“I'll ask you one more time, who was with you?”
The judge looked at me over a pair of half-moon glasses. I always thought they were kind of cool. Except for now, of course. I kept my silence. The courtroom wasn't impressive. You see them on Law and Order, maybe Boston Legal...hell, Matlock. Courtrooms are filled with polished wood, marble floors and expensive lighting. This one had a beat up railing where a jury would sit, two fold out tables where the lawyers sat and the judge was in front of me. He had the only real desk, but it looked like something the Salvation Army wouldn't pick up.
Still, for the lack of gravitas, I was intimidated. I didn't stay quiet because I was loyal, but more because there was a heavy shiver in my voice when I did speak in this room, as there had been when I spoke to the cops. I don't even know why I did it...well, that really wasn't true. I knew why. Peer pressure works in weird ways, and sometimes you don't really realize you're in it's grip. Even now it sounds so lame, even the term – peer pressure – sounds like something someone made up. It's clinical and detached.
The truth is, I just wanted to belong. Spray painting someone's garage didn't seem like such a big deal when it got brought up. We were all just kind of bullshitting after playing some pick up football in the park and there was this weird energy in the air. It was one of those days when the twilight seemed to be hanging around, the weather was just right and there was a tickle of a breeze sliding by. No one wanted to go home, for the time to end. School was fading for the summer and we were just kind of savoring it, that weird elastic twilight time.
I'm not sure how the idea of spray painting the garage really came up. No one said 'Hey, lets go spray paint the old fags house' or anything. Bobby Simeon just started drifting towards his home, and he was one of those cool kinds of people, the kind where what was left of the players started to follow along idly, extending the evening. Some guys peeled away as we walked; it was getting way past dinner time. We were sitting in Bobby's backyard, on the picnic table, again just bullshitting. Bobby was drinking a soda; he hadn't offered one to anyone else. His mom never let him share, said she wasn't there to provide for the neighborhood; that's what Bobby said anyway.
Looking at the back of Bobby's yard was a hedge that separated his yard from the neighbor whose house faced the front of the next block. The old guy next door came out of the back of his house. He had one of those driveways that went all the way down the side of his house and ended in a two car garage that sat a little behind his house. They were real common up at this part of town. The old guy was lucky he had a garage. Most places you parked out on the street. Anyway, he steps out of the back door of his house, and that was actually a screen door to an enclosed porch, and he goes around to the side of the house with a stool. I saw him get up on it and reach for one of those rainbow flags, he was taking it down.
“Aw, there goes his little fag flag,” Bobby said, laughing and swigging his soda. I glanced back at the guy. There was a chuckle throughout the group, a nervous titter at being so close to the guy with Bobby making such comments more than any real malice. I know people will say someone should have manned up and said something right then, but you don't get it. None of us had that kind of juice, except maybe Bobby.
So like I said, I glanced back at the old guy and he was stretching the flag out, like he was examining it. I saw this big patch of the flag was gone, like it had been sliced. He turned and looked at our group and Bobby grinned, raised his can to the guy and laughed while looking at the rest of us. He was looking for our approval, and he got it. I thought he was just laughing at the guys misfortune, I didn't really think about it at the time. Probably even odds that Bobby had cut up his flag though.
The guy took his flag down and went into his garage. Talk turned to gossip; who was dating who, who was maybe getting some. I listened, I always liked listening to other people's drama. I saw the old guy cross his grass and go back inside, shutting the light off. I guess he just put the flag away. At least, that's what I assumed. Not long after the porch light went out, Bobby started up about the guy's flag again. You could tell he wasn't really sorry about it, of course, but that was Bobby. He was fake crying about the guys flag, pretending like he was the old guy and there were some chuckles going around. I admit I was one of them. Sounds bad now, I know, but really, what did I care if his flag had gotten torn?
