A thousand different feelings seemed to occupy Pete's mind all at the same time. To him, the calm surface of the water made his inner turmoil that much more apparent. Fear, anger, and loneliness: all of them fought for control of his being. It was out now, all of the truth about himself that he had so carefully kept hidden all of his life, exposed with no thought whatsoever about the consequences. And in his own words, no less.
He could still hear the laughing of the gym crowd and he could still feel every look from every eye piercing through to his heart.
The word rang inside his head. Tears began welling up inside his eyes as his bottom lip began to quiver uncontrollably.
And there was that ocean again in the distance "I was right all along," Pete whimpered to himself. "This place will never feel like home!"
From behind him Pete suddenly heard footsteps in the sand. He whirled around to see someone approaching, but it was still too dark to tell who it was.
"I figured you'd be here," the figure in the darkness said as it got closer.
It was a familiar voice.
It was Tyler.
Pete was relieved but also embarrassed. He turned back around to face the waterfront, not wanting Tyler to see the tears that were streaming down his face.
Tyler slowly walked towards the bank where Pete was standing. Pete could hear his footsteps in the sand getting louder as he got closer and closer. Finally, Tyler was standing beside him. For a few minutes both of them looked out across the pool of water, neither saying a word, the silence broken only by the occasional sound of Pete as he wept.
Pete wiped the tears from his eyes, and breathed deeply. He wanted to say something, but he was at a loss for exactly what to say. He gazed out over the water. "Why did you come here?" he asked, trying to compose himself.
"Because I knew this is where you'd be," Tyler answered, gazing out across the water also.
"Well you shouldn't have!" Pete snapped, turning around to face Tyler. "I want to be by myself, so go on!" He turned his back towards Tyler, to prevent him from seeing his face as he again began to weep. "Just go away and leave me alone, ok," he added, his tone changing from anger to pleading.
Tyler didn't answer for the longest time. "Is that what you really want?" he finally asked.
Pete spun around. "I don't know what I want, don't you understand?" He looked Tyler squarely in the eyes, his voice quivering as he spoke. Then turning his gaze to the water he added, "No, you couldn't possibly understand."
"You think you got me all figured out, don't you?" Tyler said, his voice betraying a hint of anger. "You think that just because I am "Mr. Popularity" at school that I don't know what it's like to be made fun of?"
"That's not what I am talking about," Pete said slowly, almost whispering.
"Look," Tyler said, his tone suddenly tender, "I knew all along, ok?"
"You knew?" Pete turned away as he said it. "How did you...?"
"Yeah, I've known for a long time," Tyler interrupted.
"But how did you...?" Pete couldn't hide the shock in his voice.
"It wasn't very hard to figure out Pete," Tyler interrupted again. "I mean, don't you think I notice things? I saw you staring at me all of those times at my house, and all of those times that you thought I was asleep? Well, I wasn't."
Suddenly Pete felt very embarrassed.
"And I know all about the tree," Tyler continued, pointing the large palm tree near the bank where Pete had written his message earlier. "Like I said, I wasn't always asleep when you thought I was."
Pete didn't know what to say. He felt embarrassed, but also a little angry that Tyler had deceived him. "Well then why didn't you...?"
"Say something?" Tyler said. "Just what was I supposed to say Pete?"
Pete took a few steps, then turned around towards Tyler. "Well I don't know!"
"Well neither did I! I mean, I'm not used to somebody staring at me while I sleep and writing me love notes on the outside of trees, for heaven's sake!" Tyler's voice was getting louder as he spoke.
Pete didn't say anything.
Tyler walked over closer to where Pete was standing.
"Look," he said, trying to calm himself down, "I knew ok? But I didn't care. It didn't matter to me. Besides, it kind of made me feel good that someone cared about me that much."
So here it was, the moment that Pete had both dreaded and anticipated since he had first saw Tyler that day at lunch. And here he was, alone with Tyler like he had been on so many occasions before. But this time it was different; this time Tyler knew the truth.
In the dim moonlight Pete searched Tyler's face for hints about what to say next. All of the explanations that he had so carefully rehearsed for this moment seemed to escape him. But Tyler's expression was a blank, giving absolutely no clue as to what he was thinking or feeling. Pete was on his own now, and his gift for words had suddenly dried up.
"It didn't bother you at all?" Pete finally asked, almost stumbling over the words.
Tyler moved a little closer. "Yeah, at first it did. I mean, that's not something you expect you know."
"Why did you keep being friends with me then?" Pete had to know.
"Well," Tyler said hesitantly, "I thought it was something that I could get used to, or at least overlook."
Pete didn't know what to say to that. Tyler was obviously trying to be understanding about the whole thing, but he was hedging. Fear welled up inside of him, but the moment was here, and he had to know. "So," he began slowly, "do you wish I didn't feel that way?"
