Sometimes things happen that you think you’ll never be able to live down.
But is that really true?
I wiped my eyes on the back of my hands. Gary gave me a good squeeze, then let me go. I was worried by the way Mrs. Jenks looked. If my mother had said no, well. . . .
As I neared the patio, Mrs. Jenks turned and walked inside. I found her sitting at the kitchen table. I pulled out a chair and sat down. Gary did too. Mrs. Jenks looked at him, then nodded, accepting his being there.
She looked at me, saw the angst in my face, and smiled. “Don’t be upset, Keith. You’re going to stay with us until she has a better grip on things.”
I felt like a ton had been lifted off my chest. But then, I wondered. . . . “Uh, why did you look so worried then?” I asked her.
She shook her head, acting a little embarrassed. “I should have realized you’d be looking at me for some sign of what we’d decided. I’m sorry. I should have been more sensitive and not scared you like that.”
She stopped, but saw I was still looking at her expectantly. She knew I still wanted my question answered.
“I guess what you were seeing in my face was that I was a little upset after talking to her. She sounded. . . well. . . strange I guess. Is she all right, Keith? I mean, well, I’m not sure what I mean. I just didn’t like the way she sounded.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been thinking the same thing, that she seems different somehow, that her moods are worse, that she’s more edgy. I don’t know the right word for it.”
I stopped, trying to figure out what I wanted to say. After a moment, I said, “My mom’s always been a lot different from you. She’s not the motherly type, and never has been. But I think. . . .” I stopped, trying to figure it out. “I think for some reason her attitude or mood or whatever, well, maybe she’s feeling a lot of pressure right now. We don’t have much money, almost none really. She doesn’t get any help from my father. He’s completely disappeared. We haven’t heard anything from him for years. She doesn’t make much money at her job and has to make car payments and house payments and insurance payments and all that, and she has to dress professionally where she works, which means paying a lot of money for clothes and getting her hair done and that sort of thing. Now she doesn’t even have a job she can be sure of, and, well. . . it’s tough for her.”
I raised my head to speak directly to Mrs. Jenks. “She’s a very competitive person, and she judges herself against others. She’s not doing as well as she wants to, as well as she thinks she should be. She talks about people she knew in college, people who didn’t get as good grades, who are much more successful than she is, and I think that drives her a little crazy. She always saw herself as the best, and now she has to cope with, in her eyes, a life that to her is a failure.”
I stopped and looked down at the table, and I began shaking with an emotion I couldn’t control. “And then there’s me. I know she feels she’d be better off without me around causing her more problems, having to take care of me. I’m a burden to her.”
I stopped. It sounded awful, saying that, but that’s how I felt, and I was pretty sure it was true.
Mrs. Jenks reached out and put her hand over mine. Her eyes, I saw when I glanced up at her, were full of compassion.
“Well, you won’t have to worry about any of that for a while now, Keith. Tomorrow, after school, we’ll drive over there and get all the things you want to have here, and we’ll move you into one of our spare bedrooms. It’s about time one of them got some use.”
“Hey!” That was Gary. “Why can’t he stay with me?”
She smiled at him, and reached her other hand out for his hand. She now was holding one of each of our hands. She spoke to Gary. “It’s fine for a sleepover, but he needs his space and privacy just like you do. He’ll be here for quite a long time. He needs his own room to study in, to sleep in, to have a place for his things.”
“But. . . .” Gary was clearly upset by this. It surprised me. I knew I loved sleeping with him, but then I had feelings for him, the type of feelings I knew he didn’t have for me. Maybe when he’d heard I’d be staying, he’d got the idea that he’d have a built-in sex partner for the next couple of months, and here the idea was getting shot down right out of the chute. Maybe that was it.
I thought of something to say, and this seemed like a good time to say it. Maybe it would make him feel better.
“Mrs. Jenks, is it all right, if I’m feeling bad or need company, to go to his room some nights? Like if I feel I might have another nightmare, or am worried about something? You remember that nightmare I had here that first night. Well, after that, when we went back to bed, Gary held me the rest of the night. I fell asleep right away and don’t think I’ve ever had such a good night’s sleep.”
Mrs. Jenks opened her mouth to reply, then shut it again, and looked at both of us for a moment. When she responded, it was with a question of her own. “Is that why. . . ?” She stopped, then continued. “I knew something was different when you two came down to breakfast that next morning. I could feel a different vibe coming from you both.” She stopped and studied her son, and he blushed.
Oops. I wished he hadn’t done that.
She didn’t comment on the blush, though she did look at Gary for a moment longer than I thought she needed to. But instead of commenting, she turned back to me. Her eyes softened, and she said, “Anytime you want to do that, Keith, it’s OK. Anytime at all.”