Bobby got all excited then, and told us all to hang on. The weird inertia of the twilight was starting to lose it's grip, the sky was darker and the wind had gotten cooler, so I was more thinking home than I was listening to school gossip anymore. Bobby comes back out of his basement with a bag, all these clinking noises inside it. He gets all giddy like and says we should go cheer up the old guy and give his garage some color, since his flag was all fucked up.
I got this little surge of adrenaline then, from the idea of doing something bad I guess. I wasn't exactly Joe Trouble; I got halfway decent grades, played a few sports and was pretty much an average guy. I got into shit here and there, nobody's perfect, but like I said; I was no Joe Trouble. Still, Bobby had that bag of spray paint cans and a few of us were already following him down to the back of his yard. I followed too, no real plan. Thought maybe I'd watch. We all slipped through the hedge and into the old guys yard, kinda sidled up behind the garage. Bobby started to hand out the cans and told us all to shake 'em, but to do it quiet.
I guess if I hadn't had any warning before, that should have been it. When people tell you to be quiet it's because they don't want to get caught, duh, so maybe at this point a smart person would have thought not to do it. I'm not always smart. We shook up the cans a bit and Bobby put the first arc on the back, way up high. He was making cracks about putting a rainbow on the garage. We all stepped up and started to spray, Bobby had already stepped back from us. We were like idiots, all spraying, making worse that one line that he'd painted. Some of them started writing fag and queer, it was kind of dark back there and I couldn't honestly say who.
“Oh shit, lights!” Bobby said and he dived through the hedges. We turned like one frightened animal, suddenly discovered and afraid of being caught. I slipped, reached for someone to steady me and got nothing. I fell right back and smacked my head into the back of the garage. I grabbed my head, only for a second though, the adrenaline was still pumping I guess and I scrambled to my feet. The rest of them had pushed through the hedge and were scattering like fucking cockroaches and when I stepped out from behind the garage to scuttle with them, I got a flashlight in the eyes.
“Stop right there! What do you think you're doing to my garage?” I debated making a break for the hedge but before that idea even fully formed the old guy was next to me and blocking my escape. Well fuck.
The cops got there a few minutes later. My knees were knocking, the old guy was apoplectic and all I could think about was what my dad was gonna do to me. I was cuffed and put in the back of the car – handcuffs! - and then the cops took me home. My dad was furious. Pissed. He looked at me like he didn't know who I was, and my mother wrung her hands and tisked at me. I sat at the kitchen table, shoulders hunched and my head down.
I felt bad, for a whole bunch of reasons. It was just dumb what I'd done, and I really hadn't meant any harm. It was just empty headed. My parents were mad, and the more they talked the angrier they got. There would be money involved now, someone was going to have to paint that garage again. There was the embarrassment of me being brought home in handcuffs; at least the cops hadn't been running the lights when they pulled up to my house. I was released into my parents custody, and let me tell you it was one place I didn't want to be.
I got sent to bed, my father told me he was too ashamed to look at me. It broke my heart when he said that, because I hadn't meant any harm. I hadn't started off my day looking to get home by the cops. Some small part of my mind was thinking this wasn't real, that somewhere my day had taken a wrong turn into Wonderland or something. I sat on my bed and felt hollow. I could hear my folks out beyond my door talking, but it was all murmurs to me. For the first time I can think of, I truly felt alone.
I had a court date, of course. Between me pulling that stunt and that time, there was a lot of commotion at my house. Lots of folks came and went, suddenly I was the local gossip. One night I saw Mr. Shaughnessy, the school guidance counselor and the old guy whose garage I'd redecorated show up. I was banished to my room before the door was opened, but there was a lot of conversation, for hours it seemed. I got tired of trying to spy and had actually fallen asleep with tension.
That kind of bring us to here, and the judge looking at me, demanding to know who. I just stood there. I didn't know everyone that had been there, and I'd had a lot of time to think about it too. I'd shut right down though, I actually couldn't talk without a nervous tremor in my voice and it all kept coming back to one thing for me. It wouldn't matter if everyone else got caught or not, it wouldn't change what I had done. I deserved to be punished and ratting the rest of them out wouldn't change that.
