Sometimes things happen that you think you’ll never be able to live down.
But is that really true?
On Monday, I had lunch with Darryl again, as was usual now, and discovered both of us were a little more relaxed with each other. We knew each other better. I liked his personality, and wished I had one so there was something he could like about me.
We both had English right after lunch, and I was feeling some excited anticipation, wondering what Mrs. Gallagher had thought about my essay and what grade she’d given me, and knowing I’d find out pretty soon. I knew Darryl had written his because I’d seen him hand it in on Friday. So, instead of fidgeting because I was wondering about Mrs. Gallagher, I took the opportunity to ask him what he’d written about.
“The last I knew, it was about me lying naked on someone’s lawn with a group of hooligans holding me down and staring at me.”
“Well, yeah, that would have made a great paper, I could have made it really interesting, but somebody said I shouldn’t, so I wrote about something else.”
“Are you going to tell me what you wrote about?”
“No!” I couldn’t do that. It would sound so childish.
“Well, then I shouldn’t either, but since I’m a lot braver than you are, I will.” He gave me a smile, showing he was kidding, and I couldn’t help but smile back.
“You could probably figure it out anyway. I wrote about choosing better friends, ones that shared my interests and philosophies and would be walking down the same path in life I’d be on.”
“You wrote that, the walking on life’s path bit?”
“Yeah. I thought it sounded poetic, or at least sort of literary. English teachers always go bat-shit for literary.”
“Damn! I wanted to have the best paper, but yours might be better.”
“I usually gets A’s in English.” He took a quick glance and me, probably wondering if I found that smug or offensive, and I gave him a grin to show I didn’t. Actually, I liked what he’d said. I liked kids who were bright; I felt I related to them better than the ones who had no interest at all in academics. He saw the grin, his face relaxed and he said, “We’ll know what we got in a few minutes. I’ll tell you my grade if you tell me yours.”
I laughed, and said, “I’ve heard that worded a little differently.”
He laughed too, and his eyes sparkled. “Well, that too.”
Crap! I didn’t know what he meant by that, either! This was the second double entendre he’d thrown at me. One thing I did know now was how to answer Gary’s question about whether he was smart.
We finished lunch and went to English. All our essays were stacked on Mrs. Gallagher’s desk. She always had us put a cover sheet on our essays. She’d then write the grade on the inside of that coversheet, and include any comments she wanted to make. That sheet allowed her to make our grades private, and also prevented me from seeing what the kid whose paper was on top of the pile had written about.
Mrs. Gallagher told us for the most part they were very good papers. Some kids had just made up things to complete the assignment, but most had really thought about it and worked hard. She said she’d pass them back and then ask for volunteers to read their papers to the class.
I got my paper and lifted the cover page just enough to see under it. What I saw was, A+, and one word, underlined twice: Outstanding!
I glanced over at Darryl, who sat across the room from me. He was still looking at his paper. She must have written a lot more on his than on mine.
When everyone had their papers, she stood in front of the class and asked, “Who’ll volunteer to read their paper? These were very good, and many of the ideas were things that might benefit you all. Who’ll share?”
Was she kidding? Who was going to stand in front of a class, many of whom were semi-strangers, and announce what was wrong with him? Especially if you were 14!
No one volunteered. Big surprise!
So, she picked up a list on her desk and said, “These were the best papers, and the ones you’d all benefit from hearing. I’ll just call on you individually and you can volunteer then. OK, first off: Keith.”
Oh shit! She couldn’t mean it, could she? She expected me to get up in front of these kids and tell them I was planning to stand up for myself from now on? She had to be crazy!
I just sat there looking at her.
“Keith?” she repeated. “Please come up here and read your paper.”
I stood up, but I wasn’t going anywhere. If she called on us, she liked us on our feet when we responded. She said it was more dignified that way. More exposed is what I called it.
I had to get out of this. Come on, brain, I told myself. Don’t let me down now; think!
