What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
What is it that attracts us to someone else? Why this cute guy instead of that one? Josh didn’t know, and didn’t ponder it. He just watched the two boys across the food court, sitting at a table with drinks in front of them. The food court was mostly deserted, and the empty high-ceilinged space was just noisy enough that, from a distance of only about 15 feet, Josh couldn’t hear what was being said, but he had a clear view of both boys’ faces as they sat next to each other, absorbed in their conversation and each other.
Both boys were good looking and appeared to be about his age, 14. One had dark straight hair cut fairly short and spiked with enough gel that it almost glittered. He had a slightly flushed complexion with flashing dark eyes which lighted his face, a very good looking and captivating face. He wore clothes that were quite like Josh’s own, expensive, in the current style and clean, and they appeared to fit him like a glove. There was no reason, if Josh were to think about it, why he shouldn’t be as drawn to this boy as to the other, yet it was the other boy he couldn’t take his eyes off. Every time he looked at the dark-haired boy, he found that only moments later, his eyes returned to the other boy again.
This other boy had a different look to him. He wasn’t as animated as the dark-haired boy, and his appearance wasn’t as trim and presentable. He had an unruly mop of dark blond hair that appeared to be a little too long, but it was shabby looking, not at all the look that came from being intentionally worn that way or because it was his preferred style. Instead, it simply appeared that the boy hadn’t had it cut recently. His clothes were a little plainer than Josh’s and the dark-haired boy’s, didn’t seem to fit quite as well and were somewhat rumpled looking. His face was cute, too, but in a different sort of way. It was rounder than the dark haired boy’s and didn’t have the same slightly flushed cheeks of his companion, or even a healthy glow to it. His eyes also didn’t seem quite so electric, but instead appeared deeper, more pensive. He wasn’t smiling much, either, but seemed simply to be listening intently as the his friend expressively, vehemently even, gestured with his hands and arms.
There was a distinct difference in the two boys, and many would have been more taken by the dark-haired boy who showed dynamic life and vibrant enthusiasm, youthful charisma and who carried himself with self-assurance and perhaps even displayed some inchoate charm. Josh found himself ignoring all that. He simply couldn’t look away from the other boy, the one who showed very little spirit, no self-confidence at all and seemed to be withdrawn into himself. Josh didn’t know why he found this boy so compelling. There was just something about him, his look, his demeanor, just something about him that kept Josh’s eyes returning to him. Josh thought about it while he sipped his coke. Sure, this guy was very attractive, perhaps even embarrassingly so, but quite a few kids had that quality. Josh wasn’t sure what it was that fascinated him. Perhaps it was that he looked, well, he just didn’t behave like most guys that are that good-looking did. Good-looking guys tended to act a little too full of themselves, generally. They usually knew they were good looking and a self-assured cockiness resulted. This boy didn’t show that at all. He looked a bit vulnerable, sitting as he was, slumped in his chair, his arms close to his body, his deep eyes showing nothing.
Josh knew he had to stop staring. He took another bite of his Whopper and reached for a fry. He looked around for a moment, seeing the mostly empty tables crowded together, the bright glare of the colorfully lighted food stands, then down as he dipped his fry in his ketchup puddle. He did not want to stare too intently at the two boys, but found it hard not to. He casually glanced back up. The blondish boy was looking at him. Their eyes met momentarily, then the boy was looking back at his companion again. Josh looked away, too.
Josh wondered if the kid had felt him staring. He hoped not. Social self-confidence was something he lacked, one of the reasons why he was shy with people. It seemed to him when he thought about it like a self-perpetuating puzzle: how was he to learn social skills if he had no one to practice them with, and how could he find someone to practice them with if he didn’t have any ability to talk to people to start with? He had only a very few, very casual school friends and no close friends at all. Which was why he was sitting at a table in the food court in the mall at three o’clock on a Saturday all by himself instead of with a group of friends.
