What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
Josh was looking at Bryan, an expression in his eyes that Bryan hadn’t seen before. There was admiration, which made Bryan a little uncomfortable, and something else, too. He couldn’t quite figure it out.
Josh realized Bryan had stopped talking and was looking at him. He blushed and looked down. He fidgeted, and then, for something to do, glanced at his watch.
“Oh, geez! It’s getting late. It’s five-thirty already. I need to get going.”
Bryan’s expression changed immediately. Josh looked up in time to see it transition quickly to a very sad and empty look and then again become the blank sort of look that was in his eyes when he first approached Josh’s table. It was as though he’d suddenly turned off all his emotions.
“Thanks for listening to me, Josh. And thanks a lot of the food. That was great. I might see you around some time.” He spoke quietly, sounding very flat, then pushed back from the table and stood up.
Josh abruptly stood up too. “Bryan, where are you going?”
“Huh? Oh, I’ll be around. Don’t worry about it. I told you I see you here a lot. Next time, I’ll come up and say hi. See ya.”
“Wait!” Josh grabbed his arm. “You didn’t get to tell your whole story! You’re right in the middle of it. I don’t know where you’re sleeping, where you’re getting the money to eat, I don’t know anything! Just answer me this, though I think I know the answer. Are you staying with someone, right now? I mean, with a family? With adults, or just an adult? With anyone at all?”
Bryan looked down. This wasn’t turning out the way he’d thought it would at all. He’d had a simple plan, and now this. He hadn’t thought any of this through. He hadn’t planned to tell Josh the truth, and he’d ended up doing so. Thinking about it, he knew how and why that had happened. He knew why he’d come over to Josh’s table, and he knew why he’d told a long, intimate story to this complete stranger. He’d told him what he had simply to avoid doing what he’d set out to do. It had surprised him that saying what he had, telling his story — which hadn’t been part of his plan — had felt so good. Saying such private things, to a stranger even, was entirely out of character for him. And even though he was glad he’d done it, told what had happened to him, what he’d been through, it had led to this. Now, he didn’t know what to do. Josh was waiting for an answer. Bryan had to say something.
“Hey, Josh, I’ll be okay. You need to get going.”
“Bryan, answer my question.” Josh stared at him, challengingly.
Bryan was uncomfortable. But he felt something for Josh. He looked so innocent, so vulnerable. And, Bryan had been telling him the truth all afternoon. For some reason, it was difficult for him to start lying now.
He took the plunge. “No, I’m not staying with anyone. But I’m doing fine, really.”
“Bryan, I’m going home for dinner. You’re coming with me. Then you’re going to stay at my house tonight.”
Bryan stared at him in disbelief. Thoughts swirled quickly through his head, a mixture of hope, pleading with himself, and then resignation. He sighed. “I can’t do that Josh. I wish I, I mean, I really. . . . I, I can’t do that. I’m sorry. Thanks, but, I can’t.”
A little anger, evoked by his frustration, colored Bryan’s voice. “Because of the same reason I couldn’t call a friend the first night! Everyone has questions I can’t answer. Everyone will want to call my father, and that would be terrible. No, I appreciate it more than you know, but no, Josh.”
Josh uncharacteristically took Bryan’s arm and dragged him back to the table and pushed him into a chair. Then he sat down next to him. “Bryan, listen to me. I never tell anyone what to do. I’m shy and I’m not good with people. I hate myself a lot for the way I am, but I can’t help it. Everyone pushes me around at school and I don’t do anything about it. I never stand up for myself. But this is different. I going to say this. I’m taking you home with me. Right now. I’m going to do it, and you’re NOT going to say no. Now listen to me. You’re going to think this is nuts, but listen.
“I don’t have a mother. I only have my father. We live together, just the two of us. The thing is, my father is sort of distant. You’ve probably heard of absent-minded professors? Well, that’s sort of what he is. He’s a professor, and while he isn’t really absent-minded — he doesn’t forget things exactly — mostly he gets distracted by his own thoughts a lot and lives in his own world. When my mom was around, she kept him focused better. He wasn’t like that then. But she’s been gone awhile now and he just mostly lives in his head and in his studying and believe me, when you come home with me, he’s not going to be a problem. You have to trust me on this. You can trust me, can’t you?”
