Not counting an unfortunate run-in with a psychotic older kid at Camp Au Sable in seventh grade, the men’s varsity basketball coach, Bruce Ryan, was the first man I was intimate with. He was nothing to look at. He reminded us of some character from an old black-and-white horror flick: bug-eyed and pasty, with a hunchback and receding gums that turned his teeth into fangs. But he was a good coach, gave us two straight winning seasons, and he did it without screeching and calling us pussies. He was generous with advice too, so I went to him, ostensibly to talk about my girl of the moment, Angel, who was far from it. Horrifying: a flat-chested, speckled tooth-grinder with a heart suffering from hypothermia. But she did have lovely toes. She was popular only because her father owned the town’s Big Boy, and she had a pool. I feared her wrath.
Coach gave me the one piece of adult counsel I now wish I’d listened to. He told me that, before I knew it, it would be just like none of this high school silliness ever happened. You’ll mourn the days you wasted on a girl you didn’t love. Of course he was right. Nothing that went down in that town was worth being remembered. Not making it to the all-state championship. Not snagging “Best Smile” in the senior yearbook. Not even that time I did three tabs of X and then broke into the school after hours, stealing the principal’s ergonomic desk chair. None of it. I get utterly drained from jogging on a treadmill. I put wrinkle serum on my crow’s feet. I get completely polluted after two light beers.
Coach was a wise man, but at the time I wasn’t listening. I felt him zoning in on me as we sat side by side on a bench in his office, just upwind of the locker room and all its piquancy. When he leaned in to give me a hard pat/hug, I grabbed the guy’s thigh, and I wouldn’t let go, even when he jolted away from me and stared me up and down, slack-jawed. He was an adult, and I was not yet eighteen, so the wisest thing for him to do would’ve been to say something like “Hold on there, buddy,” or “Whoa, tiger, not so fast,” and walk away. And that’s what he did. Until days later when I developed a bad arch in my left foot.
There are ways of putting people in a situation where it’s too inconvenient to say no. I had no idea that a thing such as a foot fetish even existed. I thought everyone got shivers on the top of their heads from the application of a firm thumb joint in the deep pit of a sore arch. The ball of the thumb, of course, does even more than that. Coach Ryan had the most sublime thumb, and I howled like a cocker spaniel, not just at how it felt, but at the realization that everyone has little buttons, tiny triggers in their bodies and in their minds if you can only find them.
Ann Stewart McBee received her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she has taught literature and creative writing and served as Editor-in-Chief for UWM’s literary journal cream city review. Her work has been published in Spittoon, Blue Earth Review, Ellipsis, At Length, and So to Speak. She teaches composition at UWM and Concordia University Wisconsin. You can find more of her work here.