He had come shopping at the mall and was taking a break. He’d grabbed a burger, fries and coke, the All-American teenage meal, and was relaxing in the fairly empty food court. He’d had no problem finding an empty table, a somewhat surprising thing on a weekend. The sounds of the tables being cleaned and people calling to each other across the court had echoed a bit in the large space. He’d found a table to his liking and sunk into the plastic chair. He spent a lot of Saturdays doing this. Without a mother to shop for him and a father who — well, shopping for Josh seemed such an outrageous idea it wouldn’t even pass through his head. . . . Josh enjoyed these trips because then he was out with other people, even if “with” suggested more than was really happening. Maybe “among” was the more appropriate word.
Josh looked over to the other table again eventually, this time trying to be more discreet. What he saw was the dark-haired boy leaving, the blond looking down at the table, his expression unreadable. Then, when the other boy was gone, he looked up again, directly at Josh.
Josh started to turn away, and then, for some reason, didn’t. It felt both scary and exciting to look at this guy, this guy he was attracted to, and have him look back. Josh wasn’t used to being at all bold with other kids. It always got him in trouble if he was. Someone would always say something challenging to him and he had no idea how to respond, and this usually ended up in derisive laughter directed towards him, or sometimes something even worse. But always, it ended with him feeling like crap, ashamed of himself but totally unable to do anything about it.
But now the guy was looking at him, and he was looking back. Josh didn’t understand where the courage for him to do so was coming from, and when he saw the other kid stand up and start walking toward him, he realized he’d made a mistake. The kid was going to ask him why the fuck he was staring, and what was Josh going to answer? He’d been through this before. It had never worked out well for him.
Yet he still couldn’t look away. There was something about this kid that he found almost mesmerizing.
The guy reached his table and looked down at him with little expression, his eyes a dark gray color that gave no hint of what he was thinking. He was about Josh’s size, only slightly larger, and on closer observation it didn’t appear his clothes were rumpled as much as that they were a little too big for him, or at least that they hung loosely on his frame.
“Hi,” said the kid. He had a soft, somewhat breathy voice, entirely non-aggressive. He didn’t smile, and his eyes gave nothing away as he looked at Josh.
“Hi,” Josh responded, and as usual in any sort of meeting with someone new, started feeling very tongue-tied. He felt an immediate sense of relief, however, that the other kid didn’t seem the slightest bit belligerent. And with that relaxation, some excitement arose in him.
“May I sit down?”
“Oh, sure.” Josh was a little surprised. No other kid his age ever asked his permission to do anything. Something about him evidently gave them an immediate understanding they didn’t need to.
There was a pause as the boy pulled out one of the flimsy plastic chairs and sat down. They were round tables, and he sat not right next to him, but closer than Josh expected. He glanced at Josh, and Josh looked down. Being near to the kid, seeing him up close and hearing his voice, Josh felt the attraction even more, and that made him feel even shakier than usual. The momentary relaxation he’d felt disappeared as quickly as it had come. He knew this wasn’t going to go well, and he started wondering if he could just stand up, excuse himself, and leave.
“I saw you looking at me.”
Josh’s face reddened. “I’m sorry.” His worst fears seemed about to be realized. His voice rose in pitch as he said rapidly, “I shouldn’t have done that. I was almost through eating anyway. I’ll go now!” Josh felt his blush coming stronger, and felt himself start to sweat, his nervousness now a tangible presence.
“No. No. Wait.” The boy reached his hand out and laid it on Josh’s arm as Josh was pushing back from the table. The hand didn’t grab him or hold him, just rested on Josh’s forearm.
Josh, just starting to rise, stopped, his chair not fully pushed back from the table. He looked up and met those eyes again. This time, there was expression in them, but he couldn’t tell what it was. He just knew it wasn’t threatening or mocking, the two expressions experience had taught him to read so well.
“Wait. I’m not upset you were looking at me. In fact, that’s no problem at all. What’s your name?”
“Hi, Josh. I’m Bryan.” For the first time, the boy smiled. A quick smile, but a smile. Josh looked at him, and he’d have sworn his heart jumped a little. But as he was looking, he noticed the smile on Bryan’s lips never reached his eyes. Those were just as unreadable as ever.
