The following is an excerpt from Doubting Thomas, a novel by Matthew Clark Davison debuting June 8. It follows Thomas McGurrin, a fourth-grade teacher and out gay man at a private primary school serving Portland, Oregon's wealthy progressive elite when he is falsely accused of inappropriately touching a male student.
Thomas reached down his running shorts and released his genitals from the tangle of liner at his inner thigh. Even at his gym, far from work, up until the day he was asked to resign, Thomas would’ve taken this concern to a private stall in the men’s locker room. Or at the very least, he would’ve tried to camouflage the action by tucking in his tank top. Today he thought: Fuck it. The treadmill’s motor had warmed up, and now it pulled the rotating rubber mat faster and faster beneath his feet. Finally, his balls could bounce gently and freely in the contained space of his underwear’s pouch.
He’d been forcing himself to the gym in between circling his house twice a day since his photo appeared in the paper. He pretended to check on the shrubs, his peonies and dahlias while scanning the property for words like faggot or queer spray-painted on the side of his garage or car.
Even now, Thomas hated the word queer. He’d been vocal in the Zero Tolerance meetings leading to Country Day outlawing its use in any negative context because he held the unpopular opinion of wanting the word banned altogether. On decision day, the straight people on the panel, including Mercy, thought the kids in the upper grades should certainly be able to identify as queer and talk about the political movement. Mercy passed bound dossiers of well-researched supporting materials illuminating the righteous arguments for the success of the reclamation of the word.
On that last day, Thomas said little, knowing the upper-grade kids would still hurl the slur as a dig then claim it as an identity marker to avoid punishment.
He pressed the display’s buttons to increase his speed to a sprint.
His was another era: no gay characters written into TV sitcoms, no marriage equality, no hate crime legislation, and certainly, no Gay/Straight Alliance existed. In high school, Thomas used sports and books to secure the barricade between his public and private selves. He contained his eccentricities. His strategy to use soccer as camouflage went according to plan.
Thomas finished freshman year as a division champion with a 4.0 GPA. One down, three to go, Thomas had thought, until he’d return to California. He planned a year-two repeat, but the coach promoted him to the varsity team. The first game of his sophomore year, Thomas’s opponents assaulted him with their lean muscularity, their thighs. He felt like a pink flamingo. Bearded dudes with chest hair curling up from the necks of their jerseys replaced the bare-faced skinny boys who’d been his opponents the year before. Thomas’s performance on the field morphed from steady and predictable to erratic and occasionally fierce.
Once on the varsity team, Thomas met Damien, a senior, two years older than Thomas, the child of the owners of the town’s bakery. Damien wanted to hold Thomas’s feet at practice during sit-ups, partner with him during passing drills, share a bus seat when traveling to away games. He apologized to Thomas for his job because it prevented him from hanging out after practice. Damien did not trigger the flow of blood to Thomas’s groin, but his affection made Thomas crave it from others. The physically mature boys on the opposing teams from nearby mill towns sparked Thomas’s lust, and the only scheme he’d concocted to contend with it was to put himself in harm’s way. He’d propel his body in front of guys twice his size, like tossing a mattress on the tracks of an oncoming train. He once lost consciousness for a full minute and woke up at the center of a huddle of his teammate’s faces, Damien at center. During one game, the forward broke into a dribbling sprint down the field. Thomas outran him, blocked his body while staying on his feet, but the center forward’s forearm pressed into Thomas’s ribs while the two fought for the ball. The physicality of it sent blood to Thomas’s extremities, leaving him with an erection in his silky uniform shorts.
Certain someone noticed, Thomas tried bracing himself for the consequences, but they never came. That afternoon, once home, Thomas took a shower and nap, then went into the woods behind his house and hiked until he found a stone the size of a football. He took off his shoe and sock, and raised the stone to his chest, then dropped it on his left foot. His wail echoed in the valley. He put his shoe back on and limped home, told his mother that he’d been goofing off in the woods, trying to fix a hole in a stone wall. “Look,” he said, taking off the shoe, showing her the swelling and blood.
Thomas never played soccer again.
His pinky toenail grew back a year later. During that time, Thomas often used the band room door as a shortcut from study hall to the cafeteria line. The door led to the backstage of the auditorium. A thick curtain separated backstage from the cafeteria. “Fucking queer,” he heard one day, crossing the threshold, then stood still, sure the day for his punishment had arrived. On the other side of the stage, two boys had cornered a kid named Chad.
Thomas had admired Chad almost as intensely as he avoided him. At the time, he found Chad’s combination of overt gayness and natural beauty alluring, threatening, and obscene. A head taller than most of the other boys, and reed-thin, his body rested at angles that brought to mind a collapsed marionette. His eyes were a blue so dark and bright they seemed a consequence of some disaster. The blue you might find in the center of one in a million gray rocks at the base of a volcano.
A group of cheerleaders had been rehearsing for a rally. When they finally stopped, they talked in a circle of five or six. One of the captains smiled and waved at Chad.
He pointed to himself. “Me?” he mouthed.
She nodded. She’d made her thin lips look thicker by using a pencil to trace outside her lip line before she filled them with gloss that looked like pink cake frosting. She broke off from her pack of friends and approached Chad. “Yes you,” she said. “Chad, right?”
Thomas tried to mind his business, to look at his book, but her voice sounded deep and hoarse, a contrast to her small frame, delicate features, and thin hair so blond he could see her scalp. She wasn’t at all pretty in the way one might think of a cheerleader. Nor was she vapid. Thomas had been in several classes with her, and she was as intelligent as she was ambitious, which is how he assumed she made it to captain of a team of tall beauties.
“Yes, I’m Chad,” he said and smiled. “Hi.”
She came closer, climbed onto the first row of bleachers so she stood within arm’s distance of him. “Come here,” she said, smiling. “Lean in.”
“I don’t understand,” Chad said.
“Lean over to me.” She smiled.
Chad didn’t move. And neither did Thomas; transfixed with curiosity, perhaps even jealousy, he couldn’t take his eyes off of the two, both delicate in such different ways. Two rare birds sharing the same branch, each exhibiting a kind of power Thomas knew he possessed, but had never expressed, only contained. “Lean your face toward me,” she said. Without asking why, Chad scooted to the edge of his bench and bent at the waist to lean down to where she stood. She took his chin into her left hand and then gently wiped her right thumb over his lips, then eyes. First, she looked at her thumb, then turned to her friends and said, “Nope.”
“Harder,” one of the girls said, in a playful tone. The others giggled.
Chad stayed still, his chin resting in that girl’s palm. Then she did it again. She dragged her thumb down his face starting at the lid of his right eye and then across his cheek and over his lips. She’d pressed so hard a thumb-thick red line appeared on his skin where his blood had rushed to its surface. He looked like a warrior.
After, the cheerleader did something that Thomas never forgot. She smelled her thumb then touched her tongue to it. Finally, she let go of Chad’s chin, turned the pad of her thumb to the circle of girls. “I won,” she said. “No lipstick. No mascara. Natural.”
Pink had bloomed where white had been in Chad’s eye before he cupped one of his slender hands over it.
“I should fucking kill you for being so pretty,” the girl said, and her friends laughed, then she walked into the center of the circle.
That’s when he got the first glimpse of the consequences. Now Thomas’s legs moved swiftly, efficiently, beneath him.