“Mrs. Gallagher, uh, you said we could volunteer. And then you called me by name to come up there and read my paper. Well, I can’t volunteer if you’ve already volunteered me. That isn’t me volunteering. And volunteering means I’m agreeing to do this, and I don’t agree.”
I said that all in one breath, so I had to stop to breathe. I did. Then I said, “This paper was personal, and I shouldn’t—no one should—be forced to read something like that to the class.”
She was watching me closely, looking at my face and into my eyes. She thought for a moment, then asked, “So, you’re refusing to do what I asked?”
Why I had an answer for that right off the bat, I don’t know. If it had been Mrs. Bowerman, I wouldn't have. I’d have been intimidated; all brain activity would have frozen, and I’d have been a zombie. But I liked and to some extent trusted Mrs. Gallagher. This didn’t seem like a confrontation as much as it did a discussion. She was looking at me intently, and I realized she was gauging my reactions. I suddenly thought, she won’t push me further than I can tolerate. Somehow, as I looked into her eyes, I just understood, right then, that she wouldn't do that. Knowing that made answering easier.
“I didn’t refuse. I just told you I didn’t think it was either right or proper to force us to reveal things if we don’t want to about ourselves that are personal and weren’t written for public consumption. If you had told us you were making that part of the assignment, I’m sure a lot of us would have written our essays much differently. We trusted you with this, I’m sure a lot of us poured out things we aren’t comfortable with other people knowing. Forcing us to read these will be a violation of that trust.”
She was still watching me intently, and because I was watching her just as closely, I saw a very small smile on the corners of her lips. Then it was gone.
“All right. You made some very good points there. I hadn’t really considered all that. You’re right. I won’t force anyone to read their paper who doesn’t want to. That was well said, Keith.”
I nodded and sat down, and it was only then I realized what she’d done. She’d given me a chance to do what I said I was going to try to do in my paper. And the chance to do it had been in front of a bunch of my peers in a way that would probably make them thankful I’d spoken up.
Man, I loved having a teacher like that, one who was on my side, one who wanted to help all they could. I didn’t have many of those; most of them were just there for me to deal with the best I could, but I sure had one. Mrs. Gallagher.
I’d been with Gary for three weeks when it suddenly dawned on me: I hadn’t heard a word from my mother in all that time.
I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me, but I chewed it over some and realized how odd it was. A mother should worry about her child, care about him and what was going on with him, shouldn’t she?
I knew the name of the law firm she worked for, so called information in San Diego, got the number, and called them. I asked for Melissa Stuart, they said hold on, I heard a phone ringing, and then: “Ms. Stuart.” Very brisk and businesslike.
There was a brief pause, and then, “Keith.” No inflection in the word at all. Well, maybe a slight irritation, but I decided as soon as I heard it not to believe that’s what it was.
“Uh,” I said when she didn’t speak further, “I hadn’t heard from you, Mom, and just wanted to see you were all right. Things are going pretty well, here. I got an A+ on an essay.”
There was silence for a moment, and then, “Keith, don’t bother me at work.”
She sounded like she was talking to a stranger, perhaps an annoying one. I felt a tingle, a tightness in my stomach. I hadn’t felt that in weeks.
“Uh, Mom? Are you OK down there? And what about our house? Are you making enough to take care of an apartment and the house? I was curious. And did you get a new cell phone?” She hadn’t had a cell phone when she’d left. She’d cancelled her last one when she said the monthly bill was too high. If she didn’t have one, the only way I could call her was at work.
There was a slight pause, and she said, “Keith, I’m busy. I gave you permission to live with the Jenks. If you have a problem, talk to them.” And then she hung up.
OOOOOKKKKK. Well, she wasn’t worrying about me. I guess I shouldn’t be worrying about her. But my stomach felt even tighter.