“Hi, Bryan.” Josh said it carefully. His normal uncertainty was kicking in. He didn’t know what was going on here or what was going to happen, but the chemistry he’d felt from across the room was still working. He liked the fact this boy he found so incredibly attractive was sitting here talking to him, even if it did scare him.
Bryan spoke again. “Hi. I’ve seen you here before. You probably haven’t seen me, but you come here all by yourself a lot, and I’ve seen you walking around.”
Bryan paused, but Josh didn’t respond. Josh instead was simply looking at Bryan. He’d been given tacit permission to do so, in his mind, and he was taking advantage of it. What he saw, now that he could look at him closely, was a boy who looked nervous. He’d walked over to the table calmly enough, his voice didn’t sound uncertain, but now, sitting here, trying to start a conversation, he didn’t seem confident at all. And Josh realized the longer the pause was growing without him responding to Bryan’s statement, the more nervous he looked. Josh knew he should say something.
That of course was difficult for Josh, perhaps the world’s worst conversationalist, at least in his own mind. Still, Bryan seemed to be waiting for him to speak. That was odd. Most guys could care less whether Josh ever said anything at all.
Josh was about to say something, anything, when Bryan broke the silence first.
“So you don’t have anybody to hang with here?”
The question startled Josh. That’s what I get, he thought, for not talking up before. Now this. He didn’t want to answer this question. Not this one. It made him sound like such a loser to say, ‘No, I don’t have any friends.’ But for some reason, making things up never occurred to him. So he again didn’t respond, but started feeling uncomfortable, knowing he’d just been asked a question and hadn’t answered it. He had known this wouldn’t work, trying to sit here and talk to someone he was attracted to, maybe even try to make friends with him. He needed to leave. Things would only get worse.
Bryan suddenly spoke again, realizing he was about to lose Josh. He’d sensed the consternation Josh was feeling. “Hey, Josh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked you anything personal like that. My fault. I really wasn’t trying to make you uncomfortable. I was just trying to start a conversation.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “I sometimes have a problem trying to say the right thing when I meet people.”
At that, Josh’s face lost some of its tenseness. “Really? I have the same problem. I have a hard time just talking to people I don’t know. Well, actually, to guys I do know, too. I don’t know why, but I find it much harder to make conversation than other guys seem to.”
Bryan’s face relaxed a little. Josh could see it, not only in his face, but all over. He appeared to calm down. He seemed suddenly more comfortable, now that Josh was talking a little. Josh wondered why that was. Did he want to make friends, just like Josh did? Could that really be what was happening here? Maybe, thought Josh, he could make this work. Probably not, but it was worth a few more minutes to try. He’d really like to make a friend, and he was already physically attracted to this guy.
“Really? You too?” Bryan flashed a quick grin at Josh that was gone almost before it began. “I’ve always been that way. I have to force myself. I’ve found the more I do that, the easier it becomes, but it’s still not easy.”
Without pause this time, and feeling better about talking, Josh jumped in with, “But if it’s uncomfortable for you, why did you come over to talk to me?”
Bryan didn’t answer right away and Josh saw his mind working. It occurred to him suddenly to wonder if not everything Bryan was saying was true. Josh was very honest, and as with many basically honest people, very naïve. He did know that honesty wasn’t a universal attribute, however. And, watching Bryan search for words to answer a very simple question, he got the impression he shouldn’t be too quick to take everything Bryan said at face value. The thought disappointed him.
Bryan eventually smiled again and met Josh’s eyes. “I’ve seen you here before, you were by yourself, and I thought you might like some company. Yeah, it’s a little hard for me to talk to someone like this, but it’s hard being alone, too, and as I say, I’m getting better with the talking to strangers thing. I’m working on it. You about done shopping or you got more to do?”
Josh relaxed. “Just a little more. I’m going to stop in Roennert’s and look for a couple books.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen you go in there a lot. You must like to read.”
