Cyrus was already sick of sophomore year when he walked into his fifth bell class, English. It was only the first day of school, but he knew it would suck because he didnʼt have any classes with the Good Hair Crew this year. His day just got worse when he saw a seating chart projected onto the whiteboard. His assigned seat was next to TJ Kippen. Cyrus knew that he hated TJ because he had bullied Buffy in middle school. It was two years ago, sure, but Buffy hadnʼt gotten over it, so he hadnʼt either.
Cyrus reluctantly plopped into his assigned seat as the bell rang for class to start.
“Hey,” said the boy next to him, “Iʼm TJ. Youʼre friends with Marty, right? We were both on the JV basketball team last year.”
“Iʼm Cyrus. I know who you are. Iʼm friends with Buffy, remember?” Cyrus hoped that TJ could feel the bitterness in his voice.
TJ was interrupted by their new English teacher, Mrs. Drew, clearing her throat.
“Welcome to English 10 Honors. Our curriculum this year will mostly be focused on American authors. Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Fitzgerald...”
Cyrus spaced out as Mrs. Drew went over the class syllabus. The first day of school was always the most boring, so Cyrus wasnʼt paying much attention. It was as he drifted that he found himself gazing at TJ, who was focusing intensely at something he was writing. Cyrus wanted to hate TJ, but something about his presence comforted him. He felt comfortable being next to him, not intimidated like he thought he would be.
“There will be a test on your summer reading in two weeks,” Mrs. Drew concluded, “You may pack up now.”
As the rustling of students stashing away their pencils and papers filled the room, TJ gave Cyrus the piece of paper he had been scribbling on all bell.
“Whatʼs this?” Cyrus demanded, but TJ did not respond. As soon as the bell rang, he sped down the hallway and into the crowd of teenagers trying to get to their sixth bell.
When Cyrus got home, he grabbed an apple and headed upstairs. He began to rummage through his backpack, looking for his first-day assignments. It was then that he saw the paper that TJ had silently given him. Cyrus, nervous for some reason, carefully opened up the folded paper and sat down on his bed to read it.
Iʼve been meaning to talk to you since eighth grade. I have so much to say, but I donʼt think I could say it out loud.
First of all, tell Buffy that Iʼm sorry. I thought that time might heal wounds, especially now that Buffy is on girlʼs varsity basketball without even playing on a team in middle school. I feel awful that I didnʼt let her join. I knew she was good, even then. I was just being a shithead, like most middle school boys.
Second, I want you to know that I’m different now than I was in eighth grade--at least, I hope I am. I want to set things straight with Buffy. My actions have been bothering me for the past few years, and I want to get that guilt off my chest. Maybe you could set up a time for us to talk?
Third, I finally got diagnosed with dyscalculia last year, and my grades have been improving in math since then, thanks to you and Buffy. Remember when we talked on the swing set one time? You gave me some great advice then. I didn’t deserve advice from such great people. I just want to make amends sometime soon because you guys really helped me, and I’ve never even been nice to you before. So can I meet up with you and Buffy sometime?
Cyrus picked at the corner of the paper as he read the letter, lost in the words. The handwriting was big and slanted forward, written by someone who was confident in his intentions. The letter should have seemed fake because this was from TJ, but Cyrus couldn’t help believing it.
Cyrus didn't confront TJ for weeks after reading the letter. The letter had been sincere, and he had read it more than a few times, but it also unburied old feelings that Cyrus had to sort through. He would think about how frustrated he was that TJ didn't have the nerve to go talk to Buffy and him in person as TJ responded to a teacher's question about Fahrenheit 451 in class. He would think about how angry he was that TJ had bullied Buffy as TJ came into the classroom, chatting with a friend about basketball. Worst of all, he would think about how embarrassed he was for ever having a crush on TJ as this once-scary-basketball-guy would pick his lip nervously during a seminar.
The only reason Cyrus ended up talking to TJ at all was that one day, as Cyrus walked home from school, he passed by Jefferson middle school, as he did every day. But this time around, Cyrus saw TJ on the swing set where they had talked once. He started to get a nostalgic feeling in his gut as he traveled towards TJ. He hadn't realized until this moment just how much he wanted to talk to TJ. The boy was hunched over his phone, picking his lip, feet dragging on the ground when Cyrus walked up to him.
"Hey. Mind if I sit?"
TJ seemed startled by Cyrus, and his voice shook a little when he said, "Feel free. I'm not saving it for anyone." He put his phone away as Cyrus sat down.
"Why did you write that letter?" Cyrus asked. He worried that he sounded too demanding, but TJ didn't even bat an eye at Cyrus' forthright attitude.
TJ shrugged. "Dunno. I guess I just want to talk."
"Then just apologize to Buffy. It shouldn't be that hard. It's been years."
"I don't just want to apologize. I want to have someone to talk to."
"Don't you have any friends you can talk to? I'm sure they'd understand you better than I could."
TJ shook his head. "I don't really have friends. I have teammates And they don't get me at all."
