Man, I so fucking blew it with Jeff, I thought, waking from dreams of him that stirred the memories of two nights ago. It was still dark outside, and the alarm clock showed that I had nearly an hour before it went off. I flipped on the radio switch. I had to wait through "Billie Jean" - I sighed in disgust as it was again announced the number one song - before the dee-jay bothered to mention the school delays. My school was delayed two hours and with alternate schedule, which meant that the first two periods wouldn't count for attendance or grading purposes but would be expected to be attended by those who arrived that early. It also meant that busses were running two hours behind. I had three hours. Shortly after I shut it off, Dad came up the stairs and asked if I was awake.
"Yup. And I heard, two hour delay today. Still gotta go."
"You can take the bus if you want, you know."
So that was why he came up so early, I concluded. He wanted to make sure I was up in time to get the bus, in case. Geeze. And how does he know, anyway?
"I'll bike," I answered back, looking forward to another three hours of sleep.
"Talk to you tonight, Al," he said, turning to head back downstairs.
Al? I wondered as I set the alarm clock two hours later than usual. Since when does he call me Al? My closest friends call me Al, and only sometimes. Dad uses Alex if I mess up, or he's being real serious. Big guy, numb-skull, son, kiddo, that's what dad calls me. I think he might of used Al once or twice before, because it don't seem all that weird, but it ain't normal at all. Now what's up?
I lay back down and figured that I'd worry about it later, along with the few thousand other things I had on hold. Somehow I dozed off almost immediately.
I groaned and hit snooze when the alarm went off.
Fuck, another day. Time to start thinking. Shit. I don't know what's coming tonight. What the hell could they've planned that I couldn't know where it was going to be? Just what kind of caper they got going? They ain't told Todd nothing, that's for sure. Smart move. Though after the van, he's proved he can hold a secret. Wish I had a chance to interrogate Eric. But when he's in trouble, as usual, no phone calls. He's lucky to be allowed to come as it is.
What kind of shit they gonna pull? What kind of gifts they gonna give me in front of the other Circle guys later tonight? Tom'll do something, for sure. And everybody else will get stuff to embarrass me. I know it. Except Jeff, he's too shy about stuff, so religious.
The memories of Tuesday night, Wednesday morning, and how Jeff and I were, came rushing back, reminding me there would would most likely be no gift from Jeff. I flopped over on the bed, feeling as if I had lost my best friend. While I considered Tom my best friend, Jeff was nearly so. Where Tom was as close as I felt anyone could be who wasn't a boyfriend, Jeff drew my heart and more to him, aching for that relationship level of friendship with him.
Only been six months ago, I thought. Toby died, killed himself rather than live a short time longer, but growing weaker and sicker before he wasted to death. And under the hands of the coach. I can't blame him, but I did right after, when I found out. I tried to. But his words ... if they were his words ... that's confusing as fuck. Is that me, or really Toby in those weird dream-like things? How do I find out? Six months and I still don't know.
Those six months, they passed so slow. Every time I think of him, my heart aches, filling the rest of me with sadness. How can there ever again be a person in my life as close as Toby? Jeff makes me feel much the same way Toby did, and for even longer, but Jeff isn't gay, isn't interested, and is moving away. Tom nearly makes me feel so complete, but that's just as impossible. The other Circle guys are great friends, but I don't feel nothing for them of the same level or kind of feeling as for Toby, Jeff, or Tom. Fuck, man, I gotta be gettin' ready.
I stretched, got clothes, and took a shower. As the water ran, I thought of the dreams, and the things Jeff and I had done two nights ago. Over the years I had become more and more attracted to Jeff, both physically and emotionally. The first time I had seen him on the bus that first day of freshman year, I knew I was in trouble.
While I had strong feelings for Jeff before I had met Toby, it was Toby and his open sexuality from those first minutes I had met him that had made our relationship possible. Toby and I had never known each other in a regular friendship, and our meeting had turned into a meeting of two interested gay guys almost from the start. Meeting Jeff over a year before that, and on the school bus at that, pushed my attraction for him to the back in order to seem only another normal guy. I had concentrated on being a friend, on hiding my sexuality, on hiding my love for him, all for so long, that it was now the norm.
It become second nature, I realized. All this time of doing that and now he's leaving, I'm finding out I do love him. I want him to at least know that before he goes. I can't have him leave and not know how I feel about him!
Jeff! All blond and sweet and almost taller than me. And built sturdily, like a massive column holding up the roof of the Parthenon. Firm, square jaw and full, soft, red lips. And braces in that big, wide, open smile. His hair all light blond with just a touch of darker highlights. Just fucking so cute! And nothing like the Jeff I had first fallen for. That small, slim, soft, cute little guy was gone.
Boy, is he gone. I fucking went overboard. I got Jeff stoned, really stoned, only the second time Jeff had ever smoked so much. I got him so stoned. Then we had sex. Lots of oral sex. Then Jeff panicked and left before morning. He must so hate me! I pushed away one of my best friends by rushing him, then he comes back, and I do it again! And now he's afraid of me again. And now he's moving away.
I felt like crying, worried that Jeff would confess to his mom. I worried that he hated me, or hated himself, or that we wouldn't be friends any longer. My guts were twisted worse than on that day.
I finished the rest of the morning routine, not feeling particularly clean, and tried to put those sad thoughts away.
