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[Fiction] P.E.

by Michael Scott Moore


I can tell you how come we don’t ride to school with Schuyler and them in the morning anymore, but you have to promise not to blab it around, because I don’t think people even know it’s about Mr. Durbala, our ex-assistant PE coach, and not that I give a shit but I’d just as soon you keep your mouth shut.

We’re all seventh graders at Calaveras Beach Junior High. For Christmas I got a dirt bike, just a Huffy, but after that me and Darren started waiting on the corner in the morning for Denny and Schuyler to come roaring down the hill on their Diamondbacks and skidding through the sludge and leaves and pedaling up to Eighth Street, where we started riding to keep up. I used to watch them zoom past me all the time, but now I was riding, like, with them. We bombed the hill over the school and opened up in the parking lot like fighter pilots and dodged all the cars letting kids off, and Mr. Durbala would try to bust us in this half-assed way, and we’d hear his voice come out of nowhere—“Walk your bikes”—but that would be it.

During PE, Mr. Durbala stood around with his arms folded while we did jumping jacks and stretches, and at first we couldn’t tell what being assistant PE coach even meant, because he didn’t do that much else. He was skinny, like a broom, and kind of brown skinned with a thick black mustache that made him look South Arabian or whatever.

One day Schuyler leaned over and said I should look at Mr. Durbala because when his head pointed the right way, you could see sunlight coming off this gold earring.

“Hey, Noah,” Schuyler hissed at me. “What side do you wear an earring in if you’re gay?”

“How do I know?”

Mr. Durbala’s was in his right ear.

“Right ear’s gay, isn’t it?” whispered Schuyler.

“Maybe right is just rebel.”

“I thought left was rebel.”

Our coach said, “Thirty. All right, hamstring,” and we switched to hamstring stretches. For every stretch we did, we had to count up to thirty. We sat on these painted numbers on the blacktop every day, and the sun was getting hot, and Mr. Durbala looked at us all in our shorts. Then Schuyler leaned over to ask Darren and Denny, and they hung their faces down to look at Mr. Durbala from under their armpits and giggled and said they were pretty sure right ear was gay.


Schuyler hated a lot of people, especially Lem Lewis, who I’ll talk about in a minute. He really hated Mr. Durbala, which for a while I thought was some kind of righteous thing. Once he spat soda at the TV when he saw Saddam Hussein. I was over at his house. The TV was on, and we sat on the floor, drinking Pepsi. Schuyler had this lean greyhound face with braces and zits, and when Saddam’s face came on, he screwed up his mouth like he’d tasted something bad. I was afraid he was about to spray me with soda. We were new friends, and I wanted him to like me. He belonged to, like, a popular crowd. 

Then he sprayed the TV.

“Fucking asshole,” he said.


“I can’t believe that dude’s still alive.”

We both knew everyone was pissed at Saddam because the Gulf War had just ended, but since when did Schuyler give a shit?

“Whaddyou care?” I blurted.

“Mr. Durbala looks just like him.”


“So what. They’re both ugly, that’s what.”

He had to clean the Pepsi off. By then Britney Spears was on TV. 


I used to think he hated Darren, too, because Darren got good grades, which can be hard on your reputation. That was why we wanted to hang out with them. We didn’t want to be called nerds. They were bullies at school; they picked on everyone they didn’t like, so we had to keep on their good side.

Schuyler was into Robyn, though. Darren’s older sister. Maybe Robyn was the ultimate reason why we were accepted into their crowd. The thing is, I’ve totally fooled around with her. Schuyler hasn’t. I’ve been friends with Darren starting in third grade. I used to swim at his house. In the last year or whatever, Robyn started coming out with her friends in bikinis to lie by the pool, Robyn and Darcy and Megan MacMillan, all wearing three little patches of fabric and their skin all shining with oil.

They’re two years older than us. It’s hard to describe what’s so great about them. They walk around with a hazy look, sort of distracted by something, but when you talk, they would pay attention and not be distracted at all. Mature, I guess that’s what it is. All of us feel like their little brothers. My mom says girls grow up faster than boys because they have to learn about their bodies during an assembly in sixth grade where they get pamphlets about blood with pictures of flowers. “Boys can wait,” she said, smiling like it was funny, but I never got the joke.


