I learned to chew painkillers

Poetry May 15, 2023

by Billy Greene

in the boy’s locker room
before middle school
gym class. Coach called it legwork,
I called it labor:
10-minute miles,
burpees, cardio trials —
easy for adults,
fine for teenagers,
impossible for a child. Illegal, too.
I learned to live without water,
without hunger, biting into
pink acetaminophen pills
like the candy Nana gave me
for being “the best” today,
“the best” everyday,
“the best,” the -est alluding
to being,
truncating the participle,
crystallizing the superlative.
I learned to grow up then:
It was long after the girls did,
& given my long hair,
I was offered a tampon once
behind the bleachers
by she who played both tennis
& people, vulnerable, like me,
pink dust coating our mouths
because we both needed to get
something down.
I saw how Coach eyed her,
eyed me, uniform & unisex
in tight pairs of
tiny elastic shorts
too short for children. Not illegal.
I’d like to think we made an alliance
thereafter when I handed her
an Advil in exchange,
like Nana, like “the best,”
providing one of the few things a queer kid could
provide — pain relief,
but really, neither of us
knew better.