The cut from the snow blower, or whatever it had thrown at me, was still red and swollen. The bruising hadn't spread past the corner of my eyebrow, and there was one way I could hide it. I did the best I could by combing my hair over it. As I was getting my school stuff together, the phone rang. I was right next to it, so I picked it up.
"Hi, is this Alex?" Jeff's mom asked.
"Oh, hi, yeah," I said, feeling my eyes grow wide, the bruised one sending wincing pain across my brow.
"Good morning, Alex. I was just calling because I am worried about Jeff," she said.
"Why? Something wrong?" I asked, holding the phone with both hands, trying not to let the sudden trembling get into my voice.
"Well, he has been quiet, too quiet, since your party Tuesday. This morning he seemed to be distancing himself. I'm worried."
Oh great, now I've fucked him up! I thought. How am I going to deal with this? Now Jeff's mom is worried, and could figure things out! Why did I push things that far? FUCK!
"He hasn't eaten much, and I was just asking him a question this morning and he started yelling at me."
Yelling? I thought with surprise. But Jeff don't yell, and never at his mom! He don't hardly raise his voice even when he's excited about something going on! That time in the van on Tuesday was the first time any of us had seen him say something that loudly that wasn't joking around. And he'd never yell at his mom!
"Todd thinks he is interested in a girl at school, but he doesn't know who. Do you know who she is? Is she one of the rich girls who won't talk to him? Is that the problem?"
Thank you, Todd! I nearly said aloud.
"I can't think of anything. Or anyone. He doesn't talk to me much about girls."
FUCK! That wasn't the right fucking thing to say! I yelled at myself.
"I thought you guys were moving and that was what was bothering him."
I nearly sighed over the phone with relief for covering what was the single, stupidest thing I could have possibly said.
"Did you guys fight about that? Is that why he came home Tuesday night? Yes, we're moving, and I guess that could be some of it. We've moved a dozen times, and he and Todd should be used to it. When I told him this time, he was more mad than usual, or that I expected from him."
Oh fucking shit! Tuesday night? She didn't know he had even stayed over? Of course! I suddenly realized with intense relief. She had probably been in bed when he got home, and he was in bed before she got up! He probably never even fell asleep here and must have left soon after I did! But what do I tell her? Got to have something! What? SHIT! Think, dumb-ass, think! Shit, calm down, get it under the reins, now!
I was near panic and I knew it. I started breathing in the old, slow, controlled way that I had learned to stop stuttering and lisping. I took three deep breaths and concentrated on the current problem.
"We just fought over something stupid, but he was bummed, and didn't want to stay over. I'll talk to him at school today."
"He won't be going in today. He has a point that most will not, and he has been so miserable since Tuesday night. He hasn't eaten much, he just sits or lays around, and he is so short tempered. I hope a day home alone will give him enough time alone to be with himself and think."
"I see. Okay. I'll call him in a little bit."
"Please do, I'm worried about him, and you're his best friend. I just want to know if there is anything you should tell me. If you could call him after school, it might be better, I think. He was happy about going to your party Tuesday night. Was there a girl there that might be the one he likes? He used to ride over to your house almost every day, but now with winter in and that nice bike you gave him being stolen, that isn't possible. You two used to spend a lot of time together, maybe he just misses that. I don't know, but I'm worried, and if you can help find out what the problem is, I would be very grateful. Call him, will you?"
Jeff's best friend? Did she say that? Does Jeff say that to her? He did put it on that birthday card. Maybe it wasn't just a saying on a gift, after all.
"Okay, I'll call him," I promised.
"Thank you, Alex, you're a good friend, and I think Jeff needs you now."
"Okay, don't worry, I'll see what I can find out. I like Jeff, and if he's sad about something, I don't want him to be either."
I meant it.
"Well, thank you Alex. God bless you. I've got to start work now. Bye."
As I hung up the phone, I was actually rocking on my heels. I wasn't particularly dizzy, though I was, but not enough to explain the silly weaving on my feet that I was doing. I shook my head, regretting it immediately. I sat down and controlled my breathing, crushing the nausea and dizziness. I focused my thoughts, ignoring it.
I knew that in a few minutes, Todd would leave for his bus, and Jeff would be alone. His mom had wanted me to wait to call him after school, but I already knew I wouldn't wait that long; I couldn't.
Not only did I want to make sure that he was coming over tonight for the parties, I wanted to talk to him now. If he was acting the way his mom described, then he was very upset. I knew she would never allow exaggeration in her own words. That was close to a lie, and that was a sin. That meant she would neither perform it, nor tolerate it.
She would also not tolerate Jeff having a pot smoking friend. And if she found out that Jeff had actually smoked pot, he would be in a world of hurt. I knew that if she found out I was gay, I'd never see him again. If she found out we had had sex, I'd never hear from him again and his life would be ruined. If she found it all out, I couldn't imagine the hell-storm. To spite her, and especially her ideas of anyone who ever smoked pot, I lit the roach that was tucked under my bedside light and thought as I got high.
Holy crap, is Jeff all fucked up now? How bad did I screw with his head? Jeez, that was so stupid! I've got to call him and see if I can straighten this out! He said it was in the past and not to talk about it during the phone call yesterday morning, but maybe there's more to deal with?
He better come tonight! How empty it would be if he didn't! And he won't give this big speech which is probably his moving one. And what if this lasts longer and we don't talk and he moves away? I have to make sure we're okay, and soon!
I made sure I was ready to head out to school as quickly as possible, giving up any idea of breakfast at home. I did everything but close up my coat and wrap the scarf around me. I checked my pack again for the report, my books, and my other school things. I sat on the bed, hoping that I was coming up with the right things to say.
