Three: Friendships Are Hard
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“Excuse me?” I said, approaching the pair I’d spotted from afar.

They stopped talking, and looked up at me. “Yes?” the boy said, but the girl’s eyes widened upon seeing me.

“Oh hey, it’s you!” she exclaimed. “You’re the guy from this morning!”

“That I am,” I said with a smile. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“I’m sorry, the guy from this morning?” the guy asked.

“Oh, I’ve met him this morning while I was on a run,” the girl replied. “Gave him directions, he was a bit lost.”

There was a sharp intake of breath on the part of the guy. “You went running early this morning,” he said.

“I did,” she nodded.

“Lexi, you know you shouldn’t do that. It’s dangerous for a girl to go out alone when it’s dark.”

“Come on, Rog, it was fine,” she protested. “I was close to home anyway, and I brought that personal alarm you gave me along. It’s perfectly safe.”

‘Rog’ seemed to hesitate, but then nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, I’m being a worry-wart again.”

“I like it when you worry about me,” she answered, smiling at him. She had a really nice smile. “Oh, but where are our manners?” she said, turning back to me. “Sorry, we kinda got distracted here.”

She extended a hand towards me. “I’m Lexi Hamilton, and the big guy here is my boyfriend Roger. Nice to meet you.”

Huh, Hamilton. Funny coincidence, she was the second Hamilton girl I’d met that day. And she did have a boyfriend: it was a shame, but I wasn’t the type to try to get between a couple. “Theo Parker,” I replied, shaking her hand, and then Roger’s.

“So where are you from, Theo?” Roger asked. “Not from around here I think, since you got lost this morning.”

“You’re right,” I replied. “I’m from Lebanon.”

He blinked. “The country?”

I chuckled. “No, not the country, the city. It’s in Tennessee, about twenty miles from Nashville.”

“Wait, hold on,” Lexi said. “Parker, from Tennessee? That Parker from Tennessee?”

“Uh… Which Parker from Tennessee?” I asked.

“John… Whatever Parker, many names in there. I think one of them was Theodore, actually,” she answered. “The one who was high school state champion two years in a row, and almost broke the state record on his last race but didn’t because he stopped to help someone who injured themselves.”

I was stunned. “You’ve heard of me?”

“Are you kidding? You were the talk of Triathlon Twitter for quite a while!” she exclaimed. “Here, check this out.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket and tapped the screen a few times. “I think it was… Yes, here it is!”

She turned the phone over so I could see the screen; she was showing me an… App? I think it was. Along the top was written “Triathlon Feels @FeelGoodTriathlon” and below that “Tennessee state champion gives up state record to help injured rival,” with a link to a news article and a photo of me during the bike segment of my last high school race.

I blinked. That’s what Twitter was? I’d heard about it quite often – especially recently, with the news referring to stuff politicians and celebrities “wrote on Twitter” – but I’d never investigated things, I wasn’t one to rely on technology much. I had a smartphone, yes, but I only used it to make calls, keep up with friends, and snap the occasional picture; I’d never downloaded any apps besides what was strictly necessary, like the one that synchronised with my GPS watch, or a chat app to talk with my friends and family without spending tons of money on texts. Things like that.

“Look, there’s even a video,” Lexi said, tapping the screen. True enough, a video started running: it had obviously been shot by an amateur from the sidelines, it was quite shaky, but it showed me helping Redfield along the final metres of the race and us crossing the finish line, before collapsing to the ground. Huh, that was neat. I’d never thought to look up my races on the internet.

“Can you send me that?” I asked.

“Sure, what’s your Twitter at?” she replied, turning her phone around and starting to type on the screen.

I blinked again. “Excuse me?”

She looked at me for a moment, but then smiled. “Ah, your Twitter at is your account name on Twitter, but you don’t have one, do you? Just give me your e-mail, I’ll send it that way.”

I told her my e-mail address, and then added, “Sorry about this.”

“What’s there to apologise for? It’s completely normal to not be extremely online and have an account on all the socials. You can make one if you want, but you don’t have to. Actually, sometimes I wish I could just ignore everything that happens on the internet, I have plenty of verbal slapfights, mostly with bigoted idiots.”

