“Whiskey, make it a double.” A small sheaf of bills hit the counter to accentuate the statement. Moments later a glass slid across the wooden bar-top and a few of the bills disappeared.
“You look like your best friend just died,” the bartender commented. The reply he received was a glare, accompanied by the emptying of the glass. I pushed it back towards him.
“You should go easy.” The bartender said while filling the order despite his words. Moments later he walked away to serve new patrons while I, his melancholy customer, nursed my drink. Minutes later the empty glass was replaced.
I hated the taste of Whiskey, but Nathan had always said if you wanted to get drunk quickly, pinch your nose and down it. You didn’t get loaded with calories like beer while getting loaded he’d said. I did want to get drunk quickly, although calories weren’t anywhere near the top of my priority list, and so I was heeding that old advice. Drinking doesn’t solve any problems, I know this, but when you pass out things do go away for a little while. It was hard to make thoughts of Nathan go away.
It had been just a few months since I'd walked in to find Nathan having sex with some guy I’d never seen before, not that knowing the person would make it any better. I can easily call to mind the stunned feeling of disbelief; feeling the last few years of my life being thrown away. Drinking was the only solace I could find. Not only had Nathan cheated, but as I had walked in to our apartment—our home of three years— I was also hit with jealousy as I saw his legs in the air; a position he only had allowed me once in all our time together.
So, in a way, when the bartender said I looked like I'd lost my best friend...he was right. Although, in this case, my trust in my best friend had been entirely misplaced. Somehow I'd missed the cues that things weren't fine. Well, that's what I told myself. In truth, when sober, there had been signs. In hindsight, plenty of signs. But I'd ignored them, thinking it was 'just me' and that we, as a whole, were fine.
I drank several double shots in a row before heading back out to the street unsteadily. I had allowed this to become my life, with him gone. I had walked out, only to return when I was sure he was at work to claim my clothes and other small items. The apartment was in his name and, as I gathered my things, I realized that outside of my clothes and computer, everything else was just reminder of what was over. Each knickknack, each picture...it all reminded me of the times we'd shared.
Moving back in with my parents had been just as bad. Never one to keep her opinions to herself, my mother had clucked about gays not being real relationships, that they were destined to fail.
“The only thing those gays care about is what’s hanging between each others legs,” she’d commented as she shuffled about her kitchen making comfort food. I ignored her, unable to even fight with her. I was thinking…maybe she was right. I took all my vacation time from work, and dropped my cell phone in the toilet to stop hearing it ring. All Nathan. He didn’t know I’d seen and couldn’t comprehend why I was suddenly gone, but he couldn’t be that dense.
I spent my afternoons at the bar. The mornings I went to the park. I didn’t really have the energy, but it was better than listening to my mother. Being back at home I realized why my father rarely spoke. I also understood why he drank. I stopped driving to the park and later to the bar after putting a whiskey ripple in my door, courtesy of scraping a stop sign. Now I walked.
These last few months had been filled with endless mental recriminations—what I should have done differently, what a failure I felt like both as a person unable to maintain a relationship and sexually, that he'd be more willing to have a stranger top him than he was me. Maybe, in the end, I was the problem. Maybe Nathan's cheating was just a symptom of my disease.
As I wandered home, hazy with the liquor and my spirits down in my shoes, I wasn’t watching where I was going. I bounced off a couple of people and leaned on a garbage can to steady myself. I slowly raised my head and glanced out into the street, barely noting traffic as it cruised by. Headlights began flicking on in the dusk and then I saw it: a ford bronco, a big one. As it closed on me, a feeling of peace and certainty washed through my picked brain and I stepped out on the street towards it. As I did my heart jumped into my throat and, in a moment of clarity, I wondered what the fuck I was doing. I jerked back and felt the impact on my body, pain flared in contrast to the numb feelings the liquor induced and then the darkness closed in.
I blinked, but there was nothing to see. I felt fuzzy, disconnected from myself. I was hazy on the facts—on everything, actually. I felt as though time had passed, and yet I had no real recollection of it—at least, nothing specific. I seemed to know things rather than having been an active participant. For example I must have been hospitalized and recovered somewhat, though I have no real memory of either. I must have gone to court as I seem to have community service, but again I have absolutely no memory of this. Moreover, I did not seem to care that these events weren’t in my memory.