We had called each other before school a few times. It wasn't that calling him at that hour was unusual. It was the reason for the call that made it so difficult to make.
I stubbed the roach and reached for the phone with trembling hands. I dialed slowly, shaking, having to make sure I hit the right hole on the dial. It seemed to take forever for the dial to spin back to the start between each number. I paused before the last digit, took several deep breaths, then spun the dial.
For long moments after the clicks had stopped, there was a hissing static, filled with the faintest of noises that I could imagine as the millions of voices of people on phones all across the world. Suddenly several loud clicks signaled the relays completing the connection to Jeff's apartment. The purring rings went on forever. I was considering hanging up, as it looked like Jeff wasn't going to answer the phone.
Simple and non-emotional.
"Hey, dude, what's up?" I said, trying to get my voice as upbeat as I could manage.
"Nothing, just laying around, ya know."
Non-emotional and bland.
"Yeah. So, what's going on? Just getting ready to head out here."
"Yeah. I'm not going."
"Really?" I asked, faking surprise before I realized that we both knew that if he was taking the bus he would have been on it for some time already.
"Yeah. Just don't want to go in for a day and do nothing. Waste of time, ya know? And you know I already missed the bus, doper."
"Ass," with a laugh, then "So, how's Sally?"
"Just fine? I mean, she is fine!"
"We don't like the same things. She likes to dance and be around a lot of people," Jeff said, perhaps even more flat and unemotionally. "We, kinda just called it off."
There was a slight joy that Jeff and Sal didn't make it as a couple, but that vanished rapidly.
So that's it, too! He and Sal aren't a number anymore! Of course! He's down over that, and all hot from weeks of Sal teasing him! Then I get him stoned and we give each other blow-jobs. Then he comes to his senses and it all hits him!
"So, you broke up?" It was a random question. I just wanted to fill the silent space.
"We really weren't going out. Just hanging out. And we don't like the same stuff, so, you know, we just called it off yesterday."
"Oh. I mean, sorry! Wait. You broke up yesterday after, uh, yesterday?"
I was startled. For a moment I had thought Sal was at least part of why he had left Tuesday night. I didn't know how much I had liked that short-lived idea until it was pulled out from under me. Suddenly I felt like I had stabbed him in the heart!
OH SHIT! I slept with him and he's so down about doing something gay he breaks up with his girlfriend!
"Yeah. She's pretty, but an airhead anyway," Jeff said. "No big deal."
"So, d-did, she, y-y-you know, like ..."
I had no idea what I was going to ask, the whole train of thought was derailed by the fact that I had just stuttered. And badly. And in front of Jeff.
I immediately reached for a calm state, not consciously doing so, but diving into a place I felt safer and where I didn't stutter. Driven by the emotional state I was in, and being so cornered, I reached a point near deep meditation almost immediately. I blinked and became aware of everything in my room around me. I drew back, into myself, arranging thoughts before me, lining them up to be dealt with one at a time.
First in line was talking to Jeff.
"Cry?" I asked, assuming that was my original question.
"Um, naw. She wasn't really into me or anything. Did you stutter?"
That was no longer a problem for then, I knew. I was locked solidly into myself, well in control of myself, nearly more aware of myself than ever. I sat cross-legged on my bed as the puzzle pieces of everyone I knew and that they knew swirled around me. I held the piece that was Jeff, examining it closely, noting where it lacked its own component pieces and admiring the beauty of the still forming shape of it. All the other pieces drifting around me were easy to ignore. The pieces of myself that needed attention were nothing of consequence.
"I hardly ever heard you do that so bad before," Jeff said, his voice sounding odd.
"I just, sometimes my brain starts talking too fast for my mouth to keep up is all. It kind of gets backlogged. It happens," I explained in near total embarrassment.
I had omitted the fact that I used to stutter quite a bit as a child, in any emotional state other than calm, happy, or relaxed. In third grade my school had put me in a speech therapy class. The teacher had been a caring, adoring woman, who took her job to heart, and offered her heart to every student. I had learned not to stutter by controlling my breathing and concentrating on the thoughts, not the actual speaking. She showed me what she called centering; seeing yourself coming to a calm, restful space.
That training had side effects: It made the young boy that I was conscious of my emotional and mental states and being to a degree far beyond that of my siblings, and even many adults. I had come close into contact with my ten year old being. By sixteen I had found that emotional core that many adults never find. I was aware that there were many and disparate parts of me, of everyone, that all together made up the single being. This had led to the start of my philosophy of each person being a little picture puzzle inside the bigger picture puzzle of life. And that we were far more than meat creatures.
No boy that young can learn of and come to grips his his emotional self and be normal. Whether the teacher was aware of the effects of her speech therapy, I would never have a clue. But in the long run, and most especially at times like right then, I thanked her immensely for it.
Those thoughts flashed instantly through my mind in the blink of my eyes. I finished my explanation with, "I sometimes slip and stutter, but not a lot. And I'm like waked 'n baked, so ..."
"High already?" Jeff asked.
"Yeah, a little" I lied, defending myself a bit.
"Yeah. If I were there I would," Jeff said, shocking me a bit.
"Sure. I'm no pot-head, like you! But today I would."
"Pot head?" I exclaimed.
"Yeah, you druggy!" Jeff shot back, extending the long-running joke, his voice sounding more like the Jeff I was used to, or at least human.
