He was always the prettiest one. He wasn’t bragging, or boasting, or even being conceited. It was just a statement of fact. The sky is blue. The sun is hot. Rain is wet. And Keith Henderson was always the prettiest one. It was an attribute that had caused him a lot of pain when he was younger. It first started when he was still in elementary school and at that age he didn’t understand why the other boys always sought him out just to beat him up. The other boys, at that age, didn’t understand it themselves why just the mere sight of their classmate made them so mad. No, it wasn’t mad, but it was an emotion, a feeling that they had never felt before and as such, they didn’t know that it was jealousy that made them act out.
The first time that anything happened was in the first or second grade, Keith could never remember which one. He liked to think that at least he had two years when he didn’t dread going to school, two years in which he was able to play with his schoolmates. He was out on the playground during recess, just swinging contentedly on the swing without a care in the world. He saw one of his friends waiting for a turn on the swing, so Keith jumped off to let him have a turn.
“Do you…” That was all that Keith managed to say before Josh Hayes punched him in the face. Over the years the punches belonged to different hands but it was always the same, the attackers always went for the face. He went home that day with a black eye and a lot of questions, questions that Kathleen Henderson couldn’t answer. She had an idea why her son was punched but she couldn’t put it into words that a seven year old would understand, Kathleen at thirty-two didn’t quite understand it herself. She wanted to tell him that it would never happen again, but she knew better. She knew that it would only get worse as he got older and Kathleen knew that she was powerless to stop it.
Growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey meant that playground “skirmishes,” that was what the other parents, teachers and even the principal had called them when Kathleen and Karl Henderson complained about the daily fights that Keith seemed to be getting into. “Boys will be boys,” they all said, “It will toughen him up,” and Keith’s personal favorite, “It’s a rite of passage.” A rite of passage, Keith would repeat over and over again as he laid in bed at night trying to fall asleep so he could forget about the swelling in his eye or that a few of his teeth felt loose. He had to laugh at the phrase, after all, a rite of passage implied that it would, at some point, end. But Keith knew that those fights and those beatings that he had been taking were never going to stop, no matter how tough he became or how many times he fought back. He knew why he kept getting beaten up, and he knew that his parents knew, and all of the teachers, and the principal. They all knew but no one wanted to say the word gay, even when they were talking about the prettiest boy that they had ever seen.
And he did fight back and he was tough. He might not have won every fight that he was forced into, but he sure as hell didn’t lose them all either. Being tough was the most important thing growing up in his neighborhood. No one wanted to be seen as weak, to be seen as weak was to be thought of as a lesser of a man, and being a man meant being tough. And all of the tough men in the neighborhood prayed to St. Francis, not of Assisi but of Hoboken. St. Francis Albert Sinatra. He was the ideal man, the kind of man that a boy could look up to and try to emulate. Old Blue Eyes himself. High in the Adirondacks there is a lake that the Indians called A Tear in the Clouds. From this lake flows forth a stream, and from high in those mountains, this stream begins its decent down. Aided by gravity and eons of time, this stream cut a path through the surrounding area and this gentle stream turned into the Hudson River, a river that separated Hoboken from, in Keith’s mind, the greatest city in the world.
As long as he could remember, he used to go to Castle Park and just stare at the New York skyline. It seemed so close to him that he was sure if the stretched his arm enough, he could reach it. Every day and every night he dreamt about crossing the Hudson. As he got older, the other boys would follow him to the park.
“What’s the matter? Hoboken not good enough for you?” That fight always started the same way. They would use his desire to leave their neighborhood, a neighborhood that they would never leave, a neighborhood where generations of their family had never left, they would use that as a reason to fight him. It wasn’t the true reason why they had always felt the need and still felt the need to inflict pain on him, that wouldn’t become clear to them for another year. Keith would always try to ignore the taunts, he came to the park to escape the bullies that had always seemed to plague him, he tried, God knew how he tried to ignore them. But they would never let him be, and somewhere deep inside of himself, Keith knew that they would never leave him be, and it was a horrible thing for a twelve year old to come to terms with. “This town is good enough for my old man but not for you? You better than Frank?” No last name was needed, Keith always knew about whom they were speaking of.
“I don’t recall him ever singing a song dedicated to this piece of shit known as Hoboken.” That’s when the punches would start to rain down on him. That was always his response, or a variation of that, he often wondered what would’ve happened if he answered differently, if one day he agreed with them that Hoboken was a fine place to live. But he could never agree with them, he would rather take his lumps than have to agree that Hoboken was anything less than a piece of shit. Eventually they would tire and the fight would end and the other boys would make their way home and Keith would go back to looking at the New York skyline dreaming about the day when he would finally and permanently cross that river.
In everyone’s life there is always that one pivotal year that comes along and changes his or her course of life. Freshman year of high school was that year for Keith Henderson. That was a year when a lot of things became clear. It was that year when, during gym class, he would catch other boys looking at him and both he and his tormentors finally realized that they did what they did because they hated that he was so pretty and that they all had an uncomfortable attraction to him. It was also the year in which Keith inadvertently found his path in life. And it all started as a joke, as a lark to get a laugh.
He was walking down the hallway with Mark Decker-one of the few kids who had never felt the need to hit, degrade or humiliate him, and he didn’t care that Keith was gay. Keith always assumed that Mark wasn’t what he would call the straightest man ever-when they stopped at a poster advertising auditions for the Drama Club’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet.