Eric Junior was born in May of 1995, just six months after Suzanne graduated with her BS from the University of Georgia, and five and a half months after her wedding to Eric Senior. She’d spent those last few months of school trying not to throw up in class, and letting her mother completely take over all the wedding planning because really, it was just easier that way.
She dubbed him “Dicky” within minutes of his birth, and Eric (now Senior) was so impressed with the whole process that he just went along with it.
Little Dicky was a tiny scrap of a human, full term but only six pounds, with impossibly big eyes. He arrived after a startlingly short labor in which he’d managed to surprise everyone by coming out feet first.
“He was head down three days ago,” Doc Foster kept muttering, but he’d been catching babies for 35 years by that point. It all went so fast that he just sat and watched the little guy spin and slide into the world like getting born breech wasn’t really any trouble at all, only reaching out to catch him at the last moment. He’d seen the tiny arms and hands wrapped around the baby’s torso like the little guy was hugging himself, ankles crossed, and his mentor’s words of “Hands off the breech” stuck.
“Is he supposed to be so tiny?” Eric asked, as they weighed the baby next to the bed.
“Be grateful for it,” said the nurse. “Your wife’s a tiny person. Bigger baby might have gotten stuck coming out like that.”
“Hm.” Eric frowned a little.
“Don’t you worry, hon. They get bigger. Here, take him back to your wife.” The nurse handed him a small bundle, scarcely bigger than a football, and he found himself fumbling a little. She kept her hands there until he looked steady.
The baby squinted up at him with greasy eyes, blinking, and his daddy couldn’t possibly imagine such a tiny bit of humanity ever getting big enough to run a play.
He’d been thinking about it, since the day Suzie came back from the student health clinic with two green sheets of paper stapled together: one with a list of women’s health clinics that included Planned Parenthood and a variety of religious organizations, and the other with a list of doctors and numbers to call to apply for CHiP and WIC.
She sat on her dorm bed, holding the sheet in shaking hands, saying nothing at all until her roommate finally came to get him off the practice field.
“I don’t know what that doctor said,” Betsy Ellen said to him as she dragged him away from the afternoon session, “But I’ve never seen Suzie look so scared.”
He was out of breath when he got to her dorm room. Suzanne looked at him wide-eyed as she told him the news, like she didn’t quite know how he’d take it. And honestly he’d surprised himself by having not a single question in his heart about what he wanted.
“I want to marry you, if you’ll have me,” he said. “I was going to ask you anyway once we graduated.”
She didn’t answer. She stared at the top sheet in front of her, and he finally took it out of her hands and looked himself. The top sheet was labeled “Abortion providers and Crisis Pregnancy centers.”
“I... It’s not my place but please...” He looked at her, and then sat down on the bed next to her.
“I know we’d talked about five years,” he said. “I know you wanted to go to Paris and I was going to get that NFL job. But we can make it work. Really, babe. You won’t be alone.”
She turned then, and cried silently into his shoulder.
“Please say yes,” he whispered into her hair. “Please say you’ll keep it. Let me take care of you.”
She cried louder, then, shoulders shaking, and he realized she was actually nodding into his shoulder.
“Really?” he asked, pulling back a little and lifting her chin up.
She swallowed hard and then nodded, smiling through the mess of tears on her face.
“Just think, he can be my first trainee!” he said.
At that she rolled her eyes, and he knew in that precise moment that she’d be okay. “You.. you don’t even know if it’s a boy,” she said. “Might be a girl. And you don’t know if this... baby will even like sports.”
He widened his eyes, teasing, and said, “Hush, you. As if I’d let a child of mine grow up without football, boy or girl.”
She shook her head gently, and looked down at the green papers.
He lifted the top sheet, glanced at the one under it, and then ripped the two apart, putting the second sheet in her hands and balling up the list. He threw it into the trashcan by the door, banking neatly off of the wall. “None of that now.”
He hadn’t had time to think of much in the ensuing eight months. Between his masters, the wedding, and job hunting, it all went by in a blink, but he often thought about teaching his boy (and yes, he’d actually cried at the ultrasound when the tech had pointed out the very obvious) how to throw a football.