Other than that, things were going better for me. I was trying to stand up for myself, and found out I needed to do it in little ways. People were used to me being a non-entity. I was used to that, and it didn’t really bother me much. But it did when they took advantage of me, even when they weren’t doing it to be mean.
An example of that was in Mrs. Bowerman’s class one day. I didn’t like her much. No one did. But she was still our teacher, and so I gave her the respect I gave all my teachers. I didn’t smile at her like I did Mrs. Gallagher, but Mrs. Bowerman wouldn’t have noticed anyway.
The time I’m talking about, she was calling on kids to give examples of how the sine function and cosine function could be used in real life. She asked me for an example, and I started to think, and had just come up with one when Stacy Norman, sitting behind me, said, “Oh, I know,” and proceeded to give one.
Mrs. Bowerman thanked her and was moving on when I said, “Mrs. Bowerman, you asked me for an example. Shouldn’t I get the chance to answer?”
OK, that’s sort of standing up for myself. I was pissed because what had just happened was what I got a lot of, and it didn’t happen to most kids. They had their own opportunities, their own spaces, in which to shine. My space, my sunlight, often got eclipsed like that.
Mrs. Bowerman glowered at me and sniffed. “You didn’t answer. I doubt you knew the answer! I think Stacy was just covering for you. I wouldn’t call attention to that if I were you.”
OK, what should I have done then? What I did was say, “I did have an example, and it was better than Stacy’s.” Then I shut up while Mrs. Bowerman just glared at me. Making a huge fuss wouldn’t have got me anywhere, except maybe a visit with Mr. Johnson, and I was trying to avoid that. I was trying to learn the ins and outs of not being invisible, of not being taken for granted or pushed around. I was learning the ABCs of that. Learning how to deal with Mr. Johnson would be nearer the end of the alphabet.
I discovered something that surprised me one morning while getting dressed. I wore mostly my new clothes now, but for some reason, probably because I was late and in a rush, grabbed one of the shirts I’d brought with me. I slipped it over my head as I was leaving my room and walked into the doorjamb because I couldn’t get the shirt over my head quickly enough to see where I was going.
The shirt wouldn't fit! I mean, it was way small. I looked in the mirror, and I looked just the same, but still, the shirt wouldn’t fit. My shoulders were broader. I realized something: I had to be growing! Unless you’ve been a runt most of your life, you can’t possibly know how excited I felt!
I knew I’d already entered puberty because I was getting more hair where I’d wanted more hair, and because my dick was growing, too. I knew that because I paid it quite a bit of attention. Gary had commented on it, too.
Even though I was running late, I took off my jeans and pulled on one of my old pairs. I was shocked when I saw at least two inches of ankle showing at the bottom, and found I couldn’t begin to button the top button.
I put my newer jeans back on, and noticed even that pair was a little shorter, a little tighter than when we’d bought them.
I was growing! I really was growing!
Of course, this made for a problem. That night, when Mrs. Jenks had finished with the dishes, I told her I needed to talk to her.
“I have a problem,” I told her, and dropped my head. This was really embarrassing.
“What’s that, Keith? I’m sure we can solve it.”
She laughed. “Well, if it has to do with puberty, with boy stuff, maybe you could speak to Mr. Jenks, or even Gary. But if you want to talk to me, go right ahead. And don’t be embarrassed. You’re a normal, growing boy.”
“That’s just it. I am growing. And the clothes you bought for me just a few weeks ago are already starting to be too small.”
“Oh,” she said, and smiled. “That’s no problem at all! That means we get to go shopping again. This weekend, or even tonight if you need to.”
“But what if I keep growing? Shouldn’t we wait? And you’ve already spent so much money on me!”
She reached out for me, and I went to her willingly. She hadn’t hugged me so much recently. I realized, right then, that she hadn’t needed to. How did she know when I needed one? I never did figure that out.
“Keith,” she said, her arms around me, “you’re worth it. And as I told you, we have way more money than we need or will ever spend. Believe that. It’ll be fun, shopping with you again. Just tell me when you want to go.”