The judge looked at me impatiently, then glanced at the city attorney prosecuting me. “I understand there is some sort of agreement?”
“Yes, your honor. The defendants parents have agreed to cover the cost of repainting the back of the garage. The defendant will carry out the task to the affected party's satisfaction.”
The judge looked at me, his eyes floating over the lenses of his glasses. “It's not enough. I agree this young man should make restitution, but it's not enough.”
“Your honor?” The city attorney addressed the judge, who merely nodded at him to continue. “This agreement was reached based on not only the defendant having no prior incidents with the law, a positive endorsement from his school guidance counselor and the fact his parents reached an agreement with the affected party.”
“All well and good, except for one thing. I want the names of the other people involved, counselor.” The judge resumed his study of me, and I continued to stand before him with slumped shoulders. “You carried out an act of vandalism on a senior citizen. Maybe you can't understand what that's like, to be old and afraid of you young people. No, I think you need to learn a few things, not just fix what you did wrong.
“I sentence you, in addition to the agreed upon restitution, to perform community service. The nature of this service will be to perform thirty hours per week of odd jobs to assist the affected party. This will continue until you step forward and provide the names of those others involved.”
If it were possible my shoulders slumped even lower. It was bad enough I'd done something stupid and would have to pay for it. But between being in such deep shit, my parents acting like I was a ghost and now watching my summer shrivel up before me, I didn't feel like I could get much lower.
That was Thursday night. Friday morning my dad got me up. Things were very sober at my house, lots of tension in the air. The stress was unbelievable to me, my parents were very nearly giving me the silent treatment. My baby sister was fussing in her highchair and my mom was preoccupied with her. I got a plate and ate quickly. My dad had to work and my mom was home all day with my sister, and even though my mom fussed about leaving me there all day, she made a point to tell me that Mr. Grantham was a respectable fellow and to mind my manners. I rode over to the old guys house in my dad's pickup.
The house was narrow with metal shades over each window. There was a bear with a lantern in its paw at the end of the driveway, which was spider webbed with cracks. The lawn was a little long and two bushes grew up near the front of the house that hid the windows behind them; you could only tell there were windows because of the metal shades. My dad put the truck into park and sat there for a minute. I don't know if he was trying to figure out what to say, or was just so disappointed in me he didn't want to talk to me at all.
“I'm sorry dad,” I said. I had tears in my eyes and I mashed them with the back of my hand.“Tell me something. Are you sorry for what you did or sorry you got caught?”
I looked at him. He hadn't said it in a mean way, but my parents had always said things like that about politicians and big business people who got caught doing something and then apologized. I knew he was honestly asking me a question.
“A little bit of both. If I hadn't got caught, I think I'd still be ashamed,” I replied.“That's a good, answer son. I'm gonna walk you up today, Mr. Grantham has to sign for your time here every week, it's part of the deal. I don't know why you won't say who was with you, I figure you're loyal to them. But I want you to think about something.”
I looked up at my dad as he paused and waited to continue, to be sure he had my complete attention.
“Being loyal is a very good quality to have, but you should think about who you're being loyal to as you get punished. They aren't being loyal to you, they aren't manning up to what they did.”
I looked down. I may have mumbled something stupid like 'I know dad.' I can't be sure. My dad's side of the truck opened and I took a deep, steadying breath and opened my door too and slid out. We walked up the drive and up the two small concrete steps to the front door of the house. My dad rung the bell and movement could be heard from the inside. The door opened and I took in Mr. Grantham in the daylight.
He wore a pale yellow button up shirt and rainbow suspenders with thin brown trousers. His feet were covered with stout black shoes that were dulled with age.
“Good morning Mr. Grantham, I brought Chris and his time sheet,” My father said, greeting the old man.
“Good morning, come in won't you?” he invited, opening the screen door.
“I have to go to the store for baby formula, or I surely would. Is that...is that percolated coffee I smell?” my dad asked.