Tyler was silent. He moved closer towards Pete, until he was only inches away. He looked deeply into Pete's eyes, but still said nothing. The wind seemed to stand still, as if it too was waiting to hear what Tyler would say. The silence was deafening, and becoming more than Pete could stand. Finally Tyler smiled broadly, and shook the hair from his eyes. He placed both hands on Pete's shoulders, and squeezed them gently. "Look Pete," he began. "I'm sorry. I really wish I did feel the way you do. I like you, I really do, probably more than anyone else in my life right now. But," his voice began to quiver noticeably. "I'm not like that. I can't feel that way for you. I did try though. You didn't know it but I did try. But it's just not in me." He paused. "I'm sorry, I really am."
So there it was. Now everything was out into the open. Pete felt his heart begin to break. At least as long as it was never said he had hope. But now he knew.
There was no hope.
He looked into Tyler's eyes. A solitary tear was creeping its way down Tyler's cheek as he spoke, his bottom lip quivering.
Pete felt weak, like he was about to faint. He leaned forward to be caught by Tyler's embracing arms. He wrapped his arms around Tyler's waist, and hugged him tightly. Now both of them were weeping, and neither one cared who knew it.
"Tyler, I...I..." Pete said in between sobs.
"Shhhh..." Tyler answered, squeezing Pete tighter and tighter. "Don't say anything."
The embrace that Pete had so often dreamed about was now taking place, deep in the darkness of the night among the palm trees, under the stars. But it wasn't like he had hoped it would be. To Pete it felt like a good bye, like an end to a story that had started months ago at a lunchroom table.
They embraced for several minutes, neither knowing what to do next. As their tears begun to ebb and the sobbing decreased, both continued to hug the other tightly. Tyler didn't want to let go, and as for Pete, he didn't know how to let go. But finally, it was Tyler who pulled away, and Pete knew that the moment was over, gone forever. It would become a memory now, one that he would never forget.
"It's ok you know," Tyler said. "I mean, we're friends. That's all that matters to me."
Pete knew that Tyler was trying to sound comforting, but being friends wasn't what he wanted. He wanted Tyler to feel the same way that he did. But it wasn't going to be, and there was nothing that he could do to change that. Pete breathed deeply. "Yeah, we are." He tried to smile, but couldn't quite pull it off.
Tyler could see that Pete was struggling with what had happened tonight. The laughing, the ridicule, all of it, and he wanted to do something to help. A thought began to form in his mind. "Hey," he said. "I have an idea."
Pete tried to look interested, but a thousand thoughts were occupying his mind. "What?" he answered.
"Dance with me?" Tyler said questioningly.
"Huh"? Pete was taken totally off guard by Tyler's suggestion.
"You heard me," Tyler answered. "Will you dance with me?"
"I don't under..." Pete couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"Look," Tyler interrupted, "do you want to or not?"
Pete was speechless. "Well, I don't know how to dance, you know that."
Tyler reached out his hand. "Better let me lead then," he said, smiling from ear to ear.
Pete was frozen in place. Dance? With Tyler? Here in the dark with no music?
"But, there's no music," Pete said, starting to chuckle at the thought.
"So?" Tyler countered, his hand still extended toward Pete.
Suddenly Pete realized what Tyler was trying to do. This was his gift, his way of saying thank you for the friendship that Pete had given to him over the last few months. Both boys were almost laughing now, something that, at least for Pete, had been unimaginable only a few hours earlier. He slowly took Tyler's hand, and gave it a gentle squeeze.
Tyler pulled Pete to him, and again wrapped his arms around his shoulders, while Pete felt the familiar warmth of Tyler's waist inside his own arms. He laid his head on Tyler's chest, with Tyler's chin resting on top of his head. They rocked slowly back and forth, turning to the sound of music that neither one of them could actually hear. Occasionally Pete would squeeze Tyler's waist, and Tyler would reply with a firm embrace around Pete's shoulders.
And as for Pete? Well, he could only hope that the moment would last forever, that time would stop and he would be able to stay in Tyler's embrace until nothing else mattered. He was lost in the sound of Tyler's heartbeat as they swayed slowly back and forth.
"It's not going to be easy you know." Tyler's voice broke the silence.
Pete nodded his head against Tyler's chest. What had happened at the dance would soon be spread everywhere, as fast as the phone lines could carry it. There it would grow and grow, until not only the school but the entire neighborhood would know about it. There would be parents to deal with also, and the thoughts of the coming days sent a shiver up Pete's spine.
Tyler felt Pete shiver. "But," he added, "I'm your friend. And nothing can change that." He squeezed Pete tightly, affirming his words.
And so the night began to turn into early morning, as their shadows got shorter and shorter against the sand. There would be tough times ahead for both of them. But this was Tyler's dance, and as far as Pete was concerned tomorrow didn't matter yet. All that mattered was that he was here, and so was Tyler, and they were together.
And, when you get right down to it, together is all that really matters.