Once they brought their tiny son home (five pounds nine ounces when they left the hospital, but everyone said it was normal) their house turned into a neverending stream of relatives and family members. He felt like a third or maybe fifth wheel most of the time, trying not to get in the way of the matriarchs of their respective clans.
Suzanne tried to breastfeed but finally gave in to the relentless stream of clucking biddies telling her that the child was too small and would never get big on her milk alone. Eric Senior (as they’d taken to calling him) watched and worried but said nothing. It wasn’t his place, and certainly not his area of expertise. It would be good if the boy was bigger...
He was pleased as punch when Dicky got up and moving at five months old. Everyone said that was early. His own mother said he’d been too fat to move until eight months, but then she hadn’t been able to keep up with him. Little Dicky got up on his hands and knees one day and was climbing the cabinets the next.
He came home from the high school where he was assistant coaching, and found his wife in tears, holding a very wiggly, very tiny boy by his middle. The boy seemed to be trying to crawl midair, his arms and legs nearly a comic blur of motion.
“We need to babyproof,” Suzanne said with a sniff and a deep breath before he even put his bag down. “I had to pull him off the top of the refrigerator.”
Eric Senior grinned. “That’s my boy,” he said, taking the blurry ball out of her arms.
He soon discovered he’d made a tactical mistake in allowing little Dicky to face him, as the boy wiggled and squirmed up to his shoulder, and he soon found himself pulling the child off his head. He turned the boy around as his wife had done, and said, “Call my mother, my kid brother was like this, she might have some ideas.”
Mrs. Bittle laughed and laughed when her daughter-in-law explained what was going on. “Get one of them Johnny Jump Ups,” she said. “That oughta keep him happy when you’re cooking. And don’t bother with short gates. You get the tallest gates you can find and you hardware mount one on top of the other. I had Daddy put up Dutch doors in my kitchen and Bubba was just up and over those if I didn’t keep both parts shut. You just be glad you have that old house, those newfangled open plan kitchens are impossible to babyproof.”
They quickly got used to dodging around the ricocheting ball that was their son when going in and out of the kitchen. It did keep him off the counters, but the height he got was alarming. When he figured out how to spin, they took to watching him out of the corners of their eyes because it was downright dizzying watching him too long.
Football season was so much time away, and the team was doing well. Eric kept apologizing to his wife for the long hours, but she just laughed and said, “You’re doing what you love, Coach.”
“But he’s in bed when I get home most nights,” Eric said. “I feel like he’s growing up without me.”
“Football season isn’t forever,” she said. “You’ll have more time in the spring.”
An aunty suggested giving him a cabinet of unbreakable pots, pans and other things and life got easier. When Dicky started sitting in the utensil drawer to watch his mama work, his daddy finally got wise and built him a little platform for the kitchen,. This solved most of the problems, as by ten months, nothing would make the boy happier than a patty of dough to knead while his mother worked.
Dicky seemed to like it okay when his daddy tossed a tiny football to him, and he loved running, which he figured out three hours after he took his first steps at eleven months old. But nothing got him quite so focused and calm as standing next to his mother in the kitchen while she worked.
July 4, the family gathered at Eric and Suzanne’s house for their first shot at hosting the family celebration.
Uncle Bubba watched little Dicky with his mother, then said to Eric, “You oughta be teaching that kid how to throw. He’s gonna get the wrong idea spending so much time in the kitchen.”
“He’s one year old,” Eric said. “I throw the ball with him all the time. He’s happy there.”
“Hm.” Bubba said. “Well, I’m gonna take him outside if you don’t mind.”
“Put sunscreen on him, Coach,” Suzanne said when Bubba picked the boy up. “Sun burns worse now than it did when you were little,” she said, cutting off Bubba before he could open his mouth to comment on how they’d never had sunscreen.
“Yes, Mama,” Eric said with a tolerant smile, pulling the bottle off the top of the refrigerator.
