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ESSAY
The Game
Scott Koertner

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CW: Assault

There was a game we played in the shower of my high school locker room.

My high school class numbered about fifteen. Besides the school, our central Nebraska town of 350 had a bank, post office, two gas stations, and bar, all buoyed by a surrounding sea of soybeans, corn, and manure. Most of my classmates and I had been together since kindergarten and, once in high school, nearly all of us took part in organized sports. At a small school, unremarkable physical specimens like me can find a place on a team where at a larger school this might not be possible. At my school many nonathletic students played sports even though they might have spent most of their time “riding the bench.” For some, participation meant playing in the band at halftime. Others claimed a spot in the bleachers to cheer on those more athletically inclined.

The people in my town, like those in many other small towns across the Midwest, were bonded together by the school and its sports. Whatever role each student assumed, the playing fields and hardwood courts made up my town’s nexus and inexorably pulled us all into orbit. The school provided our community with its identity and differentiated us from the inhabitants of nearby towns. We identified our rival schools by such mascots as the Buffaloes, Eagles, Mustangs, and Broncos. We were the Bulldogs.

I started my athletic career near the bottom of the rosters in football and basketball, the two sports I played throughout my high school years. Initially weak and timid, I shied away from too much contact, and both the upperclassmen and my more developed classmates intimidated me. I longed to be a star, but it took my body a few years to catch up with my aspirations. By my senior year, I assumed the role of a starter and my teammates selected me as a captain for both teams. Personal accomplishments aside, it was the off-field secrets held by our teams that served as the primary determinants of our social hierarchy. The locker room had its own roster order.

Each fall, the male teens among us donned red and white practice jerseys to square off against one another in a preseason exhibition game. These “soap scrimmages” got their name from the bars of soap brought by parents, school alumni, and other fans as the cost of admission. Played at the start of our football and basketball seasons, these games offered the town a glimpse of what glories might be expected from the season ahead. More practically, the soap we received enabled us to wash away the sweat and grime produced by our endeavors during the forthcoming season. Once collected, we dumped the bars of soap into a large box and stored them in an equipment room at the front of our locker room until we needed them.

While the soap scrimmage provided us with the chemical means to clean our bodies, our locker room had no such advantage. It was shaped like a long hallway and lined on either side with lockers, many of which had been damaged by mistreatment and too many years of use. Two rows of shaky wooden benches in front of the lockers provided a place to sit while we changed. None of us made a habit of sitting, though, as the locker room was crowded and the prospect of sweaty asses near our faces proved too great a deterrent. A decrepit shower, open toilet, and sink filled the remaining space at the end of the lockers. A persistent layer of filth on everything went unnoticed. Our facilities engendered jealousy in no one.

The ruin of the locker room extended beyond its shoddy appearance, though, as its smell was often its most prominent feature. We did not wash the gym clothes we wore for football and basketball practice during the week. Instead, we would either hang our jockstraps, shorts, shirts, and socks on hooks inside the lockers, or pull the corners of our clothing through the open mesh of the locker doors to allow them to hang there in a feeble attempt at drying. The next day, we would pull them down and put them on again to be drenched by another round of sweat. By the end of the week they would be stiff from the accumulation of dried sweat and infused with an odor like that of sour milk and vinegar.

Because of the constant contact with sweaty fabric, the lockers were all in various stages of rusting decay, the continual layering of sweat fueling the process of oxidation. Sometimes, small circles or squares of rust stains appeared on our clothing, telltale signs of our preferred method of drying. It should come as no surprise that we never locked our lockers, as the smell alone made it undesirable for anyone to ever open a locker not their own.

The contamination, however, extended beyond the physical conditions. There were many things we did in high school that most people would readily identify as hazing. For example, sometimes we would hold punt-blocking drills before the coach arrived at football practice. The bigger, tougher boys on the team would kick the ball and the weaker boys assumed the role of the blockers. The punt-blocker would be forced to throw his body onto the football just as it was being kicked. If the attempt resulted in a clean block the kick would be repeated, as the only satisfactory outcome was a painful blow delivered to the stomach, arms, or legs. Refusal to take part in this drill would have brought on a misery of full-contact tackles and ridicule. I recall no one ever failing to comply.

In a more subtle form of persecution, we would spit loogies on the locker room ceiling above the benches, delighting in the slow, staggered descent of phlegm onto unsuspecting heads below. Other times, boys would be lured near the locker room door while changing and their naked bodies were then shoved outside for any passersby to see. All of these oft-repeated rituals were sandwiched between the usual towel snapping and dick slapping that goes on, I have always assumed, in every high school locker room.