Monday, I had too much on my mind to pay much attention in school. Let’s see: in only a few weeks I’d been caught having a wet dream on the school bus; I’d been caught by the vice-principal who thought I was using the hand dryer in the boys’ room as my own personal sex toy; I’d been caught semi-streaking in the halls; I’d been made a spectacle of at a school assembly, where the entire school was given some insight into my budding sexuality; I’d found a friend who’d quickly become my best friend, the first person I’d ever told I was gay, and the first boy I’d ever fooled around with; I’d been caught and pantsed by a bunch of kids right out in the open on someone’s front lawn, then punched in the stomach; my mother’s mental stability seemed to be falling apart right before my eyes; and now I was moving out of the only home I’d ever known and my mother was going to live and work in another town. All in all, it had been a busy time.
OK, I had to admit, not all of this had been bad. But I felt sort of like a pinball, being bounced off all those flippers and bumpers and all. I needed a vacation.
I didn’t get one. Mrs. Gallagher assigned us an essay on what one change we felt we could make in ourselves that would most benefit us as we grew older. We had two weeks to finish and hand it in to her. Mrs. Bowerman, in first period trig, gave us a pop quiz; I hadn’t had much time to do homework over the weekend, worrying about such trivial things as where I was going to be living next month, and because I’d blown off my trig homework, planning to do it at lunch and hand it in late, I bombed the quiz. Which earned me some rather scathing remarks. No one likes Mrs. Bowerman much. Me neither.
At lunch, I ate by myself, as usual. I spent most of the time glancing around the room, not making eye contact, just seeing who was with whom. I noticed one thing that was different. Usually Darryl Cane, one of the kids who’d pantsed me, ate with Tony and his posse. Today, he was sitting by himself, too, and Tony only had two kids with him. I wondered what that was all about. Later, when I was surveying the room another time, I saw Darryl was looking at me, and our eyes met for a moment before I moved on. But in that moment, it looked to me like he had a black eye.
After school, I rode home on the bus with Gary. He was being his usual boisterous, outgoing self. I was quiet. But then, that’s me being myself, too. He was used to it by now.
He showed me the spare bedrooms at their house. It was a big house and had lots of bedrooms, and they only used two of them themselves. I chose the one that was right across the hall from Gary’s, one that overlooked the backyard and pool. It had a queen-sized bed and more room than my room and my mom’s at home combined. It also had a walk-in closet that my clothes would probably be lonely in.
Mrs. Jenks drove us both over to my house. My mom wasn’t home, and there was no note or anything personal from her to me at all. I wasn’t really expecting anything, but I guess I’d been hoping there’d be a note on my pillow or something, anything, to say she’d miss me, or good luck or, or something. I’d never been away from her in my 14 years. Now, I was leaving her, even if only briefly, and it would be nice to know she felt some emotions about the separation like I did.
I gathered all my stuff, which really meant my clothes, bathroom stuff and my computer. It all fit in the car without the need of a second trip.
Gary helped me set up my room. I think he noticed I was feeling a little emotional, and so he softened his personality a little. When I had everything put away and my computer set up, I sat down on the bed. He sat down next to me. “You OK?” he asked.
“I think so,” I said.
He looked at me strangely for a minute, then said, “Let’s go swimming.”
I looked back at him, then smiled. “Where did that come from?”
“You look like you need to do something energetic. Get your mind off whatever it is you’re thinking about right now. Come on.”
He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into his room, closed the door and started stripping. I watched. He dumped all his clothes on the floor, and when he was naked, looked at me and grinned. “How come I’m always naked and you’re not even starting to undress?”
I almost blushed, but didn’t. “I guess I like looking at you, both when you’re getting undressed and then when you’re naked.”
“Well, the peep show’s for later. We’re swimming now. Get undressed or I’ll do it for you.”
“Oh yeah? You and what army?”
So he undressed me, with me resisting, and it became a tussle, ending up on his bed when I pushed him there, and though he finally did get me undressed, the swimming had to wait quite a bit later than he’d planned.
But that was OK. In all the tussling getting me naked, and then the aftermath of that, I’d forgotten all about the overly-sentimental garbage that had been cluttering up my head and had stopped feeling sorry for myself, and when we did get in the water, I was OK again and we had a great time. He’d been right: I’d needed some physical activity, and man, by the end of the afternoon we’d certainly had some of that.
I fit right in at Gary’s house. Almost immediately, I felt like I belonged. His parents seemed like the nicest adults I’d ever met. It made me realize, even though I knew it already, that my parent, my mother, wasn’t the way all parents were.
I discovered what it was like living in a household full of love.
On Tuesday, after dinner, I walked into Gary’s bedroom. He was doing homework, sitting on his bed. I grabbed his computer desk chair, wheeled it over by the bed, then sat down and stared at him.
He glanced up, acknowledged me, and returned to his assignment. I just kept watching him, mentally cataloguing his assets. There were a lot of them. Like, for example, the little wrinkles in his forehead when he read something he found difficult to understand. They were absolutely symmetrical, three little squiggles of skin the same length, the same width, the same distance apart, exactly centered on his forehead between his eyebrows.
He looked up and said, “Stop staring at me. Jeeze.”
