Israel: February, ERA
On visitation day, Israel arrived at his designated room before the family who had the room before him was done. He knew that his parents had to be late because his dad visited members of the church who were too sick to come to services on Saturday mornings, but he couldn’t help but wonder why the family using the room before them was leaving early on the one day that they got to see their kid. But, of course, it wasn’t any of Israel’s business, so as he sat in the hall he turned his attention to planning what he wanted to say to his parents.
Just as he was constructing the perfect way to tell Dad exactly how he knew that God still loved him enough to let him into heaven even if he was gay, he heard Mom’s voice calling his name.
“My Israel,” she said, hurrying towards him with her arms outstretched. “Give me a hug.”
Israel obliged, squeezing her back harder than he had expected himself to. Maybe, in his heart of hearts, he did actually miss his parents.
When Mom let go, Dad pulled Israel into a hug. Israel breathed in his smell, which always reminded him of home. Israel did really miss his own bed. And his computer, and having the food he liked whenever he wanted.
“Should we go in?” Dad asked, letting go of Israel and reaching for the door handle.
“No, there are still people in there,” Israel said quickly. He sighed in relief as Dad pulled his hand away from the door. An awkward situation, avoided.
“I wish everyone knew how to manage their time properly,” Dad said, looking at his watch. “Things like this are just plain inconsiderate.”
“It’s no big deal,” Israel said, not wanting Dad to get angry. “We can talk out here just the same.”
“Out here is not ‘just the same,’” Mom said, looking down the hall as a family came out of one of the rooms.
“What do you have to say to me that you can’t say out here?” Israel asked, his words coming out more aggressively than he meant them to. Heat spread through his blood vessels. He had promised himself that he wouldn’t get angry, that he would stay calm and rational, but the way Mom had said that they couldn’t talk in the hall had rubbed him the wrong way.
Mom gave him a look as if he should know exactly what she had meant, and Israel clenched his jaw. “If you’re so ashamed of me that you can’t even say to me what you want to say just because someone might overhear you and think our family isn’t perfect, why are you even here?” His blood had come to a rolling boil. “Did you even understand what I said in my letter? I’m not embarrassed of who I am. I’m not ashamed, and I never will be.”
“Israel, son, not now,” Dad said, touching Israel’s shoulder with his left hand and holding the pointer finger of his right hand over his lips. “When you yell like that, anyone could hear you.”
“You never listen to me!” Israel yelled, feeling tears prick at his eyes. The door next to them opened.
“Excuse us,” the woman behind the door said with a smile. She opened the door farther as Israel and his parents moved to the wall across the hall and out of the way. “We didn’t mean to interrupt anything,” the woman said apologetically.
“No worries,” Israel assured her. Though he still felt the heat of his anger in every part of his body, not an inch of him felt embarrassed.
A man — probably the woman’s husband — and two boys, one in a blue East Ridge Academy t-shirt, passed Israel’s family and continued down the hall towards reception, none of them even glancing back at Israel’s family.
Mom and Dad headed into the room quickly. Israel followed slowly as Dad waited to close the door behind Israel, tapping his foot. Israel nearly smiled, despite everything.
“Israel,” Dad said firmly once the door was shut, “I think you should let your mother and I say what we need to say before you interrupt.” Dad sat down on the bed, patting the empty space next to him. Mom had already taken the desk chair, so Israel had no choice but to sit next to Dad.
“We did read your letter,” Dad began, glancing at Mom. “Multiple times. There were so many things that you said that concerned us, but we’d like to start at the beginning, all right?” Dad reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out Israel’s folded letter. He opened it and cleared his throat. “You said here that some of the people you’ve met here have made you feel better about some of the things you expressed later in the letter. And some things you’ve expressed to us before, I inferred.”
Israel nodded, biting his cheek. As much as he wanted to tell Dad to get to the point and to explain what exactly he was so concerned about, Israel figured that his parents would listen to him better later if he let them get all of their ‘concerns’ and excuses out now.
“Who are the people, Israel?” Mom asked. “The boys you met?”
“I mean, yeah. They’ve helped a lot.”
