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Mama Bittle's Rule Number One

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“Dicky, darling, can we Skype?” It’s two in the afternoon on a Sunday in March, and it’s been a month since Suzanne Bittle has seen her son’s face.

She really wants to see his face.

He sounds hesitant. “Um, sure, Mother, is something wrong?”

“Just want to see my favorite son,” she says brightly. “It’s been too long, and with you staying up there for Spring Break...”

“I’m not at home,” he says.

“Oh, are you out?” she asks.

“No, just visiting a ... friend.” His voice is ever so slightly strained.

She rolls her eyes, grateful that they haven’t started video yet. “If it’s a bad time... I don’t really care where you are, but as long as you’re not too busy, I’d like to see you.”

“I’m baking, just give me a sec to set up the laptop, Mother.” There’s a clatter and a rustle and she waits, perched on the old three-legged stool in her own kitchen, in front of her own laptop. She hears a little bit of muffled conversation, distorted by the phone, and smiles to hear a familiar baritone.

The Skype notification comes up a moment later, and she smiles to see Dicky in an unfamiliar kitchen.

“Oh, are you at Jack’s?” she asks, her voice as pure and innocent as a daisy.

He has a dusting of flour on one cheek. “Yeah, I’m just visiting. Baking for his team. End of season, they’re all kind of hungry all the time. So I’m doing them a favor.”

Jack crosses the kitchen in the background, in sweatpants and a t-shirt. She smiles.

“And how is my second favorite son?”

Yes, she was right to want to see his face for this. “Mama?”

She ignores him and calls out, “Jack, sweetheart, how are you?”

Behind Dicky, Jack turns, and waves awkwardly. “Hi, Mrs. B. I’m fine.”

“Now, honey, Mrs. B is my mother-in-law. You know you can call me Suzanne. Or Mama Bittle. Or gosh, just Mama is fine. You’re family.”

She schools her amusement as Jack Zimmerman blushes a deep shade of pink.

Dicky’s face is white as a sheet. “Mama?” he tries again.

She pretends she doesn’t hear. “So Dicky, I have a story to tell you. It’s about your father. I think you’ll like it.”

“Mama...” Little spots of color are showing up on his cheeks, and she resists the temptation to remind him to breathe.

“So you remember Josh Burke? ...A freshman when you were a senior?”

He looks nonplussed. “Yes? I mean, he’s a quarterback, Coach talks about him all the time.”

“So that quarterback came out before the season started.”

“He’s gay?” Dicky’s face is a mask.

“Oh I don’t know about gay. There are three gay boys on the team this year anyway. Well, we think, we’re not too sure about Cody. Coach said he might be playing for both teams. So to speak. Not that it matters. No, Josh is now going by Jody, and asked everyone to start using she and her.”

She can see his gears grinding and stuttering and trying to turn. She glances at the bottom of the screen to make sure that she is in fact recording this, and captures a screenshot for good measure, because the look on his face is priceless and she wants to show it to Eric later. He’s too distracted to notice. Jack is standing stock still behind him, eyes intent and she can see that he’s already processing what she’s trying to do.

Dicky finally manages to get out, “And how did Coach take it?” There is an undertone of desperation in his voice, and fear, like he needs desperately to know but is afraid to ask. She sees Jack’s hand up on his shoulder now. Good.

“Well, you know your father. He sort of grunted and frowned and then said, ‘Okay.’ Then there was an incident a week after that and he kicked three varsity boys off the team and got them expelled for bullying. Two linebackers and an offensive tackle. Two of them were starters. That was about the end of it, but once word got out, four girls came out for tryouts. Two of them made it on the team.”

She wishes she could put a hand through the screen and pick his jaw up off the floor. She settles for, “Close your mouth, Dicky. Flies will get in.”

“Jo... Jody is still playing?”

“She’s a quarterback, son. Might even get recruited next year. There’ve been women in NCAA football.” She waits. He’s still kind of reeling. She can see Jack’s fingers tightening on his shoulder.

“And there are gay players on the team? Are they out?”

