs and talking shit until Teddy ends up sitting on me.
“Don’t tell me – Teddy Roosevelt used to get sat on all the time.”
“Fuck you Teddy.”
“Fuck you Rosie.”
On Saturdays I visit my dad. St. Hedwig’s Cemetery is exactly 9.4 miles from my house. My mom used to drive me every week, but that was before she started spending Saturdays with Phil. I usually take my bike, but Teddy popped my back tire bunny hopping a curb, and ever since those kids got shot in Warrendale my mom won’t let me take the bus.
“Paul Ray has a car.”
Teddy’s half-brother not only drove, but he smoked, had a tattoo, and a ring of hickeys around his neck. He spent most days ditching high school and practicing his nunchucks on his corner. Teddy was pretty much terrified of Paul Ray, but since I was teaching him to box, he felt like he owed me. I waited across the street, watching Teddy talk to Paul Ray. Through the slats of the wooden fence Big Ray had built, I could see the brand new, four-foot high, above-ground pool they’d just put in. The sunlight bounced and shimmered off the surface. A big green inflatable turtle floated dumbly back and forth across.
I watched Teddy shifting his weight and not making eye contact. At one point he popped a Sour Ball for moral support. As they talked, Paul Ray lined up Pepsi cans on the fence and crushed them with his nunchucks. Line after line,Teddy would flinch and step slightly further away. The rumor in Copper Canyon was that Big Ray had to save Paul Ray more than a few times down at the precinct. There was talk of drugs. And fights. All Teddy would say is that Paul Ray would have been better off in jail than having to come home and deal with Big Ray. When Paul Ray broke his arm, everyone at school said Big Ray did it. I never asked Teddy about it. And he never told.
Teddy waves me over from across the street. I watch Paul Ray watch me walk toward him, pretty sure I am not what he was expecting. I say thanks. He says nothing. Teddy shoots me the shut-up look, and we all pile into Paul Ray’s Burgundy Monte Carlo with cry baby rims and a petticoat spoiler.
The back seat is immense. Teddy and I bounce up and down as Paul Ray tries to scare and impress us, fishtailing down Warwick, and laying a huge patch as he leaps off the line at a stop sign on Belton. Being a cop’s kid in Copper Canyon means you have license to do pretty much anything you want behind the wheel. And Paul Ray does. As we make a left on Telegraph, I try to yell to the front seat that we are going the wrong way. But between Foreigner Four on the Alpine, and the growl of the dirt mother muffler he put on himself, Paul Ray doesn’t hear me. Or doesn’t care.
We pull up, not at St. Hedwig’s, but at Sheri Olshenski’s house. She was famous in Copper Canyon for almost getting pregnant. It seemed to happen a lot. Paul Ray lays on the horn. She comes out a minute later. Torn jean shorts. Cowboy boots. Teddy and I watch her walk down the driveway toward the car. She gets in, doesn’t even look at the back seat, and begins to make out with Paul Ray. This goes on for a while. I try to whisper to Teddy we should go, but he shushes me, eyes fixed on the front seat. A minute later we hear the thuddy ca-chunk of the Monte Carlo’s automatic doors unlock, and we slide out the passenger side.
The last mile of the walk is the worst. They hazy smokestack Detroit sky hold the heat like a plastic bag. Soaked and slow, we walk toward the hill where my dad was laid to rest. I make the time go by faster for Teddy by summarizing my father’s Masters’ Thesis: Theodore Roosevelt: Politics, Patriotism, and Preparedness. When we get to the grave I reach into my bag and get to work.
“You always keep that in your bag?”
“Never know when I’m gonna get up here.”
“It’s like a tiny shovel.”
“It’s a trowel.
I clear the crab grass and weeds off the headstone. On my hands and knees, I blow the tiny blades and leaves out of the recesses of my father’s name, birthdate and death date. Teddy watches. Gets down on his knees. And blows as well.
“We must show, not merely in great crisis, but in the everyday affairs of life,” I say.
Teddy nods, understanding the intention of the quote. “And all men must try really hard in the arena of their life,” he says.
I nod. Understanding he’s trying.
As the weeks went by, we worked at being better at life. Teddy got better at boxing and doing his homework. I got better at being less judgy and more normal, and we both got better at answering Ms. Judi’s questions. On the playground we found corners and nooks to disappear into. Safe havens far from every Tommy Stanick, Ronnie Bootrie and Michael Drostey. We created our own world, and together we preached and lived not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life.
On our last hot dog lunch of the year, Teddy and I ate alone, together, like we always did. I gave him my second hot dog. He gave me half his sour cream and onion chips. After that, we were supposed to have final period recess, but since our homeroom had earned enough self-control marbles in Mrs. Garko’s Shush Jar, they let us out early.
