We walked to school with Tommy and Silvy, the next morning. Jennifer and I walked behind them in a comfortable silence. Unlike the two of us, Tommy and Silvy were constantly chatting and teasing each other. They reminded me of Mom and Dad when they were in a playful mood. I hoped Jeremy was right about them, and they do have more than just a school romance. I could easily see them together for the rest of their lives.
I was nervous and a little anxious about returning to school. Everything was a first now. I was starting over at everything. My time reference now was Jeremy’s death. Everything I did for a while would be the first time I did it since he died. Even though I’ve gone to school a thousand times, I had first day nerves. How would the other kids react to and with me? How would I react to them? It didn’t make sense, even to me, but it was the way I looked at things now.
I don’t know what I’d really been expecting, only that nothing was the way I thought it’d be. We separated at the front entrance to the school, and Tommy and Silvy went to their homerooms, while Jennifer and I went to ours. A few people, who’d known Jeremy and I were friends, said hi and told me they were sorry to have heard about his death, but most just ignored me as usual.
It was like that all morning. By lunchtime I’d decided that most people didn’t know me or Jeremy, so his death meant nothing to them. I didn’t know whether to be disappointed that more people weren’t mourning him, or relieved that I wasn’t constantly reminded of his loss by others. I guess it was normal. A lot of people die every day, but only those that know them grieve for them. It’s kind of like one minute you’re a person and the next you’re just a name on the obituary page of the paper. You lose your humanity and just become another death statistic.
I decided that, when I die, I want to just silently slip away. No obituary in the paper, just family around. I figured that if someone wasn’t close enough to know what was going on in my life; if they didn’t care enough to stay in touch, and the only way they’d know of my death was an obituary in the paper, my death would mean nothing to them, just as my life, apparently, hadn’t. If they want another statistic, they’ll have to look elsewhere.
I was glad when it was finally lunchtime. I was looking forward to lunch with Jennifer, Tommy, Silvy, and Duane. I would never have thought it, but I actually did feel better being around people. Seeing other people living their lives as usual gave me hope that, soon, I’d be better too.
The five of us were sitting at the table that had become our usual table. Silvy and Tommy were teasing Duane about the loss of another girlfriend. He was quickly getting a reputation as an octopus among the girls at school. “Look at it this way,” Tommy told him. “Pretty soon, the only girls that will go out with you are the sluts that don’t care what you do with your hands. Then every date will be Heaven for you.”
“Humph!” Silvy snorted. “Personally, I think you should spend a lot more time getting acquainted with your own hand. Maybe that would relieve enough pressure that you’d stop trying to introduce it to someone who’s not particularly interested in meeting it!”
“Silvy!” I said reprovingly, as Tommy snorted and laughed. “You shouldn’t talk like that!”
“What? You think we girls don’t know what you boys do? What world are you living in, brother mine?” Tommy had lost it now, and even Jennifer was fighting back laughter. Duane just hung his head in embarrassment, and I was shocked that my little sister would talk like that.
“Stop laughing!” I told Tommy. “You’re just encouraging her!”
“Dude, you’ve been her brother a lot longer than I’ve been her boyfriend. I learned in a hurry that she’s going to say whatever she wants, and if you haven’t figured that out, she’s right and you are living in another world!” he laughed.
“Whatever,” I said, turning to Silvy. “It’s still not right to talk like that in mixed company!”
Silvy just rolled her eyes at me, but Jennifer reached over and patted my hand sympathetically. Suddenly, she jerked her hand back and made a face. “Ewww,” she said. “I just had a mental image of what that hand has been doing!”
Not only did the four of them break out in laughter, but apparently, some of the football players at the next table had been listening too, and they also were laughing and looking at us. “Hey, Taylor! I hope you washed your hands before you started eating,” laughed Dick Edwards, one of Jeremy’s friends from the team. It was my turn to be embarrassed, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shrink small enough to disappear.