Dicky held still for the sunscreen, but the moment the cap went on the bottle, he was running to the screen door and bumping it with both hands to pop it open.
“Catch him!” Eric said to Bubba, and they chased the boy out into the yard. Most of the family was there, the older adults in lawn chairs on the patio, a knot of men around the grill, and a rolling amorphous ball of children usually referred to as “The Cousins.”
“Got a running back on your hands,” Bubba said, panting in the heat. “If he’d just get bigger. Never seen such a tiny kid up on two feet.”
“Doc says he’s strong and healthy. Mama says you were tiny, and look at you now.” Eric nodded at his brother, all six foot two of him, as he scooped Dicky up by the back of his overalls. “He’s got time to grow.”
Dicky giggled midair, arms and legs milling.
“Does he ever stop moving?” Bubba asked.
“Only when he’s in that kitchen,” Eric said, handing the boy to his brother.
“You gonna have more? Make a football team?” Bubba let Dicky climb up onto his shoulders, and caught the boy’s ankles to sit him on his shoulders.
“Hadn’t thought about it. Up to Suzanne, I guess. She put a lot of things on hold for little Dicky. Think she wants to get her teaching certificate. And she wanted to go to Paris...”
“Can you afford that?” Bubba started turning slowly in a circle. Dicky grabbed onto his head, knocking his snapback off, and giggled.
“Not this year, but maybe in a few years, if we don’t have another right away.” Eric picked a football up off the lawn and idly tossed it up and caught it again.
Bubba grabbed his nephew under his arms and somersaulted the toddler off his shoulders. Dicky laughed, and as soon as his feet touched the ground, he was running across the back yard. He tumbled down and was back up in an instant.
“Man, you gotta bottle that kid’s speed,” Bubba said, and then winced as the cousins tumbled into the little boy’s path. The inevitable collision landed Dicky on his face, and they couldn’t quite move fast enough to keep the bigger kids’ chain reaction off of him.
The boy was screaming by the time Eric got him up into his arms. He ran his hands down the tiny arms and legs, and over his head, looking for injuries, and then said, “Hush, baby. Don’t cry.”
Dicky flopped his head down on his daddy’s shoulder and sobbed. Eric patted his back awkwardly.
Bubba watched, and said, “Hey Dicky, man up. You’re alright. He’s alright, right, Coach?”
“Nothing broken, I don’t think.”
Dicky turned his head toward his daddy’s neck and whined, “Mama.”
“I’ll take him in,” Eric said. “He wants his mother.”
“Gonna turn into a mama’s boy, you do that.” Bubba said.
“He’s a baby. Think it’s okay if he wants his mama after a pile-up like that. You’d be crying for your mama too if you had six cousins three times your size land on you.”
“True,” Bubba said.
That happened a lot. The comments. When they asked the doctor about Dicky’s size, he just said, “He’s happy and he’s moving and he’s growing on his own curve. Suzanne is tiny, he may just be on the smaller side. Lots of kids slow way down when they’re this age.”
In 1997, one of the kids at the high school Eric taught at committed suicide. It came out gradually that the boy had been at the brunt of some pretty serious bullying, but no one would say why. The football players were very quiet for a few weeks, and he started watching after that.
He hadn’t known the kid, but four weeks out, he overheard one boy tell another in the locker room, “You still going on about that queer?”
A locker slammed, and another voice hissed, “Shut the fuck up,” and by the time Eric got out to see who it was, they were gone.
He’d never thought about it much, but the pressure among the kids, hell, among the coaching staff too, was relentless. He thought about a kid facing all that. When he went home to find his two year old son already asleep, a dusting of flour on his cheek and his arms wrapped tight around his bunny, he wondered how his tiny boy would fare in a world that valued big over small and wide over narrow and, above all, strong over weak.