"I'm just surprised you would, after, you know, the way I scared you, or whatever ..."
"Man, I'm not scared of you. I just felt kind of, bad is all."
"So, is everything, okay, you know, with what happened? Ya know?"
"Yeah, it is. And sorry for leaving. Again. I'm, just, it was stupid. Okay?"
"Hey, it's okay, it was my fault. You don't smoke much, and I had you really stoned, really stoned! And I probably scared the fuck outta ya!"
"You did not scare me!" Jeff said, with some emotion. "I scared myself. It's okay, man, forget it, okay? I wish I hadn't left, but ..."
"Well, if you stayed, it might have been scarier, you know ..."
"Yeah, I was just so stoned, man! And I wasn't scared off!"
"So you're not afraid of, me, now?"
"Will you come over tonight?"
"Yeah! Won't miss the parties for anything!"
His voice was nearly his own again, excitement and joy creeping back into it.
I felt as if I no longer carried a large quadruped on my back. I smiled with the relief.
"Will you stay over some on Saturday after the parties? So we can get alone some? T'talk, ya know?"
My voice was nearly pleading, and I barely held it from sounding more so. I was nearly desperate to have things back to normal with Jeff. I swore that I'd never touch him again, just so long as we could be friends.
"Well, can I ... never mind," Jeff said, ending the near question with a profound sigh.
"No, never mind, it was stupid!"
"What? Come on, dude, what?" I pleaded openly.
"It's not that I don't trust you, or anything, it's, just ..."
That sentence, unfinished as it was, said more than I wanted to hear. I felt terrible, knowing that I had allowed, or done on purpose, something that put so much distance between us.
"I'm sorry, Jeff."
I was near tears suddenly.
"Hey, man, it's not that. Not like I'm afraid you'll make me ... you know."
"Yeah. Look, I'll see ya tonight, okay?"
"Hell yeah! I can't wait to hear this big speech."
"Both!" I hadn't been thinking of the one he mentioned for just me, it having slipped my mind until he asked that. "But I guess the private one more. No hints yet?"
"Nope. I want to tell you, a lot, I want to tell you so bad, but not on the phone! When we're together, so I can tell you and not over the stupid phone."
"Wow, must be some secret."
Tom's theory of Jeff's attraction to me came instantly back to mind. That small shard of Tom's puzzle piece drifted by, as if tempting me to connect it to Jeff and thus accept that it was part of Jeff and not just Tom's delusion.
I snatched it from the void and tried it next to Jeff's puzzle piece. I turned them and tried from different angles.
No, fucking, way! I thought firmly. Jeff is not gay. He wouldn't even have the lights on the couple of times we jacked off at the same time. Man, what was I thinking when I let us do the other stuff? I berated myself again.
The piece did not fit. I tossed it back into the darkness, rejecting the idea.
"Well, sorta. Look, can I stay over Saturday night, do ya think?"
I nearly shouted yes! Instead, I gave a firm, "Yeah, I don't see why not or anything. Fine with me, don't see why the folks would say no," as normally as I could.
"Cool. Forget it 'till then."
Naturally, I was curious as to why he wanted to stay over again. Obviously he wasn't interested in sex again. I was sure that we would most likely never again do anything like that again. I was sure I would be lucky if he even let me touch his shoulder without him recoiling or flinching. Dumping those thoughts before I grew sadder, I tried to think of anything to say or ask instead, to keep the conversation normal.
"What'll ya be doin' all day?"
"Well, guess I'll spend it in bed!" Jeff laughed.
His laughter sent me immediately into laughter myself. We spent a long time just laughing and making 'in bed' jokes.
"Feel better, now?"
"So do I. Jeff?"
"I just don't want you to be sad," I explained
"I've been sad a couple days, why didn't it bother you then?"
I felt as if he had pulled my heart from my chest, and was holding it out for me to watch as he crushed it in his fist.
"I didn't know you were down! I thought you were mad because of, that! And I didn't want to go chasing you and making it worse! I didn't want to look like a homo chasing his bitch, ya know?"
"Oh," Jeff stated, flatly again.
"I thought you hated me, or what we did, or were ... disgusted, or I made you, nervous, or something,"
"Tsk! No way! I like you, Alex. You're like my best friend."
Jeff tisked! I haven't heard that in a long time! Only two days, but it seems so long ago! I wish he knew how cool it is to me. And he said that! He said I was like his best friend!
I was thrilled, riding another emotional roller coaster. I had no idea why I didn't want to sound as happy as I felt inside, I only knew I didn't want it to make it to the outside. I made the effort to hide it as I talked.
"I'm glad. I like you too, and I'm glad you're not scared of me," I said, my voice still clearly revealing my happiness. "I'm just so fucking glad that ..."
"Never mind. Forget it for now, okay?"
"Okay. Your going to be late to the bus soon," he reminded me. "I'm really glad you called, Al."
"Me too. I knew it was bugging me, but not how much."
"Ya, I guess it got to me, too."
After an uncomfortable silence, I said, "Well, man, I've got to go hit the road. I'll see you tonight, okay?"
"Yeah, okay. See you tonight, Al,"
He sounded mildly happy, or at least as if he had emotions again, wasn't sad at least.
"I love you," I almost said, barely catching myself before I did say it.
"Sees ya later."
I worried as I put the phone back in it's cradle. I sat pondering the strange situations I found myself wrapped up in lately. I found that what I felt for Jeff became the primary concern, but many other worries circled like vultures.