This lead to an exchange of ribald taunts between our two tables and a lot of laughing. This was the first interaction I’d had with Jeremy’s older friends since his birthday party. I was glad to see I was still accepted among them and was enjoying the fun, when Paul walked up with a couple of guys I didn’t know.
“Hey, Squirt! I need a favor. I just found out I’m dying and I need a blow job. You know, like you did for Jeremy. I mean, it’s not like it’s such a big deal to little perverts like you, is it?” he said, sneering.
I was stunned. I couldn’t speak or move. Tommy and Duane jumped up and moved towards Paul and his friends but they were too slow. Before they could get there, Paul and the other two were surrounded by Jeremy’s friends from the other table.
“Shut up and get the Hell out of here!” Jim Frazier told Paul.
“Why’re you taking up for the little perv, Jim boy? You think that’ll earn you first place in the line up? Or are you one too and just protecting your own kind?”
Jim tried to get at Paul but was held back by Dick. “Not here, Jim,” he told him. When he turned and spoke to Paul, it was with a cold anger. “We’ve all warned you, Paul, but apparently you’re going to have to learn the hard way. We’re standing up for two good friends of ours; one of whom can no longer stand up for himself; not some name or label people like you use. We’ve put up with you and your smart-ass mouth for three years, but only because Jeremy felt sorry for you, because the only friends you could get on your own were like these two creepazoids with you today. If I were you, I’d go find some hole to hide in, with the other cockroaches, for a long time. We both know someone’s going to be looking for you, and won’t be satisfied until he finds you. If, by some miracle, he can’t make you see the light, the rest of us will be in line waiting our turn to convince you. One way or the other, you’re going to be convinced.”
The two guys with Paul were beginning to see the fix they were in, and Paul himself was beginning to look nervously at the people surrounding him. “Come on, guys,” he said to them, “Let’s go.”
An opening was made for them to leave, and as they were going, Dick spoke again with the same cold anger in his voice. “I promise you, Paul. We will talk about this later.”
I was still sitting, and Tommy and Silvy had each sat on either side of me. I hated Paul for what he’d done. He’d just ruined Jeremy’s reputation. Those who hadn’t known him would soon be hearing about him. Tommy and Silvy were both trying to talk to me, but I wasn’t listening to either of them.
Dick came over and asked the others if he could talk to me alone. The guys at the other table made room for them and they all moved to it. “I’m sorry he put you through that, Tony. He ‘s been talking trash since school started.”
“And no one told me?”
“You already had the weight of the world on your shoulders, Tony. What was going on with Jeremy came close to breaking you. We all thought knowing about this would be more than you could take. If you broke down, how would you have hidden this from Jeremy? How do you think he’d have felt, knowing this? I’m sorry if you think we should have told you. Maybe we should have, but we were doing what we thought was best for you and Jeremy.”
“I don’t care about me, but he’s ruined Jeremy’s reputation now.”
“No, he hasn’t. No one cares whether Jeremy was gay or not, and as for you, TJ has told us all that you’re straight. “I’ll admit, when we first heard it, we were shocked, but we all had a chance to think about it overnight, and by the next morning, you had a better reputation than before.”
I looked at him in confusion, “Why would that improve my reputation?”
“Are you kidding, Dude? All the girls thought that was the sweetest thing a friend could do for another friend, and it showed what a great guy you were. Hell, If Jennifer hadn’t snared you, you’d have over half the girls in school trying to get you as a boyfriend!”
I snorted, “Yeah, maybe, but I bet you guys didn’t think that.”
“Not at first,” he admitted. “To be honest, most of us didn’t know what to think about it, but you know what? It made us think. Not about what you did, but about what we would’ve done in your shoes. We talked about it the next day, and most of the guys said they wouldn’t have been able to do that for a friend, even though he was dying.”
“Most of the guys?”
“Yeah, a lot of us couldn’t answer yes or no. We had no idea how we’d have reacted in your place, since we’d never been in that situation. The one thing we all agreed on, though, was that you had the biggest balls of all of us for doing it.”