“That’s my favorite thing!” Josh quickly looked down after saying that, a pang of his former uneasiness returning. He got teased at school a lot for having his nose in a book all the time, and had come to know other guys didn’t see reading the same way he did. As soon as he said it was his favorite thing, he realized he might just as well have said, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m a nerd.’ He felt the blush coming back.
“That’s cool. I used to read all the time, too.”
Josh quickly looked up at Bryan, and it was Bryan’s turn to look away. Josh thought he looked embarrassed, like he’d just said something he wished he hadn’t, though Josh had no idea why that comment would embarrass him.
As Josh continued watching, he thought Bryan looked like he was struggling with himself for a moment, and then he saw Bryan’s expression change, change back to the unreadable, emotionless one he’d had when he first sat down. He looked back up at Josh again.
“You used to?” Josh asked, then quickly continued. “That’s past tense. You don’t read any more? Why’d you stop? I mean, that’s what I do all the time. I can’t imagine just stopping!”
“Uh, well, things changed.” Bryan’s face showed some of the regret he was feeling, and then became unreadable again.
“What do you mean?” Josh was sincerely curious, wanting to know why this boy, indeed anyone, would stop reading, what set of circumstances could be responsible for such a thing. Bryan’s comment, and his apparent sadness and then the abrupt shutting down of his emotions, had affected him.
“Do you really want to know?” asked Bryan.
“Yeah, if you don’t mind telling me.” Josh wasn’t feeling so uncomfortable, he suddenly realized. As long as they were talking about something other than him, and talking about something he was interested in, like reading and whatever he could learn about this boy he was so oddly attracted to, he was hardly nervous at all.
Bryan inhaled deeply, then let it out. He had made a decision. One he hadn’t thought he was prepared to make.
“I have to tell you about myself for you to get it. And I’m afraid this is going to be a long story, if you’re going to understand. Long. You sure you want to hear this?”
“Sure.” Josh looked at him expectantly.
Bryan looked back at Josh, then settled in his chair a little more comfortably. Did he really want to do this? The problem was, doing this seemed better than the alternative. So, he began. “Everything in my life was great until my mother died a couple of months ago. We lived around here, I went to school at Taft, I had a bunch of friends. Just normal, you know?
“Then, my mother died. Cancer. One of the ones that go really fast. She got diagnosed and within a month, she was dead. The doctors kept just shaking their heads all the time, saying there was nothing they could do. And I guess that was right, there wasn’t, because they sure didn’t do anything.”
Josh was listening, staring again openly at Bryan, who was wrapped up in his story and didn’t even notice. Josh could hear pain and bitterness in Bryan’s voice, and could feel something in his own stomach, hearing those emotions.
“Anyway, she died, and Dad and I buried her. It was hard, just tore me apart for awhile, I was crying all the time. But Dad, he was a basket case, and he didn’t come out of it. After a week or a little more, I started to pull myself together. Every day after that, it got just a little easier. It still hurt a lot, but I began functioning again. Dad didn’t react that way. What he did do was start drinking. At first, that just meant he was drinking and then sleeping a lot. But later, after his body had learned to handle the alcohol a little better, he didn’t sleep so much, and he started brooding. And getting angry. He started doing that a lot.
“So I started trying to stay out of his way. When I was with him, he’d start out finding fault with something, anything, then get really angry. So, I started trying to not be around him. I would avoid him as much as possible, and if I had to talk to him, I’d try to do it as early in the day as possible, before he’d had anything, or at least too much, to drink.
“This was all really hard for me. My mother had just died and I was trying to learn to deal with that, and then my father became someone I didn’t even know, and I had to sort of hold everything together at home. It was really tough. I had to deal with my father some because I didn’t know how to do everything I had to do. So even if I knew he’d get angry, I didn’t have any choice.