She was amazing. The whole family was amazing. I had a smile on my face when I went upstairs that night, just thinking how lucky I was.
I was ready for bed when the phone rang and Gary stuck his head in the door, looked at my sleeping costume, or lack thereof in this case, smiled and said it was for me.
I slipped on some shorts and went into his room to take it on his extension.
“This is Darryl. Would you go to the movies with me this weekend?”
My heart was suddenly running twice as fast as it had been, the pity-pats coming almost on top of each other.
“Uh, you mean. . . like a. . . date?”
He laughed. “No, I mean, you wanna go to the movies this weekend? I heard there’s one called Predators that’s really good, about a bunch of guys taken to another planet to be used as prey for alien hunters there. But these guys are smart and tough and it’s supposed to be way bad. Wanna go?”
My heart slowed down. While it was slowing, and I was composing myself, he went on, laughter in his voice, “Why, did you want it to be a date?”
“God! No!” That was easy to say, a defensive, protective reaction if there ever was one. “I thought that’s what you were asking, which is why I stuttered like I did. Yeah, I’d love to go see that.”
We figured out the logistics, and then hung up. It only then occurred to me that he’d asked only me, not Gary. I started smiling.
I slipped into Gary’s room that night. I’d been doing that three or four times a week since I’d moved in. About the only times I stayed in his bed all night were Friday or Saturday nights. The other times, we helped each other, and then I slipped back to my room. It only took a second to jump from his room to mine. I hadn’t been caught, and I didn’t plan to be.
After we were both satisfied, I lay next to him for a little longer than usual.
“Yeah.” He was still breathing hard enough it came out in a sort of gasp.
“You know you said you weren’t gay, that you like girls, but were willing to mess around because you like sex? You still feel the same about all that?”
“Yeah.” He wasn’t gasping as much now.
“You know how I feel about you, don’t you?”
“That you like me a lot, sorta in the way a boyfriend likes his boyfriend?”
It was my turn to say yeah. I did. Say it, I mean.
“I know that,” Gary answered. “I know you told me you were trying not to fall in love with me. We’re not talking about this because that’s changed, are you? You’re not telling me you’ve fallen in love with me, are you?”
“No,” I told him. “I wanted to make sure you haven’t changed your mind. That you haven’t fallen in love with me.”
He rolled up on his side, propping himself on his elbow. “Keith, I like you a whole lot, but I’m not in love with you, romantic love I mean. I love you like I’d love a brother, or perhaps even more than that because brothers are always on each other’s case, and you and I never fight. But why are you asking me that?”
I rolled over to look into his eyes. “Because I’m getting the idea that it’s possible Darryl’s gay. He might not be, too. I don’t know. But, if he is, it’s possible, after I go to the movies with him, that maybe one of us will get brave and we’ll talk. Maybe he’ll want to be boyfriends. So, before any of that happens, I wanted to know how you felt about me, for sure.”
I paused, wanting to say this right, wanting him to understand exactly what I was feeling. “I love you like you love me, sorta like a brother, and I love your parents, and I simply won’t risk doing anything that’ll make you guys feel differently about me. I don’t want to even think about getting together with Darryl if there’s the slightest chance you’re falling in love with me. I wanted to make sure you weren’t, is all.”
His smile at me was a little awkward. “Uh, if that happens, Darryl and you I mean, does that mean what we’re doing now, we couldn’t do any more?”
I laughed. “Probably. What it’d mean is, I’d be getting some with Darryl, and you’d be back to using your fist. Unless you move a little faster with Amy.”
“Damn,” he said, then chuckled.
I lay back down flat, laughing at first, and then chuckling myself a little before I became silent. After a moment or two, in a very sober voice, feeling some emotion, I said, “Gary, I told you I wouldn’t do anything to make your parents feel differently about me. Well, at some point, they’ll learn I’m gay. Do you think that’ll bother them?”