I grinned and said, “I need to ask you something.”
He sighed, theatrically, and put his book down. I kept grinning, and eventually he did, too. Damn I liked being with him.
“So, ask,” he said.
“All right. I have an English assignment. I have to write about what I think I should change about myself. And I’ve been thinking about it and have an idea. I want your opinion.”
“OK. Go ahead.”
“Well. . . .” It was difficult to talk about this, but I needed to. If I couldn’t talk to Gary about it, how could I write it for Mrs. Gallagher to read? I tried again. “Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happened lately. And I think I’ve noticed something. Probably something you already know, but I didn’t. And maybe it sounds silly to write about it, because it’s so obvious, but I didn’t really realize it till I started to remember a bunch of things.”
He frowned at me. “Do you really need to be this mysterious? This is me you’re talking to me! Just say it.”
“OK, OK. It’s, well, I’ve been thinking and I realize now, in the past couple weeks, there’ve been times when I acted like I always have. I’ve just sort of receded into the woodwork when I’ve been confronted with things, tried to back away from the problem, hoping it would go away. Also, there were a few times when I actually stood up for myself. And those times worked out really well for me. The times I didn’t, they didn’t. So I’m thinking, if I had to change something about myself, maybe it’s that I should stand up for myself more.”
I don’t know what I was expecting, bells and whistles going off, maybe, or him jumping up, grabbing me in a huge hug and then us dancing around the room, but I didn’t get that. All I got was, “Yeah, you’re right. You should stand up for yourself more. But can you make an entire essay out of it?”
I was disappointed by his unemotional reaction, but didn’t let him see it. “Yeah. I made some notes. Some times when I didn’t stand up for myself recently were when Mr. Johnson had me in his office and was yelling at me. I just sat there and took it and didn’t make enough effort to convince him it wasn’t my fault; I just whined a little. And then in the boys’ room, he thought I was humping the hand dryer, and I got in trouble for that, but I wasn’t, not really. Not purposely, anyway. I was mostly just drying my pants. I argued, but didn’t really stand up for myself and convince him I was telling the truth, didn’t make him believe me. Then there were those boys pantsing me—Tony and them. I should have fought them, or argued better, or done something so it didn’t happen. Instead, I let them do it. I could have done more to prevent it, but I just sort of gave up and let them do whatever they wanted to me.”
“No you didn’t.” I had Gary’s attention now. “You said something at the end of it. You stood up for yourself and it got you a punch in the stomach.”
I shook my head. “No, not really. That wasn’t standing up for myself, that was different. It was me being mad and trying to recover some pride. It wasn’t me already having pride in who I was and not giving in to them so easily. It was an empty gesture, and came way too late.”
I stopped, because the next thing was harder, but I wanted to say it. “Mostly, though, where I haven’t stood up for myself is with my mother. She’s always on me about something. I get yelled at a lot, and criticized all the time. I just accept it. You showed me how wrong I was with that. She was doing what she does, in the school office, and you stopped her. That’s what I should have done, and I’ve needed to do it all my life. You showed me how.”
He thought about that, then nodded and asked, “So when have you stood up for yourself lately?”
“Well, the first time was with my mother that day, outside the school. I stood up to her—and for me—by refusing to get in the car unless she agreed with my rules. It worked. I felt really proud of myself for that.
“And the next time was at that awful assembly. Mr. Johnson was trying to embarrass me in front of the school to get back at my mother. But I beat him at his own game. It felt really good. Of course, then you helped again.” I grinned at him and he grinned back.
“The next time was after school that day, on the bus. That kid I told you about tried to get me to say I was gay, and then decided he’d tell everyone I had said it, even though I hadn’t. So I made him back down. I surprised myself ’cause he was older, but I was able to do that, just by using my head and not giving in.
“And there were other times, too. That store cashier tried to steal from me. I ended up getting my money back, and that was because I didn’t let her walk all over me. And the school bus driver. I spoke back to her.” I paused, then said, “And I got my mother to give me lunch money, too, when she didn’t want to. So I’ve seen what happens when I stand up for myself and when I don’t. And as I say, it’s probably obvious to everyone else, but I’ve only just recently figured out why I haven’t stood up for myself before. It’s because I don’t like confrontation and do everything I can to avoid it. And I always think if I stand up for myself, I’ll end up worse than I was. But I’m learning things usually turn out better for me if I defend myself, and my fears of looking silly or being put down because of that up are just that—fears, not reality. So I’m going to try to change the way I behave, and I’m going to write a paper about it, too.”
There must have been something in my voice, because this time Gary did get off the bed, and did hug me, and told me I was a lot more capable that I realized I was, which made me feel good even if I didn’t entirely believe it. But that was all that happened. We didn’t do any dancing around or whooping and hollering, there were no bells and whistles. Oh, I might have kissed him because I was feeling pretty good and after all he was hugging me, and he might have—
But that isn’t the point of this so I won’t pursue it.
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