Who do I like more? Tom? Jeff? Is either like Toby? Tom is great, but he's more a friend. Jeff is more like Toby in that I feel those same things. I like Jeff like I liked Toby. Don't I? Not like Tom. I like Eric and the twins and Jon and Tim, but not like I like Jeff. Or like I like Tom. But nobody is like Toby was. No, Jeff is. Mostly. So if I like Jeff that much, what do I do?
The throbbing in my temple became noticeable, which meant it was worse. I had grown used to the constant ache of it, and now I only noticed when it flared up. I took a few breaths again in the familiar way.
Damn it, gonna be late! Surprised Tom ain't pounding on the door yet!
I grabbed my pack, shot downstairs, onto my bike, and out to meet Tom. As soon as I hit the end of my drive, Tom came rolling down his.
As he rode up to me he asked, "So, what's wrong?"
"Jeff," I admitted as we kicked off and rolled into the plowed street, side by side. "What makes you think anything is wrong anyway?"
" 'Course," Tom replied. "Should'a figured. Worried about if he's coming tonight? Or what? And I can tell, is all."
"Just everything," I said, more angry than I meant to. "Just all of it."
I was tired of my personal life being on display for all my friends. I was also tired of being read by Tom, and others, so easily. Tom mostly. His uncanny ability to know what I was feeling or thinking was always a curiosity, but right then it was a major pain.
"Is it love?" Tom asked in a near whisper.
At first I thought it was a joke; just another joke, not meaning anything. As I looked over at Tom to share the laugh, my smile broke and fell away. Tom wasn't smiling. His dark eyes in his pale face were intent on my own; questioning, yet knowing.
"Is it?" Tom repeated.
Just two days ago, before the small party on Tuesday, when my parents had brought the matter up with me and Tom, I had thought that I had finally come to grips with being gay. It had been an incredibly embarrassing few minutes, for both of us as well as the adults, but minutes I was already glad that I had lived through. My parents and my best friend knew, and didn't care. It was an enormous weight off my shoulders.
It shouldn't be such a shock, I thought. Is it love? Is it really? How can I possibly know? Wasn't Toby? Am I in love with Jeff? And what would it matter, since he's moving anyway?
"Is it?" I asked back. "Really. Is it? How do I know? Does it matter, even?"
"You'd know, if anybody, after Toby and all. Guess when you can't stop thinking about someone. But he's moving, so that's something, too. And you guys fought. And he has this big speech he's lording over us. You should have Jeff on your mind." He said as he steered and leaned even closer, whispering, "Love or not."
Toby was no secret with Tom. He knew it all, or most of it. My feelings for Toby were no longer a secret from Tom in many ways. That Tom dared to use his name while talking of Jeff almost infuriated me. I realized it was silly to grow angry over it, and I managed to fight it down.
"You still think he's gay?" I asked, not believing it for a second.
"I only know he gives you some serious eye action at times. And he acts different around you. Less ... I don't know."
"Like, just different. Like how he had a lot to say in the van," he said, reminding me of the embarrassment as Tom and my own activities were brought too closely to the light, and how animated and angry and in charge Jeff had become; so unlike himself.
"I say you're nuts."
"Yeah, so? What do they have to do with it?" he asked laughingly.
I swerved closer and punched Tom's closest shoulder, smiling. "Almost everything!"
I wrapped my large, multi-colored scarf around my entire head against the cold January winds, signaling an end to the conversation. Tom rolled his ski mask down, zipped his parka up all the way, and pulled the drawstring, closing the hood except for a fur-trimmed circle in front of his face.
When we arrived at school, and as we locked our bikes, I reminded him, "Don't forget to help get things ready after school."
"Yeah, I totally forgot today is your big birthday party. Totally flew my mind. Gone, like a dead parrot," he finished, smiling and shaking his head.
"Jerk-wad," I replied. "I won't be home until about the time you get there."
"Yeah, I'll be over by four, I guess. If you're home. If not, guess I'll have to wait for ya."
"I shouldn't be long," I said.
"No, you shouldn't be, you never have been!" Tom laughed.
"More than you!" I shot back quietly, punching Tom's shoulder again, the same one, harder that time.
We were suddenly worried at the sexual innuendos thrown between us. We glanced around and stopped laughing.
"I have to talk to Mr. Broft at the store," I said solemnly as we walked up the steps. "And Mr. B. in ninth period," I added at the doors.
"See ya," Tom said, turning left to head to his locker. I turned right toward mine.
That mention of Mr. Broft had shut down more than the conversation, it had also shut down a common game between Tom and myself. I knew the days of sexual jokes between us were over. We would even be watching how close we stood in public. We would be thinking of what we were going to say to each other from then on. Our friendship had changed in yet another way.
I was always immensely glad of my friendship with Tom. I had accepted that our friendship had changed before, and would change again, maybe many times. I felt certain that our friendship would survive any changes. That joy helped me fight off the still potent dread and sadness of the situation with Jeff. Rolling over that whole mess again in my mind occupied me until I got to my third period class.
It was just another day at school for the most part. Many kids made it, but so many didn't that the teachers that had made it just gave out busy work. Because so many teachers hadn't made it in, some classrooms were not open, so many students spent that period in the lunchroom, library, or other classrooms with something to do in them.
The breakfast table was nearly full, but then, most of us were nerdy enough to be in the running for perfect attendance. Erich wasn't there or in any of the classes we had together through the day. Thomas Cassey was late, missing the table in the morning, but was at the table at lunch.