This weird thing happened with Darren once, too. I went over to his house to swim. He said we were gonna have to do the Hawaiian Dance. I asked him what that was and he just said, “You’ll see.”

“Where’s Robyn?” I said.

“She went to the mall with my parents.”


We swam but it was boring. We dried off on deck chairs. 

He said, “You ready?”

“What are we doing again?”

“It’s called the Hawaiian dance.”

“I know that. You said that.”

He said we had to do it in a wooden shack where he and his sisters kept their toys. By the lawn behind the pool, there was a wooden shack painted like a schoolhouse.

“It has to be in there,” he said.


“It just does.”

It wasn’t worth arguing about. 

“Bring your towel,” he said.

The shack was dusty and cool. There was thin carpet on the floor and a bunch of old dolls and space toys lying around. It smelled like moldy wood.

“You have to lie under the table,” Darren said, meaning a tin table by the door.

You lie down.”

“We both have to.”

He spread his towel on the floor. I don’t know why I kept doing what he said. Maybe I didn’t want to make him feel bad. I didn’t have the guts to shake Darren and say, Hey, snap out of it. What do you think you’re doing?

For the Hawaiian Dance, we had to pull down our shorts and lie there face up until Darren said, “Face in,” and we’d have to turn on our sides to face each other until he said, “Face out,” and we turned away. “Face down” would mean lie on our bellies, and then, “Face in,” and we could see each other again. Darren was shorter than he is now, but he still had, like, shifty brown eyes and black eyebrows. I thought we were learning a new secret about our bodies because until then I never knew what made my prick get hard. When you’re a kid, it just pokes up through your shorts for no reason. But in our schoolhouse shack, it seemed pretty obvious that all boys’ pricks got hard around the same time of day. I thought it had to do with the weather or how the planets lined up with the sun.

That was all we did. After a minute we heard Darren’s mom calling from the house. We pulled up our pants, and Darren sat up and grabbed a spaceship. When she opened the door, she gave us a funny look. Later I told Darren I wouldn’t do the Hawaiian dance again, and he said, “Okay,” and now we never even talk about it.


So everything with Mr. Durbala was low-key at first. Schuyler mouthed off in PE, just like “gayboy” comments or whatever, and Mr. Durbala acted like he didn’t have time for us. One day during lunch we were eating from our paper bags by the bike racks when he walked past us, looking tan and muscled with a duffel bag. He lived in one of those stucco apartments on Aviation, so he was like a stranger, because when you don’t have a house in Calaveras Beach, it’s like you don’t belong. We didn’t know where he came from. He didn’t seem to have a wife or kids.

Schuyler leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. His braces flashed and he looked kind of mean. Robyn glared at him.

“Where do you think he goes for lunch?” he said.

“Probably does Aerobicize,” Denny muttered, and everyone laughed. 

The stucco apartments were close to the school. Mr. Durbala just went home for lunch, that’s my opinion. But Schuyler squinted as if what Denny had said was automatically true and also pathetic. “Hey, gayboy!” he shouted with his hands cupped around his mouth so it was hard to tell where it came from. Mr. Durbala wheeled around and looked straight at us for a second with this total hatred in his eyes.

Darren was quiet.

“Schuyler, what’s your problem?” Robyn said. 

“He’s a fag,” Schuyler said.


We came hauling down the hill the next morning on our bikes and heard a whistle from somewhere, and while we locked up at the racks, Mr. Durbala came out of nowhere and gave us all detention.

“You know you’re not supposed to ride on campus,” he said, “and I’m sick of yelling at you.”

Schuyler sneered. Mr. Durbala got really mad. “Don’t give me any of your crap, Schuyler Bent.” He pronounced each syllable in this mean mocking voice—Sky-ler Bent. His last name was Bentham, but we called him Bent. “I want you all to serve detention on separate days, too.” He made out detention slips on his little pad. After all this time of ignoring us, he suddenly seemed to know each of us really well, and, like, hated our guts.

Schuyler behaved himself until our week of detention was over. But after that, he started hassling Mr. Durbala every day. Denny did, too. I kept my mouth shut, and Darren looked sort of crumpled. He would laugh, but when Schuyler mouthed off to Mr. Durbala, it was like you had to laugh; you had to make sure there was nothing about you that even looked homosexual, because at Calaveras Beach Junior High, you better save face, and if you don’t, it’s like BOOM YOU’RE DONE.


