Were there any other combinations of five letters as powerful as “alone?” It didn’t feel like it to Cam. Not now, anyway. Not as he slowly peddled in the general direction of the school, the familiar weight of his school bag cradled across his shoulders.
It had been days since he had last heard from Nathan. A couple quick emails followed by what amounted to the electronic equivalent of an awkward silence. In real life, such periods lasted a few minutes, maybe half an hour, tops. On top of that, after the first few days, their real-life silences hadn’t seemed awkward at all. Cam felt like he could just sit in silence next to Nathan for hours on end and still feel accomplished at the end of the day. No, these long-distance silences were much worse, much crueler.
He had planned to ride to school with Jill and Andrew, but they’d missed each other somehow. He had still been hanging around with them, but they seemed to be occupied a lot more often now. Cam figured that it just seemed that way now that he wasn’t so pre-occupied with Nathan. Sweet, beautiful Nathan who had been ripped out of his life like a band-aid getting pulled off of the thickest patch of hair on –
His thoughts were interrupted by the sudden appearance of the school building against his eyes. He realized then that, all romantic drama aside, he had to face the more mundane but no less difficult dramatics of getting used to a new school. It was only now that he wished that he had met some other people over the summer, rather than staying cloistered in his tight but small group. This was a building full of at least twelve hundred kids that he had never met.
“Hey, what-” Jerry had found himself speaking mainly in sentence fragments since arriving for his first day of middle school. This was due mostly to the fact that no matter where he went he was in someone’s way, and a stiff-arm into the lockers was widely considered to be an acceptable substitute for “Excuse me, sir, but you happen to be obstructing my intended path. Would it bother you too greatly to take a step to the right? Thank you.”
Finding his way around the school had been no problem during orientation. After all, there had been only a fraction of the students present for each section, and they all had their parents or guardians standing right next to them, maintaining some kind of order. Now, however, there were no authority figures in sight and the hallways were packed shoulder-to-shoulder. The crowd felt like its own entity, moving through the halls like a single serpentine organism rather than a group of independents.
Jerry wished once again that his cousin hadn’t moved away. Now that he was gone, he felt awkward hanging around with the others. He was sure that Cam, Jill, and Andrew would put up with him, but he really hated the idea of having to be “put up with” in the first place. Being flanked by eighth graders would have made things a lot easier, but without Nathan around, he felt like an outsider. Things would have been so much easier if Uncle Adam hadn’t shown up.
Finally, he found a restroom and ducked inside to double-check his schedule. He took a deep breath, relieved to be out of the crowd. He had just unfolded his schedule when he heard a voice behind him. Close.
He started to turn when he heard another voice to his side.
“She must be lost.”
Did that guy just say “she”? As in, a female pronoun? Nah, must have misheard. After all, he wasn’t the toughest-looking guy around, sure, but he was about as far from girly as you could get.
“Definitely.” A third voice, now. He shoved his schedule into his pocket quickly and turned to get a look at them. He was immediately grabbed by the shoulder and walked out into the hall rather forcefully.
“See, this is the men’s room.” He now recognized it as the first guy’s voice. All three of them looked the same to Jerry – same haircuts, same kind of clothes, same general build. They immediately gave off the impression of being the kind of guys who would wear black leather on a ninety degree day. They were a few inches taller than he was, but from where he was standing, they might as well have been NBA players.
“Yeah. You can’t use this one unless you have a dick. Kind of a pre-requisite.”
“Don’t worry, though, we’ll help you out.”
It took him a little while to realize exactly what was happening – after all, he was Jerry Hensley, taker of absolutely no crap from anyone. This was new. So this was bullying, huh? No wonder it was always getting such a bad rap. It sucked.
He felt himself re-joining the crowd, now being pushed along by the three guys who had accosted him in the restroom. Not for very long, though. Soon enough, vision still obscured on all sides by a shifting cloud of shirt slogans, he was shoved hard into a different room all together. A room that looked a lot like the restroom he had just left, but without the urinals.
“Girl’s room. Of course.” He said to himself. “Got to hand it to those guys, they had their routine down.”
