Alright guys! Because of popular demand earlier this year, I shall commence posting part 1 of Thin Paper Walls, "Something About this Night". PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE CRITIQUE!!! The version I am posting is a late revision -- major changes may still occur before it is finalized, whatever that may entail.
Late teens and early twenties can take it out of you. It's been particularly rough for me - and trust me, being a husky-lynx isn't even the half of it - being brought forth and displayed to what felt like no one until I burst into rainbows and confetti on my audience, who has always been too hooked on muscle and testosterone to care about the one who has neither. On top of that, I've now found myself on a five-month wild goose chase sending me down a slippery slope to self-destruction.
Well... I did. I've learned some things through my recent life, and of all these lessons, two in particular stand out to me the most. 1. You cannot hide yourself when your heart and brain are not in sync. You'll wind up saying one thing and meaning something completely different, or in my case, jumping into someone else's fight to confuse the hell out of everyone. 2. The least trustworthy person you will ever know is yourself. You will always criticize yourself, you will always make a mistake, you will always have a new regret, or perhaps even betray someone you deeply care about on national television.
On the other hand, here I am at Daytona International Speedway for the 2011 Daytona 500. I start 11th. It's a surreal life, and I'm the one experiencing it; doors opening, being seemingly immune to bad luck, being born with a silver spoon in my muzzle, being talented at my job, being loved by many, and loving the haters.
Who am I? I'm Jasper Erickson.
Look at me on the street in casual clothes and I'm just some college kid, but put me behind the wheel and you almost have a puzzle piece that doesn't fit. I don't have the professional ego, I don't have the girls or attention, I don't have fake muscles, and I just in general do not have the attitude that most sports stars would. They say that being a NAFSCAR driver, or having any plunge into fame for that matter, has its perks, but believe me - I've tried them, I didn't like them. The only perk I need is being behind that wheel to win.
You're probably getting a diluted impression of me at this point - I'm modest at heart and far more inquisitive than I've put off, if that's believable, but the one fact of the matter I do not have to question is I've made it to the highest of the high in three brief years. I'm in the big leagues now, and I can tell I don't give myself quite enough credit as my opponents are beginning to look at me as a realistic threat. I never to use that as ammunition, though. I refuse to be so full of myself and my talent that it overlooks the nice guy I try desperately to be.
My phone rings from my jacket lying next to me. It's a Keith Urban ringtone - I know who it is. My tail wasn't wagging, but my silver ears surely dropped at this point. Fortunately, I am not allowed to carry it with me in my firesuit or answering it would be a full time job, and I've already got one of those. My eyes are torn from the heavy rain pattering on the asphalt and up to my jacket pocket. I lazily dig into it and tug out my iphone, having to put a half-assed amount of effort into getting it untangled from a pair of headphones I had in there.
"Jasper Erickson speaking." I try to keep my business face on as I speak.
"Jasper." Jack begins, "S'been eight days now I've waited for ya ta call and explain yourself. You haven't called. I'm slightly agitated." His sarcasm is pretty flagrant.
"Aw come on, Jack. It's not as bad as you think." I try to sway him by sounding hurt.
"Jasper, wha'ssa fucking deal? I warned you, but you--"
"Jack! I don't know! And you shouldn't--" I sigh and calm myself before I lash out at him in a public place, "I'm sorry, uncle. I'm blowing this way out of proportion... and you know how bad I am at that." My eyes traced the lines of cement between the bricks on a wall in the distance.
"Pfft. I can tell you what you're blowin'."
I press my paw to my face, "Can we talk tonight or something? I don't want to justify myself to your ego right now." I'm standing up and pacing at this point and I didn't even notice. My tall, slightly-rounded husky ears are a little bit unsure of whether to lay flat against my head in defense or stand high at attention.
It surprised me that he kept his tone in check, "A'ight. Jasper, I'm gonna call you tonight. Will that be any better?"
I puff out a misty breath into the humid air, "I guess a little. After the race... if it even happens."
"I love you, J." He sounds sincere, but I don't buy it.
"I... love you too." My voice is sullen, laden with emotion. After a moment I hit CALL END, flop back against the wall, and drop the phone to the cement, unsure if I should put it back in my pocket and wait for Jack Attack's, as I call him, call later that evening or simply leave it and ignore it. As I perish the thought, it's a bit of a relief to see some familiar company approaching.
