Devon was my first experience with any sort of non-public school. My parents were concerned that I wasn't making enough friends and getting enough discipline and decided a boarding school would be just the thing to whip me into shape.
I hated the school immediately. I was told I would room with one of the best athletes in the year (I had been transferred mid-semester after an "incident" at my old school) and I hated him instantly, too.
Phineas was only a few months older than me, but he was far more thrilled by my arrival than I was. He was my height, but a little heavier because of greater muscle-mass. He was fairer of features, and his large, excited presence gave him a handsome air and the illusion of superior height.
"Eugene?" he asked me the instant he saw the Headmaster had company with him.
"I prefer Gene," I acknowledged, a little stiffly. Phineas was the very sort of person who used to bully me.
"Then call me Finny!" he beamed, promptly dragging me in the room, waving at the Headmaster and closing the door in his face. I was more than a little appalled, but mainly I was startled. "Do you like sports?" he asked.
As if he hadn't heard my dour reply, he continued, "Then you must try lacrosse! It's brilliant! Do you know how to play?"
"…In theory," I admitted reluctantly, afraid he'd exclaim the rules in my ear if I didn't. I had watched a few games with little enjoyment.
"Have they given you gym stuff yet?"
I shook my head, seizing the excuse.
"Well, borrow mine, then!" He dug in the bureau drawers, tossing shorts and a tee shirt at me as he eagerly shucked his clothes and put on another set. "Well, hurry up! You don't want to play in the dark, do you? Actually, that sounds like loads of fun, but not while you're still remembering the rules, eh? Nighttime lacrosse might be a bit advanced."
Somehow, he had endeared me into following him to the lacrosse field. About four or five boys were there already.
"You're late, Finny!" one kid yelled at him. Finny laughed good-naturedly, and the boys all smiled. It was just the sort of presence Finny had, he could make you smile even if you didn't want to.
"This is my best friend, Gene. Say hi to Brinker, Leper Lepellier, Chet,…" he rattled off the names, but I was still a bit stuck on that new title of mine. At my old school, I didn't have many friends, and I certainly didn't make them in a handful of minutes.
"How long have you known Finny?" Brinker asked.
"About…ten minutes, I think," I made a great show of checking my watch.
Brinker frowned. "He's never called anyone his 'best' friend."
"What about his last roommate?"
"Expelled. No one knows why – except Finny."
I found there were a lot of unconfirmed rumors about Finny. He was "sleeping with" about five of the female teachers and/or the daughters of various teachers, if you listened to the gossips. There were speculations his roommate had stolen answers, destroyed school properly, assaulted a school-mate or a townsperson…but only Finny knew the truth.
Other than the unbalancing affect of Finny, Devon did well by me. I buried my displeasure at the unfamiliar surroundings by studying whenever Finny let me dwell too long. My diligence was well rewarded by my instructors, and with the awe of Finny. Even the rivalry of Chet for top of the class was familiar and calming. I had been top of my class at my old school, and I had dealt with the envy of many of my schoolmates because of it. Chet, at least, was friendly about it.
Just before summer break, I found Finny curled in a ball on his stripped bed. He had called me his best friend so often that even if I didn't think he was mine, I would have believed in him enough to be…very concerned, to say the least.
"Finny? You okay?"
"Yes," he answered.
"Liar. What's wrong? You can tell me – I'm your best friend, remember?"
He exhaled, in what under other circumstances might have been a snort of laughter. "Yeah, you are. You are."
"Well, best friends don't tell each other's secrets," I proceeded. "And to be honest, I'll probably forget whatever it is before summer's over, and you might even do the same. So don't worry about me telling anyone."
"I will never forget," Finny said forcefully. "And I doubt you will. I don't want you to…change your opinion of me, Gene."
I frowned. "Finny, I promise you that as long as you didn't hurt anyone through any fault of your own, then it will not change our friendship, so that's no worry. And if whatever happened didn't happen by your intention, then I can't really blame you for it, either."
"Well, I certainly didn't intend it to happen," Finny muttered. "Do you promise you won't tell anyone, even the Headmaster, even your parents?"
"That's good. Even if you hate me and want a new roommate?"
"Even if I hated you so much I moved to England," I swore.
He stretched out of his fetal position and we shook on it. "Firstly, I don't know if you were already told, but my ex-roommate's name was Samuel Watkins. He had three inches and twenty pounds on me, and he had a Nordic look about him." He snorted. "Actually, more Aryan than Nordic, but that doesn't matter much.
"I'd known Sam for almost two years when he found out…my secret." It was here that he looked uncomfortable. "Gene – keep in mind, I blame my parents for sending me to boarding school, or I wouldn't have let things get so – I'm…attracted…to some boys."