After eighth period I talked to Mr. B. about the deal we had made back on Tuesday, so that I was able to leave school one period earlier than normal. I had agreed to act as a teacher's aid for a few days next week in the ninth period class. Mr. B. had agreed that I could skip that Tuesday and wouldn't be marked absent in return for tutoring a couple of his students. We hammered out the details, agreeing that I would help out in ninth period on Tuesday and Thursday next week.
As we wrapped up, David Stultz came into the classroom, taking his seat and nodding slightly at me. I nodded back.
"You know David?" the teacher asked.
"Yeah," I told him.
"Oh, good. He's one of the two boys I'd like you to tutor. He was doing better earlier in the year, but recently he's missed another few days. He was already getting behind."
David would be fun to tutor, I knew. He was a fun guy, just not in my clique. He was friendly with me even though he moved among the richer and more popular kids. I looked forward to spending some time with him one on one. He was certainly easy on my eyes, with his long, straight, brown hair, bright silver eyes, and great smile.
"Who's the other?" I asked.
"Bill, in back, drawing in his book," he said, indicating a boy seated in back, wearing a black, Led Zeppelin tee. I figured him as a pot-head the second I saw him. He had the look and the clothes. I was sure he was in a band, but the drumsticks gave that impression away.
Probably stoned right now, or still buzzed a bit, I thought, looking at him. Like me, I laughed inside. Probably going to be a problem, and not at all interested in being tutored, I dreaded.
The second bell rang and I said goodbye to the teacher. I eyed both David and Bill as I left, David nodding as I neared the door. I shot a nod back and started for my locker.
It was a cold ride to the bookstore, but I was bundled well and used to it by then. The really cold days would be the worst, I knew, when the temperature could fall to nearly zero and the winds blow hard. Those kinds of days would force me to ride the bus.
Going out in public with Jeff, even when with others, I felt as obviously gay and conspicuous as was possible. Many times I had kept to the other side of the group from Jeff, but I still felt as if everyone around us, even strangers passing by in the distance, could tell that I was gay, and that Jeff was somehow being watched or chased by me. On the bus, it felt as if all the other kids were watching us, feeling sorry for Jeff who had a faggot ogling him, probably keeping normal people from being his friend.
Having to ride the bus won't be a problem for long! I rejoiced. I get my license in a few days, and probably next week, if the weather isn't too bad and the folks don't say no, I can start driving the van to school! Tom could ride with me! I wish I could give Jeff a ride too, but he lived so far in the opposite direction, and across all those highways and bottlenecks, I'd have to leave way too early.
The entire ride to the hobby store I worried about Jeff, and what had happened, what was going to happen.
When I arrived at the shop, Mr. Broft was glad to see me, and we chatted in the empty store.
"Few customers until after school lets out and after five on weekdays," he was saying as we headed to the mysterious back room. "Weekends are different. What I need you to do around here, for now," he was saying as he pushed open the large blue door I had eyed many times in the past, wondering at what lay behind it, "is get this place organized."
It was tight back there, with lots of tall shelves stuffed with boxes blocking most of the light from the overhead fixtures, casting dark shadows down the narrow aisles. It looked as if every old shelf ever used in the building was back there, and every one was nearly full.
The room smelled much like Mr. Broft: It had that old books and papers smell, a share of dust, and a hint of tobacco. As we headed further back, the sweet smell of pipes or cigars became more obvious; I liked it.
He constantly leaned a bit forward and shuffled his feet a bit when he walked. As he spoke he peered at me over the top of his small, square glasses. From that angle his three-quarters bald, grayed head was far more apparent.
He led me to the very back, where an open area surrounded a wide, steel rollup door. There were two tables, one piled with more boxes, the other with a single chair sitting at it, a coffee maker, a hot plate, a microwave, and boxes of instant soups and drinks almost covering it. He pulled a Styrofoam cup from a stack of them and asked if I'd like some cocoa. I nodded and he poured already steaming hot water into the cup, spooned in some brown mix, stirred it, then handed it to me. It was a welcome flavor as well as warmth after the long ride. The steam immediately started fogging up my glasses, forcing me to take them off.
On the table I noticed a large ashtray and his pipe. I inhaled deeply and smelled it even over the steaming cocoa under my nose. I made note to ask him about it some time in the future. It looked as if I would have plenty of time to, as I expected to work for every book and module he would let me earn. I also wanted to ask him about earning other books and other things, like models, and the paint and other things to finish them with.
"This is the stuff that gets delivered," he said, tapping the boxes piled on the other table and near it on the floor. "I have to check it against the bill and make sure I got everything. Most of the delivery guys get it right, sometimes a mistake gets made. It has to get caught or I might end up paying for stuff I didn't get. So that, I will do, but once I check it in you take it out to the shelves and put the new stuff behind the old ones, okay?"
"Sure, not a problem," I said, inspecting the two open boxes on the table. Both were the precious Dungeons and Dragons books and supplies. "I guess you put them out right away, didn't you?" I asked.
"Actually, your buddy, Tom did that. He came early to talk to me about your birthday, and we came up with this idea, for you to work them off, while he put them out on the shelves. I hope I didn't ruin any secrets or anything."
"No, he didn't tell me. The jerk."
Another mental note was made about that: Not only had Tom put the books out himself, probably making sure they were ready for our visit later, he had arranged the deal for the books!