"Hey, J! I gotta tell you that I officially hate the rain!" My jackman, Riley Teague, sneers pointing at the sky. The rain on his red and black Craftsman jacket glistens. His long gray fox muzzle points out of his hood and therefore has no resistance to the deluge. He's accompanied by my other good friend and future NAFSCAR teammate Izra Lofton, a thin, built orange and white husky sporting a pair of sunglasses covering his regular prescription pair and a green Waste Administration raincoat, and who apparently thought it would be pretty funny to kick a puddle at me.
My ears fall back in defense and I block myself with my arms, "Hey! Come on, I was dry Izra!"
"That's what she said!" Izra yells placing his tongue between his teeth.
"That's what he said!" I point and yell back. All three of us chuckled.
We laugh briefly before I begin, "Anyways, you guys game to do something? I've been sitting here an hour and it's not clearing up any."
"We could head up the street to Barrow's. Buy one, get one free drafts from noon to 4 today." Riley suggests.
"That is damn risky to drink on raceday, bud. Jeez. Nothing inside the track? Maybe hang on the infield with some fans?" I try my best to deter leaving the track to keep my optimistic attitude about the rain regardless of what the radar says.
"Sounds fine by me." Izra smiles at me and then turns his head to Riley, "Riley?"
There is no disagreement, and we all inform our teams of where we're heading and then meet up on the infield.
Hearing some cheers and jeers, we all have different views of the attention. I can tell by his face that Riley is finding himself a bit bewildered, regardless of whether the attention came off positive or negative. Some furs hand us some stuff to sign, which I gladly do whether my friends are or not. Yet on the other paw some furs hold upderogatory signs like "Jasper Gayrickson" or "Rainbows are for leprechauns. Leave NAFSCAR to the men!" or even "Izra Lofton - Pierce did it right". These are all inside references to a not-so-proud fifteen months we've experienced, and trust me, we're just getting started. I've grown so comfortable with the fans that I've learned not to expect an attack, I know that anything they would do to me would come back at them eightfold with a hefty lawsuit. This small heckle party isn't quite like that incident in 2006 when the most popular driver in the league, Bill Brock, was wrecked out of the lead on the last lap by Jamie Donz and Jamie had to have bodyguards to escort him from the track. In fact, that one was an accident. This one I brought upon myself and there was no question of its intent.
As we follow a psychological path through the crowd of screaming fans, trailers, tents, and RVs, we are constantly nagged with autograph signings and meet-and-greets. I have no issue with it as I've always appreciated my fans and their support, but I am unsure if Izra and Riley feel the same. At this point, they're handling themselves well, all in all.
As I'm enthusiatically signing someone's die-cast, I hear a feminine voice call out, "J! Come on, guys! Get some burgers!"
I find myself a little famished and at this point I'd already been tempted to follow the scent of grilled burgers, but it isn't until now that I actually am drawn towards it. I smile at the gray wolf no more than twenty yards off from us standing at the edge of a large tent.
"Party?" Izra asks, looking at me almost knowingly.
I shrug as I look back at him, "I'd assume so."
We jog over to the tent where the same female wolf hands us some towels with my car number on it. I am almost upset to use it to dry myself, but I do and then I toss mine aside on a picnic table. Izra and Riley spend a little more time studying the towel.
Roughly two dozen furs crowd this tent, all gathered around a burly looking red dragon tossing some raw meat onto an old-fashioned outdoor grill.
"You guys hungry?" The dragon shouts at us. We all nod, tails wagging and nostrils flaring. "There's plenty left! Come on down!" He gestures us toward him with his spatula, and as he spoke the dozen-and-a-half furs sitting at the picnic tables all turn around and, almost at an instant, light up with cheer as they catch a glimpse of us.
I smile. Oddly enough, I don't feel any negative vibes coming from this table. No haters, it seems.
I glance over every fur at the table. Some are still turned away and some have their hoods up, so I cannot identify all of them, but most are turned at attention.
I'm not quite enough of a social butterfly to drop an ice breaker in front of twenty furs, but Riley is, "So... fans?"
Only a couple of furs nod, and one adds, "...Of Jasper, yes. And fan isn't quite the word for me." A slim black bear at the end of the table is the one talking now, "I think I'm the same as you there... what Jasper did last week, even though he's not my favourite driver, is worth every ounce of my respect. Sorry, not trying to talk about you in the third person."
I nod in affirmation, "It's all good." Then I recognize what they are talking about almost instantly, "That... yeah. One of my prouder moments, for sure. But I tell ya, damn it was hard."