“We just don’t think, at a place like this, that you should be taking any advice from your… your peers.” Dad said. “From my understanding, most of these boys are, well, ‘off’ in one way or another.”
“You told me to make friends,” Israel said, unable to hold it in. “What did you think was going to happen? Besides, you don’t even know them. They’re good guys, and they’re not ‘off.’ They’ve just been through a lot.”
“Experiences shape us,” Mom said. “If someone, especially someone as vulnerable as a child, goes through something violent or abusive, it leaves marks. Eventually, they do those things to other people.”
“You’re wrong,” Israel said. “Going through bad things doesn’t make you a bad person.”
“There’s a saying,” Dad said, “that ‘hurt people hurt people.’ Do you understand, Israel? Your mother is right. We just don’t want you to get hurt.”
Israel wanted to say so many things at once that he just opened his mouth and then closed it silently. How did his parents not understand that he was one of these hurt people? Maybe not to violent extremes, but in other ways. How did they not understand that they had hurt him?
“Friends really aren’t for advice, anyway,” Mom said. “If I had followed any of the advice my friends had given me, I would be a totally different person than I am today. I wouldn’t be me. Advice should be taken from reliable, wise sources like your teachers or your counselor.”
“I am taking advice from ‘reliable’ sources,” Israel said, doing air quotes so aggressively that one of his fingers nearly cramped. “My counselor said that, at my age especially, finding my own identity is perfectly normal.”
“You told him that you think you’re gay?” Dad asked, his mouth gaping. “There are some things that should stay private, Israel.”
“I told him that I am gay,” Israel said, crossing his arms and trying not to cry. “And he supports me.”
Mom and Dad looked at each other and Dad stood up quickly. “I need to talk to the headmaster.”
Before Israel could think, he was running over to the door and blocking Dad from reaching for the handle. “You’re not a psychologist. You can’t just harass the headmaster because my counselor said something that you disagree with.”
“Israel, you don’t understand the harm that a bad therapist can do, especially to someone like you.”
“Like me how?” Israel asked, tears pricking at his eyes and anger rising in his chest once again.
Dad threw his hands into the air. “Lost. Confused. You clearly don’t know what you want. You’re still a child, Israel. You need us to protect you from your own ignorance.”
“You’re the ignorant ones,” Israel said, his voice cracking as tears fell down his cheeks. “My counselor knows the realities of those statistics I showed you about people like me whose parents hate them. He knows how much a little support can help.” With one last glare at his parents, Israel flung open the door and ran down the hall, towards the mess hall, tears streaming down his face.
Israel hoped that the cabin would be empty, but when he came through the door, tears still pricking at his eyes but his cheeks wiped clean, Amoni was at one of the desks. Israel slammed the door and flopped onto his bed.
“Damn, that bad?” Amoni asked. “Almost makes me glad that no one ever visits me.”
Israel ignored him and sobbed into his pillow.
“I have some Sour Patch Kids from the vending machine at Linda’s,” Amoni offered.
“No thanks, I’m fine,” Israel said, turning his head towards the wall.
“If you say so,” Amoni sighed.
Israel tried to take deep breaths, but his parents’ words echoed in his head every time he managed to calm down a little bit. He sobbed again when he imagined Headmaster Dawson calling Israel to his office and reprimanding him for letting Dad bust in and demand a new counselor for Israel.
“Hey,” Amoni said. “Whenever shit gets real, I try to concentrate on wiggling my toes. And once I get the hang of that, I think of a good memory. One that made me smile, you know? My counselor says it helps break the negative cycle or whatever.”
Israel began wiggling his toes. After a few seconds, he laughed to himself because he felt so stupid.
“Hey,” Amoni said, laughter in his voice. “You’re good at that. It took me forever to even get myself to smile, much less laugh, the first time.”
Israel shook his head, smiling a little into his pillow and conjuring the memory of the time that his team of three had won the Math and Logic contest and his parents had taken Israel out for ice cream when he told them. He pictured the certificate, which still hung above his computer, and smiled a little. He knew it was dumb, especially since winning the contest didn’t mean anything whatsoever, but it had been one time that Israel had achieved something that he alone had wanted to achieve. He had cared about winning the contest while his parents hadn’t even known that the contest existed.