Now the only question was how long he would have to stick around before those guys got bored and wandered off to kick some puppies or something. Well, that, and how to explain himself if –
“What the hell?” The sudden female voice from behind him made him jump. “What are you –”
“Bathroom attendant.” He interjected quickly, locking eyes with her and tearing a sheet of rough brown paper from the wall dispenser. “Uh...Towel, ma’am?”
“Right. You want to get out of here?” She snatched the paper towel from his hand and pointed to the door.
“I guess a tip is out of the question, then?”
“Actually, it’s Jerry, but nicknames are fine with me.” He was trying his hardest to stall long enough to give those guys a chance to leave, but judging by the expression on the girl’s face, it wasn’t going to work for much longer.
“Are you trying to fucking flirt with me in the middle of the girl’s room? Do you not know how insanely creepy that is?”
“Uh...” She imitated, nodding toward the door. “Leave.”
“Look, I don’t want to be in here any more than you want me in here, okay?”
“Then...Oh!” She said, her voice losing its edge. “You’re cornered, aren’t you? Restroom Refugee?”
“Yeah, ‘cornered’ pretty much covers it.”
She stuck her head out the door and looked around before leaning back in. “Coast is clear. Get out of here.”
Jerry started forward, but at the last second leaned backwards against the wall and crossed his arms.
“I don’t know, now I’m starting to like it here. Not as crowded as the hallway.”
“Look, I’m not setting you up; there’s no one out there. Get out.” The edge was coming back, slowly but surely.
The bell rang loudly in the hall.
“Alright. Now we’re late. Get to class. Tell them you got lost or something. They’ll believe it, clueless as you look.” She sounded more and more exasperated with each syllable.
“What about you?”
She let out a sort of groaning sigh and let her shoulders sink. “I’ll tell them I got stuck helping some clueless Sixie. Come on, just go already.” Now Jerry was being forcefully led by the shoulders yet again, this time by a girl just a little taller than himself. Whoever said that middle school was the time to start showing signs of independence didn’t know what they were talking about.
“Wait.” He said, grabbing the side of the door. “I didn’t get your name.”
“No, you didn’t. God, go to class already!”
He gave her his best possible attempt at puppy-dog eyes. She let out another one of those groaning sighs, but was obviously suppressing a smile.
“Karen. Now leave.”
“Later.” He gave her a quick salute and set off in the direction of...well, he wasn’t sure which direction he was setting off in, but at least the halls were empty. Plus, he’d met a girl. He’d met a girl on the first day – an event spoken of in near-mythical standards between the other guys in his grade. He made a mental note to keep hanging around with Andrew, awkwardness aside, to study more of the ways of the smooth-talker.
Andrew, of course, would say that being a successful smooth-talker isn’t something that you can learn. It has to be hard-wired into one’s system in some mysterious way. Kind of like being a homosexual or a Jedi, he surmised.
He slid into his desk and kicked one leg up against the back of the empty chair in front of him in a classic passive display of dominance. Yeah, he knew how this worked. It established him as a self-proclaimed big-shot who thinks he owns the place. Then, when someone came to sit down in that seat, he would graciously drop his leg with a smile and a nod, further establishing him as a nice, approachable guy. Getting on the higher social tiers was never a problem for Andrew – just learn the rituals, keep a laid-back expression, and breeze through the school year.
His mark swaggered in and moved toward the seat directly in front of him. But wait, this wasn’t right. This wasn’t some downtrodden average guy that would make him look good for turning over the seat, no; this was one of the tough guys. The kind that would make him look like he was submitting to a higher power. Damn, this whole class was lost to him now, all thanks to this wild-card who obviously didn’t know the ritual.
The tough guy, an eighth grader by the name of Mike something-or-other, strolled right up to the desk and dropped his backpack to the floor with a thud. He shot Andrew a look that made him lower his foot immediately, and then sat down. Andrew realized then that this was Mike’s ritual. Even though it broke his own ritual and more-or-less lost this class for him, he couldn’t help but admire the guy’s strategy. He had successfully taken a big-shot down a notch and established his own dominance just by sitting down. Impressive.
He glanced around to see if anyone else had picked up on that little power-play. Oh, they definitely noticed the motions, but as far as he could tell, he and Mike were the only ones to really understand what just happened. He raised the corners of his lips and nodded. A rival, and an educated one at that. At least one class was going to be interesting.