He shook his head. “They’re not like that. If you’re gay, you’re gay, and they realize it’s not a choice. I’ve heard them discussing it. They’re sad about how many problems gay kids have. They won’t care that you’re gay.”
I relaxed. I’d been pretty certain they felt like that, but hearing Gary say it was really good.
A little later, I slipped back into my own room. My own room. That’s what I was thinking it was. I was getting too comfortable here, I realized. It was going to be painful to have to leave. But how could I not feel this way about living here? I was getting good meals every day now, and maybe that’s why puberty had kicked in with a vengeance, finally. Maybe why my arms and legs didn’t look so much like matchsticks, too. I was living in a loving atmosphere. I wasn’t being ignored. What I said was listened to here, meant something here. I had nice clothes now, and new ones when I needed them. I lived in a great house in an affluent neighborhood with my own room. There was a swimming pool out back, and I had a brother my age to share it and everything else with.
I thought about all that and realized, all the creature comforts I now enjoyed played second fiddle to the less substantial things. The love I got from the three Jenks, the support, the hugs that showed me there were people who really cared about me and how I was feeling, those were what mattered most. I felt better about myself now. My attitude and outlook were changing, and it wasn’t a nice room or a swimming pool or clothes that were the cause of that. It was good people who saw something special in me. Me, a kid who’d grown up never having any reason to think he amounted to anything. Them standing behind me and caring about me simply because I was who I was, supporting me rather than criticizing me: that was why I was just beginning to get my feet on the ground and able to start figuring out who I was and what I wanted to be in life.
I went to the movies Friday night with Darryl. The theater was in the mall, and most of the people there were kids, a lot of whom I knew from school. Well, I didn’t really know them, but I knew their names.
Most of the kids that were older were paired off, boy and girl. At my age, a lot of the kids weren’t really dating that much, so there were groups or just pairs of girls and also of guys. Darryl and I didn’t stick out at all. That was good, because I certainly wasn’t ready to come out yet. I couldn’t even come out to Darryl. I was afraid I’d lose half the friends I had if I did that.
We had a problem right off. Predators turned out to be R-rated. We weren’t old enough. I was ready to give up and see some other movie, but Darryl got a gleam in his eye. He asked for two tickets to another movie, but told me we’d jump theaters while the previews were playing. We went to the concession stand and stood in line for popcorn, and Darryl kept an eye on the guy who was checking ages of people going into the theater showing Predators. About five minutes after people had stopped going in, he walked away. We bought popcorn, then moved close to the entrance of the theater where Predators was showing, and when we saw no one looking, just walked in. The movie hadn’t even started yet. I felt a little funny. This wasn’t something I’d ever done before. Darryl had a big smile on his face. He was enjoying it!
After the movie, which was as good as Darryl had said it would be, we kind of strolled around in the mall, not really doing anything or having any objective other than looking at everything, chatting and being part of the atmosphere. I was comfortable, walking with him. I’d never liked the mall, but I’d never had a friend to be with when I was there.
He was more of a talker than I was. I’d never had much practice. He didn’t seem to mind that he was doing the bulk of the work, keeping the conversation going. I was happy to let him. He had a good sense of humor, and I was able to contribute some in the same vein, so we did quite a bit of laughing.
After a while, my stomach rumbled, and he heard it. “Want to get something to eat?” he asked.
“Yeah. You know, it’s funny. Now that I’m getting enough to eat at home, you wouldn’t think I’d still get hungry all the time, but I do.”
He gave me a funny look, then asked, “You didn’t used to get enough to eat?”
Well, that’s what comes when you’re not used to talking much, and then you are with someone you like and think you don’t need to watch yourself very carefully and you let your guard down. I didn’t want to talk about this, but I wasn’t going to lie, either. I was already keeping an important secret from him. This one didn’t seem like that big a deal. So, I said, “When I was living with my mom, meals were sort of hit and miss, and sometimes, between the shouting and what was said, and the way it made my stomach feel, I didn’t eat much. It’s different now.”