I now found myself in front of the local community center, near the ragged edges of downtown. There were still some nice yards, but most of the houses were in disrepair. Just a block away lay the town park, its fields with dirt patches showing through the scrub grass. Net-less basketball hoops were set up on the far side, cracked and uneven asphalt laid out for the courts. Grey skies loomed overhead, clouds speeding by as if filmed and then ran at high speed.
My community service was to work in the Center, though again I seemed to know this as opposed to having been told. I was to report to someone as my check in person and my overseer for the community service I was to perform. I stepped into the lobby, letting the squeaky door close behind me. Inside I was met with an oppressive silence, like a mausoleum, and I registered the thought there should be noise and kids. I wasn’t surprised, I didn’t seem to be able to summon any real emotion, like the curious surprise I recognized I should be feeling.
Striding into the empty facility with only the squeak of my shoes to accompany me, I noted a counter on my left; basically a room with the walls knocked out halfway up with a wooden slab installed to serve as a counter top. There was whistling behind the counter, through a doorway behind the counter I should say. It was eerie, like a bad dream of some sort. I kept waiting for a camera man to jump out and say I’d been pranked.
“Hello?” I called out to the door from whence the whistling came. The whistling stopped and the clacking of shoes on linoleum could be heard. A black woman appeared framed in the doorway, an average looking woman in clothes that were fit for playing with children.
“You, oh you must be that cheeseball they want to do community service here, that drunk.” She smiled at me.
“Excuse me?” I said softly. Anger wasn’t present. I knew I should be outraged, upset or embarrassed, but I wasn’t.
“It’s just a fact, honey; don’t worry your head about it. I have some work lined up for you, go down to the gym and find Jessie, he’ll show you. The staircase on your left, just down the hall, cheeseball,” she waved me off. Again I knew I should be annoyed at her dismissal of me, instead I turned, in a daze, and walked down the hall about four feet until I came to a door on my left, propped open, and stared down at the steps leading to the bowels of the building.
“That’s right, down there, cheeseball.” I glanced at her and she waved me on again. I glanced back down the stairs and moved forward, my footsteps echoing hollowly in the stairwell. I reached the landing, turned one hundred eighty degrees and started down again. At the bottom was a dented metal door—halfway open—the push bar to open the door fluttering from being fully open to fully compressed. I could hear, suddenly, the bouncing of a ball.
I pushed the door open the rest of the way and entered the gym. Long buried smells swarmed my senses, things that always intimidated me. Gyms, the scent of many males sweating and shoving for supremacy in sport. To this day seeing a pack of teenage boys together intimidates me, makes me sweat with anticipation of the jeers and catcalls, the ghost of never fitting in of my youth. The gym was deserted, save for a lone kid, one of the aforementioned teens in basketball shorts and a tee shirt.
He bounced the ball, one that was worn to the point that the black dividers were faded to near nothingness; it looked like a pale, over-sized orange. He threw the ball and it bounced harshly off the rim, off the backboard and back to the floor, bouncing to a far corner of the gym.
“Shit.” The kid muttered. He glanced up at me and smirked. “You the cheeseball?”
I shifted, the first emotion shooting through me since my arrival, the nervous feeling of being the awkward teenager who doesn’t understand the rules of being cool. I was never initiated into that tribe, the mysterious rites of being an equal in their eyes. I never passed the tests, never knew the secret handshake…never stuck another kids head in a toilet.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say that.” He waved a hand at me and flashed a new smile, a warm smile, “Nance calls everyone a cheeseball. I’m Jessie.” He walked towards me, confident and unafraid. He had Nathan’s green eyes. I flinched.
“Do I scare you?”
The words echoed eerily in the large space. The harsh glare from the hanging lights showed floating dust motes as his question bounced off the walls and died. I closed my eyes slowly as anxiety swept through me in a palpable wave, sickening me momentarily before I recovered my equilibrium.
“You can’t be scared,” he said.
“I’m not!” I yelled.
“Being loud doesn’t make it the truth, you know,” he replied, in a conversational tone.
“I’m…” I trailed off as I stared into those so familiar eyes, and then down at my shoes, dark in stark relief to the light wood of the gym floor, scuffed and battered as it was.