"Then why me? Why Buffy?"
TJ faltered, as if he didn't quite know why, himself. "I guess... I just... I remember talking to you on this swing set once. Right? And you just... listened to me, even though you had nothing to gain from it. And Buffy is just so tough. She understands what it's like to be isolated by people, but she stands up for herself anyway. "
"If you don't mind me asking, why do you feel isolated? You're the basketball team's best player right now. Don't they like you?"
"They used to, but..." TJ picked on his lip, muffling his words, "then I came out and they just acted differently. They let me stick around, and they invite me to stuff, but it's just not the same anymore."
Oh. Cyrus had completely forgotten that TJ was gay.
"Is that why you wanted to talk to me?" Asked Cyrus, surprised by how disappointed he was, "Because I'm the only other out guy you know? Because I don't know any more about this shit than you do."
"Oh my God, no! Not at all! I just don't really have anyone to talk to, and when I saw you in English class, I felt like I could talk to you. But I had to make things right first."
"Alright. I think I get it. I'll text Buffy to come over to my house on Friday. Just give me your number and I can update you on the plan."
Cyrus found himself paying a lot more attention to TJ than he had before. TJ was quieter than Cyrus had expected him to be. From a distance, his confidence and air of untouchability disguised it. But now, Cyrus saw that TJ didnʼt care so much for speaking. Cyrus didnʼt think that TJʼs stillness was a sign of insecurity. Really, it was the exact opposite. TJ understood people. He knew how people ticked. He knew how to make people understand what he wanted with just a glance.
Cyrus, however, had no such talents. He wasted so much energy talking and waving his arms emphatically. He did not trust people to understand him. He could only be quiet around his closest friends. Otherwise, he might just slip away. He did not understand social cues that others just seemed to pick up as they grew. Cyrus felt out of place and underdeveloped in a world built for people who could think like adults. TJ fascinated him because he seemed so distant, but there was no doubt in anyoneʼs mind that he could be insecure. This was just how TJ was; everybody seemed to pick up on that except for Cyrus. He wanted to talk to TJ a lot, despite the fact that most people seemed to like TJ better when they weren't talking to him. But maybe there just weren't that many people who cared about TJ. Cyrus hated that he sort of pitied him.
After school on Friday, Cyrus and TJ walked together to go to Cyrus' house.
"Remember Principal Metcalf? I was terrified of him," said Cyrus, which made TJ laugh. "What? He had a tattoo. DOn't tell me it's not scary to know that your principal has a tattoo."
"Shit, he did? That is pretty crazy. Not that high school is much better than middle school. Remember last year, when two girls had that huge fight in the hallway?"
"Oh, yeah. Andi recorded the whole thing to send to the principal. It was intense."
The conversation was awkward, but they did laugh a lot, which felt good.
As the two boys rounded the corner, Buffy and Marty, waiting outside of Cyrus' house, came into view. Cyrus excitedly waved hello, but Buffy did not seem pleased by his presence. Then Cyrus realized that he hadn't told Buffy that TJ was coming...
"What the hell is this piece of shit doing here?"
"So... you want friends, and that's why you're apologizing to me?" concluded Buffy.
"Well, it sounds pathetic when you put it that way, but I guess so," said TJ.
"I guess I accept your apology... it was surprisingly heartfelt."
"Hey, guys," said Marty abruptly, "Now that this forgiveness crap is all over, can we play Mario Kart or something?"
By the time the four teenagers had finished their Mario Kart tournament, they had all cursed, laughed, and eaten an entire box of Oreos. Marty had just gotten his drivers license, so he drove Buffy home. It was late at night, so TJ didn't want to walk home on his own. Cyrus didn't want him to, either. TJ had tried to call Amber, his sister, so she could pick him up, but it was 11:00 PM and Amber was already asleep.
"You can just stay here tonight, if you want," offered Cyrus, "I don't mind. My parents let my friends sleep over all the time."
"Could I? That would be awesome."
So Cyrus set up an air mattress in his room for TJ to sleep on. They stayed up late, talking about whatever was on their minds. Their conversation was less awkward now, after a day of Mario Kart and emotional apologies.
"I didn't want to ask in front of them, but are Buffy and Marty dating?" asked TJ.
"No, but they should. Buffy doesn't 'believe in' high school relationsips. I think that's bullcrap, though. I don't see the point in waiting around if you like someone. Sure, high school relationships usually don't last, but that's all part of the experience."
"Yeah. But middle school relationships were hell. Remember Andi and Jonah? And didn't you date one of my sister's friends for a while?"
"Oh my god, Iris? Yeah, I did. It was so awkward. She's nice though."
"I was so obvious about crushes back then. Good thing I'm a normal human and not a gremlin child anymore."
"Were you? I was totally obvious, too. I used to like Jonah."
They both laughed, knowing that even if Jonah wasn't straight, he would have been the worst boyfriend ever.
"Did you have a crush on anyone?" Cyrus asked, still laughing.
"Yeah," said TJ. "You."