Bryan just looked at him without replying. Then he dropped his head and looked at the table, and when he replied, it was with a shaky voice. “You don’t know how much I want to.”
“Okay. That’s decided then. Let’s go. Oh, wait, do you need to get your duffle bag?”
Bryan didn’t move. He sat with his head hanging down, not meeting Josh’s eyes. Josh waited for him to answer. He didn’t realize Bryan couldn’t answer because he was afraid his voice would break.
Josh heard a sniff, then a soft reply. “I don’t have the duffle any more. Somebody took it.”
“Somebody took it? All your stuff?”
Bryan’s shoulders sort of shuddered. Then he nodded.
Josh looked at his watch again. It wasn’t just unusual for him to take charge of any situation, it was unheard of. It had never happened before in his life. But now, there was a need for it, and he felt something inside him he’d never felt before. “Bryan, come on. Get up. We’re going home.” And he took hold of Bryan’s upper arm and squeezed.
Bryan looked up at him, his eyes moist.
“Come on, let’s go.” Josh pulled, and almost as if he had surrendered his will, Bryan let himself be pulled up, then walked next to Josh as they left the food court.
Josh asked where Bryan’s bike was. It was closer to the food court than Josh’s, so they went and got it, then went to the where Josh’s was locked up and collected it, too. Then, they rode together to Josh’s house.
Josh lived on a quiet street of small middleclass houses not far from the mall. They rode their bikes up the driveway and Bryan followed Josh’s example by taking his into the side door of the garage and kicking down the kickstand. Then he followed Josh into the back door.
They walked into the kitchen where a man was standing at the stove, absently stirring a pot while reading a book. Josh said to him, “Hi, Dad. This is Bryan. Bryan, this is my dad, Dr. Warren. Dad, Bryan’s eating with us and staying here tonight. Can you call us when dinner’s ready?”
His father looked up from the book briefly, glanced at Bryan, then looked back at the book without speaking.
Josh got a sort of grin on his face and walked to the front of the house, Bryan following.
Instead of sitting down in the living room, Josh climbed the stairs and took Bryan to his room. It was in the front of the house and overlooked the street. Bryan looked around curiously and saw a queen-sized bed, a computer on a desk, a dresser, a TV set and all the typical things a young teenaged boy has in his bedroom, but mostly what he saw was bookshelves. Lots of bookshelves. Filled with lots of books.
Josh led Bryan to the bed, then pushed him down on it so he was sitting on the edge. “Okay. I don’t know what you’re feeling, Bryan. Let me tell you what’s going on here. I had to come home now because this is the time Dad starts dinner. You might not have noticed, but he was standing at the stove, stirring the pot, but hadn’t turned the burner on. If I don’t help him cook dinner, we don’t really have dinner, or it tastes weird because he forgot to put the right ingredients in. So I knew I had to come home right then.
“I haven’t heard your whole story yet, but I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I don’t know if it’s going to get better. I don’t know what’s been going on with you, but I think from what I’ve heard you might be tired. You might just want to collapse. If that’s so, go ahead. If you want to come down and sit in the kitchen, or living room, while I’m working on dinner, that’s great too. It’s up to you. I want you to relax. I don’t know if you’ve been able to do that for a while now. We’ll probably have dinner in a half hour or so. You can do whatever you want till then. I need to get back downstairs now. Just look around. Find anything you need. Come downstairs when you want to, or I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.” Josh got off the bed, then, squeezed Bryan’s arm and looked him in the eyes before leaving the room.
As soon as he left, Bryan fell back onto the bed. He lay there, his eyes closed. He wasn’t even thinking about anything. He simply lay there.
In the kitchen, Josh looked at what his father had set out for the meal, and quickly concluded the menu was going to be spaghetti. He stepped over to the stove and checked what his father was doing. There was a pan on the stove with tomato sauce in it.
“Did you do anything other than open a can of tomato sauce and put it in the pan, Dad?”
His father was still reading his book and didn’t reply. Josh reached up and pulled the book down, then repeated the question. His father looked at him, then looked at the pan. “Oh. No, I don’t think so.”
“OK. Why don’t you let me take over then? Go read, and I’ll call you when it’s done.”
His father looked at him, got a small apologetic grin on his face, said, “Sorry, Josh,” and left the room.
