What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
Josh could tell from the sound of Bryan’s voice this was again beginning to get to him. Bryan was becoming agitated, remembering the past few weeks and talking about them. Josh thought a change of pace was needed.
“Bryan, let’s take a break. We need to go to the mall and get you those clothes. Why don’t we do that now? We’ve got lots of time to finish the story.”
Bryan smiled at him. “You seem to be trying to protect me all the time. I’m not used to that. But you know, right now, it feels kind of good. Thanks.”
Josh smiled back. When Bryan smiled at him, it made his stomach tingle. He liked the feeling. He liked the feeling of having someone to talk to where he didn’t feel so uncomfortable. He liked the feeling of being a little bit in charge, like he had some ownership in the relationship. This was new to him, and he was liking it a lot. He felt very happy, not his usual tentativeness. At least temporarily, he felt he’d made a friend, and that made him feel very good about himself.
They rode their bikes to the mall. When they arrived, Josh rode to where he usually left his bike. Both boys dismounted and locked their bikes to a rack.
“What store do you want to shop at?” asked Josh.
Bryan looked embarrassed, and Josh realized he was thinking about the cost of clothes again. So before he could answer, Josh spoke up.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. That question put you on the spot, and that’s not what I wanted to do. Look, I shop at Townsend’s for clothes and The Bootery for shoes. We can go to both if that’s okay. If you have a place you prefer, we can do that, too, but not if it’s something like Wal*Mart or Kmart. We’re not looking for cheap here. We’re looking for nice.”
“But, Josh. . . .” This was really hard for Bryan. He felt like he was getting charity. It made him feel really helpless, and he didn’t like that feeling at all.
“Bryan, let’s try to make it fun. If you’re going to be embarrassed and hating this, we’ll both be miserable all day, and this should be something we can enjoy. If you’re going to do it anyway — and we both decided you are — why not have fun? Tell you what. I think you just have to change your mood, and to do that you have to change the way you’re looking at this. Why don’t we do it this way? We’ll pretend I’m just loaning you the money, that you’re going to pay me back next week. You’ve got a rich uncle who said he’s going to cover all your expenses today when he comes to visit you next week. And he wants you to get the best stuff, the stuff you really would like to have. Think of it that way, that you don’t want to disappoint your uncle when he gets here. He wants you to look great, and will be pissed if you don’t. Okay?”
Bryan looked at Josh, his expression again the unreadable one that Josh saw when he first met him. But then, his eyes brightened and a small smile made its way to his face.
“I’ll try,” he said simply.
Josh and Bryan walked to Townsend’s, a large clothing store that was popular with teens. They started scanning the clothes in the Young Men’s department. Josh watched to see what styles attracted Bryan, and they began discussing what each found attractive. After looking pretty thoroughly at all the racks and shelves of clothes on display, Bryan picked out one pair of pants and one shirt.
“I’ll try these on,” he told Josh.
Josh just looked at him, disgusted. “Do we have to talk about this again, Bryan? One shirt, one pair of pants? Come on! You need stuff, just like any other guy. You need to be able to fuss about what you’re going to wear each morning, just like every other teenager, and how can you do that if there’s only one outfit on your hangers? At the very least you need three pairs of pants, although four would be better. And about six shirts. And two or three pairs of shorts. Some athletic ones, too. Then you need underwear and socks. Also, we have to get you shoes.”
“But that’ll all cost a fortune!”
“Whatever it costs, that’s what it’ll cost, and who cares? It’ll also make me happy, and I want to do it, and you need it. When you can, you can pay me back, or not. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter. There’ll be just a little less money in the box for a couple weeks, then it’ll all be back to where it was, and no one will even be thinking about it. Buying this stuff isn’t a hardship, it’s not even anything anyone’s going to notice. Can’t we do this without arguing about it?”
Bryan looked at Josh and saw that he really was determined, even eager to do this. As much as he was fighting it, he really did want some clothes. And Josh’s tenacity was wearing down his reluctance.
“OK, I’ll pick out a few more,” he sighed.
“Great. I’ll help.” And Josh started picking things out too, things he thought would look great on Bryan.
Eventually, each with an armful of clothes, they made their way to the changing rooms. An older lady with a severe look on her face sat at a desk by the doorway, guarding the entrance.
“Hold it. Only five items per customer.”
They laid their clothes on her desk and each picked up five of them. She scowled at them, then gave them each a placard with a large 5 on it.
“We’ll be back in a few minutes. Would you please hold these others for us?” Josh asked her politely.
The lady frowned again, but gathered the remaining clothes and set them in a pile on a table behind her.