“Thanks, Mon,” Israel said, turning onto his back and staring at the bed above him.
“No big deal,” Amoni assured him. “I’m just glad that you didn’t want my Sour Patch Kids.” He laughed, and Israel laughed with him.
Pax and Deven both had baseball tryouts the next week, despite Israel’s understanding that they were already on teams. Because of that, Israel didn’t see them very much all week and spent a lot of time in the library with and without Ember. However, on Friday at afternoon workouts, there was a huge fight on the blacktop that involved so many guys that the staff had to call for backup from the visitation center and workouts were unofficially delayed.
Amoni stared across the blacktop from where Israel and his friends stood, bouncing on his toes. “Hey Gray.”
“What?” Gray asked, and Israel tried to follow Amoni’s eyes to see exactly what he was looking at.
“You see Liam and Bryan over there looking all angry and shit?” Amoni pointed, and Israel and his friends looked to where he pointed.
“Yeah. I wonder if they had friends in the fight,” Gray said, putting his hand over his eyes to block the sun.
“Bet you fifteen bucks that you couldn’t make either of them laugh right now.”
“That’s too easy,” Ember said, rolling his eyes. “If I walked by them, fell and scraped my knees, and cried, they’d die laughing. They’re sadistic.”
“Obviously,” Amoni said, rolling his eyes back. “I meant that Gray couldn’t make them laugh by telling a joke. You know, something that’s actually funny.”
“I wasn’t saying that I share their sadistic humor,” Ember said defensively, but Amoni dismissed him.
“Well I bet you fifteen bucks that you can’t make them laugh,” Gray told Amoni. “I already know I can’t.”
“Fine,” Amoni said, grinning.
“Any ideas?” Deven asked.
Amoni looked up into the sky, then back at Deven. “One. Let’s go, Gray.”
As they ran off, one of the guards blew a whistle and opened the door to Israel’s school. The crowd surged forward.
“Great,” Pax said, pushing up to stand on his toes to look over the quickly converging crowd for Gray and Amoni. “Now we won’t be able to see what happens and Gray and Mon won’t be in our group for stations.”
“They’ll be fine,” Deven said, “and now we won’t have to hear Amoni doing his old man impression every time he picks up a weight.”
Israel laughed to himself as he and his friends allowed themselves to be swept up by the crowd.
At the end of workouts, Israel and his friends headed back to the cabin to find that Amoni and Gray had beat them there.
“So what happened?” Pax asked eagerly. “Did either of them laugh?”
Amoni grinned. “I told them a joke — an anti-joke, really — and Bryan just stared at me, but Liam snickered. Gray wasn’t sure that it counted so he won’t hand over the dough he promised, but I’m taking it as a total win.”
“He what now?” Deven asked.
“Who what now?” Amoni asked. “Liam? He snickered.”
“Ssssnickered,” Pax said, laughing.
“Snicker,” Ember said flatly, as if trying out the word.
“Snicker,” Israel said. It sounded so weird after everyone had said it. “Sssnickerer.”
“Snick-uh,” Deven said in a British accent. “Snick-uh-uh.” Israel made eye contact with him and they both lost it, Deven leaning against one of the beds and holding his stomach.
“What is going on?” Amoni asked, bugging his eyes out and holding up his hands. “It’s a real word.”
“Snicker,” Gray said, joining in the laughter.
“See, he’s snickering,” Amoni said, moving towards Gray and putting a hand on his back. “You guys heard it. You’ve all done it before. You’re all snickerers!”
Israel looked at Pax, and they laughed even harder.
“This isn’t a new thing,” Amoni said, his voice becoming more and more frantic. “That noise we all make when Deven manages to put something in our drinks when we weren’t expecting it? Or even how people react to most knock knock jokes? Or when people saw the Sharpie we drew on the mailboxes? That’s all snickering, wouldn’t you say?”
“No,” Deven said, wiping his eyes and smiling.
“Well you’re going to have to start,” Amoni insisted. “We make people snicker all the time.”
“We’re ‘Snickerdudes,’” Gray said proudly.
Amoni turned to him. “Absolutely not. “That, and I can’t explain how, sounds twisted.”