“Of course it is, if it's not perked it's not real coffee,” Mr. Grantham smiled. “May I offer you a cup?”
“I haven't smelled perked coffee in years, I don't think I've ever had any,” my dad responded. I stood there like a lump, no sense in stopping doing what worked for me. “You know, the baby had breakfast, I wouldn't mind that coffee.”
My father stepped through the door and Mr. Grantham looked at me expectantly. “You should probably come inside before the neighbors gossip.”
I nodded and followed my father in. The door opened right into the guys living room, and it was decorated in early old people. The furniture had that fuzzy coating on it that you just don't see much of anywhere. The TV was a tube number on a rolling stand, The wallpaper was curling in spots and just looked old. The small living room gave way to an equally small dining room that had a small oval table and four chairs clustered around it. Mr. Grantham waved my father to a chair and disappeared through a doorway; I just continued to take stock of the house. It just seemed like the whole place was tired.
I sidled into the dining room and glanced at the pictures on the wall, some black and white and some that weird kind of color pictures they had in the 70's or something. On one of the short walls was a clock, the top was where you told time and on the top of it was an eagle with it's wings spread and looking off to it's left. Under the six of the clock was along neck that ended in a rectangle, and inside that rectangle was a picture of a ship in full sail, cresting a wave.
“It's called a banjo clock,” Mr Grantham said as he came back into the room with a tray with coffee cups, cream and sugar and a small metal coffee pot with a glass dome crowning it. He placed a cup in front of my father and poured for him. “Please,” he said waving to the cream and sugar, “help yourself.”
“Thanks,” my dad replied and put a teaspoon of sugar and a dollop of cream in.
“I've never heard of a banjo clock before,” my dad said.
“An American style, they were popular in the eighteen hundreds and into the nineteen twenties. After that they faded out. I never understood why they called them banjo clocks though.” He sipped his coffee and looked at the clock in question. “I suppose if you squint, you've been drinking and have never seen a banjo, they look a bit like one.”
My dad chuckled and I hid a small grin. It didn't seem right to smile in his house, in his presence really, considering why I was here.
My dad chatted with Mr. Grantham about what I'd be doing and arranging a schedule for transportation. After what seemed like both a long time and a short time my dad left, after a second cup of coffee. He patted me on the shoulder as he left and I stood awkwardly in Mr. Grantham's living room, uncomfortable and unsure of myself.
“Why don't you get started? I haven't gotten any paint yet, but since you have odd jobs to perform you may have noticed the shrubs out front need a trim. Come on, I'll show you where the tools are kept.” He stood and walked through the doorway to which he'd disappeared earlier for the coffee. I followed him and discovered the kitchen with a large cast iron deep sink dominating one wall. We crossed the small room and reached the back door which led out onto his screened in porch.
Once outside I felt slightly better, until I looked at Bobby's back yard. I was looking at the picnic table and thinking about how I should have just gone home that night. I exhaled deeply and followed Mr. Grantham into the side of the garage and to the back where he stopped in front of a disorganized tool bench. The ripped flag lay on top of the bench, crumpled and clearly destroyed.
“Here we are, trimming shears.” He held up a pair of ancient clippers, flexed a bit and they moved closed and open very slowly. “Yes, well, might need some oil. Here.” He handed me the clippers and rooted around on the bench till he found an old oil can with a flexible nozzle with a squeeze handle. I held out the clippers as he applied some drops and instructed me to work the handles.
While I did that he pulled out my time sheet, and glanced at it. “Oh, yes, here it is. Chris is it?” He glanced at me.
“Yes sir,” I replied while continuing to work the oil in.
“Chris. Right, and this last name? How exactly do you pronounce M-o-d-r-z-e-j-e-w-s-k-i?” His eyebrows rose up a bit in question.
“Majeski,” I replied.
“Ah. Chris Modzejewski. Well, I'm Raleigh Grantham. May I ask you a question?” He didn't wait for a response, only for me to make eye contact. “Why did you do it?”