"Oh. Sorry about that. Happy birthday, by the way, since I didn't say it before. Sixteen, right?"
"I remember sixteen. Different world then," the old man said, his eyes glazing over momentarily. "You should always remember to remember, you get what I mean? Don't forget the times you have in your youth. Live for it, don't let opportunities pass you by. Okay?"
"Yeah, I learned that lesson. Thanks to Tom, by the way," I said, my eyes glazing over as my own memories ran behind them momentarily.
"Well, Tom seems like a good guy to have as a friend. I'm sorry again that I thought you two were, well, together, that way."
"Yeah, about that. See, since you saw how we acted, and all, well, I am gay... but Tom isn't. He's been my best friend since I moved here, and, uh, he knows. He found out a little while back. I think he knew before I did!" I laughed.
It felt okay, telling the old man about that. I had planned to, wanted to, tell Mr. Broft. Since he had told me he had a gay son, that had helped me to talk to him about it. I found it wasn't so hard to tell a new person, and one that already said they had known, and at least liked, someone else who had been gay.
"I like Tom, but as a friend. He just kind of picked up some of my, I don't know, habits? He likes girls, and always has. He just don't care that I don't."
"That is the best kind of friend, one who doesn't care what you like, who just likes you for who you are. You're lucky to have his friendship, you know that, don't you?" the old man asked, peering at me over his little glasses as he opened another box.
"Yeah, I know that. This job for the books is proof of that!"
And I did know how lucky I was to have Tom as a friend, let alone as my best friend. I felt warm inside, thinking on that fact, more than the cocoa could be blamed for as I thumbed through the boxes. I took great care, making sure they were neat and orderly as I took peeks at them. Each one seemed a treasure to me. They contained the compiled knowledge of the ages, from magic, to magical weapons, to creatures, great and small, living and dead. Laws and requirements for the great classes of warriors and wizards, thieves and clerics. It was as if each book were a true compilation of rare and arcane information. I wished the new owners of each book the best of times as they used them. I also wished I already had them all at home.
Patience, I chided myself. In time, in time. In time I'll have them all on the shelf over my desk at home!
According to the clock on the wall it was already after three o'clock, and I still had to get home to meet Tom and start decorating, then ride out to visit Tim for some pot for the party later. Then I had to get back home before my parents did. It was going to be a busy afternoon.
I agreed to work at the shop on Mondays and Wednesdays, doing things he wanted or needed done until I went home for dinner. We agreed that every two days I would earn another of the exquisite books: One book a week.
The ride home was the shortest I could remember. The anticipation of the parties, earning the precious books at the store, hopefully making up with Jeff, seeing Tim again and getting stoned almost for sure with him, and maybe something fun with Tim, and maybe Tom later, all kept my mind busy during the ride; and my body pumped up and my feet pedaling quickly.
I pulled up next to the house before I knew it. Glancing at the garage where Tim's van waited - my van - my belly tingled and I smiled, thinking of getting my license in just a few days.
Sixteen has to be like the coolest age! I thought as I unlocked the side door.
Tom came running around the corner of the house yelling my name.
"Al! Hey! So, how did it all go at the store?"
"Well, pretty interesting. I should earn a book a week and have them all by Easter break, no problem. And, dude, thanks again, you know, for arranging it all."
"Welcome, man. Better you work them off than me!" he laughed, pushing me inside.
I opened the refrigerator and pulled two bottles of soda and a snack out, putting them on the table. We tore through it with adolescent ease and sat talking for a short time.
"So, I gotta go get the grass. You staying here or going home?" I asked, hoping Tom would go home so that I could make the call to Tim in private.
"It okay if I wait here?" he asked. "I can get started while you're gone."
"Sure, I don't care."
"How long you be gone?"
"Almost an hour, hopefully be back sooner."
"Okay. Nervous about the party tonight?" he asked, grinning in a way that proved to me that he was looking forward to something.
"Which one?" I laughed, knowing full well Tom meant the second one, the one with just the Circle, the one at the mystery location. "Thanks, again. And for all of it, man. You're like, I don't know, like always watching out for me and doing stuff, ya know?"
"Don't get all faggy on me, man!" Tom laughed, blushing slightly.
"Oh, you love it!" I laughed back, knowing Tom did to some degree. "I gotta get going or I won't make it back in time, and I have to make a call first, so I better do that. Be back in a minute," I said, heading into dad's den to make the call from there. I sat in the big, leather chair and dialed the well known number. Tim answered after the first ring.
"Hey, Tim, Alex."
"Hey, what's up little man?"
"Hey, my parents gave me the van. Thanks, really, I love it," I said, bubbling with emotions. "I can't believe you sold it!"
"Hey, I can't drive it anymore, and I'll be able to buy a new car when I get out, so ... Did you find the note in the secret spot?"
"Yeah, I did." A wave of warmth and a stupid grin washed over me briefly, remembering his written words as I spoke with him. "So, like, thanks, and all."
"Hey, I got the best side of it!"
"I don't know about that! I was calling, too, 'cause I was hoping to come by for some business?"
"Nah, had to get out when I couldn't drive. Everybody knows by now. Sorry I can't get to your party. Can't leave the house and nobody allowed over," he explained.
"I heard. That sucks, dude. About the Army. So, I can't get a bag for the party tonight?"
"Nope, Sorry. Got out of the business. If you can make it over tomorrow, I'll have some to sit 'n smoke with ya, though."