Robyn says that one thing about our town is how it’s so conformist. I wondered if she got that word from her dad, because he uses it, too. Mr. DiMartini has a desk in their house with a sign that says RON DIMARTINI, which always seemed weird because it’s not like the rest of us ever forgot his name. Last year I went to their place for dinner. Mr. DiMartini’s office was this corner room with walls that were also big windows and let in hazy light from the yard. He did paperwork and watched a little TV. “It’s happening again,” he said to us, pointing at some people on the screen who were marching in the street, banging drums and whatever. “We’re about to go to war.”

“Why are we going to war?” asked Robyn.

“Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. He’s a dangerous man.” He nodded at the people shouting on TV. “But there’s something conformist about these people.”

The DiMartinis lived next door to a house full of, like, hippies, and they kept a banner up on the front that said NO BLOOD FOR OIL—just like those people in the street. So I figured they were all a bunch of conformists.


The mystery of Mr. Durbala deepened a week later at Ralph’s, when my mom and I saw him in line ahead of us. It was a weekend, I think. He wore purple sweats made from satin, and he was buying liquor. He saw me and nodded, then smiled at my mom. “How’s it going?” he asked in a big voice when he couldn’t ignore us any longer. “Been doin’ your homework?” he said with a wink at my mom.

“My name’s Mrs. MacNeil.”

“Bob Durbala. I coach Noah in PE.”

“Nice to meet you.”

He put me in a category of punks like Schuyler. But he was good at joking with my mom. She took a close look at his bottle before it disappeared into a sack.

“Friend’s having a party tonight,” he explained.

“I see.”

I never thought about the lives teachers have when they’re not being teachers, I guess because all a kid cares about is what he can get away with at school. Mr. Durbala kept to himself. No one knew him in town. I think he just moved to Calaveras Beach because of this job.

“That’s funny for a PE teacher to be drinking such expensive gin,” she said on our way to the car, and while we drove home, I wondered if expensive gin was worse for your body than other kinds of gin. Or did she mean Mr. Durbala seemed rich? Or not rich? 

Whatever, he definitely partied, and I feel stupid most of the time—stupid about parties, stupid about Real Life, stupid about my body, stupid about Robyn, who could be hot as hell but who also looked like Darren. One time Robyn and I watched a movie called Cat People on their VHS after swimming, and there were scenes that made me want to kiss her. She sat next to me in a bikini top and towel and smelled like baby oil. I said how we fooled around, but the truth is we just held hands until the movie ended. She was nice about it. Darren was off on his bike somewhere. There are times in life when you want something so bad you can’t even mention it, you don’t even know if it’s okay.

We watched the film around the time Lem Lewis got caught “jacking off.” I didn’t know what “jacking off” even meant. It just wasn’t part of my vocabulary. Schuyler said this other dude saw Lem through the window of his bedroom, and it went all through school, and Lem actually had to transfer to another district. I said, “Jacking off?” and Schuyler said, “Yeah, you know. Beating his meat,” and I didn’t know what that meant, either.

So I was clueless. But everyone talked about it in whispers, like with those flowered vagina pamphlets. Then on the sofa Robyn brought up Lem Lewis, and I figured this was my chance for some information. 

“I heard he got caught beating his meat.”

Robyn crinkled her forehead, which made her look cute. “You mean jacking off?” she said.


“That’s what Darcy says.”

We kept watching the film. I felt nervous. I was afraid she might make fun of me for my next question.

“So, Robyn?”


“Can girls—I mean, can girls, like, beat their meat?”

She smiled, thank God. Her eyes narrowed, all joking. “You mean—” And she moved her hand in a way that did more to educate me this whole year than anything I’ve learned in school. 

“Not exactly,” she said. “But we can do other things.”



We never found out if Mr. Durbala was gay. We only saw him one other weekend in his car. It was near Horny Toad Park before dinner. Suddenly there was Mr. Durbala in a blue Camaro, waiting for a stoplight, aimed at the freeway into LA 

His hair was slick. He had a thick gold chain around his neck. 

“I don’t see his earring,” said Denny.