The next year, two boys were caught under the bleachers together, and both ended up leaving school after the resulting uproar. That same year, there was a contingent of goth kids at the school, a small knot of kids with black hair and pale faces. They seemed to get spikier as the year progressed. The locker room talk on the subject was vicious, and no one at all was surprised when one of the goth kids died that year. “I don’t know why his mother let him wear all that makeup,” the department secretary said a few days later. “Ain’t nothing good come of that.”
That weekend, he came in from mowing the lawn to find his three year old son standing in his superhero underwear and an over-large ruffled apron and nothing else, whisking eggs happily while his mother rolled out a crust. He frowned, got one of his grilling aprons, and without a word removed the ruffles and put the green, plain apron on his boy.
Suzanne frowned at him, but said nothing as he tossed the frilly apron into the hamper.
They moved the summer Dicky was five, because Coach (as everyone, including little Dicky, now called him) had gotten a better job at a bigger school.
Bigger school, smaller town, and this one didn’t have enough goth kids to form a group, not after Columbine. There was one girl, but she left school long about October, in a flurry of rumors and bathroom graffiti.
It seemed to Coach that the kids were merciless to anyone who didn’t fit. Too smart, not smart enough. Too small, too fat, too whatever and the kids were like piranhas, honing in on the smell of blood. And in the football program it was even more intense. The head coach was ex-army, and ran things like a boot camp. It was effective, but loud, and left no room for nonconformity.
Talking to Suzanne at home about it late that night, Coach said, “I’m worried about Dicky. This town will eat him alive if he can’t figure out how to fit in and roll with the punches.”
“You can’t expect everyone to be a star quarterback,” she said, lying on her back in the bed. “He’s probably not going to ever be as big and beefy as you’d like.”
“You don’t have to be beefy to run the ball,” Coach said. “I’ll teach him.”
“Eric,” she started, and then sighed. “I hate it that we have to be so afraid for him.”
“He’ll start Peewee next year,” Coach said. “Team sports are fantastic for helping kids get strong.”
“You let someone else coach it, Eric Bittle. Last thing that boy needs is a boot camp.” She curled against him, and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders absently.
“Bad enough that I only see him on the weekends,” Coach said. “If I don’t coach his Peewee, I’ll barely see him at all.”
She shook her head against him but didn’t say any more.
Suzanne had a miscarriage that year. They didn’t talk about it much, and she still smiled at Dicky’s antics, but there was a sadness in her eyes that he couldn’t touch and couldn’t fix. They hadn’t been trying, exactly, but they hadn’t been not-trying either. He buried the weird mix of sadness and relief under the busyness of pushing his team through playoffs.
Dicky loved kindergarten with his whole heart. He made friends easily, and came home gushing about a boy named Michael. He was half a head shorter than most of the kids, but made up for it in bouncing energy. He started talking the moment he opened the car door after school and didn’t stop until after the lights were out at bedtime.
Eric watched Suzanne watch Dicky with a small, wistful smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
She didn’t fight him again about Peewee football, until the second practice, when the boy crumpled in a terrified heap in the face of a too rough tackle from a child who seemed twice his size. She picked him up and carried him off and took him home. The next year there was no talk of football, but she enrolled him in an ice skating class.
Coach watched as his boy blazed across the ice. It was like he was born there, twirling and spinning in the air with his ankles crossed and his arms wrapped around him. His tiny, piping voice excited as he pored over a catalog of costumes with his mother. It was 2002 and they went from the print catalog to the web and back again, endlessly. Music filled the house, not country, but classical and pop and less and less that Coach could understand, but he looked at his boy’s happy face and then looked at the hunted faces of the small and different at his school and wondered how he could possibly make it okay.
Suzanne had two more miscarriages before Coach put his foot down. The last one was the worst, coming after she’d started to relax and they’d been almost ready to tell Dicky. When it happened they sent him to his Moo Maw for the summer, while Suzanne healed. They talked to Suzanne’s doctor long and hard, and discussed their options. Then Coach got the snip so it wouldn’t be a question anymore. They toyed with the idea of adoption but ultimately decided that Dicky was enough for them. Coach had his teams and Suzanne had her classes and starting over again with a newborn would be okay for a little while, but it was going to be a bit before her body might be ready, if it ever was. The doctor talked about autoimmune issues—the things she’d have had to do to get and stay pregnant weren’t sure shots, and might not have worked. She'd had one baby and lost three, and she'd learned a long time ago that her life didn’t ever go how she expected it to. And he just never ever wanted to see her broken that way again.