“I’d tell him things, like I needed money for groceries, or he had to write checks to pay some bills or stuff like that. If I didn’t go shopping, there’d be no food in the house. I had to go all the time because I couldn’t carry much on my bike and he was too drunk all the time to drive. I cooked for both of us, then told him his was ready and took mine to my room so I didn’t have to eat with him. A lot of the time, later when I looked, I found he hadn’t eaten anything, and I just threw it away.
“This went on for several weeks. I was going to school, then trying to take care of things at home as much as I could, avoiding him whenever I saw he was drunk, which was most of the time now, just trying to get by, hoping he’d come out of it and stop drinking.
“Then one night I was in bed and he stumbled into the room. He’d never done that before. I’d been asleep, but he came in and grabbed my arm and yanked me out of bed. He began yelling something about his dinner being cold and I could damn well serve him a hot dinner once in a while and all kinds of shit like that and a lot of it didn’t make any sense. He was really out of it.
“Anyway, he’s holding on to my arm, yelling at me, and I’m standing beside the bed where he’s yanked me to. I always slept naked, ever since, well, a couple of years now, you know? And I’m standing there naked, he’s yelling at me, I’m scared, and he starts looking at me, up and down, and stops yelling. But doesn’t stop looking. I try to pull away from him, and he feels me struggling and pushes me back onto the bed, hard. I’m lying there all sprawled out where I fell and he’s staring at my crotch. I get a really sick feeling, scared and upset, and quickly turn over on my stomach to get myself not so exposed. That didn’t work either, because he’s now looking at my bottom. I hear his zipper going down, so I quickly look back around. He has his pants around his ankles and is stroking himself, looking at my butt, the strangest look I’ve ever seen in his eyes.”
Bryan’s voice had gotten a quiver in it and he stopped, his memories apparently overcoming him for a moment. Josh didn’t know what to do. He’d never heard anything like this before. He wanted to say something, anything, to be supportive or show he was sorry, but was stunned. He just sat there, filled with emotions, but unable to speak.
“I didn’t know what to do. I looked at his face, and he was looking at me, and his eyes had become a little glazed. He was still stroking and was about half hard. I knew if I didn’t do something right then, even though I was scared shitless, I was going to get raped. By my own father! I could only think of one way I might get out of this, so I propped myself up on one elbow and said, ‘A drink, Dad. You need another drink. Let me get it for you. Then you can do what you want. Sit down on the bed here, I’ll get your bottle and a glass.’ I don’t know how I was able to say that. My voice didn’t even sound like me.
“All the time I was talking, I was wriggling down the bed. I slid off the end onto my feet and walked out of the room as he was sitting down. I was shaking I was so scared. I could have run outside, but I was naked. If I didn’t get back into that room in less than a minute, he’d realize something was up and come looking for me. But I didn’t know what to do!
“I realized I had to have my clothes, whatever I did. Then I remembered I had dirty laundry by the washing machine. I ran in there and found enough to get dressed. The back door was right there and I had it open so I could run out if I heard him coming. I didn’t. After I was dressed, which took well over a minute, not hearing him, I got a little braver, or stupider, and stuck my head around the corner into the hallway. Nothing. Maybe I was foolish, I don’t know, but I started making my way as carefully as possible back towards my bedroom, ready to run if I had to. Drunk as he was, I felt I could get away from him.
“I got all the way to my bedroom door. I snuck a peek in. He was lying on my bed, his pants still around his ankles, passed out. I think I breathed again then for the first time since this had started. I slumped down against the doorframe, I was shaking so hard. I couldn’t have stood back up then if I’d had to. I just crouched there and tried to calm down a little.
“I had to leave. That I knew. Nothing had happened tonight only because he’d been drunk and passed out. But he’d been ready for it to happen, he’d been willing, and if he’d got drunk tonight and felt that way, he could do the same thing tomorrow night. Any other night, too. At that point, to me, it seemed it was only a matter of time. I had to get out.
