Chapter 4 - Coach.
I found Michael just leaving the Diner on his way to open the store and tagged along with him. Red Cape Comics was only three blocks or so further north along Liberty Avenue, so it didn’t take us long to get there. We passed the time chatting about ideas for the next story arc we were going to use for Rage. It wasn’t until Michael had unlocked and rolled up the security gate over the front door that he finally broke down and asked me what I was doing in Pittsburgh.
I made sure the door was closed behind us, for privacy, before I started off on the tale of Brian and the Motorcycle. It went exactly as I had expected, with Michael freaking out over the news of Brian’s hospital trip and broken wrist. I didn’t let him run with it though, plowing on to discuss what I’d really come there to talk about; the soccer camp connection.
“So, you think Brian got spooked by that soccer camp flyer and that somehow made him walk out into traffic?” Michael asked, sounding skeptical. “That doesn’t sound like Brian.”
“Exactly! That’s why I’m so worried, Michael. None of what has happened the past few days is in character for Brian. He’s not some space cadet who would walk into traffic or not recognize where he was or, for that matter, sleep for more than twenty hours. Something is seriously wrong. But if it’s not a physical problem - which the doctors assured me it wasn’t after running a bazillion tests at the hospital - then I’m left with no choice but to believe the psychiatrist. He called what was happening to Brian ‘dissociative events’ and said it was most likely related to childhood trauma that was somehow triggered by that photo.”
“‘Dissociative events’?” Michael echoed. “That sounds like something out of ‘Three Faces of Eve’ or something.”
“What?” I asked, lost by his reference, something that happened quite often since I wasn’t raised on iconic queer movie favorites of the 40s and 50s like he’d been.
“You know, multiple personalities and shit like that? Or, at least, that’s what they used to call it. I don’t know what they call it today, but it kinda sounds like the same thing.”
“No. it’s not the same. Not at all,” I replied, trying to derail Michael from equating what was happening to Brian to some crazy movie plot. “Nobody’s saying Brian’s got multiple personalities. At least I hope not . . .”
Michael didn’t seem willing to let go of his pet psychology theory, though, so I hurried on with my own agenda in the hopes of distracting him. “What I really need from you, Michael, is more information about Brian’s childhood, not a second opinion on Dr. Kajiwara’s diagnosis,” I explained. “See, I don’t know anything much about Brian’s past. He refuses to talk about it. But the doctor said that, if I wanted to help him, I should look into traumatic events in his past and, I don’t know, get him to face them so he can get over whatever it is that’s causing him this current stress. Which is where you come in.”
“I don’t know.” Michael sounded reluctant to divulge any proprietary information but qualified his response by saying, “I can’t tell you much. I didn’t meet Brian until we were both in high school and he’s always been just as closed off about his early childhood with me as he is with everybody else.”
“Well, at least you know more than me, since I didn’t know him till he was thirty.”
“Ah, ah, ah - twenty-nine,” Michael corrected me and we both laughed, because that was something Brian would have been adamant to point out.
“Fine. Twenty-nine. Whatever. That’s still a long time after what most folks consider ‘childhood’.”
“True,” Michael conceded with a grin. Then he paused for a long minute to think. “I still don’t know what you want from me. I don’t think he ever told me about anything overly traumatic in his childhood. I mean, there was the usual shit with his father, but he never seemed traumatized by it.”
“What do you mean by ‘the usual shit’?” I asked, focusing on that for a start.
I watched Michael’s face darken at the unpleasant memories my questions brought to light. “Jack Kinney was a total bastard. He used to beat both his kids, sometimes pretty badly. He didn’t even try to hide it; I personally saw Jack slap Brian in the head one time so hard that Brian was knocked sideways and fell, hitting his head on a shelf in the garage, and all Jack did was stare at me like he was daring me to say something. I can’t tell you how many times Brian showed up at school with a black eye or a bruise. One time, when we were in tenth grade, Jack broke his arm, although Brian claimed he injured himself falling down the stairs. I knew better but Brian had long since sworn me to silence on pain of losing his friendship forever so I didn’t say anything,” Michael sighed and I could hear the long-suppressed regret for actions not taken. “Regardless, I never got the impression that Brian was so traumatized he’d freak out over it now, like, fifteen years later.”
I had to agree. As bad as it sounded, I didn’t think Jack’s abuse was enough, in itself, to cause Brian’s current freakout. Plus, even if he was carrying around psychological issues about his father, that didn’t explain what I’d seen in NYC. There didn’t seem to be any connection between a flyer for a soccer camp for Gus and Jack Kinney. There had to be something else we were missing.
“Maybe it was something from earlier in his childhood?” I posited. “Like, from before you knew him? Something to do with him playing soccer, maybe?”