Because we were all doing it was what rolled through my head, but of course I couldn't say that. How lame can you be? I shrugged and replied, “It was stupid.”
“Yes, no argument there, but why the slurs? What did a gay man ever do to you?”
“Nothing,” I said. The clippers weren't really loosening up all that much. “It was just stupid stuff. I didn't put any slurs though.”
He put a touch more oil on the joints and I continued to flex the clippers.
“I'd like them trimmed back, squared off. All the trimmings can be raked up and placed into the rubbish bin by the back door, outside.” He walked away from me and I felt like I had just failed a test of some kind.
I headed out front, and started in on the hedges. It was boring work and my mind wandered. Inside I heard the TV come on and the sounds of a baseball game could be heard. It was muffled, and I was only half interested. The clippers, despite being oiled, were still pretty stiff and weren't sharp at all. I wasn't sure when they'd last been used. The shrubs had these kind of sinewy branches that just wouldn't cut evenly, they would sort of peel back a little and leave enough to keep the branch from being cut off. I'd work those dull clippers over and over in the same spot, each time shaving a little more of the branch off until it finally separated.
Of course then it looked all raggedy. I sighed, I don't think this is what the old guy had in mind. I kept working the same spots to try and fix up the ragged ends, I figured if the guy wasn't happy I'd get in more trouble, shitty clippers or not. The sun climbed up in the air and the day got hotter. I was sweating pretty good when I finally got the shrubs as good as I was going to get them. I wiped my forehead off with the bottom of my tee shirt and pulled down the bottom of my boxers since they had ridden up a little while I was squatting down working the lower part of the shrubs.
I walked around to the back of the house and knocked. After a minute or two I opened the back door and called out, “Mr. Grantham?”
“Yes? Yes! I'm here!” I heard movement from the living room and I crossed the kitchen to the doorway to see him slowly standing from a chair.
“Mr. Grantham? I think I'm done with the shrubs.”
“Well, lets have a look, shall we?”
The weekend dragged by, I was grounded of course, and finally Monday came and I was up when the sun hit my window. I stretched and lay back down for a minute, just watching the trees hang still outside, no breeze. It was going to be a hot day. I heard my folks moving around, so I got up and got cleaned up and put on some old clothes. My parents were at the table drinking coffee.
“Where's Caroline?” I asked.
“Shh!” Mom said, “She's sleeping. Kept me up half the night.”
“Oh,” I replied. Not much else to say for that. When dad picked me up Friday night he'd made arrangements with Mr. Grantham to pick up the paint, the order was supposed to be ready when we got there. It was only seven o'clock, and after breakfast I went out into our driveway and shot a few baskets before dad came to get me and we left for the hardware store.
Manupella's had a little of everything. Dad says stores like these just don't exist anymore and he'd take one of them over any Home Depot or Lowe's any day of the week. Taking my dad to the hardware store was like handing a fat kid the keys to the candy store. He walked down the hand tool aisle and looked at a few things, hefted a hammer or two, all normal for him. After he'd had his fix, we walked up to the counter and the owner shuffled over.
“Joe, how are you?” my dad asked.
“Oh fair to middling, what are you two scalawags up to today?”
“Here to pick up an order, Grantham is the name. Should have some paint.” Dad reached around for his wallet.
“Yeah, Raleigh called in yesterday, he tagged on a couple extras, paid for em over the phone. He said he hoped you wouldn't mind lugging them.” Joe reached under his counter to grab a binder that had 'Orders' written on it with a black marker. He eyeballed me, “You the one that painted up his garage Christopher?”
I met his eye. I was ashamed but damned if I wouldn't own what I did. “Yes sir.”
“Raleigh is a nice guy, don't see why you did that,” Joe remarked before looking at my dad. “I'll send Cal to meet you out back, get you loaded up. How you want to pay for the paint?”