Dicky came back from Moo Maw’s almost completely self-sufficient in the kitchen, babbling about recipes and music and wanting to show her everything he learned. Coach watched them together, and saw how Suzanne brightened at her little boy, still little but growing up so fast.
The farther Dicky got in school, the more helpless his daddy felt.
It came to a head in 2007, when twelve-year-old Dicky didn’t come home one night.
A call from one of the football players that he was staying over meant they weren’t looking for him, but something felt off that night. When Dicky called the next morning, it took hours to get the actual story out of him, and he refused to say who had done it.
Coach started putting in applications Monday morning. They got the boy a backup, emergency phone, and his mother sewed a little pocket in the insides of his pants. Every morning she checked with him to make sure it was charged and in the pocket.
The move took them closer in to Atlanta and a better figure skating coach, and a bit of a pay increase, so no one was too unhappy about it. Except Coach felt sort of sick at the idea of running away, sick at the idea of letting someone kidnap his child and get away with it, and sick at the laughing that happened because isn’t it funny when a kid gets locked in a closet all night, when he’s so queer.
That was the first time someone said "queer" about Dicky where Coach could hear it, not that the boys saying it had any idea he was listening.
In 2008, one of his cousins rocked the family by showing up at a family gathering in a dress. Coach watched Dicky’s eyes, wide, as several adult men showed the cousin off the property and told him not to come back. As the women clucked and tisked and Suzanne frowned and wrapped her arm around her son. As he disappeared into the house as quickly as he could.
And Coach wondered, Is that it? Is this what I’ve been so worried about? Is this how the family is going to look at my child? Are we going to have to send them all away to keep him?
He wanted to ask, but he had no idea what he could possibly say. Every time he tried to say something it came out wrong, and Dicky said less and less.
His brother elbowed him at another family function about how much time Dicky spent in tights, and in the kitchen. Coach just grunted, but said nothing. He privately let himself be so very grateful the boy was happy somewhere, anywhere, even if it wasn’t in his daddy’s world.
2009 was the year Dicky grew. It was an impressive growth spurt, a full ten inches in as many months, but he’d started off so small that it only brought him up to five foot five and a half. He’d take another four years to put on his last inch.
Coach figured one of the reasons Dicky liked figure skating so much was that he spent so much time up in the air, his head higher than anyone around.
Dicky reveled in his newfound height around his mother, kissing her on the top of her head every chance he got.
Things came to a head in 2010 in the best and worst ways. Dicky went so far and did so well in his skating... and when he came home from the big one, he was met by the closed ranks of southern masculinity. Someone’s sister had spotted him on the TV, and found the clip on Youtube, and it had gone around and around the entire school. The harassment, always a background thing that Dicky never talked much about, turned into his boy coming home looking hurt and scared. When the black eye happened, Coach pulled up his resume and sent it out.
The head coach job in Madison had the advantage of a nice pay increase, but the hour and change commute to Katya’s rink proved an insurmountable barrier in the face of the pressures of high school.
Dicky just sighed and took up hockey. Coach tried to put a good spin on it, because he liked the idea of his boy in a team sport, in a sport that might get him less grief, in a place that could not understand a slim young man loving to dance on the ice in tight spandex.
It was a good thing, in a lot of ways, but he could tell the boy missed Katya, missed the music, missed flying through the air and doing impossible things.
And Dicky could talk football, which was nice. He didn’t want to play but he paid attention and sometimes hung out with his dad during practice. If Coach noticed that his son’s eyes followed one player or another more intently that was maybe warranted by the play going on, he never said.
Coach sometimes asked about girls, just testing the waters. And sometimes Dicky would mention one girl or another, but there was always that split second hesitation, the way his eyes skittered... “You’ll find someone in college,” Coach would say. “Your mother and i...”