I was downfallen. Tim had never not come through before. He always had pot, even though he sometimes told some that he didn't. I had gotten into his inner circle, and I knew he was never totally out. He sometimes was down to an amount that he considered his personal stash and had nothing to sell, but even that was rare. Even then he would smoke a joint with me, usually sending me home with something. But for Tim to say he was totally out, and had nothing I could get for the big party, was a major surprise and a shock.
I never even thought about Tim not having pot for the party tonight. It's too stupid an idea. I should have thought that, though, since I knew he got caught, I chided myself. I know he didn't have his van anymore! Stupid!
"Well, damn! Ya know that's the first time I ever heard you say that. To me, I mean." I laughed a bit.
"Is, ain't it? Weird. Times change, little man. Gotta get used to that, ya know?"
"Sure do! Fucking-a! Well, shit. The big party tonight, and almost no grass. Fuck."
"Shitty, I know. Sorry."
Tim's voice sounded a bit weird. I wondered if he was near tears or the like, being so close to leaving for the Army, and all the changes in his future.
Probably choking up a bit, I figured. I would be in his place, I think. Shit. No more grass! I have some, enough to probably keep us all a bit high all night if I was careful, but not enough to make sure of it. And nowhere near as much as I want to have for the party.
I wanted to cheer him up somehow, and an idea came to me. I told him of my parents surprise speech, how they had told me and Tom that they knew I was gay, and how they thought that Tom was my boyfriend. I told him of the fear, the horror, and the embarrassment, to both Tom and I.
Tim already knew I was gay, mostly, as I had never denied it without affirming it. Over the last two years, since he had first asked me if I was gay and I had replied that I wasn't sure, I had sucked his cock enough to prove that I was. While we never spoke of it, we both knew. Sharing the funny story, funny then, looking back on it, was my way of saying it to Tim. I felt incredibly nervous at first, but as the story wound down, I felt relieved and lightened.
"Fucking shit! My folks would have threw me out first! You got some great folks man!"
"I know!" I replied, knowing far well more that he.
I had gotten him to laugh, and that was important to me. I knew he was most likely down in the dumps, and hearing him laugh made me feel much better as well. We talked a bit longer about normal things. It was by far the longest we had ever talked over the phone.
"Thanks again, for the van, and the tapes, especially the Queen," I said, knowing that Tim would know exactly what I meant.
There was so much I wanted to say to him. I was trying to figure out what I could or should say over the phone, since it looked like it would be the last time I might talk to him before he left. I was very glad that I had at the very least come out to him more than just the sly, non-denial that had existed between us for so long. I hoped I could call him again at least. Tim saved me from figuring out what to say right away.
"Hey, thanks to you, too. Think you can get over here tomorrow?"
"I think so. I don't know how long everyone will be around after tonight. Ya know? But yeah, I'll try to come over, for sure!"
"Cool," he said, in a way I knew meant that he didn't believe it. "Just remember nobody's supposed to be over, so sneak in even more than usual, if you do come over, okay?"
"Hey, if not, how about Sunday?"
"Sure. Folks be back that night, but no biggie early in the day, I guess"
"So, Sunday if not tomorrow. I'll try tomorrow. Call you and let you know, okay?"
"Sure. Hey, see ya, birthday boy," Tim said as he hung up.
It sounds like no one calls even to say hi after he closed up shop, I thought sadly. Probably lonely down there in the basement, unable to leave and no one allowed to come see him. Jailed at home before the prison of the army for three years. I feel bad so for him. And I will get over there to see him.
Tim still lived with his parents, in their basement. I had thought he was about eighteen when I first met him over two years ago. I had been buying grass off him since just before the start of my Freshman year, after smoking grass for the first time earlier that summer with my cousin. I had meant to just ask about prices and get to know the guy that first time I rode up to his black van talk to him. I didn't have more than ten dollars, and didn't expect to be leaving with a bag of grass, but I had; and still with my ten dollars in my wallet.
Tim had made a deal with me, one I was more than happy with immediately. Tim had obvious trouble making the deal, which I saw coming. I tried to help make it easier, and even at fourteen, knew a couple of ways to do that.
In the following two and a half years, Tim and I had become very friendly, aside from the business transactions. We shared tastes in music, which was his passion. He had few other interests, at least that he spoke of, except his weed. He was a connoisseur of marijuana. He often had as many as six different kinds of weed at once. He drove constantly, picking up grass from multiple growers and dealers. If you wanted the best, or the cheapest decent weed, or something different than the Indiana Ditchweed that most dealers had a constant supply of, you went to Tim.
I liked Tim, but nothing I would ever call love. It was just friendship and sexual attraction. He was a hot dude. I very much liked his shoulder length, medium-brown hair and his dark brown eyebrows; they were well defined and narrow, arched perfectly over his brow. He wasn't slim, but he wasn't fat. He had nice brown, sparse hair on his legs and a bit on his arms. Across his chest between his big, rich brown nipples, was a wide patch of the same colored hair. Below his belly button and heading down was a fairly fuzzy treasure trail of it. He didn't have much hair on or under his arms.
Overall, Tim was very attractive. I knew even then that I liked guys that were more geeky than perfect, but Tim was attractive to the girls, too, I knew.
I had thought that our deal was purely a business transaction to Tim, until the note from him hidden in the van. The note hinted, strongly, that it had been more.
The fond memory of meeting Tim for the first time two years ago played in my head as I leaned back in dad's overstuffed chair; since I had time to sit and think instead of having to rush to Tim's and back, I let them.