Once the bill was settled we took the truck around back and Cal loaded a narrow pallet on the truck bed. Cans of paint, a brush and some big cans of pavement sealer and asphalt filler. His spider webbed driveway popped into my head and I groaned. I was going to have to fix that long ass driveway! My dad shot me a glance, but he didn't say anything about me talking about who was with me. He wouldn't. He'd let me decide when I'd had enough.
As I expected, I was working the driveway that day. I was on my hands and knees filling in the cracks and trying to think of something entertaining, wishing like hell I hadn't broken my fucking iPod. I could feel the sweat sticking my shirt to my back and trickling down my sides. The only thing I can remember besides that I was sweating my ass off on that black driveway that day was that Mr. Grantham had visitors. There was this guy and girl, both looked around my age. He was average in just about every way a guy can be. He was about as tall as I was, straight dark hair hanging out under his ball cap, khaki shorts, a tee shirt and sneakers. The girl had on athletic shorts showing off smooth tanned legs and a tank top. Her long brown hair shimmered in the sun at the top of her head, the rest was pulled back into a pony tail. They murmured hellos as they went past me and into the back of the house.
God damn if the temperature hadn't just done up ten or twenty degrees. That girl could get a monk in trouble. I figured they must be Mr. Grantham's relatives or something, didn't look like they had anything to sell door to door. I let my mind wander a bit as to why they were there and wondering what that girl would look like if she smiled. I held that thought for a little while. It was a question I could play around with and still do this mind numbing, soul killing work. Jesus, why the fuck didn't I just go home that night?
I was kind of jealous of those two inside right now, out of this heat. I wasn't particularly thirsty but I knew I was losing fluid, I'd need to hydrate at some point. I'd been working for a good few hours but was just crushed when I pulled my head up to see how little of the driveway I'd gotten done. I mean, all those cracks and I'd barely started! A solid couple of hours of work and I really hadn't gotten shit done!
I looked up to see the guy poking his head out of the back porch.
“Yeah?” I leaned back on my heels to look at him.
“There's a pitcher of ice water on the porch here, and a glass if you get thirsty.”
“Oh man, am I ever,” I said and popped up to my feet. The guy watched me approach, kind of a confused look on his face as I got closer.
“What?” I looked down at my clothes, which were just sweaty as hell. Probably looking at my pants, sweat had soaked the upper parts. “I know, I'm a sweatball. It's hot out though.” I drew the back of my forearm across my brow to emphasize my point.
“Yeah,” he replied wrinkling his nose a little, “I guess you're right about that.” The back door opened and the girl poked her head out.
“Evan, come eat, lunch is ready.” She looked at me warily. She was pretty enough, she probably got hit on a lot. I bet she was just steeling herself for a nice clumsy come on from the sweat soaked community service punk. “Would you like a sandwich?” she asked in a neutral voice.
“No, thanks. I brought my lunch. Thanks for the offer, though.” Her expression didn't change, just a curt nod and Evan slid past her into the house, and she along with him. I filled the glass with water, sloshed it around in my mouth and spit it out. That felt a lot better. I drank down half the glass and refilled it before walking over to the garage. I'd set my lunch inside, a small insulated bag with one of those things you toss in the freezer at night and into your lunch sack during the day to keep it cold.
I sat down under a tree near the garage and opened my lunch. I used the little handy wipe, was pretty sure I didn't want any of that asphalt sealer crap getting on my food. I had a tuna sandwich and an apple in there, not my favorite by a long shot. Oh, wait, there was joy after all, a second tuna sandwich. I rolled my eyes, my parents were even punishing me with lunch. I chewed slowly and enjoyed the shade, the grass under me and the tree at my back. A breeze kicked up for a second and I was in heaven.
My mom had put a summer reading book off my school list in with my lunch, and I opened it up and started to try and get into it. A car honked, a little red hatchback at the end of the drive. Evan came out with the girl. Man those legs just went on and on. They headed down the drive and motored off with whomever was driving. Mr. Grantham came out the back door and looked at me under the tree.
“Dolce far niente!” he bellowed with a smile.
“What?” I asked. I returned his smile as he walked across the grass to me.