“Soccer? Why would that have been traumatic for Brian?”
So I explained a little more about what had happened just before Brian walked into traffic, telling Michael about the text conversation I’d overheard between him and Lindsey about the summer soccer camp Gus wanted to attend.
“It was the weirdest thing,” I said, trying to put into words something that I felt in my gut. “One minute he was looking at his phone and reading Lindsey’s texts to me and the next minute it was like he was gone. Like his mind wasn’t there anymore. He just stood there, staring at his phone with the strangest look on his face. And then he dropped his phone and just started walking without even looking where he was going. I don’t know how to explain it; it just felt like Brian - the Brian I know and love - sort of disappeared then.” I hesitated before adding, “I’m not sure if he’s really back yet, either, to be honest. Even this morning he just seemed . . . Strange . . . Like, whoever is in his body right now isn’t the real Brian.”
“What did I say? ‘Three Faces of Eve’!” Michael insisted, only half joking.
“No,” I corrected him. “It’s not like there’s multiple Brian’s taking turns in his body. It’s more like . . . It’s like he’s just checked out and there’s nobody left in there. He just, sort of, goes blank . . . I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say he just isn’t acting like himself.”
The seriousness in my tone seemed to have finally penetrated Michael’s joviality and he stopped to think through what I’d related more thoroughly.
Then, after a couple of minutes, his brow furrowed and he bit at his bottom lip contemplatively. “Okay . . . Maybe this has nothing to do with anything, but . . . There was one time that I saw Brian acting sort of out of it, like you say he’s acting now. You said he just went blank, like he wasn’t there?” I nodded encouragingly. “Well, there was this one time, spring of our freshman year, when Brian was acting all weird and blank and totally out of it. I only just remembered now that you mentioned it. But, yeah . . . I think it’s the same kind of thing.”
“Tell me.” I insisted. “Maybe it’s related to what’s happening now somehow.”
“Maybe. But, if it is, you could be waiting a while to see the real Brian come back.”
“Why do you say that?”
Michael smiled sadly at me as he replied, “that time, when Brian seemed lost, it lasted a lot longer than a couple days. Brian was out of it for at least a month, maybe more, before he suddenly seemed to snap back to normal.”
That was NOT an encouraging thought, but I had to learn more before I could tell if there really was some connection, so I prodded Michael to start from the beginning and tell me the whole story.
“It started around the time Mr. Saluka, our gym teacher, shot himself in the foot while on a hunting trip and had to take several weeks off while he was recovering from surgery. I remember because he was a real ball-breaker, that guy, and we were all glad to hear we’d get a substitute in his place. The new guy was quite an improvement too; he was actually nice. For a while there even I, with my two left feet, didn’t cringe at the prospect of gym class.” We shared a laugh, communing in the fact that neither of us were the athletic type, before he continued. “The substitute was young, maybe only thirty or so, and quite the looker . . . Oh, hey, you already know this story, don’t you?”
I looked at him, lost. “I do?”
“Yeah, Brian told you this one that first night he took you home, right? The most famous shower scene since ‘Psycho’, remember?”
“That’s THE gym teacher? The guy Brian blew in the locker room after school?” I chuckled at the memory of my first night with Brian and how shocked I’d been to hear Brian’s retelling of his first sexual experience.
“Yep. That’s the guy,” Michael confirmed. “And it was right after that that Brian sort of lost it.” He paused in his reminiscing, cocked his head to the side and screwed up his face in thought before adding, “I had always thought that Brian distancing himself from me and acting a little awkward was because he was weirded out and maybe had even shocked himself with that whole locker room scene, you know? I mean, that was a huge fucking deal. I know I was shocked when he told me about it, although I tried to pretend I was as cool with it as he was. But, now that I think about it, Brian had been acting strange even before then. The whole time that sub was there he was sort of blanking out, although it did seem worse after his big shower scene. And, as soon as our regular teacher returned, Brian seemed to snap out of it. Do you think that’s somehow related to Brian’s accident now?”
I thought about it. I remembered the night he’d told me the story about his gym teacher so well. But, the funny thing about that story - the thing that stuck out to me as odder than all the rest, to the point that it made an impression even beyond all the other remarkable events of that night - was the strangely dismissive way Brian had spoken of such an important milestone in his life. And then, after he’d bragged on the fact that he’d given his first blow job at the tender age of fourteen, he’d added that odd coda, saying, ‘I guess everyone's a little scared their first time . . . But I don’t remember.’ That non-sequitur had always stayed with me. I’d wondered about it over the years many times. Had he meant he’d forgotten whether or not he’d been scared or was there more to that statement? If I hadn’t been so shocked by how young Brian had said he was at the time - only fourteen - I might have commented on the other statement, but somehow the age thing was the only part I’d mentioned at the time. That odd ‘I don’t remember’, though, had really stood out. And now, after Michael’s retelling and the clue about Brian’s dissociation both then and now, I thought maybe the words meant something more menacing.