“Dad had an old duffle bag he’d brought home from the Army. I got it and tried to think what I needed to take, and my brain wasn’t working very well. I think it was too focused on being scared. I decided I had to have my clothes and schoolbooks, and they were in my room. I really didn’t want to go in there, but I had to. Very quietly, I slowly inched my way in. Dad seemed completely passed out. I could hardly look at him, but when I did, I realized, with his pants still bunched up around his ankles, even if he did wake up he’d have a difficult time trying to catch me. So, I got the stuff out of my room I needed.
“I stuffed the bag with clothes, some food, a couple blankets, my toothbrush, whatever I thought I’d need. I took all the money I could find in the house, which was only about $40. I put all my school stuff in my backpack and put that on over my shoulders, then picked up the duffle bag. Then I opened the front door and walked out.
“I had no idea where to go or what to do. I’m a 14-year-old kid out late at night with a large duffle bag. Where am I supposed to go?”
The question was probably rhetorical, Josh wasn’t sure, but an answer jumped to his lips before he even thought about whether he should interrupt or not. “The police? Did you call them?”
Bryan didn’t respond, still seeming deep into himself, remembering what had happened. Then he brought his eyes up to Josh’s, and Josh saw the pain in them. “No, I didn’t call the police. Maybe I should have. I thought about it. Would you have?”
Josh was about to say yes when something occurred to him. He thought about it for a moment. “If you had called them, what would have happened to you? Your father might have gone to jail. Do you have any relatives you could live with?”
“No. My mother was from Russia and had no relatives here, and my father only has a couple cousins and I haven’t even ever met them.”
“So they’d put you in a boys’ home or something like that?”
“Probably. I wasn’t sure, but that seemed most likely, some sort of city or county children’s agency. I’ve read about places like that. That’s scary. And that’s what I thought about when I thought about the police. And there was something else, too. Until my mom died, Dad and I were buddies. Her dying just knocked him off his feet. I like my dad. Yeah, he scared the crap out of me that night, and he’d been angry since he started drinking. . .he’d changed. . .but I’d been hoping he’d come out of it and stop drinking, get back to the way he was. I’ve been hoping for that so hard! And, I thought if I called the police, he’d get arrested, I’d get put into the foster child system or a home or whatever it is they do with kids like me, and there wouldn’t be any way I’d ever get back with Dad. My whole life, everything I knew, would be gone.”
Bryan paused again, then asked softly, “Could I have a sip of your drink?”
Josh quickly shoved the cup towards him. “Have all you want. I can get you more. Hey, you want anything else? A burger or anything?”
Bryan smiled, and this time it reached his eyes. Josh thought they looked sad, even with the smile. “That’s awfully nice of you. Let’s hold off on that. I need to finish this.”
Josh had half-risen, and now settled back in his chair. Bryan continued.
“So it’s about midnight, the houses on the street are dark, and I don’t know what to do. I try to show up at a friend’s house, his parents are going to want to know what’s going on, and whatever I say, they’re going to call my father, and the result of that won’t be good, whatever it is. I decided right then, what I had to do if I ever hoped to stay away from home for a while and then maybe get back with my father, was to find somewhere to stay and continue going to school. If I didn’t do that, someone would eventually be checking on me, and the fit would hit the shan, so to speak. So wherever I went, I had to be able to get to school on time the next day.”
“So what did you do?”
Bryan smiled, as though remembering his own cleverness. “It’s still warm out, and there’s this little park just up the street from us. I walked up to it, then went to the back where there are a few big trees. Not really a woods, but if you’re behind the trees, you can’t be seen from the street. I just took out the blankets I’d brought, laid them down, then lay down on them and sort of rolled up in them. It might have been all the emotions or something, but I was asleep almost before I closed my eyes.”
Josh was just staring at him. The thought that kept running through his mind was, what if this had happened to me? Could I have coped like he did? This was unbelievable, that this kid could survive something like this all by himself.
“So you slept in the park, then went to school the next day like nothing had happened?” he asked, his voice revealing his rapt fascination with the story.
“That’s what I was thinking. Too much had happened too quickly for me to have given it much thought, though. But yeah, that was my plan. I sure hadn’t thought it all out, though.”
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