“It's Italian, it means 'the sweetness of doing nothing'.” He stopped short of me and turned to glance at my work. “Slow work, isn't it?”
“Yeah. I thought I was a lot farther along until I stood up and looked at the whole thing.”
“Yes, happens in life all the time. Our perspective changes and we see things in a different light.”
I nodded at him; that was exactly right. I got a lot done so far, unless you looked at it against the whole driveway, then it was drop in the bucket. He walked farther over and looked down at my handiwork. I put my book and my trash from lunch into the bag and stood up, my joints popping a bit. Lunch break was over I was thinking. He turned away from the driveway and waved at me as he headed for his house.
“You do good work,” he said over his shoulder before disappearing behind his door. I felt kind of good about that. I headed back over and started in again, filling the cracks, I pretended I was patching some earthquake, like a giant or a god or something. All these little ants were racing everywhere and I was fixing the land they walked on. That is when the stupid fuckers didn't walk right across the crack filler and get stuck.
That's how the next few days went; I'd sweat my ass off in the driveway and Evan would show up with that girl and they'd go inside. Evan would pop out to tell me there was water and I'd break for a minute. Third day the routine changed a little, he walked over to me with a glass of water in his hand.
“Good thing you have a shirt on, you'd be sunburnt,” he observed as he presented me with the glass.
“Thanks,” I smiled at him and drank half the glass. “You're not shitting, I'd' be Kentucky Fried Chris in this heat.”
“You're finally making some progress though,” Evan said. I looked around me, like I hadn't done that a bazillion times that day already.
“I'll be glad when it's done though. This is really, really tedious. Plus, I stink.” I laughed and he did too.
“Evan, lunch.” She just looked at him. He made some kind of hand motion and her eyebrows laced in displeasure. At least that's what I think it was. He turned back to me.
“I have to go in now.”
“Thanks for the water.” I smiled at him and he smiled back before turning and practically skipping to the back door. The girl shot daggers at me. What the hell did I do?
That following Thursday, marking a week after my court date had sentenced me to working on Mr. Grantham's driveway was just crazy hot. My shirt was totally sopping by eleven in the morning and it was swinging while I worked. You know, like it was all wet and I'd get some of the crack filler on my spatula, move to apply it and the wet material would shift and smack my sides. It felt totally disgusting.
Evan and that snooty girl were already inside and I couldn't take the shirt anymore. I pulled it off and hung it on the little bear at the end of the drive to dry out. It would probably stink like a bag of assholes later, but at least I didn't have it on. I knelt back down and started to really work the driveway, I was so close to getting this part done that I could taste it. I whistled a little, some tune from the radio, and idly wondered if I could talk my parents into a new ipod if they ever started talking to me much again. There was some commotion from the house, sounded like a few yells or something. I wondered what the hell two kids could do all morning in Mr. Grantham's place, besides die of boredom. I sat up, still kneeling but rocking back on my feet again and giving the driveway a quick once over. I'd finish this thing after lunch, no problem.
I glanced up to see not Evan but the girl walking towards me with a glass of ice water. I was kind of stunned, I thought she hated me for some reason. She had a little spring in her step and a sly look, no smile though. I think she was just enjoying my jaw hanging open. Oh, wait, yeah. Close my mouth. Good one.
“Here you go Chris, you look like you need it.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
“You're welcome,” she said with a surprised look.
“Why do you look surprised?” I asked after draining most of the glass. I stifled a burp. “'scuse me.”
“I...I''m not. Well I am, but...it's nothing. I'll see you later.” She turned and walked away from me, and man I just watched her go. She was some kind of beautiful, even if she was kind of frosty to me.
After lunch I finished up the driveway, and all I can say is there was patch everywhere. I looked like there was more patch than driveway. I started to pick up all the stuff I'd used, putting the cans of filler aside to go in the trash. Evan and the girl left mid-afternoon, Evan waved and she didn't. After I put everything away I grabbed my shirt and pulled it on. My dad was just pulling up when Mr. Grantham stepped out of the back door.