“I know, Coach.” Dicky said, usually. “She was the prettiest girl you’d ever seen.”
He always felt weird about running away rather than fighting, again, but this move honestly was the best thing he could have done for all of them, even with Dicky giving up his dancing and figure skating. On the hockey team, he shone, and made a few friends, enough that he was made captain his junior year.
Coach still worried, because there was always this guarded look on his boy’s face, and he still wasn’t quite sure what Dicky was holding back. And as the pace of high school and team sports picked up, and Dicky learned to drive, even Suzanne got pushed away a little.
Dicky started calling her, “Mother,” rather than “Mama,” and it took a few months for Suzanne to stop wincing.
“He’s sixteen,” Coach said to his wife. “You know what we were like at that age. We’re lucky he’s not out getting drunk and knocking someone up.”
“He’s my only baby,” Suzanne said.
“He still loves to bake, and he loves to talk,” Coach told her. “Why don’t you do some of that computer stuff you love with him? He’s old enough for social media.”
“You know he’s probably online at the school,” Coach said. “Give him something for you two to do together.”
Every year some kid would die. Didn’t seem to matter which which school, and it was different reasons each time. Drunk driving didn’t even make people blink. The lonely ones committing suicide didn’t raise eyebrows until cyberbullying made the news. Coach watched and thought and read the news and frowned, and then Dicky got into Samwell and even got a sport scholarship and Coach didn’t let on how he was relieved to his bones that the boy hadn’t decided to go to UGA out of some misguided sense of family loyalty.
Suzanne did most of the research into schools with Dicky, and didn’t mention to the boy that she’d found the “1 in 4” quote very early in her reading. She pointed it out to Coach without saying a word and he just grunted and said, “Might be good for him.”
“Tell him that,” she said.
He just sighed and opened his paper, and they didn’t say much about it until Dicky was already at school.
His new team called him Bitty. And they genuinely seemed to like him. Suzanne watched his Youtube channel religiously (because did he think she wouldn’t see it in the autocompletes on the kitchen laptop they often shared?) because she missed her boy, and would often show Coach little tidbits of her son being happy. He didn’t want to intrude, but he did want to know his boy was alright.
It was a little insulting that Dicky could come out to the anonymous people on the internet and not to his own parents, but they did understand.
So in the late fall of 2013, just after Thanksgiving, they started reading. And googling. And finding everything they could to understand their son better.
Lots of sources said, “Let them come to you.” In the meantime, they struggled and read and pondered and talked. Dicky leaving, while difficult, threw them back together in a way they hadn’t been for almost two decades. It was refreshing to discover they still liked each other.
Coach found himself speaking up more at school. In the head coach position, with his son far away, he could set team policy, and he started by putting “No bullying” at the top of the list. He pushed with the other teachers in the lounge. He started talking more to the counseling staff. He never mentioned that his son was gay, hell, he almost never thought of it in those exact words, but he remembered how hard it had been for his boy, and he put his continuing ed work for two years running into diversity and inclusiveness training.
A few kids started confiding in him, after he shut down a couple of hallway incidents and chewed one of the bullies out publicly.
He started changing his coaching style, shifting the “take no prisoners, warriors” dialogue into a more noble metaphor. He told his offensive line, “Your whole reason for existence is to get the speedy, smaller guys into the end zone. Practice that everywhere.”
It was impossible to read about gay and lesbian issues without running into discussions of sexism, and while he’d always been very comfortable in the role of protector and provider, the thing that resonated most strongly for him was how poorly his training had prepared him for being a dad to a kid who didn’t fit. The idea that glorifying the whole idea of manliness might actually make things worse for his wife, for his son, for anyone who didn’t manage to squeeze into the tidy boxes of Southern masculinity and femininity--that idea rocked him down to the ground. He finally had a lens to put his world into focus, and now he couldn’t see anything but the harm that was being done.