It was a typical first day for everyone – every teacher went through the same rules, made the same pronunciation errors in everyone’s name, and sent them off with a stack of the same forms to be filled out by parents and/or guardians and/or students who happened to be adept at forgery. Like all first days, it seemed to flash past and drag on forever at the same time. After a blur of boredom and clock-watching, Cam found himself heading toward his final and most dreaded class of the day. That’s right, the one rumored to be taught by some combination of Dracula, Satan, and those creepy sunglasses-dudes from The Matrix.
He could tell even before stepping into the classroom that the rumors had gotten around. While most rooms had students milling around the door or leaning against the walls talking to each other, this one was way too quiet. He stepped in to see that every kid in the room was seated and facing forwards. Granted, it didn’t look like there were any crazy-types in the room just yet, but it was still unnervingly orderly. Especially when you considered that the teacher wasn’t even in the room yet.
He scoped out a seat off to one side, close to the windows. Sitting to far back made you look like a wannabe rebel, sitting too close to the front made you look like a nerd, sitting in the middle meant being surrounded on all sides, with no safe place to look in the event of awkward moments. Sitting by the side windows seemed to have few immediate implications, so he went with that whenever possible.
As an added bonus, being next to a window gave him a free excuse to get lost in thought and stare off into space without getting too many odd looks. To most, it would look like he was just appreciating nature, when in reality he was daydreaming about Nathan. Just thinking about him brought an all-too-familiar feeling to his guts, a simulated seasickness that made him feel hot and cold at the same time. He knew there was no way that could be good for you, but his brain seemed intent on sickening him in every spare moment. Did it not understand what it was doing to him? He didn’t doubt it. After all, he didn’t quite understand, either.
He thought back to the previous night, when he had gone through the usual routine of checking his email. He’d practically held his breath watching the progress bar creep its way across the screen, hoping that he could hear from Nathan. Asking himself, “Is this it? Is this going to be the end of the silent period right here? Will I be reading some comforting ‘I love yous’ and ‘I miss yous’ in just a few seconds?” Perfectly normal – that’s what he had been thinking ever since he had left. But then something new had hit him, something that he wasn’t ready for at all. Somewhere, deep in the back of his head, where he kept all of his darkest, most unwelcome thoughts, he’d heard himself thinking “I hope not.” He didn’t like this thought. He hated it. It wasn’t his, couldn’t be his, it had to have been some other thought, lost on its way to someone else’s neurons because of some misprint on the psychological road map.
He didn’t want to think about it, but his brain didn’t want to listen. Every time he had a few free moments, it came back to him: “I hope not.” Stupid brain. Always trying to complicate things. Stupid adults. Always moving around and leaving the kids disoriented. Stupid school, stupid world, stupid love. Love? Is that what it was, really? Or was it just a couple of shy, gay kids latching on to the first other shy, gay kid they could find? Some kind of survival instinct? Was it possible that it wasn’t love at all, that love is something completely different and even more confusing? He didn’t think he could take that. Maybe love just wasn’t for him. Thirteen and burned out. Maybe he could become a jaded poet or something.
The bell rang and the door closed, drawing Cam’s attention back to the present. The teacher had entered the room. The quintessential Walking Suit. Cam looked up, for the first time seeing the face of this alleged hardass, this rumored ex-con, ex-CIA, ex-FBI, ex-Marine, ex-
Ex-truck yard security guard.
He had the feeling that had this been animated, his eyes would have just bulged across the room, accompanied by a sound not unlike a train whistle.
It had been a while, and he wasn’t in uniform now, but there was no question – the guy’s face had been more-or-less burned into his memory during an early-morning car ride some months ago. It was the guard, the one he had only known by his stupid code name, Saint Jake. It was impossible, right? Things like that don’t happen in real life. And yet, here it was, happening.
Cam sunk down in his chair, knowing that it wouldn’t do any good. Jake – er, Mr. Hall, according to the writing on the chalkboard – was calling off the roll. He might not have picked him out from the crowd, but he wasn’t blind.