My mom was working late. Big Ray was at a DPOA union meeting, and Paul Ray was getting hickeys from Sheri. So, we went to Teddy’s house. It was the first time I was actually inside. Teddy’s mom was away visiting her sister again. He said she had been gone for a while this time, but she called Teddy every Wednesday and Sunday to check in on him. Big Ray said Teddy was in charge of cleaning. Which meant the house was never cleaned, but with Big Ray’s work schedule and Paul Ray’s Sheri schedule, no one was around much to care about the house. But the yard. The yard was perfect, with an Aqua Leader pool, and a little wooden deck Big Ray built out of scrap from the privacy fence.
Teddy makes us homemade Nesquik chocolate milk since my mom won’t let me have it at home. We sit on the deck, our feet dangling in the water. Teddy finds a cloud that looks like a snow cone with human baby head. I find a buffalo.
“Why’d you do it?”
“The X-ACTO Knife.”
The big green turtle floats towards us, gently bumping its face into my foot.
“They were calling me fat.”
“They always do that.”
“So, you’re saying, exactly?” I say in my best Ms. Judi voice.
Teddy smiles. Nods. The snow-cone-baby-head cloud passes over us, blocking out the sun. For a minute the traffic seems to stop, and we can hear the wind and the birds of Copper Canyon.
“I got so tired of being the fat kid. I just wanted to be something else.
You ever feel that way?”
Teddy’s looking at me now. He’s almost always looking down. But now his eyes are wide. His face is open. A chocolate milk mustache is beginning to dry and crumble around his lips. He looks innocent. Like maybe how he looked before any of this happened.
“We should swim,” I say.
Teddy looks down again.
“No, I… I don’t –”
“You don’t swim?”
“So, let’s swim!”
“No, I don’t – I don’t –"
“You don’t what?”
He takes a moment, then makes a decision. “I don’t take my shirt off. Around other people.”
My father’s favorite quote. The one he recited to me every night before I fell sleep, was the simplest, and hardest, one of all. In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing. That one haunted me. Before you act, it feels like a riddle or a curse. After you act, it feels like absolution and freedom. If you do not act at all, it is regret. Pure and simple.
I set my book down and unbutton the top two buttons of my uniform shirt. Teddy looks up. I grab the bottom of my shirt and pull it up over my head. My skin tingles in the sunlight, still sensitive to heat and light after three years. The doctors said I was lucky. Forty percent usually means your face is burned as well. But my scars hide under my shirt. “You can touch it,” I say. I take his hand and rub his fingers across the scar tissue on my chest and stomach. It is fierce skin, tough skin, skin that has held together in the strenuous performance of duty. “It protects my heart,” I say.
The sky goes white hot. The snow cone baby and the buffalo are long gone. The sun beats down on my bare back, and it feels good.
Teddy leans over to untuck the last part of his shirt that is still clinging to his uniform khakis. He pulls his shirt up over his head and tosses it behind him. The stretch marks are pink and veiny. They wrap around from his armpits to his boobs, and from his love handles to his belly button. “You can touch them,” he says. They are smooth. Scars inside his skin. “They protect my fat,” he says. His high-pitched little boy laugh becomes hysterical. Contagious. We get loud. And we don’t care.
“Fuck you Teddy!
“Fuck You Rosie!”
I stand on the deck and proclaim to all of Copper Canyon, “It is a fact that Teddy Roosevelt would skinny dip in the Potomac with his trusted advisors and closet allies!” I kick off my shoes. A neighbor’s dog begins to bark. “And as a symbol of that solemn solidarity and kindred camaraderie!”
“Don’t do it,” Teddy says.
Off go my pants.
“I hereby declare that we too shall skinny dip – right here in Lake Teddy – to honor the great Theodore Roosevelt and the great kinship and camaraderie that is right here between Theodore and Roosevelt.” I drop my underwear and dive in the water. The cold water shocks and stings, embraces. I hold my breath and wait at the bottom. A second later, still underwater, I hear an even bigger splash. We break the surface together, laughing and splashing. Total immersion. Complete the surrender.
“What the fuck are you doing!” Paul Ray is standing on the deck, looking down on us between our two piles of clothes. “Teddy what the fuck are you doing!”
“We were just –”
“You shut the fuck up! I was talking to him!”
Teddy’s gaze drops to the bottom of the pool. He reaches to the ladder without saying a word, and climbs out of the pool. Paul Ray throws his uniform pants at him, “Put your clothes on you little faggot.”
When I get to my locker the following Monday, Tommy Stanick’s stuff is gone. The note inside says his parents are no longer comfortable with him sharing a locker with me. It goes on to talk about HIV and the tragic unknowns of the disease.
On my way to homeroom I see the first Teddy + Rosie sign written in lipstick on the boy’s bathroom mirror. Michael Drostey makes kissing noises when he sees me in the hall. Ronnie Bootrie grabs himself and follows me until a teacher breaks it up. In one day, I went from the only black kid at St. Agatha, to the only black kid found naked in a pool with a naked white boy at St. Agatha. Notes. Signs. Handwritten letters. All within the first three hours of my first day back. I become Rosie Palm. Rosie Bottom. All because Paul Ray didn’t want people to think he was gay.