It was frustrating, when Dicky was home, how badly his words failed him. He wanted to say how proud he was, but saying how proud he was of his son’s hockey somehow seemed to hit the boy as a reinforcement of the idea that thank god it was hockey and not figure skating. He even tried bringing up the subject of gay marriage because so many states were changing their laws so fast, but Dicky just turned and walked out of the room without a word before Coach could finish the sentence.
Coach had gone to Suzanne then, put his chin on top of her head, wrapped his arms around her, and said, “I might need some treatment for athlete’s tongue.”
“Foot-in-mouth disease strike again?” she asked.
“I cannot get two words out to that boy without him thinking I’m judging him.”
“He’s still calling me ‘Mother.’ Y’all will figure it out sooner or later,” she said.
“Sometimes I think we should move,” Coach said. “Pull up and go to some state where they don’t think our kid, that sweet innocent child, is a hell-bound sinner.”
“He’s been getting drunk at school,” she says. “Not quite that innocent.”
“Hell, Suzie, that is probably the most normal thing that kid has ever done as far as the State of Georgia is concerned.”
“He’s been getting happier,” Suzanne said. “I think it’s really starting to come together for him. I’m so relieved.”
“Boggs is leaving next year, thank god,” Coach said, changing the subject. “I nearly decked him last week when he started bellowing in the staff room about ‘The Gays’ and how they’re eroding the moral fiber of our society. Took everything I had not to say, ‘My son is gay, and he’s the most caring, kind, gentle soul I’ve ever known, and I’d much rather sit in hell with him forever than spend a moment in a heaven that included someone as hateful as you.’”
“I admire your self-restraint, but I'd have paid good money to see you say that to his face,” Suzanne said.
“The man has been divorced more times than most people get their teeth cleaned, and he thinks kids like my son are destroying the sanctity of marriage?”
“I know, baby,” she said.
“If he fell in love and wanted to get married, he couldn’t get married here, but he could get married up there.” Coach said. “The godless heathens of New England are more welcoming than the Jesus-loving Christians in Georgia. I look at that boy of ours and I listen to the words they say on the TV and I wonder what snake oil they’re trying to sell us. I’ve got kids dying here, killing themselves, getting beaten to death, not even for being gay, but because someone said they might be gay.”
“He’s got so many people around him who are telling him he’s okay. You tell him you love him every time you talk to him. Things are changing fast, and even here you know they’re changing for the better. Betsy Ann called me the other day and said her cousin had gotten ‘gay-married’ in Hawaii, and that her mother had actually gone.”
“And neither you nor Betsy Ann know if she was spectating, or vacating, or actually celebrating.”
“No, but she went. And admitted she’d gone. And didn’t lie about it when she got back.”
“I wondered for a while if Dicky might not be transexual,” Coach said.
“I don’t think he wishes he was a girl,” Suzanne said. “But he might wish he was better at being what most people think a boy should be. If that’s what he was, it wouldn’t change a thing for us.”
“I keep trying to understand it all,” Coach says. “And I keep reading, and reading, and I think maybe I might understand and then no, I really don’t.”
“You don’t have to understand to love him,” Suzanne said. “You just have to let him be who he is. You know if he could choose to be taller, or stronger, or better at football, or straight, he would have chosen that years ago. So it just is part of who he is, as much as being fast on his feet is, as much as being a talented baker is, or how much he talks, or how easily he loves. You don’t quite understand some of those things either, and you don’t need to in order to love him.”
“I just wish he’d sit still long enough for me to find the words,” Coach said. “I can’t make him stay in one spot long enough to tell him what I want to say.”
“It will come,” she said. “You’ve already come so far. It’s actually funny in a way, You’re getting known at the school for being an ally, he’s out at his school for being gay, and you silly boys are in the closet to each other. It’s actually ridiculous.”
“Not like you’ve told him either,” Coach said.
“Well,” she said, and then stopped. “No, I haven’t. We talk about baking, and we talk about baking for his boys, and we talk about school, and when I try to bring up anything else he just changes the subject, or makes up an excuse to get off the line, or run to the store for more supplies, and really it’s a skill, how adept that boy is at avoiding conversations he doesn’t want to have.”