Another fur chimes in. A female. "I'll bet it was. Coming out to my parents was hard enough. Being driven into it on national TV is another monster entirely."
I feel tad uneasy, but again manage to brush it off, "Yeah, it took a lot. But... I was the second to do it; Brandon was first. I was... just the domino effect."
The same female speaks again, "Don't downplay it. You did the right thing. And yes, Brandon did do the same thing, and I love him for it as well."
There is a fur in a red hoodie that I cannot get a glimpse of. He is hidden behind a couple larger men and his hood is up, but he sounds like he has a cold when the words start to flow from his muzzle, "Is there a hidden meaning in you being the domino effect?"
I don't answer right away. The question catches me completely off guard. For a second I find myself with my jaw hanging open and I will myself to close it, "I... are you asking what willed me to follow through?"
"Um..." I pause and begin digging through my thoughts, "Love, I guess... a man I care for very much." This gets a couple of 'awws' from the audience, causing me to blush a little.
"Who was it?" A raccoon girl exclaims.
"I'm not gonna say." I smile almost teasingly - Like I'm proud to know something they don't.
Everyone goes silent for a moment before I glance to my right to see another familiar face. A thin female cross fox with auburn head fur nearly matching her brighter body tone is approaching me with an Australian Shepherd holding a notebook, a pen, and a microphone following her closely. Her white cheeks and muzzle fur slightly contrasts to the rest of her body, but she makes it work, "Brandy!" I yell as I raise from my chair to greet her.
"Jasper!" She cries, scurrying up and hugging me tight, "I'm so sorry I couldn't talk to you for so long. Been super busy before Daytona."
I roll my eyes and smirk, ears upright, signaling my playfulness, "Didn't wanna hang with the queer?"
She snickered and flicked her tail, "Nope. Didn't want to hang with a drinker." I can tell she is joking as well.
"I'm sober." I tell her cockily.
She smiles and nods, almost unsure of what to say, "That's... great to hear."
I finally take a seat at the picnic table under the tent. She sits on my right while my friends take my other end. Almost at an instant, we are asked what we want on our burgers. Without hesitation, we all begin to bark all kinds of condiment names, flavours, seasonings and inquiries of what's available.
"So what're you doing here?" I ask Brandy.
She takes a bite of her burger, chewing and swallowing before wiping the corners of her muzzle, "I was about to tell ya, I'm working on a project. I was asked to give you a full-on interview."
I swallow my first bite of food since breakfast and find myself to be hungrier than I had been thinking, "Shoot! What ya gonna interview me about?" I ask her eagerly.
Brandy continues to eat, "You can probably guess, but I'll ask you after we're done."
We devour our burgers, all of us halfheartedly discussing happenings amongst each other and throwing out random tidbits of information, but I only stand by and listen. Afterward, we briefly do a few meet-and-greets with some of the fans under the tent and I myself have to introduce Riley a couple of times as no one seems to give much credit to the pit crew members, Riley Teague being my jackman.
Shortly after we end our discussion, Brandy pulls out a digital recorder and a small microphone, "Hey Jasper. How are ya?"
"Doing fine." I humor her for the sake of her job.
"Jasper, it's been an interesting seven months for you, what with sponsor and team pressure, obvious stigma, and adversity that only a few furs in sports history have ever faced, but I think it's all boiled down to one big question. As the second fur in NAFSCAR to come out as gay, America is wondering what moved you to come out of the closet, and what was life like inside of the closet in this more conservative sport?"
The question takes me back. Instantly, I begin to recollect my entire NAFSCAR career before my eyes. I stare at her without noticing, then I scan around, noticing that she is not the only one listening. She hits the pause button for a moment, "Guys, I think we're gonna take this to a private setting."
There's a couple of disappointed grumbles from around the table as she begins to dismiss herself from her seat gather her things. I do not move, and instead grab her arm with my right paw and look into her eyes, "This question goes all the way back to the end of 2009. Just to give you the general outline of the way things were... the end of 2009 was about where my normal life ended. Pretty vanilla for a closeted gay teen up until then." She shuffles back through her things and switch her recorder back on almost immediately, sitting down and listening intently.
My mind files through everything, searching for the words to say, and they come out smooth as silk, "I wasn't always this somewhat-confident man you see today. I was the exact opposite, looking up to furs like them. Story of my life." She smiles and nods me on, and I calmly and clearly tell the microphone - the world - everything I have to offer; a story kept so near and dear to my heart that even I have to pause to dig it out.