Josh took a package of Italian sausage out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter, then put a frying pan on the stove, lighted the burner and turned it to medium-low, added a little oil and put the sausages in. He started to get some lettuce out of the refrigerator, but paused for a moment, thinking. Then he turned around and walked out of the kitchen and back upstairs.
Bryan was still lying on the bed, but when he heard Josh walk in, he opened his eyes and looked at him. Josh sat down on the bed next to him.
“Bryan, I was wondering, I don’t know whether you just want to rest or do something, but I’m going to be making dinner, and if you wanted to help, or just sit with me in the kitchen, I wanted to invite you to join me. But it’s entirely up to you. You want to hang here, that’s okay too. I just don’t know what you’re feeling right now, and wanted to give you some options.”
Bryan thought for a moment, then slid off the bed and stood up. He gave Josh a slight grin and said, “Let’s go.”
Rather than sitting and watching Josh, Bryan wanted to help. Josh remembered Bryan had told him he’d been cooking since his mother had died and realized he didn’t need to tell him how to do things. So he simply told him they needed to put together a salad, fix some garlic bread, make the sauce and cook the spaghetti, and asked him what he wanted to help with. Between them, they divided the work and started in.
They were two 14-year-old boys. Even though they didn’t know each other well, even though Bryan carried with him an inner tension that never left him, they couldn’t work without talking, and as it will with young boys, the talking quickly became teasing and bumping and gentle insults and intentionally getting in each other’s way. They ended up doing some laughing, too, tentative laughing at first from Bryan, but more relaxed, fuller laughter as he seemed to remember how, and by the time dinner was ready, each had a whole new appreciation of and comfort level with the other.
They both set the table, then Josh called his father.
Bryan suddenly got nervous. What was the man going to ask him? Some questions he didn’t want to answer?
When Josh’s father joined them, he looked at Bryan, then asked Josh, “Are you going to introduce us?”
Josh grinned. “I already did, Dad. This is Bryan. He’s eating with us and going to spend the night. He’ll probably be here for a few days. His parents had to go out of town because of illness in the family and they weren’t sure how long it would be, but Bryan’s going to stay with us till they get back.”
His father looked at Josh, then smiled a little vaguely at Bryan and said, “Okay, that’s fine. I hope your relatives are all right. Do you two go to school together?”
Even though the question had been asked of Bryan, Josh answered. “No, we’re just friends. Hey dad, did you finish that book comparing Archilochus’ and Callinus’ elegies?”
“Yes, and it even mentioned Semonides. That reminds me, I have to check a date. Thanks for mentioning it. Excuse me for a minute, I’ll be right back.”
He left the table, and Bryan looked questioningly at Josh.
Josh smiled, then chuckled. “He’s going to get a book. When he gets back, he’ll read it. He won’t hear a thing we say.”
Bryan looked confused. “What you just said. I didn’t understand a word of it.”
Josh smiled again, looking a little wistful. “I should explain about Dad and me, I guess.”
Just then, his father walked back into the room carrying a book he was thumbing through. He sat down, found the page he wanted and began reading. After a couple minutes, he absently took a fork of spaghetti and lifted it to his mouth, where it hovered for a bit before he actually pushed it in and began chewing. Bryan watched this and Josh watched Bryan, then continued what he’d started saying.
“My mother died when I was 8. I guess I went through a hard period like you, although I was better prepared for it. We’d known for about a year that she was going to die. It was still hard when it happened, but it wasn’t unexpected and we were prepared, as much as we could be. Anyway, my father was, and is, a college professor specializing in the poetry of Ancient Greece. Before my mother got sick, she was the one who really ran things at home so my father could do research and prepare his class work. Taking care of my mother and me when she was ill had taken a lot of his time, and when she died, he felt some relief that it was over. I did too, because it was really hard at the end. But she died, and he started getting more and more absorbed in his work. I guess it was something like your dad, he needed something to get his mind off her death. Your dad started drinking. Mine started working long hours and reading when he was home. I think his mind spends a lot more time in ancient Greece than it does here.