Through the winter of 2014 and the spring of 2015 they watched closely as a group of cases made their way through the courts, as the public dialogue increased, as their church and the school and the whole community thrashed and yelled their way through five stages of grief over the complete breakdown of the social fabric.... Which turned out to not be actually that big a deal. Turned out that most people already knew someone who was gay. That having a gay neighbor meant just another guy in his bathrobe getting the paper, only you might not know which guy was going to be out mowing the lawn on the weekend. People kept coming out, and the younger they were the more ready they were to talk about it.
And then Caitlyn Jenner happened. And Dicky came home happier than they’d seen him in fourteen or fifteen years. If he hadn’t been at camp when the Supreme Court decision came down, they might have had a conversation then, because Suzanne and Eric Bittle were sitting on the couch watching the news with their breath held waiting for the ruling, and when it came down they burst into tears, the both of them, because it meant their boy could legally, in the state of Georgia, marry the man who was making him smile and blush and laugh like they’d never seen. He was 20, after all, the same age they’d been when they first fell in love.
Of course, Jack had been there soon after, but the boys were so wrapped up in each other that there never was really time for that heart to heart, and then Dicky was gone again, “To visit friends” but they’d been that age, and in love, and they knew exactly where he was spending the end of the summer.
“At least we know he won’t be knocking Jack up before he graduates,” Coach said dryly to Suzanne when Bitty drove Jack back to the airport. That got him an elbow in the ribs and a slap on the ass, which he treasured.
The gay marriage ruling became more immediately helpful for Coach, when things came to a head on the football team after Dicky had returned to Samwell. Coach was glad that day of the years of soul searching and research he’d done, that day when Jody came to him and said, “This isn’t me, and I won’t live a lie. I love football and want to play, but I want to do it on my terms.”
Coach had thought about it, what he’d do, and knew the answer, the only answer, was to simply say, “Okay Jody, you can play, you tell me if anyone gives you any trouble.”
He took care, speaking about her, slowing down to get the pronouns right, apologizing when he slipped, and correcting the countless people who were getting it wrong day after day.
And there was plenty of trouble, but Suzanne had warned him when the first couples started getting married that it would be sooner than later that a gay kid would come out at school, and they’d immediately started working on the school for policy about that, and every policy being put in place to protect gay kids from violence had incidentally been worded to protect trans kids too because all the boilerplate they found on the internet did.
So when Jody came out to Coach, and Coach went to the school administration and the school board to get the policies in place, it started a small wave of kids coming out, or if not coming out, becoming less careful about hiding. And the powers that be could all fall back on, “Well, it’s the law now, what can you do, they’re still kids and they still need an education, and if we want to keep our funding, we let them play.”
Honestly the backlash was worse on the zero tolerance policy for sexual assault. That Jody ended up at the wrong end of three sets of boots was terrible (she’d blacked several eyes and knocked one of her assailants out, but ended up with broken ribs), but successfully getting the three of them off the football team managed to also open a dialogue about the sexual assault that had been swept under the rug the previous spring, and that was a definite plus.
Coach, at his coach-iest, simply kept saying, “We don’t treat people like that. We don’t let our friends treat people like that. We don’t let people get treated that way.” He knew it was working when he overheard his players saying that to other kids in the hall.
The school assembly ended up on Youtube, but it took some time for it to gain traction and go viral.
Dicky had taken some time off of his vlog, and Suzanne had forgotten to check it for a while because he’d stopped updating it so often, and that’s why it was March before she actually saw the video where he described “starting to see someone” and then acted like it was some huge secret that his parents didn’t know even though they’d met “the guy he was seeing” and for Suzanne, that was just the last straw.
The first time Dicky talked to his father after his mother laid it all out on the line, they were on Skype, and when the video chat opened, the first word Dicky said, was, “Daddy?”
“I’m here, son,” Eric Bittle, Sr. said quietly. “I always have been, and I always will be.”