Jessie struck off across the gym towards the ball. He walked with a confidence, a self assurance that seemed oddly out of place though I couldn't understand why; clearly, between us, he was the alpha. I felt a sense of being sick to my stomach again, and pain in my head that faded almost as quickly as it had come. Jessie had turned to look at me, and then completed the journey to retrieve the ball. He bounced it as he half jogged back towards me. He pulled up short and threw the ball again, bouncing off the backboard hard and into the hoop. The ball bounced away, forgotten once more as Jessie approached me.
“Not feeling too good, huh? Cars have that effect on people; especially if the car hits you.” Jessie threw and arm around my shoulders and guided me to a bench on the sidelines. “You look like shit, cheeseball.”
“Stop calling me that.” It crossed my mind to wonder how he knew about the car, but it seemed like too much work. My thoughts were slowing and slewing around, leaving me with the idea that a connection in my brain that should have been made was just missed, like a bad phone signal.
“What should I call you then?” Jessie sat down beside me, stretching his legs out in a relaxed posture.
“My name is …” My mind went horribly blank for a moment. The overhead light seemed to blind, as if it had swung out on an invisible breeze and the question of my name seemed to ring in my ears, as if it were being demanded from outside my body. My entire back, legs and head felt cold, as if on concrete or asphalt, and for a few moments the question seemed louder—echoing, even— as the light moved from one eye to the other, asking my name. “My name is Alec. Alec Bailey.”
“Well, I guess that sounds better than cheeseball,” he allowed with a grin.
“Aren’t we supposed to…do something?” My momentary coldness and nausea passed and seemed almost forgotten to me, and unnoticed by Jessie.
“In a minute. So why were you just scared?”
I looked at his face, now open and cheerful, not threatening in the least. “I’ve never been comfortable in this,” I gestured at the gym, “kind of environment.”
“I see,” he said, nodding his head. “Don’t believe in sports?”
“I was never very good at it,” I winced again, a sharp pain in my side that settled into a steady throb.
“Yeah, I stink, but I keep at it.”
I sat in silence, the pain in my side fading away. I could hear voices now, dimly, maybe from upstairs. Perhaps children were arriving. What time was it? Was that a siren? Horns blaring? Parents dropping off maybe.
“Well, we’d better get started, not a whole lot of time.”
“What do I have to do?” I was humbled, having to take instruction from a kid. Jessie seemed nice enough, not threatening to me, but I still felt small in his presence.
“I have to give you some faith, to convince you to believe; I'm going to teach you about the Lerman Effect.” He smiled broadly. “I’m gonna marry him. I'll be Jessie Lerman, one day; you remember that name. No, wait, maybe he should take my name. How does that work anyways?”
“You’re…You’re gay?” I asked in astonishment.
“Yep,” he shrugged, “I sure am.”
“Then…faith? Are you a religious nut? One of those ex-gay people?” I felt my anger rise, and clung to it as it was one of the few emotions that seemed to come to me, regardless of the fact I was making no sense.
“Oh, hell no. Faith isn’t exclusive to god or God or Allah or Yaweh or Buddha…even good old Zeus lost his handle on that one. You need to find faith in something. You, your dog—hey, in dog we trust, am I right? Try and avoid putting too much faith in the weatherman, but something or someone—you gotta have some faith in something.”
“Faith is an illusion, things will always let you down; people will always let you down.” I turned my face away from him and stretched out on the bench with my back to the wall, mirroring Jessie’s stance. Pressure increased on my upper arm, like a solid band, clamping down in a vice-like grip before easing. Voices continued to echo, distantly. There must be people upstairs now. I dimly wondered again about the time.
“Nope, faith pulls you through bad times, Alec Bailey. When everything else goes to shit, you got that one thing. It just has to be solid in your mind, in your heart and in your head.”
“If you start in about Church, I’ll walk outta here.” I snarled.
“Hit me with a novena if I try, but no.” He nudged me in the ribs and said, “and I’d like to see you try and walk.” He smiled at me as I glanced at him. A spike of pain went through my head again and I leaned forward, felt my gorge rising and slowly, oh so slowly backing off. My breathing became ragged for a moment and then I sat back, feeling very sick.
“I’m not feeling well, maybe another time,” I said quietly.
“Needs to be now, I think.”
“Hard to have faith, it all just went up in my face. My life is in ruins,” I felt a tear trickle down my cheek, the first one I had shed since I saw Nathan in flagrante dilecto.
“Yeah, faith is a tricky thing. Let me tell you about my faith, what I call the Lerman Effect.”