“We’re ‘Snickerdudels,’” Israel said. “Like the cookies, but not?”
Everyone looked at him silently and he blushed. Then Amoni pointed at him and said, “That’s genius.”
“If we spelled it like ‘dude…’ That’s awesome,” Pax agreed.
“We could make it our club,” Gray said. “And this could be like our clubhouse. We’d put a sign on the door and —”
“No one would get it,” Ember warned.
“Or care,” Deven agreed.
“Please?” Gray asked.
“Yeah, it would be fun,” Israel said. “It doesn’t matter so much if no one else gets it.”
“We could make the sign in art and bring it here,” Amoni suggested.
“And we can all sign it,” Gray said, bouncing on his toes. “It’ll be so cool.”
Pax and Deven shrugged at each other. “Sure,” Pax decided. “Whatever you guys want.”
“Is that what we are now?” Deven asked. “The Snickerdudels?”
“Best club ever!” Gray declared, and Israel and his friends smiled. As far as Israel was concerned, it really was the best club ever.
Two days later, Amoni and Gray brought the sign back to the cabin. It was a simple piece of white construction paper that they had colored with markers and written “WELCOME to the realm of the SNICKERDUDELS.”
“Yellow and brown like the cookies, see?” Amoni said proudly as Gray pointed to the word “SNICKERDUDELS,” grinning. “It’s genius.”
“It can’t be called genius when you clearly didn’t plan the size of the letters until you started running out of space at the end,” Ember said.
“Shut up,”Amoni said, turning the sign away from the group. “If you’re just going to insult our art, the sign will stay with me and Gray.”
“No,” Pax, Israel, Ember, and Deven said quickly. Israel looked at Pax and they laughed.
“It’s a great sign, Ammo,” Deven assured him. He grinned back at Pax and Israel.
“Thank you,” Amoni said, setting the sign down on the nearest desk. Gray and I, as the artists, signed it already, but we brought the marker so that you guys could sign it too.”
Gray pulled the marker out of his pocket and offered it to Israel. Israel smiled and took it from him. Green marker wouldn’t have been his first choice, but he didn’t say anything for fear that Amoni and Gray would take the sign away. Israel couldn’t help but smile to himself, thinking about how silly it was for him to care about this little sign so much. “Where should I sign?”
“Wherever,” Amoni said, moving so that Israel had access to the sign. He inspected it, trying to decide where the logical place to sign it was. Amoni had signed to the left of the “S” at the beginning of Snickerdudels and Gray had signed under the “C,” so Israel decided to sign right in the middle — at least, where the middle was because of Amoni’s bad spacing — under the first “E.”
No one else seemed to think so much about where they signed, leaving Israel wanting for symmetry, but he let it go.
“Next time we have art I’ll ask Mrs. Fierro to laminate it,”Amoni said.
“And then we can hang it on the door?” Gray asked hopefully.
“Of course,” Pax promised.
The Monday after Gray moved into the Snickerdudels cabin for real, there was a new boy in Israel’s math class. He was assigned to the empty seat in the third row — the seat right next to Israel. He had very short blond hair, though it seemed almost gray because of how short it was, and light blue eyes. From where Israel sat he thought that the boy was probably shorter than him.
The boy walked to his seat, staring at his feet as if in a daze. Israel tried to smile at him because he remembered how Pax and Deven had made him feel just by being nice to him. And, he thought, it didn’t hurt to smile since the boy was pretty cute.
During attendance, Israel learned that the boy’s name was Ezekiel — or, as he preferred, Zeke — Hallaway. Israel tried not to stare at him too much and actually succeeded, as the new concept they were learning in class required most of Israel’s attention. However, Zeke also showed up in Israel’s history class, earth science class, and art class. Though he didn’t sit by Israel in any of those classes, Zeke stole a significant amount of his attention.
As the week went on, it became evident that Zeke was not a star student and that he wasn’t doing so well at East Ridge in general. Israel silently took him under his wing, waking him up when he fell asleep in math. Once, in history, Israel even threw an eraser at him to wake him up when the teacher wasn’t looking. Zeke always thanked him, either out loud or with a smile, and it always made Israel feel tingly all over.