“Why? It wasn’t that big a deal to me. Well, it was that big a deal to me, but not until I stopped to think about it later. At the time, it was just something I had to do for Jeremy.”
“Exactly! And that’s why it was so brave. You know, we’ve all heard about friends that push another friend out of the path of a speeding car and die themselves, instead. Or about some ninety pound weakling picking up some heavy thing that’s fallen on a friend and is crushing him to death, even though it rips his own muscles to shreds. Those people all acted without thinking of themselves. All they could see was a friend in danger or pain, and acted to help that friend without concern for the consequences for themselves. That’s what you did too, Tony. That’s why we think you’re brave. That’s why some of us even consider you a hero.”
“A hero? Me?”
“Yeah, who would have thought it, huh?” he said with a teasing smile. He got up and called Jim over. “We better get to the library before anyone else does, and things get out of control,” he told him. “You going to be okay?” he asked me. I nodded, and he and Jim left.
Tommy, Silvy, Jennifer, and Duane came back over and sat with me. “You guys knew and never told me?” I asked. None of them answered, but all had guilty looks on their faces, and none could look me in the eye. “Thanks a lot, guys,” I said, angrily.
“Tony,” Silvy said. “We wanted to, but thought we should wait until we thought you could handle it better.”
“Oh,” I said icily, “And I guess being humiliated in the lunchroom made it sooo much easier for me to handle.” I stood and left. I heard Jennifer ask me to wait, but I ignored her and went to my next class.
When the final bell rang, I headed straight for the front entrance so I could go home. I didn’t want to see any of them, and I sure as Hell didn’t feel like talking to any of them or walking home with them. They didn’t give me much choice, though. The four of them had beaten me to the entrance and were waiting for me. They gathered in front of me and blocked my way as I walked out the door. I tried to push through them, but Silvy stepped in front of me. “Tony, wait. We’re sorry. We screwed up big time, but we were thinking of you.”
“You know what? That’s the second time today someone’s told me that. I’m no happier to hear it this time than I was the first. Do you want to know why Jeremy and I stayed friends so long? It was because we never had secrets we kept from each other. We told each other the truth, even though it sometimes caused us to argue. We knew we could trust each other, though, and that made it all okay. Keeping secrets will ruin more relationships than anything.” I looked directly at Jennifer when I said this.
“But weren’t you doing the same thing? Keeping a secret from us? When were you going to tell us what happened?”
“No, I wasn’t keeping a secret from you. Not telling someone something that is none of their business and doesn’t concern them isn’t keeping a secret. And I wasn’t going to ever tell you. This was something private between Jeremy and me, and what happens between two people in private is no one else’s business. Are you and Tommy prepared to tell us what you two do in private?”
“Of course not!” she said, while Tommy was looking pretty nervous at that line of conversation.
“Then don’t expect me to! Look, guys,” I said in a softer tone of voice. “I appreciate what you all have done to help me through this, but you have to let me decide some things on my own, especially those things that will affect me directly. I don’t think any of you will ever know how I felt in that lunchroom, and I hope none of you ever have to feel that way. It would have been better for me to have known and been prepared for what happened.”
Tommy walked up and hugged me. “I’m sorry, Bro.” The others all followed suit. I don’t think I’d forgiven them completely yet, but the anger was lessened, and I knew I would. When Jennifer hugged me, she held on a long time.
“We need to talk, Tony,” she said softly. “Will you wait for my mom to get here with me?”
“Sure,” I answered.
“Do you want us to wait so we can walk home together?” Silvy asked.
“Nah. I’ll be fine,” I told her.
I walked out to the sidewalk that runs along the road in front of the school, with Jennifer. She was strangely quiet. “What did you want to talk about, Jennifer?” I asked.
“First, I want you to not blame the others for not telling you what Paul had been saying. That was my idea, and I talked them into it. I was wrong. You should have been told, but I never thought Paul would do what he did today. If you have to blame someone, blame me.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “You all had my best interests at heart.”
“Tony, I have to know something, but I don’t know how to ask.”