“They’re out to Coach. Had to be, he caught them in the locker room... um... being boys. I don’t know if they’ve come out to the team. They’re kind of jumpy. Well, you know why they’re jumpy. Less jumpy since Coach put his foot down.”

“With the team?” Dicky asks. She can see the gears start to turn again.

“With the school. Called an assembly. I think it’s on Youtube. Will be on Youtube soon if it isn’t already. It was a bit ago. Half thought it would've gotten to you already.” Now she lets herself really smile. “Dicky, you’ll be so proud when you see it. He browbeat the principal into calling an all-school assembly, and got up there and started talking, and he talked for half an hour without stopping. Had the rest of his starters up on the stage with him, too.”

“Mama, what did he say?” She can see that Jack is standing very close behind him now. The hand that was on her son’s shoulder is now gripping his waist firmly, and it looks like Jack is nearly holding him up. Dicky’s shaking a bit, and she’s never, ever seen him look so intense.

“He said that the world is changing, and it’s about time we stepped up and acted like the decent people we’ve been saying we are. He said that accepting people for who they are is a life and death matter, and that he will not tolerate any bullying on his watch. He said that he’d run from bullying in the past, and he was sick of it, and it was time for all good people to stand up and say ‘enough.’ He said that if he heard of anyone in the school getting bullied, for any reason at all, that the football players standing behind him would be escorting them wherever they needed to go for as long as it took for them to feel safe. That every student at the school was important and he didn’t want to risk losing any of them, whether they play sports or not. That he wasn’t going to get into making laundry lists of all the people you couldn’t bully, because no one deserves to be bullied or harassed or targeted in any way for being who they are, and the place to make changes is in the people doing the bullying, because that’s where the problem is.”

There are tears running down Dicky’s face. And Jack’s too.

And so maybe she’s getting misty too as she says, “Then he told them that if any of them are being bullied or hurt at home, they can come to him and get help, and they will be believed, and they will be safe. He said, ‘Whether or not your religion tells you something is moral or not, it doesn’t matter here. We will treat people with respect, no matter their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their race, their religion. No matter who their parents are, or how they dress, or what their grades are.’ Then he said that every year he’s been teaching in Georgia they’ve lost one or more kids to suicide, and in every case it was due to kids feeling like if people knew who they really were, they’d be alone. That no one should feel alone. And that everyone should feel safe. Then he gave them a consent lecture Mr. Crappy would be proud of. Actually, he talked to Mr. Crappy when he was writing his notes.”

“He didn’t.” Dicky dashes his hands across his face.

“He did. Told them no one was going to be pushing rape accusations under the rug on his watch, and that while winning state championships is all well and good, he wasn’t about to prioritize a plaque or a trophy over basic human decency. That he’d already kicked three of his most talented players off the team for bullying and sexual assault, but he wouldn’t call them his best because the best people don’t do that. That good people, moral, decent people do not throw stones, cast judgment, hurt people or shut people out. That good and decent people treat people with respect even when people are not what we expect or understand.”

“Is Jody okay?” Jack asks.

“Jody was beaten, but the same three had covered for each other over a sexual assault that happened last spring. The girl ended up at a different school over it. Jody was the last straw. She’s healed now. And things are getting better every day. There’s a bit of a backlash but Coach has the support of the administration and school board.”

“How did he...” Dicky starts, but doesn’t have to finish before she’s talking again.

“I might have drawn up a presentation for him,” she says. “With videos and slides and research. The school district’s lawyer was very helpful, and once we had him on our side, it was actually very straightforward. Once the Supreme Court decision came down, it was easy.”

“The Supreme Court,” Dicky starts again. “Mama, are you talking about Obergefell?”

“We quoted it,” Suzanne says. “‘The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.’"

“Coach quoted the gay marriage decision?”

“Is that so hard to believe?” she asks.

“I... You know.” And there it is.

“I’m not sure what we did that made you think we wouldn’t approve,” Suzanne says. “But you’re not especially subtle. Particularly not on your public vlog. That you talk about all the time. And have recorded in my kitchen. I don’t know why you thought I wouldn’t see it.”