While I was thinking about that, Michael’s brain seemed to be running on a parallel track. “You know, I never really understood why Brian went after that guy anyway. Personally, I remember thinking that the substitute was handsome enough, for an old guy, but kinda creepy too.”
That comment caught my attention right away. “Why? What was it about the guy you thought was creepy?”
“I don’t know . . .” Michael thought about it for a few seconds before he could pin down his impressions from all those years before. “I guess it was because of the way the guy was always touching Brian. He was hella handsy right from the beginning, you know? Most teachers were more careful about that kind of stuff but not this guy. He was always patting the boys on the back. Only, with Brian, it was like a constant thing.”
“That sounds pretty creepy to me,” I agreed with him. “I don’t know about back when you were in school, but nowadays there are rules and protocols about that kind of thing in most schools. I remember one of my teachers telling me once how they had special trainings on that shit. And, I think, it’s even illegal in some states, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know about that,” Michael replied dismissively. “But even if there were rules back then, this guy obviously didn’t care.” After we both fell silent, lost in our separate thoughts for a few minutes, Michael broke the silence again with a new story. “There was this one time that really stands out in my memory. I was waiting for Brian to finish soccer practice and I remember seeing Brian and the substitute together out on the soccer field. It was late and, except for a few of the guys on the JV team, who were just finishing up their practice, most of the other kids had already gone home. I think I was probably the only other student hanging around school that late. Anyway, I saw the two of them coming off the field together and the guy stopped Brian just before they reached the bleachers and hugged him. Right out in the open. In front of the rest of the team. It didn’t look like a casual, friendly hug either. Brian sorta tried to pull away from the guy but he held on and then, when he finally let Brian go, walked him towards the locker rooms with one hand on his back.”
“That sure as fuck sounds inappropriate to me.”
“Right? I thought it was weird too and I commented about it later, while Brian and I were walking home together. That’s when Brian told me about the shower blow job,” Michael admitted, looking sideways at Justin with an almost guilty expression. “At first, I thought he was making it up because of how Brian seemed almost as if he didn’t believe it had happened either. I mean, it’s nuts that a teacher would do that, isn’t it? Shit like that only happens in bad porn flicks. But Brian insisted it had happened so I was forced to believe him.” Michael huffed a disbelieving snort of laughter and shook his head. “Then, when I pointed out to my friend that he was going to get in so much fucking trouble if anyone at school found out, and made the mistake of commenting that it wasn’t right for a teacher to do shit like that, Brian got ridiculously angry. After that he completely shut down and refused to talk about it any further. He just clammed up and didn’t say another word all the way home. It was just . . . It was so weird, you know? Both the thought of what Brian had done and the way he reacted when I tried to talk to him about it.”
“That does seem a little strange, since he was literally bragging about it to me the first night we met,” I mentioned. “If he was ashamed or upset about it, to the point he wouldn’t discuss it with his best friend, why would he tell some trick about it years later?”
“I don’t know,” Michael replied. “All I know is that Brian gave me the silent treatment the rest of the way home and then totally ignored me for, like, four or five weeks afterwards. Whenever we did see each other, he acted almost like he didn’t recognize me. And, like you said about how he was acting in New York, he just seemed kind of blank. He wasn’t himself. He didn’t volunteer anything in class or talk shit with his friends or flirt with the football players or anything that the normal Brian would have done. It was like he was just going through the motions of life for that month or so. And the way he was ignoring me, well, I was afraid our friendship was over. We didn’t make up for several weeks. Not till after Mr. Saluka came back from medical leave and Coach Langley left.”
“Coach? I thought he was just the Gym teacher?” I asked, catching that one little discrepancy in the story.
“He was both, actually,” Michael elucidated. “While he was there, Langley took over Mr. Saluka’s duties coaching the boys’ JV soccer team. Apparently, Langley was actually a pretty decent coach too; I remember hearing something about how the guy had played semi-pro himself back in the day. That’s why everyone called him ‘Coach’.”
The title ‘Coach’ triggered a memory and I pulled out my phone, tapping on the screen until I’d opened the Cloud account and pulled up the record of Brian’s text messages.
“This is the text that Lindsey sent to Brian just before he went cray-cray on me.” I enlarged the picture of the summer camp team from the front of the flyer and held the phone out so Michael could see the picture. “What do you see?”
“SHIT! That’s him. That’s Coach Langley. I mean, he’s a lot older here, but I’m pretty sure it’s the same guy,” Michael insisted, looking back and forth from the picture on the phone to my face.