“Here.” Cam raised his hand as his voice squeaked out, provoking a few snickers from those around him. He winced in anticipation as...as Mr. Hall went on to the next name on his list. This should have calmed him down, but it didn’t. Now he was just wondering whether the teacher didn’t remember or whether he had just decided not to say anything. He wasn’t sure which he would have preferred.
The class went the same as all the others – follow these rules, sign these forms, cover these books – and was let out at five till three. Being the last class of the day on the first day of school, it emptied out fairly quickly, and Cam made a point of being right in the middle of the crowd, with no chance of being singled out. If Mr. Hall had had any objections, he didn’t show them. Cam found himself biking home by himself, now with even more on his mind than before. How had things managed to get so complicated in such little time?
“I’m going to go crazy. Yeah, that’s it. Insane.” Nathan said to himself, sitting up and turning off his CD player. He had been lying on the floor of his room, staring at the ceiling. “It’s got to be today. It’s got to be. Or I’m going to go crazy. Nathan, you’re talking to yourself. Yeah, I know. Today. Definitely.”
He had sworn to himself days ago that he would come out to his father. As incentive, he had also sworn that he wouldn’t let himself talk to Cam until he did just that.
He had first decided to tell him on the drive home, somewhere on the Turnpike, maybe. Just as he thought he had worked up the nerve to do it, images of his dad twisting the wheel in shock and plowing into a semi-truck flooded into his head, more or less putting a damper on those plans. Then came the promise to himself that he would do it as soon as they got home. Once again, broken. Then came the promise that he would tell him first thing in the morning. Or maybe first thing in the morning the next day. Or maybe after he came home from work on the next day.
As a last resort, he had imposed this no contact rule on himself, and it was driving him nuts. He had to do it now, because at the current rate, he would end up coming out to his dad right after graduation. From college. After he had earned a PhD. Or two.
Even after a few days, his room still felt strange to him. It was the same as he had left it, with all the same posters and furniture and even the rack for his juggling props on the wall, but for some reason, he still felt like he belonged in that nearly empty space in his Aunt’s house. He pulled out his wallet and took out a small picture of Cam that he had hidden behind his school ID. It was his seventh grade school picture. He’d practically had to beg Cam for it. He sniffed, telling himself that tonight was definitely going to be the night.
The more he thought about it, though, the more anxious he got. Not just about telling his dad, but about talking to Cam again. Every time he wrote to him, it was a reminder that he wasn’t able to see him. During this silent phase, he was able to forget about it at least some of the time. Something caught in the back of his mind, a small thought asking him if maybe this whole “no talking until you come out” rule might just be an excuse, but he wouldn’t accept it. That was impossible. He loved Cam; he didn’t want to cut communications with him. It was a way of forcing himself to do what he had to do, and that was it. Period.
“Nate! How was school?”
“Good. Best day yet.” School didn’t start for another week, but that was the way they had always greeted each other, even during summer vacation. “Uh...can we talk?”
“Yeah, of course. What’s on your mind?”
“It’s just...some stuff came up while I was living with Aunt Julie, and...” He trailed off, his eyes coming to rest on a stray mark on the wall.
His father didn’t make any move to hurry him along – he’d seen Nathan do this before, and it always indicated nervousness. He had been waiting for his son to really talk to him ever since they had gotten reunited, and the last thing he wanted to do was scare him away.
“Dad, I think...” Nathan said, “I think I might be...gay.”
“What...” Adam had to pause to clear his throat. “What makes you think that?”
“I guess because I’m not really into girls. At all.”
“That doesn’t mean –”
“And because I am into guys. A lot.”
“Oh. Well, that still doesn’t mean that you’re gay, necessarily.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of gay, Dad.” He forced out a nervous laugh.
“What I mean is, it might just be a phase or something. At your age, a lot of guys...” Now it was his turn to trail off. To be honest, he had no idea how to finish that sentence. He had no idea what to say at all. This wasn’t like the first “The Talk”, where he could just read some books and relay some tired messages about brain chemicals, cells, and nocturnal emissions and call it over with. This was the big leagues, top of the list in the “Man, I hope I never have to answer THAT” chapter of the parent handbook. But now his son was looking at him expecting an answer, and looking extremely on edge on top of it. It was time for some major improvisation.