“Ask me anything. Just say it.”
“Tony, I need to know if you’re gay.”
“Would it make any difference if I were?”
“No...yes.... Well, no, it wouldn’t make any difference, but it would make a difference in our future. We couldn’t be a couple if you are. We’d still be friends, but our relationship would be different. We could be best friends, maybe even become like brother and sister. We could be confidants and even soul mates, but never a couple, because we’d want different things in our lives. I want all those things, Tony, including a partner to be part of a couple. That’s what I was hoping we were developing.”
I looked out over the street, but wasn’t really seeing anything. I was thinking about my relationship with Jeremy. “Tony?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, Jennifer. I was thinking. You know, I’ve wondered about the connection between Jeremy and I for a long time. Since lunch today, It’s all I’ve been able to think about. I think you just described our relationship. We were friends, best friends, brothers, confidants and soul mates. We both wanted families and a partner for life. The difference was, he could see another guy in his future, and I saw a woman in mine. We could never have been a couple either, but all the things we had in common bound us together. The fact that there was this one difference we saw in our futures just didn’t matter to either of us. I won’t apologize for loving Jeremy or for anything that happened between us, but no, I’m not gay.”
Jennifer’s mom pulled up and honked, but Jennifer didn’t leave right away. “I wouldn’t expect you to, Tony. I just wanted to know where we stood. I’m falling in love with you, you know?”
“I fell in love with you a long time ago,” I answered. She smiled at me and we kissed goodbye. She turned to look at me with a huge smile on her face, as they drove off, and waved. I waved back as I watched them leave.
Tommy and Silvy were long gone, so I started the walk home alone. I’d gotten about a half block from the school, when I saw TJ’s car parked alongside the road. He was sitting on the hood of the car, with his back to me as I approached. I considered doubling back and going around the block to avoid him, but decided against it. He’d pretty much made it clear, over the last couple months, that he had nothing to say to me. That was fine with me, but I wasn’t going to go out of my way so that he wouldn’t have to look at me. I wasn’t going to inconvenience myself; he could just shut his eyes if he didn’t want to see the disgusting perv.
I looked straight ahead and ignored him as I walked by. “Tony!” he shouted, but I kept on walking. I heard him running to catch up with me. “Tony, wait! I need to talk to you,” he said, grabbing my shoulder.
I stopped and turned to him angrily. “Why now? You haven’t bothered talking to me, except when you had to, for two months, and you’ve had plenty of chances. And why here? Oh, never mind. I know the answer to that one. You don’t want to be seen talking to the little sophomore perv. You’ve even stopped eating in the cafeteria to avoid me. Were you afraid your friends would think you were a perv too, if they saw you talking to me?”
TJ looked hurt, but I didn’t care. I’d been hurt too, and it was time for him to feel the pain too. “I can understand why you think that, but you’re wrong,” he told me. The reason I haven’t been in the lunchroom is because I’ve been in the library being tutored. Senior English is bringing my grades down so much, the coach put me on academic probation. I have to get them up, or no more football or any sport this year; not that it matters now. You are right that I was avoiding you, but it wasn’t that I was worried what other people would think. I was afraid you’d learn the truth about me.”
This made me stop in my tracks. “The truth about you?”
He nodded. “I didn’t tell you everything Jeremy told me that night, Tony. There was a lot more. He not only told me he was gay, but that he’d been crushing on me a long time.”
“Jeremy and I didn’t have secrets. I knew he was crushing on you before you and I ever met, or even understood what crushing was. I mean, I knew what it was, but I was ten years old at the time. I hadn’t started puberty, so didn’t understand the strength of the feelings. I just knew it meant you liked someone a lot.” I started walking again and he walked with me. “That doesn’t explain what you meant by ‘the truth about you,’ though.”
“I knew what he wanted, Tony. I knew he was hitting on me, but I just couldn’t do it. I did consider it but couldn’t do it, even though my best friend was dying, so I changed the subject. I came up with the other plan, but you were right, he did deserve more than some street hustler. I should have seen that. And I was shocked, when you volunteered so quickly, that you could put Jeremy’s needs before your own, so naturally and without thinking about it. That’s when I realized it.”