I blinked rapidly, not really understanding. "You're a fag? But – you act so…normal." I'd never met a queer before, but everyone knew they were limp-wristed pansies who simpered and couldn't do manly things like sports – the polar opposite of Phineas.
Finny laughed. "It's not exclusively or all males that I like, Gene. I still like some girls, too. But…" he blushed. "Mainly I think about guys. I dunno about other queers, but I don't really feel any different than I did before I…figured it out."
"Well…okay. I suppose that's your business, really," I shrugged.
"You're not – worried that I…find you attractive?" Finny asked, shocked.
I laughed at that comment. "Does a girl ever worry about a guy who might like them, ever get afraid he might – what? Take her against her will? Not enough to stop marriage or dating. I'm not interested in you, but I can deal with someone finding me attractive. That's fine. Just…keep in your own bed, and we'll be okay. I don't mind, really, even if you…touch me every once in a while, like you've done so far – just nothing sexual."
Finny grinned. "You really are my best friend, Gene. You're terrific, really terrific. But I got distracted. Samuel Watkins." He mused on the name. "He was a big fellow – I told you that already. On the football team, a quarterback. I – he caught me…" Embarrassed, he made an unmistakable pumping gesture. I nodded. "Roommates often trip over each other, that way. I'd caught him at it, too, only this time I…yelled out…" His face turned a furious shade of red.
"Did Watkins know the guy?" I asked interestedly. It was the only thing I could think of that would bother Finny this much, if the guy took exception to Finny's crush and pounded him for it.
"Safe to say…his brother, Michael, had just graduated – drafted immediately."
"I hadn't noticed him come in." Finny held himself. He looked so vulnerable and un-Finny. "He was…incensed. Crazed. I learned later that Michael had died on the front lines not long before that. Samuel grabbed me, dragged me half-naked to a closet, and tied my hands over a hook with a school tie. He was yelling, something about me wanting a Watkins inside him and defiling his brother's memory. He…" Finny paused to collect himself. "I really thought only girls got…raped."
I sat down on the bed mechanically, and rested my hand on his shoulder without a second's hesitation.
"He was brutal. Tore me up pretty good, hit me pretty hard. I cracked a few ribs, dislocated my shoulder, but thankfully didn't get any…pelvic damage. Can you imagine me, a cripple? Docs don't have much for a broken pelvis, except wheelchairs."
I pulled Finny's unresisting form into my lap. "But that didn't happen. You're not a cripple, you're the best damn athlete in the school. And this Samuel guy isn't here anymore, I am," I said firmly.
"Yeah. I made the doc swear he'd only say I got beaten up."
"So – don't be a stranger this summer," I said awkwardly, when he had left my lap. "My mom wanted me to bring a friend over some time. If – if you think you can, this is the phone number," I presented Finny with a scrap torn off my Latin homework. "You can always count on me, Finny."
Finally, the other boy's usually irrepressible grin was occupying his face once more. "Sweet guy like you doesn't have many friends back home?"
I shuddered. "I – uh…my French teacher, Miss Brawn, she went on trial for…molesting students. When I testified against her, her brother started stalking me, he hit me a few times. My parents decided to send me to Devon."
"Ok, that sucks, but what does that have to do with your social life?"
"I was the primary witness, Finny. She'd kept me after school at least once a week for over a year. When I heard someone else's parents were suing I told mine, and…the prosecution loved me, the other victims understand me, but everyone else either pities me or thinks I'm weak or lying."
"Gee, buddy. That sucks even more. She get locked up? Her brother?"
"They were both put away. Not a long sentence, but…I'll be at war before they get out, anyway."
"Well…that's something. Aren't we a pair, Gene?"
"Yeah. Yeah, we're a pair." I fell asleep on his bed that night, and we woke up tangled together on the single.
Finny did decide to visit me, and my mother loved him just as much as everyone else did. He and I played loads of games – two-person sports, mainly, and some modified to one-on-one, and then a few more Finny made up as we went along. That was '41, when there was hope and happiness everywhere. I found the most happiness with Finny.
It took me several months, perhaps more, to realize why that was. Finny was my best friend, this was true. He was a self-titled bisexual, in a time before the term was widely used. He was also in peak physical condition, which was further highlighted by good skin, wild, flyaway blond hair, and gleaming blue eyes always laughing at something. His nose, though a little long, was narrow and only slightly crooked, where he had broken it in fisticuffs with Quackenbush one day. His mouth was a little wide and would have been unpleasant on any face other than Finny's; his eternal smile offset and trouble with proportions.
I had a crush on Phineas. A crush that felt suspiciously like love, but might have just been lust.
"Daydreaming, Gene? Let's play lacrosse!"
My heart pounded. Finny.