“I can’t be here. Not today.”
“How do you feel?”
“I don’t need your stupid questions or these stupid fucking stress dolls!” The stress toys fly. The candy bowl shatters.
Her phone rings. She drops the call.
“You need to talk to me, Roosevelt.”
“What happened to your book?”
She puts the file away and waits. “Where’s your book, Roosevelt?”
I shake my head. “It was all bullshit anyway.”
The hospital room smells like rubbing alcohol and cafeteria gravy. When I walk in, Teddy is asleep. His nose is packed. Both eyes purple with pooled blood. I sit next to the bed and hold his hand. His eyes flutter, then focus. He smiles.
“Let’s go swimming,” he says. “It’ll be fun,” he says. His laugh more of a congested exhale.
I nod. “Yeah. Bad Idea.”
“Hey, could you cover –”
I move his gown over to cover an exposed stretch mark on his left side. “I got you this.” I place a gift shop teddy bear on his tray.
He nods. Smiles. “In 1902,” he says. “Teddy Roosevelt went hunting – “
“In Mississippi,” I say.
“Right. Mississippi. And his assistant –”
“Holt Collier,” I say.
“Right. Tied a bear to a tree. But Roosevelt wouldn’t shoot it.”
“Because it was too easy,” I say.
Teddy nods and shoots me with a finger pistol.
“Some people think that’s just a myth,” I say.
“I believe it,” he says.
A nurse comes in to change the dressing on his forehead. She asks him if I should leave. He says no. She cleans the gash above his eye. Replaces his gauze and refills his ice chips.
I touch his face. “Paul Ray?”
He shakes his head. “Big Ray.”
“Because I was naked in your pool.”
“Because you were black in my pool.”
Over the next month Teddy and I didn’t talk. We didn’t sit together at lunch. We saw Ms. Judi individually, and if we saw each other in the hall, we would turn the other way. Outside of teachers, neither of us spoke to anyone at school. In 1981, in Copper Canyon, if you were two boys swimming naked, you were fags who probably had AIDS. And there was no way to undo the damage that had been done. But from a distance I would watch Teddy. I could see him healing. Getting stronger. His color getting better. The purple under his eyes fading to yellow. The mark on his forehead growing smaller and less pronounced. His scars becoming more obscure and invisible like stretchmarks under a school uniform shirt.
The last time I actually talked to Teddy, it was on the phone. I told him about my mom’s new job with the state. About the house we found in Lansing and the school I would be attending next year. He said, yeah, a lot, and wouldn’t even say my name, because we both knew that I was going to be anonymous in Lansing next year, and he was going to be the fat, possibly gay, X-ACTO kid, sitting by himself in Friends Group for the next two years. He was destined. And sentenced. And I was free. And neither of us understood it or deserved it.
On the last day of school, you could feel a restless energy building. For weeks Tommy Stanick had been talking about a fag fight between me and Teddy. We were the drama. We were the gossip. The beef. And now they wanted blood. This was how it works. You didn’t fight when you wanted to – you fought when they decided you would. All throughout the day I heard about Me and Teddy settling the score. Homeroom, lunch hour, fifth hour. You could hear the stories – how I went to his pool and tried to have sex with him. How he lured me into his pool to have sex with me. How we broke up, and now we hate each other, and the only thing left to do is settle it on the big lot behind the middle school gym, where all things like this get settled.
As soon as Mrs. Garko left the lot to have a smoke, a circle began to form around us. That’s when I knew we were actually going to fight. That this was going to happen. Kids who never even talked to me were yelling my name, telling me to kick his ass.
Fag Fight! Fag Fight!
Tommy Stanick. Waving his arms right in my face. Trying to get people to join him. They do. Ron Bootry and Michael Pawlick, still a little high from their walk to school, giggle and fall into each as I pass. Someone takes my backpack off my shoulder. A group of seventh graders begin pushing me in the back, shoving me toward Teddy who is now being pushed toward me, his belly heaving, his cheeks flushed red, his uniform shirt sweat-soaked and hopelessly untucked from his ever-descending khakis. We end up face to face. He still won’t look at me.
“Fucking Fight!” Someone says.
A seventh grader pushes me into Teddy. He swings wildly. After all our lessons he is still terrible. And they all see this. They see the fat kid. The kid with the X-ACTO. The one who swam naked.
He swings wildly again. I slip and counter. Teddy is off balance, out of sorts. At some time in our lives a devil dwells within us, causes heartbreaks, confusion and troubles, then dies. I drop my hands. I show him my chin.
No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his body – to risk his well-being – to risk his life – in a great cause. Teddy pauses.
I scream, “Don’t foul! Don’t Flinch! Hit the line hard!”
Teddy connects. Solidly. Beautifully. Right on the button. Just like I taught him. My hearing goes dull and watery. But I can hear them cheering. My vision goes soft and fuzzy, but I can see them celebrating. And as the seventh graders pick me up and pull me away, Teddy becomes something else.