“It’s because you always go poking the hornets’ nest, sweetheart,” Roger chided her – but he had a smirk on his lips. “Maybe log off once in a while?”

Lexi chuckled in response. “That’s the coward’s choice. I will never log off.”

“So anyway,” Roger asked, “What are you doing a thousand miles away from home, Theo?”

“Going to college,” I replied, and he gave me a look. “No, I’m just joking,” I continued with a smirk, “there were colleges closer to home, true, but they were all way too expensive. Bradford McKinley is cheaper than those, and I managed to get an athletic scholarship, so there’s that.”

“Oh, cool!” he said. “I can’t wait to measure myself against you, though you’re probably way above my level.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” I shrugged. “This college has one of the best triathlon teams in the country, so anyone who’s a regular team member is sure to be quite good. And you are on the team, right?”

Roger nodded. “That I am.”

“And what about you, Lexi?” I asked her.

“Ah, no, I only practice for fun,” she answered, waving her hand dismissively. “I’m nowhere near the level that would land me a spot on the team. It’s funny actually, I was the one who got into sports first, and then I roped Roger into it; when we were in junior high and for most of high school we were pretty evenly matched, but then he left me behind.”

“Well, that’s because you’re a girl,” I said with a smile. “Boys are stronger and faster than girls. It’s got something to do about hormones, I think.”

Lexi gave a brief laugh. “Tell me about it,” she said, chuckling. “I’ve been noticing it a lot these past months, things are suddenly heavier, and it’s much more difficult to keep the same level of fitness.”

Suddenly? What did she mean by that?

But there was no time to ask; the coach made his appearance, and the team meeting began.

“Good afternoon, everyone,” he said, walking up to us with a clipboard in his hands. “For those who don’t know me, I’m coach Davis. Nice to meet y’all, and welcome to another year of triathlon at Bradford McKinley.” He sighed. “I’m contractually obligated to say: go B-M-Ks.”

All the veterans chuckled at that; I guessed it was a running joke in the team.

“This year, we have a new team captain,” Coach Davis continued. “He might not be the fastest, or the strongest, or even the most handsome--”

“Hey!” a boy who was standing near the front protested, but the coach went on without pausing even for a second.

“—But he has shown that he has great leadership abilities, and cares about his friends and teammates, both on and off the field. So let’s all welcome your new captain Simon.”

We all gave Simon a round of applause as he walked up to the coach and stood beside him.

“Now, last year there were some… Issues,” the coach said. “One of the members of the team was caught with performance-enhancing drugs in his possession, and personally I’m a bit mad at myself that I hadn’t noticed, so let me warn you right away: if you do anything like that, I’m gonna kick you off the team and into the dean’s office to get you expelled from this school so fast your head will spin. Am I clear?”

Nobody spoke as he ran his eyes on us.

“Good. Tryouts to get spots on the team are next Monday, and then every second Monday of the month; we have a very competitive team, so you’ll need to train hard to get and keep a place. But do your best, and you’ll be okay.” He paused. “But don’t forget, everyone is welcome here if they want to train and do sports with others, whether they want to be serious about it or not. I’m not about to tell anyone they’re not good enough, or that they’re wasting their time.”

He lifted his clipboard and started reading from it. “Now, onto the technical stuff. The track, pool, and gym are open every day, six AM to ten PM, if you want to train on your own; the dates and times of group training sessions will be posted on the notice board next to my office, and online. You don’t have to attend, but I recommend you do, to get a feeling for how things are done around here. Please don’t be late if you decide to come.”

He paused for a few moments again, and then shrugged. “I think that’s all for now.” He ran his eyes over the group of people assembled before him again, and I had the impression his gaze lingered on the three of us – Lexi, Roger and I – for a moment.

“No, sorry, one more thing, this is specifically for the newbies since those who were here last year already know about it,” he said. “We have a few queer people training with us, and I expect everyone not to be a backwards bigot about it; if you give any of them a hard time, I will end you. Understood?”