“So, the same guy who had inappropriate sex with a fourteen year old Brian is now the coach at the soccer camp Gus wants to go to this summer?” I summed up the situation as I saw it.
“I can see how that would wig out a parent, can’t you?”
“Yeah . . . Maybe . . .” I faltered while I tried to put my spiraling thoughts into words. “I guess I can see Brian not wanting to have anything to do with a guy like that and not wanting him to be around his kid, although that’s not really like Brian . . .”
“You know, now that I’m a parent, I feel differently about that whole shower scene blow job than I did back when I was just fourteen,” Michael reflected, his eyes focused not on me anymore but on the bulletin board he had nailed up behind the register where several photos of family and friends and customers were displayed. “Especially with Hunter having experienced so much abuse at around the same age. See, when you’re fourteen and your best friend gives a blow job for the first time, you tend to think it’s pretty cool, even if the guy involved was a little creepy. But, when you’re an adult, and you think about your own fourteen-year-old son in the same situation, you see it differently. Right now, all I feel when I think about what Brian did is horror and anger.” Michael looked back at me and I could see the sadness in his face. “Looking back on the events now, ALL I remember is how totally creeped out I was. Coach Langley was clearly a pervert and . . . And I don’t feel nearly as impressed by Brian’s exploits any more.”
I tried to swallow past the lump in my throat but couldn’t. Why hadn’t I seen it that way when Brian had told me about that shower scene back when I’d first met him? Yeah, even then I’d thought that anyone who’d do that to a fourteen year old was probably a perv, but I hadn’t thought about it from Brian’s perspective. Until now, I hadn’t thought about how that kind of thing might warp a kid. Maybe it really wasn’t so much of a stretch to believe that something like that might throw Brian - now a father in his own right - for a loop?
Michael seemed to be thinking the same thing. “I wonder if that’s why Brian got all freaked out; because he didn’t want Gus to go to a soccer camp taught by some perv.”
“Probably,” I agreed. “But I think it’s more than that. I think . . . I suspect that there was more than that one blow job, don’t you?” Michael shrugged. “Brian’s probably fucked or sucked half the male population of Pittsburgh - a substantial number of them while he was still under-aged, assuming he was as promiscuous back then as he is now - and he’s never acted like this when confronted by any of his other former tricks. No, there’s something more happening here.”
We just needed to figure out what.
We both fell silent for the next several minutes, each of us lost in our own thoughts. If it weren’t for the bell over the door ringing as Michael’s first customer of the day entered, who knows how long we might have sat there musing. But, now that we didn’t have the requisite privacy needed to dig into such intimate issues, I wasn’t about to continue the discussion. I got up to go, sliding the strap of my messenger bag over one shoulder and waved one hand in goodbye as I headed towards the door.
“Wait. What are we going to do next?” Michael interrupted my escape. “Should we try talking to Brian? Maybe ask him about Coach Langley?”
“That would be a ‘no’!” I quickly shot down that absolutely terrible idea. “Have you forgotten the whole cancer thing and how badly that turned out? Don’t you know better by now than to go to Brian and offer him unwanted sympathy?” Michael rolled his eyes at me but didn’t bother to try and refute my position. “I’m not going to confront him until I know everything about what’s going on. Once I have all the facts - which we clearly don’t have yet - then, I’ll be able to make an informed decision about how best to approach the big drama queen without getting my head bitten off. Until then neither of us can say anything.”
“But . . .”
“No buts, Michael,” I spun around and took the two steps needed to allow me to stand nose to nose with the irritating little meddler. “I swear to all that is holy, I will HURT you if you undermine me on this, Michael. You hear me?”
“Justin . . .”
“I’m serious about this Michael,” I growled at him, wishing I could shoot paralysing laser beams out of my eyes like Rage if that’s what it would take to keep him in line this time. But, since I didn’t have laser beam eyes, I poked him in the chest with my finger and demanded, “swear to me, on J.R.’s life, that you will NOT go to Brian and confess what we’ve been talking about today.”
“I’m not going to swear on my daughter’s life,” Michael whined.
“Yes, you are. Swear to me or I’ll never draw another panel for another Rage comic again in your lifetime!”
Michael looked around him, as if trying to find some out, but only found the one teenager who had given over his perusal of the Marvel Comics bins to eavesdrop on our conversation.
“Fine. I swear on J.R.'s life that I will not go to Brian with this. Are you happy now?” I nodded and gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “But only if you agree to keep me in the loop and tell me if he needs any help.”
“Deal,” I relented and left the store, pulling out my phone as I strode down the sidewalk, heading back in the direction of the Diner. “Hey, Daph, are you still a Nancy Drew fan?” I asked when my best friend answered the call. “Wanna go solve a real mystery with me?”