“Um...I guess what I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t label yourself like that. At least, not yet. The thing about labels is that once you agree to one, you start trying to live up to it. Who knows, you might just be going through a phase, but if you decide to label yourself one way or another right now, you won’t give yourself a chance to really grow into...into who you are.” Not bad, he thought.
“Oh...okay?” Nathan’s hands were shaking slightly. He still looked nervous.
‘Arg, what didn’t I say?’ Adam thought to himself, going back over what had just happened. Nathan was still looking up at him expectantly. He had to say something, but what? If only he had some time to do some research or something. He looked so nervous, there had to be something else. Considering the place he had just spent the last few months, the worst sprang to mind.
“Did...someone touch you?”
Nathan’s eyes widened for a second. “What do you mean?”
“Did anyone ever try to...” He paused, trying to think of the best way to put it. Nathan let out a deep breath in realization.
“No, no, nothing like that. This isn’t because I was molested or anything.”
Queue another release of a deep breath, this time from the elder Hensley in the room.
Nathan was having a hard time keeping any eye contact. He shifted his weight between his feet, keeping his eyes on the carpet. After a few minutes of silence, he turned and started back toward his room. Adam started in the direction of his own room, but stopped abruptly when he touched the doorknob. He realized right then what he had forgotten to say. He nearly cracked his head against the door out of frustration with himself.
“Nate!” He called across the room, getting his son’s attention. He strode over and kneeled in front of him, placing a hand on one of his son’s shoulders. “Whether you decide that you’re gay or not, I’ll always love you. Don’t forget that.”
Nathan seemed to perk up and relax at the same time, if that was physically possible. Neither one of them being too comfortable in these kinds of situations, the moment hung there for a few seconds before falling flat. They each retired to their bedrooms in order to think things through in private.
“Oh, wow. Hang on, I’ve got to...okay.”
“What was that?”
“Had to smuggle the phone into my room. I’m not supposed to get calls after ten.”
“Ten? It’s only...oh, right. Time zones.”
“God, I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. I keep having these fantasies where I run away and take a bus to Gordon. Then I find you, standing by the tracks, and –”
“No, you can’t do that!”
“I know, I wasn’t really –”
“Promise me that you won’t.”
“Do you really think I’m the type that would –”
“I’m serious! Promise me!”
“Why do you sound so scared about me coming to see you?”
“It’s...nothing. You just...you can’t do that. Promise me!”
“All right, fine. I promise I won’t come visit you, if the thought of seeing me makes you so upset.”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“Man, don’t give me that. You’re the one who just decided to stop writing all of a sudden, without even saying goodbye.”
“I only did that so I could tell my dad!”
“Tell him what?”
“That I’m...you know. Gay.”
“You told him?”
“Did you tell him about us?”
“Oh. So not only am I not important enough to take five minutes to email, but I’m also not important enough to mention to your dad.”
“What’s with you?”
“Yeah, you. You’re acting all...defensive and creepy.”
“And you’re not?”
“I think ‘I don’t want to see you’ is a pretty good reason to be defensive.”
“I never said that, and I think that just ignoring me for a week is a pretty good reason, too.”
“Whatever. Write me when you’re not being such a...”
“I don’t know. A lot of things. I can’t decide which one. Later.”
Cam hit the phone’s power button, which emitted a rather unsatisfying “beep”. It was times like this that he wished he had been born in the age of the old-style phones with cords, just so that he could slam the receiver down as hard as he could as he hung up. He stashed the phone under his bed, making a mental note to return it to the cradle after his parents were asleep.
What was Nathan’s problem? All he did was tell him not to run away from home. The very mention of it had made hi skin crawl. After his own experiences, he wouldn’t wish that on his worst enemy, let alone his boyfriend. Or was it ex-boyfriend? Was that it? Was that how it was going to end? The most powerful, beautiful feelings he had ever felt, shot to pieces in one heated long-distance call?
Cam felt like he had swallowed a mouthful of gravel as he climbed into bed. He didn’t know whether he should be angry or depressed. For now, he decided to settle on tired. He wouldn’t have to worry about stuff like that as long as he was asleep.