The two boys walked into the dressing room area. There were eight booths there, and one of them was occupied.
“The one in the corner is the largest,” said Josh, leading the way.
“Uh, are you coming in, too?” Bryan asked.
“Sure. I’ve got to be sure everything fits okay and looks good on you. You don’t want me to?”
“Oh, no, that’s all right, I guess. Just surprised me. I guess before, when I was littler, with my mother, I’d put something on, then walk back into the store so she could check it out.”
“This way you won’t have to do all that walking,” Josh said with a grin. “And it’s better if I check the inseam to see the fit is right back here where we’ll have some privacy.”
Bryan’s eyes got large, and Josh laughed; laughed hard. Eventually, Bryan did, too, and the ice was broken a little.
They went inside, and Josh closed the door behind them and engaged the lock. There were several hooks on the wall, a built-in bench to sit on and a full-length mirror on the wall. They both hung their piles of clothes on the hooks. Then Bryan began removing his shirt.
Josh saw that and took one of the shirts off its hanger and held it for him, waiting. That gave him the opportunity to look at Bryan. He’d seen him in the kitchen that morning, standing shirtless while asking about borrowing a T-shirt, and last night before bed, too. Somehow, this was different. Here he saw him taking off his shirt, which was sort of like undressing, but not while getting ready for bed, or in his own kitchen. This was a store dressing room, sort of a public place. It just felt different. And quite a bit sexy.
Josh handed Bryan the shirt, and Bryan slipped it on.
“Looks good on you,” Josh told him.
“You think?” Bryan looked at himself in the mirror.
“Sure. Try this one.” Josh had another one ready. Bryan took off the first T-shirt and they traded with each other. Josh put his back on the hanger while Bryan was putting the second one on.
“This looks fine also,” said Bryan, looking in the mirror and twisting to both sides. “You know, they’re all the same size. I don’t really have to try them all on.”
“Well, you have to try the pants. They always fit a little different.” He took a pair of jeans and started removing the clips holding them on the hanger.
“OK,” said Bryan, removing the shirt. He hung it on one of the hooks, then took off his pants.
Josh couldn’t help himself. He had to look. Now Bryan was standing before him in just his boxers. And, in Josh’s eyes, he looked gorgeous. He was slim with perfect skin, and Josh was transfixed.
Josh stirred, then handed a pair of very light tan cargo pants to Bryan, looking up at his face at the same time. Bryan was grinning at him.
“Sorry,” said Josh, his normal bashfulness having returned with a vengeance. He retreated a little bit into himself.
The pants fit Bryan well. Really well, in Josh’s estimation.
“Wait,” he said, “keep those on for a moment,” and handed Bryan a deep blue polo shirt. “Try this with the pants.”
Bryan did, then turned to look at himself in the mirror. When he turned back, he caught Josh staring at him again with a deer-in-the-headlights sort of look.
“Does it look all right to you?”
Josh looked up. “Yeah. It looks, uh, yeah, it’s great.”
Bryan again took off both the pants and shirt, and this time Josh quickly turned around and got another pair of pants.
As Bryan was trying those on, Josh suddenly said, “Hey, we didn’t pick up any underwear or socks. You keep trying stuff on, I’ll get some. Oh, and I’ll get some more of the clothes you need to try on from the lady.” He picked up the T-shirts, polo shirt and pants that had passed muster and then quickly left the dressing room.
When he’d closed the door, he stopped for a minute to compose himself, to settle down, to adjust what needed adjusting. Then he traded the clothes with the dressing room guardian for the same number from the pile and took those back to Bryan.
Josh went back into the dressing room. Bryan was just taking off the last pair of pants. Josh glanced at him, then looked away. “Here are some more. And I just realized, you can’t try on the underwear anyway.”
“Oh, you wanted to see me try on the underwear, didn’t you. You wanted to check me out. Perv!”
Bryan was teasing, just kidding around, but Josh went pale. His eyes opened wide and he took a step backwards.
“No, no,” he said, and he began to tremble.
Bryan immediately saw what he’d done. He quickly stepped over to Josh and put his hands on his upper arms, holding him. “Josh, I was kidding. I was teasing you. I didn’t mean it. Friends tease each other; that’s all it was. Calm down; please. Come on. It was a joke.”
Josh couldn’t look him in the face, couldn’t see the compassion Bryan was evincing. He was still trembling, and Bryan could feel it. Bryan didn’t know what to do. It looked to him like Josh was going to cry.
“Come over here, let’s sit down,” said Bryan, sort of tugging Josh with him over to the bench. He pulled Josh down as he sat, and then put his arm around Josh’s shoulder. He thought about pulling him in against his chest, but fought the temptation as inappropriate. “I didn’t mean it, Josh. Really. It was just a bad joke.”