The ringleaders occasionally singled out boys for unique forms of abuse. I once saw one regularly tormented boy being forced to “unclog the shower drain.” The unclogging consisted of this boy being forced down on his belly amidst the foul water of the shower floor to hump the drain. I can still see with reluctant clarity the revulsion and fear in his eyes as he moved his most sensitive body parts up and down on that filthy drain. This same boy, who happened to be well-endowed, was also coerced into inserting his penis into various holes in locker doors, all to a chorus of jeers.

I took my turn on the receiving end of more benign types of hazing. The first time I had to change for gym in middle school, I was accused of having put my jockstrap on backward. In my nervousness, I had slipped my foot into the wrong space and another boy spotted this before I could correct my mistake. Every boy who has ever seen a jockstrap knows intuitively how to put one on, a fact making this rumor especially vicious. It took mere moments for this falsehood to become my new identity. For years I endured the shame of being the idiot who did not know how to put on a jockstrap.

A couple years later I took a swing at someone when a group of boys held me down in an attempt to pull my shorts off in the gym. As I struggled against their efforts, one of them curled his finger hard against my anus, pushing against the material of my shorts until it penetrated. It is likely fortunate for me that my swing missed—the boy it was directed at was far bigger and he would have undoubtedly left me in poor shape—and my shorts stayed in place.

But it was always the game we played in the locker room that we feared most and the shower was its setting. The shower consisted of an open bay with three shower heads, only two of which worked. The drain was often clogged by hair, soap scum, discarded bandages, and other detritus. My freshman year, one of my classmates defecated on the shower floor and then nonchalantly scooped it up with a shampoo bottle to throw it away. It was common for someone to urinate into the shower drain and nearly as common for someone to urinate on the boy next to them in jest.

My teammates and I all slogged into this shower with bare feet, a behavior I later learned in the military to be the bane of good hygiene. Sometimes we left the shower feeling less clean than before we had entered. No one dared leave the locker room without using it after a practice or game, though, as any attempt to do so resulted in widespread and ongoing harassment. Since the space for showering was so small and cramped, the shower game actually started before we even set foot in it. We would either race to be the first to get in and out, or linger long enough by our lockers to slip in after most had already finished. Whenever we entered, we carried with us a heightened awareness of the position of our bodies in that confined space.

If we were lucky, there would be no soap left in the shower and we could get a fresh bar from the box stored in the equipment room. The next best option was for a friend to hand you a bar he had just finished using. Most often, the soap would need to be retrieved from the shower floor, plucked by reluctant fingers from the putrid soup in which it was submerged. Often coated with hair and scum, soap obtained this way had to be cleaned before we would allow it to touch our bodies. Bending over to retrieve a bar from the shower floor, though, was what we feared the most. This act of retrieval meant exposure, and any exposure meant the game in the shower could move forward.

The game was simple. There were few rules and if a boy did not know them or respect them from the start—a possibility with only the most naïve freshmen—his ignorance was quickly remedied. To play, a bar of soap was gripped in one hand and then rammed into another boy's anus with a shout of, "Soap up the butt!"

The threat of the game was constant, whether football or basketball, after practice or game. It did not occur during every shower, but instead followed a powerful schedule of intermittent reinforcement. So, there we were, naked boys shuffling, laughing, and jostling our way into the shower in nervous apprehension. Sometimes the game consisted of a lone attempt and went no further. Other times, a pack mentality ensued until it became a free-for-all with boys pushing and shoving as we alternately vied for bars of soap and the relatively safe positions along the shower walls. These rowdier times it was best to delay showering as long as possible, as the shower resembled a naked mosh pit.

A hierarchy existed in the shower with true ringleaders inciting the rest of us to behave far worse than we would have on our own. These ringleaders were the soap game’s starters and captains, and their “soaps up the butt” were the most frequent and severe. Typically athletic and popular, the younger boys looked up to them as much as they reviled the threat of the soap they wielded. Even the game’s elite did not have immunity, though, as a target trailed us all.

I tried to keep my target small. I remember standing with my sweaty backside pressed firmly against the grimy concrete blocks, waiting for any chance to rinse off and escape the shower unmolested. Sometimes my goal was not achieved and a bar of soap would be jammed between my startled cheeks, my reflexive clenching only just preventing penetration. By the time I would hear the shout of “soap up the butt”—soap up my butt—I was already scrambling to press back against the shower wall. This scenario repeated itself many times throughout my years in high school.