Again, no one answered.

“Understood?” he repeated, a bit more loudly.

“Yes, coach,” some people answered, realising that he was expecting a reply, and I joined them too. Even though I had no idea what ‘queer people’ even were.

Coach Davis nodded. “I’ll be in my office if you need me, or you can write me an e-mail. Have a good day, folks.”

“Alright, that went as expected,” Lexi said, looking at her watch. “Wanna go grab a snack at CoffeePB before dinner?” she asked.

“Yes, of course,” Roger replied, while I started to walk away. “What about you, Theo?”

I stopped. “Huh? What? I’m invited too?”

“Of course,” Lexi smiled. “You’re a part of the team too, after all.”

I was startled by the sudden offer – we’d only just met, after all – but that was a good chance to make some friends; I wasn’t one to talk, either, since I’d had lunch with Lena, and I’d only met her that very day, too.

“Yeah, I’ll come,” I answered.

“Great!” she said. “Let me go ask Simon, maybe he wants to come too.”

A little while later the four of us were sitting around a table in CoffeePB, drinks and food in front of us; I’d only gotten a cup of black coffee, since I was planning on having an early dinner when I got back to the dorm. I watched my new friends chat for a bit, getting into the conversation every now and then, but there was a question that was bouncing around my mind.

“So, I’ve been meaning to ask,” I said, during a lull in the conversation.

They all turned to look at me. “Yes? What is it?” Simon asked.

“Who are queer people?”

There was a moment of silence around the table.

“Because you know,” I continued. “Coach Davis mentioned them, and that there are a few on the team, but I’d never heard the term before.”

“Uh…” Lexi said. I noticed the three of them were exchanging glances.

“Queer people are members of the LGBT community,” Simon explained.

I shook my head. “Nope, don’t know what that means either.”

“Like…” Roger began. It was like he was searching for a way to explain it so I would understand. “People who love other people of the same gender as them,” he said.

Suddenly realisation dawned on me. “Oh, you mean they’re gay!” I exclaimed.

“Yeah,” Lexi nodded.

“Yeah, cool, good to know,” I said, nodding along with her. “That’s one thing I’ve learned today.”

She looked straight at me. “And… You’re okay with it?”

“Sure, why not?” I shrugged. “Everyone should be free to live life as they wish.”

I heard Roger slowly exhale; I hadn’t realised he’d been holding his breath.

“Why, did you think I wouldn’t be?” I asked.

“Well, you know,” he said. “You’re from Tennessee, and you’re kind of a jock, no offence. People from that background often don’t have a great track record regarding queer issues.”

I smiled. “No offence taken, I guess I am kinda jock-y, aren’t I? And then again, while not all people from the South are… Backwards bigots, as Coach so eloquently put it, it’s unfortunately common enough.” My own mother is like that, I mentally added, but I wasn’t about to go badmouthing her in front of my new friends. “But why were you so worried about it, Roger?” I asked.

He blinked at me, as if he hadn’t expected the question. “Well…” he began to say.

“Oh, don’t tell me, you’re gay! That’s cool!” I said. Then after giving it more than a passing thought, I went on: “No, wait, you have a girlfriend, you can’t be gay.” I thought about it for a few moments, but there was really only one possibility. “Are you one of those… Bisexuals? Was it? Those who like both boys and girls.”

Everyone at the table was staring at me. “Yes, Theo, I’m bisexual. Technically,” Roger answered.

“Oh, cool, cool, that’s nice. I’d never met a bisexual before.”

They kept staring for a few moments, then Lexi spoke up. “Theo, I think you’re a nice guy, if a bit clueless, and this is the only reason I’m telling you this instead of just getting up and walking away: you’re being kind of a jerk right now.”

I was startled by her words. “I am?”

“You are,” Simon nodded. “You’ve being way too inquisitive about this stuff, queer people usually don’t like being put on the spot like that.”

I thought back to the words I’d said; I guess I’d been a little… Enthusiastic? Prying? Aggressive? Perhaps all three. But still, they were right, I’d been a jerk.