I nodded, resigned to the lecture, whatever the kid was gonna throw out at me. I felt as though the wall were moving behind me, almost like hands, shuffling me and then the wall became solid again.
“Aww, don’t look at me like that. Look, I used to be just like you.”
I burst out laughing, the first one I can remember having in weeks. This kid, this teenager thought he had the life experience to compare himself to me? My laughter died quickly as my side flared with fresh, sharp pain and I held my hand to my ribs, trying to breathe slowly to minimize the pain.
The ghostly voices suddenly grew clearer, someone was being encouraged to take it easy, to relax. Maybe a fight had broken out upstairs?
“Yeah, I know, it sounds like there is no way. But I know what it is to be betrayed, by your folks, by your friends. I've never had a boyfriend, but I can imagine it hurts pretty bad.”
I merely nodded. It did hurt, that was true enough. Some part of my mind asked how this kid could know these things about me, but it drifted away, too light a thought for me to grasp.
“How were you…betrayed?” I asked him.
“My parents. I'm the oldest child. I was supposed to be their golden boy—blond, blue eyed and six foot tall. I was supposed to be an athlete, scholar, drive a convertible and date the cheer leading squad.” Jessie paused and an uncertain look crossed his face. “Dad started not to like me when I didn’t want to hunt, then I kinda sucked at sports even though I liked to play. When I kissed the neighbor boy, well...he about shit a brick. He broke my arm. Kids at school turned their back on me, people I thought were my friends.”
I frowned at him. This wasn’t jiving with what I was seeing in front of me. The kid in front of me was confident, the kind of confidence that makes someone with average looks far more appealing in general.
“I was pretty low, living with my Aunt and Uncle and that’s when it happened—the Lerman Effect.”
He smiled at me and I couldn’t help but smile back, it was infectious.
“What is that, exactly?” I asked.
“Well, it can happen anywhere with anything I guess. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, but what it basically boils down to is that moment when you find something to hold onto, look up to—to have faith in. I think so many people get that from church because it’s all they talk about in there—telling stories, testifying, trying to make people believe it. I guess you can get it from anywhere, books, movies, a friend or whatever, it just sounds silly to some people if you tell them a TV show changed your life.”
He laughed at the silliness of that idea, and I had to agree with him. Oh! My head hurt!
“So here’s what happened, what I call the Lerman Effect. I’m watching this movie and this guy, an actor, does this dance wearing women‘s underwear in front of Jessica Alba. I mean, I’m gay but, she’s hot.”
“You got faith from a guy in women‘s underwear?” I laughed at the notion, and then winced and leaned over as a painful cough overtook me. My breath rattled in my chest and I had to focus on breathing and easing the pain of a sudden stitch in my side. Slowly I leaned back, easing myself into a position where the wall could support me, again. Jessie placed a hand on my shoulder to regain my attention. Turning to face him I, once more, the phantom voices from the next floor up were trying to calm someone or someones.
“Alec, it wasn’t as silly as it sounds. He danced with a robe and stripped to wearing panties with those stretch things that run to a girl's stockings. He did it with a smile, like it was no big deal. I mean, yeah, he was trying to win a date with Jessica Alba, but still you gotta have brass fucking balls to wear women‘s underwear in a movie you know everyone is gonna see and look like it doesn’t matter while you do it.
“He’s fearless.” Jessie concluded.
“He was playing a role, and probably being paid well,” I felt compelled to point out.
“I’m sure, but if I asked you to do it, could you be comfortable? Knowing your mom would see it? It takes some ice water in your veins to do that, seriously.”
“Ok, I admit it’s ballsy. That doesn’t mean he’s fearless though.”
“Close enough, especially if you’re sixteen. Shit, what could be scarier? So I admire someone with balls like that; someone that completely fearless and totally in command of himself, you know? Confident. You have to be confident and happy with yourself to pull that shit off.” He nudged me and I looked at him as he grinned, “Have to have brass fucking balls, too.”
I sat quietly, pain returning to my head in a dull throb. My side chimed in with a steady, sharp pull and my vision began to fade. Oddly, panic wasn’t setting in—I felt an odd sense of peace. The lights seemed to blaze in my eyes again, waves of light and dark. I looked over at an expectant Jessie.
“So you’re saying I should have faith in this actor?” I said, my voice seeming to be a notch or two lower in volume to my ears and distant, as if it weren't me speaking.