“It’s on the other side, dumbshit,” said Schuyler. “Right ear.”


“You should ask what side means gay,” Darren said. 

You ask him,” said Denny.

“I’m not gonna do it.”

“Noah. You do it.”

“Why me?” I said.

“Why not you?” said Schuyler.

What he meant was Are you gay? Like if I didn’t do it, they would think I was a gay sympathizer or something. So I went over to the car and saw how the window was open. Mr. Durbala stared up with this heavy look in his eyes, as if we both knew what this was about.

“Excuse me, Mr. Durbala? We all noticed how you have an earring in your right ear, and we were just wondering if, I mean, which side—”

Right then, the light turned green. Mr. Durbala squeaked his tires and bolted through the intersection. I jumped away from his Camaro and everyone laughed, and that was as close as we ever got to learning about Mr. Durbala’s sex life.


We rode our bikes on campus for the last time one morning when the sun shone all yellow on the school buildings, and Mr. Durbala waited for us by the racks with his detention pad and a pen. “Boys,” he said with a wiseass smirk under his mustache when we all stopped our bikes except for Schuyler. “I hope you had a nice little ride.”

Schuyler wheeled around the whole group of us, standing on his pedals.

“Get off the bike, Schuyler.”

“Why don’t you make me.”

“I won’t tell you again.”

Schuyler sneered, his mouth all full of braces.

“Get off that bike or I’ll suspend you.”

“Why don’t you come get me, gayboy?” 

At first I thought he was just acting like typical Schuyler, but then he said something I couldn’t believe. He said, “Mr. Durbala’s a Hawaiian Dancer”—and he laughed like he’d just thought of an excellent swear, riding around and around, standing on his pedals, while Darren stood there like he was paralyzed, with a scowl on his face, all hollow eyed, and my blood felt just like ice water.

Schuyler said, “He’s a Hawaiian dancer, huh, Darren?”

Mr. Durbala moved fast. Schuyler didn’t have time to look scared. One second he was circling, teasing, wired on fury, and the next he was on his ass on the pavement because Mr. Durbala had shouldered into him and grabbed his bike, this nice-looking Diamondback—with blue forks and silver cranks—and threw it as hard as he could over Schuyler’s head so it sailed into a chain-link fence. I thought he was trying to throw it over, which would have been bad because then it could’ve hit someone’s head. But it didn’t go over. Instead it crashed into the fence and fell on the ground; one of the cranks might have bent, and Schuyler started to yell. Mr. Durbala’s eyes flashed across each of our faces, full of fury, but at the same time you could see fear in there, too, the same fear I’d seen with Darren, because the truth was he’d just done something to get himself fired.

That’s what happened. The principal, the school board, and a noisy group of parents all stood behind Schuyler. Now everyone thinks Mr. Durbala’s a fucking nutcase. They don’t know anything except how he freaked out and threw this kid’s bike against a fence. He got expelled from the district with a mark on his record for basically doing something we should’ve been doing all along—kicking Schuyler’s ass—while the rest of us got detention, Schuyler got a day’s suspension, and now we can’t ride our bikes on school grounds for any reason, ever, or we’ll get them confiscated.

“I guess it’s good they got rid of him,” Mr. DiMartini said when he read about the whole thing in the paper. “He sounds like a hothead. You can’t have adults like that in charge of kids.”

I mean, conformism. Right?

Anyway, that’s the story. Ever since the downfall of Mr. Durbala, Darren keeps away from Schuyler and them at lunch. We ride to school by ourselves. We don’t even talk about it. We’ve both figured out how it’s pathetic to be scared of kids like Schuyler, even if he’s got more power on the playground now because of his suspension. People think he’s a rebel. (I can’t wait till he gets an earring.) So we play tetherball with other kids on the other side of school. It’s like we’re rejects from that crowd now. I don’t care. Neither does Darren. But we both know more about Schuyler Bent than you can really say out loud. 

Michael Scott Moore is an author and journalist, a California native and a longtime resident of Berlin. Sweetness and Blood, his travel book about the spread of surfing to odd corners of the world, was named a book of the year by The Economist in 2010. He has written for The Atlantic, Der Spiegel, Pacific Standard, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the L.A. Review of Books. His latest book is a memoir of his time held captive by pirates, The Desert and the Sea.


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