Josh continued trembling, but it was easing a little. He was feeling terrible. He had to fight to hold the tears back.
“Why are you so upset?” Bryan asked him, puzzled.
Josh didn’t say anything right away. Eventually, he did a soft snuffle and swallowed, then began speaking softly. “That’s the sort of thing I hear all the time. Guys at school call me a fag, they tell me I’m looking at them funny. Then sometimes they punch me in the stomach or on the shoulder. They do it even if I’m not looking at them. There’s sometimes a group of them, and they all laugh. Sometimes they push me down. Sometimes they spit on me. Then they tell me they’ll get me again tomorrow.”
He took a deep breath. “If a couple of them get me alone in the bathroom, it can even be worse. One time three of them pushed my head in the toilet. Once they pulled my pants down and were threatening to push me outside that way.”
Bryan could feel him beginning to shake again, and he could see tears in Josh’s eyes. He tightened his arm, holding him even more firmly, then did pull him against him. He could feel only compassion for Josh. He was as nice and caring and generous a kid as he’d ever met, and this was what he had to live with at school. This was what his life was like. He had to face this stuff every day.
He wanted to make Josh feel safe. “Josh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’ll tell you a secret. I liked the way you were looking at me. It made me feel like I looked good. It made me feel sort of special. You can look at me any time you want. And Josh, I like spending time with you, too.”
Josh didn’t say anything. He was feeling a lot of mixed emotions, embarrassment about being such a wuss predominating, but he was also enjoying the feeling of being held by Bryan, and being told Bryan didn’t mind how he was looking at him. He’d have to think about what that meant when he had some time.
After a few minutes, when he’d settled down, Josh pulled away a little, and Bryan released his arm from around Josh’s shoulders. Josh sat up straight and dried his eyes then gave Bryan a weary smile.
“I’m sorry. Now you know. I’m this little nerdy jerk coward who cries and lets himself get picked on. I’m really sorry, Bryan. I can’t help it. You’re this really neat guy, and you don’t want to be around someone like me. Nobody does. I wish I weren’t me. But I can’t help it. I tried once to stand up to them, to hit back. Then I really got it. It was after school and the four of them started pushing me. They grabbed my backpack and scattered my books and papers all over. One of them punched me, and I just sort of lost it. For once, my fear got buried underneath my anger. I yelled and hit him back. I was just fed up with it all, I was mad, and I hit him back. I didn’t hit him hard. I tried, but I don’t even know how to do that. I just swung, and hit him in his side. But he got a smile on his face, his eyes sort of lit up, and then he really hit me. Once in the stomach, once in the face. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground, really hurting — I could hardly breathe, my face was on fire and then he kicked me a few times. One of his friends did, too. Then they stood there laughing at me and all I could do was lie there, hurting. I pulled my legs up so I was sort of all huddled up on the ground, and they were all calling me fag and homo and names like that. And laughing. And I started crying. That was the worst. I hate crying. But I was hurting bad, they thought that was funny, and I felt so pathetic and hating myself and my crying made them call me even more names.
“Eventually they just left. I guess I wasn’t much fun for them any more. After a while, I rolled over and sat up. My books and stuff were all over. It hurt to stand up, they’d kicked me in the thighs and arms and ribs and everything was sore, but I had to pick up my stuff. I gathered it up and went home. I didn’t go to school the next day. I hurt too much.”
“Didn’t your father notice how you looked? He must have seen the bruises. And did you tell people at school?”
“My father was at a meeting out of town. He was away for a week. He never knew. And I didn’t tell anyone at school, either. I’ve seen other kids who get picked on a lot do that, tell. I don’t know whether that’s the right thing to do or not. The school has procedures they follow, and one thing they do is call everyone in, and this would have been four kids saying I’d picked the fight, four kids saying they’d done nothing wrong, and then me saying they’d beaten me up for no reason. I just didn’t see where I was going to get anywhere doing that.”
“You could at least have shown them your bruises.”
“Yeah, and the other guys could have just said they had nothing to do with that, or that I’d picked a fight with one of them and all the kid had done was defend himself. I couldn’t prove anything. At the most, the guys would have got a warning. Then, they’d have got me again, and probably a lot worse.”