“Nope, he’s mine, hands off sucker! But I bet if you look around you, there is someone you can look to for strength, and they might look back at you for that too. Someone with brass balls, and someone that maybe needs you to have brass balls sometimes. For me, it’s Logan Lerman, my future husband,” he said and smiled proudly.
“How do you know he’ll marry you?” I asked, smiling at Jessie as he began to dim in my vision.
“Shit, if he was gay, he could say so. He’s fearless, I told you. But I bet he thinks it’s no big deal and doesn’t say anything cause he doesn’t need to. Besides” Jessie winked at me, “I don’t want all the other guys finding out about him and clouding his way to me, you know what I’m saying?”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Times about up, Alec Bailey. I’ll tell you what though. I know you hear what I’m saying to you, cause you’re in pain. You’re going back. So I tell you what, cause I like you; for now I’ll share with you. You believe in one fearless, brass balls actor for a little while, and then you look around and I bet you find someone you can believe in. Maybe, you might look to yourself.”
“Jessie, how about if I believe in you for a bit?” I asked, breath coming in shallow now and lights becoming vibrantly bright, blinding me.
“Yeah, that’s better. You believe in me, but it’s still the Lerman Effect. Remember that, Alec. The moment when you find something to believe in, that’s what you call it.”
The gym and Jessie faded from my vision as pain flooded my body. My eyes opened briefly, lights moved past me and I was in darkness again, but it was a comfort because Jessie was there.
Three months later.
I walked with a cane, my leg still aching me on some days, especially if the weather was doing weird things like today. When I realized I'd need the cane for a while, I decided not to get the aluminum one they offered for an exorbitant fee at the hospital. No, instead I went out and got a wooden cane with an interesting ornament on top. I'd been hit by a car and needed a cane because of it; I may as well not act like I was embarrassed—because the only reason to be embarrassed, I realized, was if it hadn't taught me anything. Now, if I got drunk and stepped in front of another moving vehicle...
I had talked to Nathan—challenged him—and finally ended it instead of hiding from him like some creature who didn’t deserve closure or have a right to his anger. I was surprised to know, despite his cheating, that he'd been pained as well. Our communication had been getting worse as I'd lied to myself and thought things would work themselves out. He took responsibility for what he'd done and, maybe, we could forgive each other and get on with our lives. Separately, but we could go on.
My mother was much quieter these days also, especially after me telling her how hurtful she really was. I discovered that while some people get quiet when they don't know how to respond, others prattle. My mother prattled, and even though I think she meant much of what she'd said, she hadn't been thinking it through before it passed through her mouth.
I discovered a strength in my father I never knew he had, and enjoyed spending time with him has I recovered from my accident. The big vehicle had given me a glancing blow, the mirror whacking me in the head. The bumper hit my leg just above the knee, causing my limp and the need for the cane, on occasion. I also flew a few feet and landed on the garbage can I had leaned on moments before I stepped in front of a moving vehicle, breaking a couple ribs.
I walked to the door of the Community Center, the sky an ominous grey overhead; thunderheads amassed in the distance. I stepped into the lobby, the squeaky door closing behind me. I was assaulted by the sounds of laughter, screaming and playing from all sides. I nodded to the person behind the counter, a teenage girl who worked there part time. I walked down the hall toward the stairs, past a line of pictures, small eight by tens of past Community Center Presidents. The one previous to this was taken in the mid eighties before the lady had succumbed to cancer, a plain looking black woman with the plaque bearing her name underneath.
Nancy Callahan, or Nance as Jessie had called her in my...fugue? As I looked at her I could hear her calling me a cheeseball.
I smiled at her picture and moved on to the stairs, going slowly down as the kids streamed by me going down to the gym or up to the common rooms. Stepping into the gym I spotted him—green eyes like Nathan and a swagger that had developed over the past month as he and I had bonded. His parents, you see, weren't nice people, weren't good people nor decent. His arm, broken previously, had healed well and he was safe with his aunt and uncle.
Once I'd started my community service, I'd spotted him right away—a forlorn boy in a gym that intimidated him as much as it did me. He was blossoming, though, and developing some self-worth. His eyes no longer defaulted to the tips of his sneakers and his smile appeared as he saw me, keeping my promise to continue to volunteer, though my service time had passed.
Can you believe I had to explain the Lerman Effect to him?
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