There were others who fared far worse. I recall seeing one incorrigible classmate slam a bar of soap into the anus of an older boy with enough force that it held fast. After yelling “soap up the butt” my classmate looked around with surprised laughter saying, “Did you see it? It got stuck! It got stuck!” He was so proud of himself over this achievement. Even the boy who had to reach back to pull the bar of soap out of his own anal cavity forced laughter and shook his head, though you he was obviously rattled. He played it off by saying, “Yeah, you got me,” even as he made a failed attempt at returning the favor.

Our apparent focus on genitals and anal cavities paired nicely with a pervasive homophobia in our locker room. The label of “fag,” “queer,” or “cocksucker” was second only to the shower game in causing panic among us. We all assuredly lived with the constant dread that an ill-timed, pubescent erection might arise in our dirty shower and subject us to an onslaught of hateful derision. Adolescent erections are common, but their appearance in our locker room would have resulted in ostracization and scorn. Years later my gay friends, in recounting their own locker room histories and horrors, assured me I was justifiably afraid.

I struggle now to reconcile how we could have all been so callous to these offenses, especially since we were all at some point on the receiving end.

There were boys who refused to take part in the game, choosing instead to endure its consequences without retaliating. I was not one of those boys. I know the thrill of catching a teammate with his guard down. My hand can retrace the arced movement of that upward thrust and my mouth has shouted out “soap up the butt” more times than I can now believe of myself. Better to give than to receive, as the old saying goes, and this misapplied adage aptly describes my own behavior in that shower.

The game had all the elements of the perfect locker room hazing: unpredictability, pain, a camouflage of salacious humor, and widespread acceptance. Never knowing when an assault might come led to a constant state of anxiety and paranoia. The sense of vulnerability—being unable to prevent an intrusion into my most personal space—is as easy to recall now as it was thirty years ago. The shower game was the cornerstone of our cruelty, laying a foundation for all the teasing, fisticuffs, simulated sex acts, and unwanted penetration occurring throughout our adolescence. Underscoring the game’s lasting effects on me is the fact I have still never discussed it at length with any of my childhood friends.

Before I had children of my own I would often laugh at any mention of the game. My juvenile guffaws mirrored the characters in The Breakfast Club who initially smirked when Andrew confessed he had taped Larry Lester’s hairy buttocks together in their locker room. In contrast to Andrew, though, I never felt the pangs of remorse and disgust that followed his own weak laughter. I did not see our shower game as perverse or out of the bounds of normal behavior. Instead, I viewed it as natural a teenage experience as learning to drive or leaning in for a first kiss. Each of these acts, after all, was terrifying in its own way and yet still seemed to be an inherent part of our path to adulthood. Nothing in my experience led me to believe things could, or should, be any different.

In the same way I now marvel at how seldom we washed our gym clothes—what possible excuse could we have had for this?—I am astonished we ever played the soap game. Having assumed the role of both victim and victimizer, I never questioned my locker room's unsettling secrets until I considered what locker room pains might await my own children. The thought my own children might hear the words “soap up the butt” shouted over their own shoulders has been a difficult reality for me to consider. Conversely, I cannot fathom my children inflicting this evil on any of their own teammates or friends. As I grapple with the desire to share these fears with them and perhaps save them from either fate, I have been confronted with my lack of introspection about the game.

A childhood friend recently shared Tony Hoagland’s poem “Dickhead” with me. Hoagland writes, “To whomever taught me the word dickhead, / I owe a debt of thanks. / It gave me a way of being in the world of men / when I needed one.” I was struck by how his words felt like the story I wanted to tell. As I read the lines I could practically smell the sweat of the locker room and remember the feelings of dread and, sometimes, fear this elicited. Whether it is the sound of a voice from Hoagland’s poem “saying dickhead this and dickhead that,” or of soap slapping against clammy skin, I cannot help but think the message it carries is the same. I wish I understood better what that message is.

There is one thing, however, about the soap game of which I am certain. It is a certainty more salient than any recollection of the game we played in the shower of my high school locker room all those years ago. It is the most important thing I can now focus on helping my own children to understand.

It was not a game.


Scott Koertner works as an analysis programmer for clinical research. He loves telling stories, although his kids complain he needs some new ones. He is a new writer with one short story published in Midwestern Gothic. Scott lives in Kansas with his wife, kids, dogs, and a struggling garden.