Bryan didn’t know what to say. He knew that some kids at school got picked on. Most didn’t, but some did. He was one of the ones that didn’t. Even though he was about the same size as Josh, only a bit larger, he never got picked on. He’d thought about it before, wondered about it, and had always thought it had something to do with the way he carried himself, or that he just instinctively knew what to say when he was confronted so those confrontations never turned into fights. And there was something else, too; he wasn’t reluctant to fight back if he had to. Josh was a little softer than he was, he just had that look of someone that wouldn’t stand up for himself. Bryan knew kids with that look were frequently targets.
Josh had said some things Bryan knew he had to respond to. He took Josh’s shoulders and gently turned him so they were looking eye to eye.
“Josh, I don’t for a second want you thinking I don’t want to be your friend, or that I’m embarrassed to be with you or anything else. You’re doing so much for me right now, I don’t deserve any of it, and I’m so grateful I don’t know how to express it. The truth is, I don’t know you yet. I don’t know what sort of humor you like, what makes you mad, how you react to things. But I keep forgetting that because you’re so nice and doing so much for me. I keep sort of thinking we’re old friends, and forgetting you don’t know me any better than I know you. So I made a joke, but you had no way of knowing I tease like that. Josh, listen — there’s nothing wrong with you. Anyone who doesn’t want to be your friend just doesn’t know you. So don’t think that I don’t want to be. We’re going to talk more about this when we get home. I have some things I want to say. I have an idea. But we’ll talk about it later. You okay now?”
Josh simply nodded, his eyes looking downward.
Bryan stood up and changed the subject. “I think all this stuff is good. That one pair of pants is too big, but everything else is great. But how are we going to get it all home? It’s too much for our bikes.”
Josh was recovering some of his composure, but still couldn’t look Bryan in the eye. He stood, too, and looking away, said in a softer voice than he’d been using, “We’ll have them hold it, and I’ll have Dad come and get it. And we still have more stuff to get. Shoes and bathroom stuff.”
They left the changing room, told the changing room lady what they were going to purchase and arranged to have her get those things to the front cashier, then picked up some socks and boxers and got in line to pay for everything.
Bryan’s eyes grew large when he saw the bill was over $400, but Josh just paid with the cash he’d brought and had the stuff bagged and held for pickup later.
Next they went to The Bootery, where Bryan finally asserted himself a little more aggressively. He was looking at the moderately priced sneakers and Josh kept pushing him for the name brands.
“Josh, please let me just get these. I know what you’ve said, but you have to understand that no matter what, I’m embarrassed. I agree I need a pair of shoes, so I’ll get one, but it doesn’t have to be the most expensive. Please let me choose here.”
Josh stopped his pushing and backed off immediately. After his break-down in the dressing room a lot of his new-found self-confidence had deserted him again. Even though Bryan’s rebuke had been mild, Josh quickly stopped talking and took a step back, lowering his head as he did so.
His body language was unmistakable, and Bryan saw it clearly. He wasn’t sure what to do, and he felt awful that he’d just hurt Josh again. Then, he stepped over to Josh, took hold of his arm and started pulling him to the door. When they were outside the store, Josh stopped. “What’re you doing?” he asked.
“Josh, we need to talk. Let’s go to the food court and get a drink. We can talk there.”
Bryan turned and began walking, and Josh, after hesitating a moment, hurried to catch up. They walked to the food court in silence. When they arrived, Bryan asked Josh to get a couple drinks while he found them a table. It was lunch time and the court was crowded.
“You want some food, too?” Josh asked.
Bryan looked around the court and saw the lines were substantial at all the various food servers. “Might as well,” he said. “No point in having to stand in line twice.”
“What do you want?”
“Anything you like. Surprise me?” Bryan had a wry grin on his face, and Josh, looking at him, returned a half-hearted smile as he was turning to choose a line to wait in.
Bryan had to look pretty hard to find a table. At first there didn’t appear to be any vacant. He then found one that had just been vacated. A group of kids his age had just left without taking their trash with them. Bryan collected it together on the edge of the table, then sat down. As busy as it was, if he took it to the trash barrels, the table would be occupied by the time he got back.
He had to wait a good 20 minutes before he saw Josh reach the head of the line at Pizza Hut. When his food had come, Josh picked up his tray and looked around, scanning the tables for Bryan. Bryan stood up and waved, and Josh finally saw him.
“Hope you like pepperoni,” said Josh, spreading drinks and the pizza slices out on the table.
“I don’t think there’s much you could put on a pizza that I wouldn’t like. Maybe anchovies, but I’m not sure. I’ve never had them.”
“I have. My advice is: leave them be.” Josh even got a little smile on his face, saying that. Then he looked down at the table and asked, “What do we need to talk about?”
He didn’t look back up, just kept staring at the table.
Bryan watched him, and was going to start talking, but instead just waited. It took over a minute, but finally Josh looked up questioningly.