“I...but... You never said. You were so confused when I said I might adopt kids someday.”

“Doogie Howser has two children via a surrogate,” she says. “I don’t mind if you adopt, but it’s certainly not your only option, and I was confused that you’d be insisting so hard like I'd love any of my grandbabies any less. I’m not going to apologize for wanting grandbabies, though you’re under no obligation to provide them.”

“Coach was so disappointed when I didn’t stick with football, and the faces he made over figure skating...”

“Dicky, he was worried. And he loves football. I’d probably be disappointed if you hated baking, though I’d get over it. He was afraid for you.”

“I thought he was afraid I wouldn’t be man enough....”

“He was afraid that if you decided you weren’t a man at all, that you’d end up murdered or damaged. He was afraid for your life, especially after those awful boys... You know we moved for you.”

“For...what?” Dicky looks genuinely puzzled.

“If he could have walked away from that school district the day it happened, he would have. We moved twice because of the bullying. That Supreme Court decision gave him the legal backing to put his foot down. Seven, even five years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to push a school board so hard. The media backlash would have gone the other way. Now? We’ve had Caitlyn Jenner and we have gay marriage and we have stories on TV that make the whole thing a lot less mysterious, and there’s a gay-straight alliance forming at your old school.”

“In Georgia?” Jack, this time.

“It takes us a bit, but we’re not completely backward,” she says. “Dicky, we were thrilled you felt comfortable bringing Jack home this summer. Did you really think we didn’t know? The way you two look at each other...”

And there it is, the boys looking at each other for a moment, completely gone.

She waits until Dicky is looking back at her. “Sweetheart, there is nothing you could ever do on this earth that would make us not love you, you need to know that, and I’m sorry we let you think any different for even a moment.” She watches his shoulders shake, watches Jack wrap his arms around him from behind, holding him, and she’s grateful that someone is there to steady her boy. “We just thought... we wanted you to be able to come to us in your own time. But when you told the whole internet that we didn’t know...”

Now he’s blushing furiously. “Sorry, Mama. I don’t really have that many followers.”

“Followers aren’t the same as hits, baby, I taught you that. Now, Jack, I know you feel like maybe you need to hide, that people won’t give you a chance if you don’t prove yourself first...”

Jack looks down.

She continues, “But you don’t have anything you need to prove. You’re going to come out one day, maybe soon, maybe later, and some people will say awful things, but if you don’t treat it as shameful, no one’s going to be able to shame you over it. Don’t you let keeping it a secret hold you back, you know you play better when you’re happy, and you play better when my son’s around, and if you’re worrying that you’re going to be found out you’re not going to be doing your best because part of you is going to be worrying about that all the time.”

He starts to open his mouth and she shakes her head. “Don’t you argue with me, Jack Zimmermann. Your mama and I talk. I know that your game picked up when Dicky started playing on your line, and I know you’ve been doing very well on your new team, but I also know you haven’t been enjoying it as much, except when that boy of mine is in the stands.”

“How do you...I didn’t tell my mother that?”

“I have a television, Mr. Zimmermann. And if you don’t think we watch every game you boys play, I don’t know what you think is going on here.”

“Dicky, I think your mother is chirping me,” Jack says.

Dicky rolls his eyes and breathes out an exasperated, fond sigh, then shakes his head. “The both of you... Mama this may be the most elaborate chirp I’ve ever experienced in my entire life, and now BOTH of you are doing it. At a time like this!”

“You need to talk to your daddy, Dicky. And call him that. He misses it. We miss you. I know you’re going to have other places to be now, that we won’t be seeing you so much, and that’s normal, that’s fine. But don’t you dare stay away because you’re afraid of what we might think. What he might think. He’s so proud, baby. He’d fight lions for you, you need to know that. Already has.”

And now Dicky is sobbing into Jack’s chest, and Jack is mouthing, “Thank you” at the her over his head.

She dries her own face with a cloth, and says, “We’re proud of you both, you know. All of us, your folks included, Jack. I need you both to know that all the way to your bones. Rule number one is mama loves you.”

He’s nodding.

“And don’t you forget it.”