“Maybe because of all the extra hours he was spending immersed in books, he began getting a reputation of being one of the leading scholars in that field. And when that happened, publishing companies began asking him to review new texts, first just concerning Greek poetry, then having anything to do with ancient Greece. After a couple years of doing that, he had an even bigger reputation, and it became almost automatic, if a book came out about almost any aspect of ancient Greece, my father would be asked to review it, and eventually his review would make or break a book.
“He started earning pretty good money doing reviews, but this meant he had to spend more and more time reading. It’s got to the point where, even when he’s home, he’s reading and researching and that’s about all he does. Even when I was young, he tended to get caught up in any book he was reading, but it’s much more than that now. You see him sitting there, trying to eat and read. And he doesn’t even hear us talking. That’s my dad.” He said this with a gentle wry tone that, while outwardly slightly scornful, in fact expressed a deep fondness for his father. Bryan could hear it in his voice.
Bryan thought about that, and thought about Josh. “You sort of got left with no parents at all when your mother died, then,” he said.
“Oh, it’s not that bad. Actually, my dad and I get along great. If I need him, I can get him to concentrate long enough to be there for me. It’s when he’s wrapped up in a new book review that he’s like you see him right now. He’s not always this bad. When he’s not reviewing a book, or books, then he’s not distracted and he’s completely aware of what’s going on. And, he loves me, I know that. This has made me more independent and I’ve learned how to do things, like cooking, for example, so it hasn’t been bad for me, either. I’ve just learned how to be by myself and not expect a lot of conversation at home.”
“I still don’t know what you were talking about before, when you got him to go get the book.”
“Oh, I just wanted to be able to talk to you. So I mentioned some Greek poets he’s been reading about. Archilochus and Callinus both lived around 650 BC and wrote elegies. Elegiac poetry is a type of Greek poetry combining hexameter and pentameter feet into couplets. There are different types of Greek poetry and they are classified by their content and style and also their specific meters.”
“Wow. You know about that stuff?!”
“Dad sometimes wants to talk about something he’s reading or reviewing, and a long time ago I picked up basic stuff listening to him.” Josh looked a little embarrassed. He hoped he wasn’t coming across as a total nerd. Normally, he’d never tell someone his age any of this. He realized that his forcefulness with Bryan that afternoon, insisting he come home with him, had resulted in a dynamic in their relationship that was entirely unlike anything Josh had experienced before. It was as though they were, at the very least, equals. Josh wasn’t accustomed to that feeling with his peers.
Bryan was quiet for a moment, then changed the subject, looking at Josh’s dad before speaking. Dr. Warren had given up all semblance of eating and was now completely absorbed in his book.
“That stuff you told him, about me staying here for a few days, you didn’t mean that, did you?”
“Why not? Don’t you want to?”
“It’s not that. It’s just that. . . Josh, why are you being so nice? You don’t even know me!”
Josh didn’t know how to answer. He couldn’t tell him the truth. He couldn’t tell him how lonely he was, or how he felt an attraction to Bryan when he saw him in the mall, how he got wrapped up in his story and started feeling different emotions for him, emotions he hadn’t had time to sort out. Josh knew one thing, however; he desperately wanted Bryan to stay with him. But he didn’t know exactly why and he didn’t know how to talk about it.
Bryan was looking at him. Josh had to say something.
“Hearing your story, I just thought you sounded like you needed some help. You couldn’t stay with any of your friends because they’d call your father. But I knew you could stay here. Hey, it’s no big deal. You want to help with the dishes?”
They’d finished eating by now. Bryan had the feeling his question was being brushed off, but when Josh stood up and reached for his plate, he stood up too. They began clearing the table, leaving Josh’s father’s plate in front of him. They put the dishes by the sink, and Bryan asked if they were going to wash them.
“No, if I cook, he washes, and vice versa. So we can leave these for him. What would you like to do? It’s eight o’clock. We could watch TV, I’ve got a few video games. Or if you want to, you could finish with what you were telling me at the mall.”
“Actually, I’m sort of talked out. I’ll finish it for you, but can we wait?”
“Sure. Maybe we could just watch a movie.”
That sounded good to Bryan. He realized he was feeling a relaxation of the tension that had been his world lately. He was just starting to let down his guard. He’d been living by his wits and senses. Now he could let some of that go. Now, for the moment, he could be a normal boy again. He suddenly realized how very tired he was.