He was still looking at me strangely. I guess he didn’t realize the problems some kids had were more basic than others.
I changed the subject. “Where do you want to go?”
“Pizza all right?”
I smiled. I loved pizza.
We left the mall and walked to a nearby pizza place that had really good pizza. It was a pleasant walk, in the direction of home, and we weren’t in a hurry. We talked and a couple times he pushed me for no reason and of course I had to push him back, and we got to giggling. He asked me if I had enough money, and I realized, for the first time in my life, I did. It was a new experience, not worrying about the cost of something. Mrs. Jenks was giving me an allowance, and I had money in my pocket. It felt good.
We ordered a large pizza, half with his toppings and half with mine. He liked sausage, I liked pepperoni. We disagreed on green pepper, mushrooms and jalapenos, too. I just shook my head and told him how disappointed I was in him. He laughed, and I did too. All the laughing we’d been doing together made me feel warm inside.
When we were halfway through, I realized while we’d been eating he’d stopped chattering, and there’d been silence for some time. Then I noticed he was looking at me. When I focused my eyes on his, he stared back for a moment, then dropped his eyes and I could see he was starting to blush.
“What?” I asked.
He looked back into my eyes, then sort of shook his head and turned away.
“What is it? I can see you want to say something.” I made my voice as comfortable as I could, trying to encourage him.
He looked at me again, then looked down, and finally, hesitantly, said, “I want to ask you something, but I don’t know how.”
“You don’t have to worry about asking me anything. Just ask.”
He shook his head. “I’d be embarrassed. I’m already embarrassed, just thinking about it, and about what you might think.”
I took another piece of pizza and bit off a hunk. I chewed for a minute, thinking, then poured some more coke from the pitcher into my glass, drank some, and said, “I know all about embarrassment. Remember what happened on the bus, and running almost naked in the hall at school? If I could live through those things, nothing you could ask me could come close to what I had to deal with. Just go ahead and ask. Whatever it is, I won’t mind. Trust me.”
He looked at me and didn’t pull his eyes away this time, and I could see him gathering his courage. Finally, he swallowed and said, “OK, I’m going to do it. But remember, you said you won’t get upset, OK?”
“OK,” I said, and grinned at him.
He tried to grin back but didn’t quite make it. Then he took the plunge. Keeping his eyes on mine, he said, “You remember when I came over and we went swimming?” When I nodded, he continued, saying, “We sat on the patio when we were done, and I was really feeling good, being there with you guys, and I kept sneaking glances at you, and. . . .”
“And what?” I said.
“Well, were you looking at my, uh, well, you said there was a bee on my suit, but, uh, before that, I thought you were, uh, were you looking at. . . looking at. . . .”
He couldn’t say it, and simply stopped, but was still watching my face, studying my eyes expectantly. I had to say something! But I didn’t know what!
He didn’t look like he’d be mad if I said yes. But what if I was wrong? What if I said yes and he just got up and walked away? I didn’t think he’d hit me. He wasn’t like that. But I really liked him, and had started having sexy thoughts about him, and I wanted him to like me, and didn’t want him getting up and walking away. I didn’t want to take the risk. I didn’t know what to say. But I had to say something! And I had to say it right then.
And then, surprisingly, I did know what to say. I knew! I looked him in the eye and said, “Would you have liked it if I was?”
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This story may contain occasional references to minors who are or may be gay. If it were a movie, it would be rated PG (in a more enlightened time it would be rated G). If reading this type of material is illegal where you live, or if you are too young to read this type of material based on the laws where you live, or if your parents don't want you to read this type of material, or if you find this type of material morally or otherwise objectionable, or if you don’t want to be here, close your browser now. The author neither condones nor advocates the violation of any laws. If you want to be here, but aren’t supposed to be here, be careful and don't get caught!