“I’m sorry,” I said, with a sigh. “I really should’ve put my foot in my mouth before speaking, it’s just… This is all new to me, right?” I waved my hands around. “College, new friends, a different environment than I’m used to. But still, that doesn’t justify me asking such private questions to people I’ve only just met. Sorry.”

There was a brief moment of silence, then Lexi smiled and replied, “No harm done. As long as you understand what you did and why it was wrong, we can just forget about all that.” Simon and Roger nodded in confirmation.

“Thank you.” I smiled. I would’ve hated if I’d alienated people I’d just met because of running my mouth too much. Especially these three: they seemed really nice.

“In any case,” Roger said, “We should really head home, it’s getting late.”

“Yeah, sure,” Lexi answered. “You gonna grab dinner at my house, Rog?”

Roger smiled as he got up from his seat. “Again? At this rate, your mom might ask me if she has to clean out a drawer for my underwear.”

“Well that would be rushing things, don’t you think?” she said, punching him in the shoulder.

I watched the two of them and Simon leave, then turned around and started walking towards the dorm, thinking about the day I’d had.

I’d never met any gay people in my life. No, not gay people, queer people, I mentally corrected myself: that seemed to be the preferred term. I was expecting… Well, I don’t know what I was expecting, really. Roger seemed so… Normal. Like, a completely normal guy, you wouldn’t know he was queer just by looking at him.

But in the end, was he really queer? I mean, he’d said he was bisexual, but he was dating a girl; doesn’t that make him sorta… Non-queer? Or something? I’d never had any experience with that before, so I didn’t know what to think.

I was still lost in my thoughts as I entered my dorm room.

“Hey, welcome back!” Patrick greeted me. “How was your day?”

I shook my head to clear it. “It was… Eventful. And long, since it started this morning at five,” I replied, with a yawn. “Oh, by the way, thank you for the bagel, I’ll pay you back.”

“Pshaw, don’t worry, it was just a bagel,” he said. “On the other hand, if you do wanna contribute to something, I stopped by the market and got some groceries, you wanna go half on that?”

Our room had a small fridge in it, in which we could store whatever we wanted. True, we would have to go to the common room – where the stove, microwave oven, and all the kitchen implements were – if we wanted to cook something, but it was still a useful perk: it meant we didn’t have to rely on the cafeterias or on cafés and restaurants when we wanted to eat something.

I smiled at Pat. “Sure, why not?” I replied. “And I can cook you dinner, to thank you for breakfast. What did you get?”

His eyebrows rose in surprise. “You cook?”

“What, did you think I got muscles like this,” I said with a smirk, flexing my bicep, “by eating junk food day in and day out? Of course I cook. I was in charge of making dinner back home, actually.”

I briefly wondered how my mother and siblings were coping with my absence.

“Good, that’s good,” my roommate said. “Well, take a look in the fridge and choose what you want.”

I selected my ingredients, and together we went to the common room; in short order I’d cooked up a simple vegetable stir-fry, with some beans and rice on the side.

“This is really good,” Patrick complimented me after taking the first bite.

“It’s nothing much,” I replied dismissively, waving my hand.

“No, I mean it,” he continued. “You really have a knack for it. You’d make a great wife,” he said with a grin.

At his words I felt a small pang, way in the back of my brain. But why? What Pat had said was just a joke, why was I feeling mildly upset about it?

“Anyway, if you’re going running again tomorrow, you should bring your phone. Let me know if you’re coming for breakfast, so I know to wait for you,” he said.

“That’s kind of you,” I replied. “And it reminds me, we still haven’t exchanged numbers, have we?”

“That we haven’t,” he acknowledged. “Let’s do it when we get back to our room.”

After finishing dinner, we quickly washed up the plates and bowls and cutlery we’d used, and put them on a rack to dry. Then we went up to our room and exchanged numbers; by then I was feeling really tired, so I turned in early, while Pat decided to study a bit before going to sleep.

Still thinking about my day, I turned over in my bed and was out like a light before I noticed it.