“That you were a better friend than I was. That I’d let both you and Jeremy down as a friend. I considered the two of you my best friends, and I felt guilty as Hell.”
“TJ,” I said, looking at him. “You did not let Jeremy down. You stood by him until the end. You never cut and ran like some of his friends did. I admired that. Even though it was pretty obvious you didn’t want to be around me, you always made time for Jeremy. You were a good friend to him and you have no reason to think you let him down. You weren’t the only one that felt guilty about that night. Jeremy told me it was wrong of him to try to use sympathy to get you to do something that went against your nature.”
“But you did.”
“Yeah, but my relationship with him was different than yours. We grew up together; we were best friends, sure, but we also considered ourselves brothers. You’ll do things for family you wouldn’t do for friends. Besides that, you did things for him I couldn’t or didn’t like doing. I hated team sports but he loved them. I liked playing pick-up games of baseball or football with the other kids in the neighborhood but wasn’t into joining teams. Joining little league, school teams or even pro teams didn’t appeal to me. Playing on those teams was for people who liked watching them. To me, they weren’t sports but entertainment. Each of us did things for him the other couldn’t or didn’t like, so that between the two of us, we made a perfect best friend for him. And as for letting me down, the only way you did that was by not trusting in our friendship enough to talk to me about it. I had no idea what I’d done to piss you off at me.”
“Do you think we can start over and be friends again?”
“Why should we have to start over? We never stopped being friends, we just had a misunderstanding that we needed to talk over and settle. That’s what friends do.”
“So, we’re still friends then?” he said stopping.
“Oh, crap!” he said looking around.
“What?” I asked. “Don’t you want to still be friends?”
“Yeah, but we’re at your house!”
“Well, duh! That’s usually where I end up when I walk home from school.”
“But I was waiting to give you a ride home so we could talk. My car’s back almost to the school.”
“But you didn’t get your ride home.”
“So? We can walk back and then you can give me a ride home.”
“I guess that’d work,” he laughed.
“What did you mean, when you said it wouldn’t matter about football now, if you got a bad English grade?” I asked him, as we headed back to his car.
“I got suspended this afternoon.”
“Suspended?” I asked in disbelief. “For what?”
“Dick and Jim came to the library and told me what Paul had said in the lunchroom. We looked him up, so I could explain to him why he’d better never do anything like that to you again.”
“And you got suspended for that?”
“Well, the explanation was pretty involved and physical. He did get the message loud and clear, though, and you won’t be having anything like that happening again – From him or anyone else.”
“You got into a fight with him because of what he said to me?”
“That’s what the coach called it. We both got a week’s suspension out of it, but it was worth it to me. No one talks like that to my best friend, even if I don’t think he is any more, and gets away with it.”
We walked in silence for a while, while I thought about that and what I should say. Finally, I just said, “Thanks, TJ.”
He just smiled and then said, “So, you and Jennifer, huh?”
I could feel myself beginning to blush. I shrugged. “I guess so, or at least, I hope so.”
“She’s a nice girl; we go to the same church. She’s the luckiest girl in the world to have hooked and landed you, Bud!”
I stopped in my tracks. A cold chill ran down my spine, at the same time I was feeling a warm glow inside. I remembered Jeremy’s note and what he’d said. Then I heard it: Jeremy’s laugh. It was so real, I looked around for him, without thinking, but the laughing was coming from inside me. “I told you so, Doofus,” I heard his voice say. I began to tear up.
TJ noticed, and was looking at me with worry written all over his face. “What’s wrong? Are you okay, Tony?”
“No. No, I’m not okay, but I’m going to be. We all are going to be okay,” I said. I was mentally laughing with Jeremy. It was good to feel him inside me.
“Shut up, asshole,” I laughed, and gave him the finger, as I walked down the street with my other best friend.