“Josh, I hardly know how to say this, but I think I have to. This is embarrassing, probably for both of us. But listen. Josh, I really like you. You’re a really great guy. I mean that sincerely. I feel really grateful to you, but I feel more than that. I feel comfortable with you. I feel I can say anything to you, I can joke with you, I’m already in the middle of telling you about as big a secret as I could tell anyone so you know I trust you. You’re not supposed to say things like this, but Josh, you’re great and I can’t ever remember having a friend I felt closer to or trusted more completely. Ever.” He was staring at Josh while he said this and Josh, to his great credit, hadn’t looked down. He was still looking back at Bryan. Now, Josh couldn’t help himself, he blushed and dropped his eyes.
Then he forced himself to look back up again. “Thanks, Bryan,” he said softly, and then in a firmer voice continued, “but I sort of feel there’s a big BUT coming now.”
“Yeah. When people say something nice, they usually follow it with a but, then say something not so nice.”
“Oh. That kind of but. Well, I’m not going to say something bad. I’m just going to say, Josh, stop being so hard on yourself! It seems whenever I raise my voice or argue with you or even disagree, you sort of go into a shell. I think you worry I’m upset with you. But you shouldn’t think that! You’re a great guy, and no matter what’s happened in the past, I know how great you are and I like you. I want to be friends. If it works out that way, I’d like to be best friends. But we can’t do that if you’re afraid of me, or how I’m going to react to any and everything. If you’re afraid I’m going to be mad at you all the time. If you do that, you’ll be watching everything you say to me. Best friends don’t get mad like that. It takes something really, really bad to happen before best friends react like that. I want us to be able to say what we think. I won’t dislike you even if I don’t agree with something. I like you a lot, Josh.” He paused, and Josh didn’t say anything. After a moment, Bryan got a little nervous. “Can you tell me what you’re thinking, Josh?”
Josh was going through all sorts of feelings. What Bryan had just said made him feel almost euphoric. The thought of this boy he had such strange feelings for liking him, wanting to be his friend, his BEST friend, was magic. Josh wanted that more than he wanted anything. But could he be a best friend? Josh knew he wasn’t good with people, wasn’t good with small talk, knew he got defensive too easily. Would a guy as great as Bryan was still want to be friends when he got to know how dorky Josh really was?
Also, Josh knew he was a coward. He knew he couldn’t stand up to people when they started teasing him and it turned mean. He felt awful about it, but that’s just the way he was. And Bryan wouldn’t like that in him. He was sure of that.
So while he loved what Bryan was saying, he was not a bit confident it could work.
“Bryan, I want to be friends with you more than anything. I’ve never had a best friend. But you don’t know me, and I’m pretty sure if you did, when you do, you wouldn’t be saying all this. Once you really get to know me, you won’t much like me.”
Bryan looked at Josh for a moment, gathering his thoughts. As he began replying, he laid his hand lightly on Josh arm where it lay on the table. “That’s just what I’m talking about! You have this thing in your head that there’s something wrong with you. Well, I don’t think that at all. I don’t know how to get you to stop thinking that, but I’m going to try. Look, I can’t be best friends with someone that doesn’t look at me like an equal. It’s the same with you. How can I be your best friend if you’re always afraid that whatever you say may bother me? You can’t. You’d be worrying all the time about whatever you said, you’d be pretending to be someone you aren’t, I’d never really be able to get to know you. You wouldn’t let me.”
He paused then, as Josh had dropped his eyes. He waited till Josh looked at him, then continued. “You have to feel you can be, you can say, whatever it is you feel. You can be silly or stupid and say whatever you want. And I won’t mind. That’s what having a best friend is. Not being afraid you’re going to offend them or they’re going to think you’re stupid or anything. If we’re going to be best friends, I have to be able to be me and you, you, and all it’ll do is make us like each other more. So you need to stop feeling that I won’t like you if you say the wrong thing. I like you for who you are, Josh, and I want to see that guy, not some shy, awkward, scared guy, worried about everything he says. I don’t think that’s who you really are. I think that’s the face you show to the world, but it’s not for me.”
He stopped to let his words sink in. When he resumed, it was with great sincerity in his voice. “When you’re with me, you don’t need to hide like that, you don’t need to think that way about yourself. Do you think you can do that? Can you accept the fact that I think you’re cool? Can you just be you?”
Josh blushed again, and had a difficult time lifting his eyes from the table, where they’d again fallen. He didn’t look up for nearly a full minute. Then he did. He looked up at Bryan and spoke from his heart. “I don’t know if I can or not. But I want to. I can try. I will try.”
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