Josh had a TV set and DVD player in his room and the boys decided to watch the movie up there. Josh had the latest Star Wars release, and they agreed to watch that.
“You want to get ready for bed? I know it’s early, but Bryan, you look a little beat. We could watch it in bed, and if you want to doze off, you can just do so.”
Bryan looked at Josh gratefully. “That sounds really good. Uh, am I sleeping in here with you, I mean, in the bed?”
Josh looked up at him from where he was inserting the DVD in the player. “Is that okay? That’s what I was thinking, but if that makes you uncomfortable. . . ?”
“No, that’s fine,” Bryan broke in. “I was just checking.” Now he blushed again. “Uh, what do you sleep in?”
“Just my boxers. But I have some pajamas if you want some. That’s right, you don’t have anything, do you? Okay, let’s go into the bathroom.”
Josh led the way down the hall and showed Bryan the bathroom and where the towels were kept, assigned Bryan one, then found a new toothbrush for him. He asked him if he wanted a shower, and Bryan’s eyes lit up.
“I haven’t had a shower except for a brief one at school in weeks.” Then he looked embarrassed again. “But I don’t have anything clean to put on afterward. I guess I’ll just put my boxers back on and sleep in those. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
Josh looked at him a moment, frowning, then asked Bryan to follow him back to the bedroom. When they were there, Josh asked him to sit on the bed again, then sat down facing him.
“Bryan, you seem embarrassed about this whole deal. I understand, I really do, but you’ll feel better and I will too if you just let me help you. If you need something, tell me. I want to help. I’ll feel really good if I can help you. I hate seeing you upset about every little thing. Think about it: do you think me lending you a pair of boxers is somehow going to bother me? Impose on me? The only thing that’ll bother me is if you don’t feel comfortable enough with me that you can ask for what you need.
“You’re going to be here for a while. We’re somehow going to figure out how we can get this all straightened out, get you into a better situation than the one you’re in now. One way or another, this is going to work out. But it’ll work out much better if we can do it together, rather than you worrying that you’re taking advantage of me or that you’re being a bother or an inconvenience.”
Bryan was looking down at the bed, and felt his eyes growing moist. He was quiet for a time, then looked up at Josh.
“Josh, I don’t know why you’re doing this! I don’t get it. You bought me food at the mall, you brought me here, I’m going to sleep here, now you want me to both eat and sleep here and you’re letting me borrow your clothes. . . it just seems too much. And I don’t understand this. I’ve been living by myself, taking care of myself, having to get food and keep my clothes presentable and be safe and. . . this just is so strange for me, one minute I’m sort of surviving the best I can and scared all the time, I can’t ever really relax, then the next, for no reason at all, you’re taking care of me and all my problems, well, most of my problems, have disappeared. It takes some getting used to and I haven’t done that yet. And I’m still not sure why you’re doing all this. It doesn’t make sense to me. Would you do this to any stray kid at the mall who told you a story?”
It was Josh’s turn to blush. Here was this same question he’d faced at dinner. He needed to answer it, but didn’t know how. How could he tell him the truth?
He looked up at Bryan, looked into his eyes. Every time he did that, the sense of wonderment he felt for this boy shocked him again. It was just as strong now as the first time he’d seen him.
Josh looked away. “I don’t think I can tell you. I’m not brave enough. And it’s embarrassing. Can’t you just let me help? Without questioning it?”
Bryan studied his blushing friend. He had no idea why he’d be embarrassed, but then, he hardly knew him. What he knew was this boy was incredibly kind and compassionate, very smart, and quite self-conscious and shy. He blushed easily, usually wouldn’t look Brian in the eye for more than a brief moment, and wasn’t at all confident when they talked about anything the least bit personal. And, he knew that he himself felt a great sense of relief, being here in this house, feeling safe and being helped, a sense of relief that was almost overwhelming. Until some of the pressure had been removed when Josh had invited him home, he had not realized how near the edge he’d been. And he knew the only reason he was now able to relax, for the first time in what seemed like forever, was Josh. Realizing this, a tremendous feeling of gratitude suddenly washed over him.
“Josh, I’ll try. I’ll try to act like a friend and just accept your help. I’ll try not to embarrass you. And maybe, when we know each other better, you’ll be able to tell me what you can’t tell me now.”
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