“Chris? Could I trouble you to change the light bulb in the garage before you go? There is a pack of bulbs under the workbench and ladder in the garage.”
I glanced at my dad's truck and sighed on the inside. Oh well, just a few more minutes. “Sure thing Mr. Grantham.” I headed inside the garage and heard the sound of my dad's truck door closing. I heard their voices as Mr. Grantham, greeted my dad and they talked. I dragged the old ladder over under the bulb and retrieved a new one from the pack. Five minutes I had the bulb changed and the ladder put back. I walked out with the old bulb in my hand.
“Ah, thank you, I'll throw that out,” Mr. Grantham said as he plucked the bulb from my hand. “I was just telling your father, if you could come tomorrow morning to spread the sealer, should take only an hour or so, I'd like to let you go for the day and ask you to come back Saturday about three o'clock.”
“Come back for Saturday night?” I asked. There was no hiding it, I was thinking I was done for the week tomorrow.
“Chris,” my dad said in a warning tone. I sighed.
“Sure thing Mr. Grantham.”
“Thank you, I appreciate it Chris.” He shook my dad's hand and off we went.
He was right about it not taking that much time to seal the driveway. He explained how to do it and then just turned me loose. I was done by eleven. He'd actually popped out once or twice as I was working, which was something new. Evan and that girl hadn't shown up, and I was a little disappointed. I took the huge squeegie beck up to the garage and leaned it up against the cans of sealer I'd used up. I didn't have anything to do till my dad got there and I wandered the yard. I hadn't brought lunch since it would be a short day and I found myself in back of his garage, looking at that spray painted mess.
My feet just led me there. I stared at the back, the jacked up rainbow with colors crossing each other like they were drunk. The rainbow started way down on one side, arched up about six feet high or so before running all the way to the other side. Under the rainbow was the part that was embarrassing to be associated with. Faggot. Queer. Perv. There was a small drawing of a penis and what might have been an ass, I guess. Or a cantaloupe. It was hard to tell. In a way I was surprised he hadn't made me fix this first, considering.
“Admiring your handiwork?”
I jumped a bit and turned my head to face Mr. Grantham. “No sir.”
“Why don't you come inside to wait?” Mr. Grantham called out, striking out towards his back door. I sighed inside again, but nodded and headed for his house. He held the door open for me with an admonishment to wash my hands in the sink. I smelled it as soon as I came in the door and my stomach grumbled. I juked my head enough to see the banjo clock showing it was twenty after eleven. Seems cleanup had taken more time than I realized.
That smell though. Bacon. It was hanging in the air, wrapping me in a scent that just made my mouth water. Literally, I had to swallow a couple of times while I washed my hands as the scent floated around the room.
I know some people like chocolate when they feel down. Some people cram ice cream in their mouths, or candy. My comfort food was bacon. I put bacon bits on salad, in my soup (most of the time) and BLT's were my favorite sandwich on earth. I wiped my hands off and walked into the dining room and, hot shit, there was a plate of bacon, a plate of sliced tomato, jar of mayo and a bowl with lettuce. A loaf of bread was on a cutting board, ready to roll. This was so weird.
“It's time you and I talked, and talking is always better when there is food involved. Please, sit.” My eyes must have lit up cause he gave me a smile, first one I think that was pointed in my direction for weeks. I sat at the table and did my level best to not look like a ravenous pig, but I could hardly wait for that first bite. My parents had stopped buying bacon, one more incentive to tell, they said. I put mayo on the bread and two slices of bacon, two of tomato and a nice lettuce leaf, folded over, and popped one end in my mouth. It was heaven.
“You're a fan of a good BLT I guess,” he commented, making his own sandwich. I wiped my mouth and tried to finish chewing so's not to be rude.
“It's my favorite,” I said and smiled. I can't tell you how good it tasted!
“Tell me something,” he said as he swabbed one slice of bread with mayo. “Why did you stare at the paint on my garage?”
“Why?” I asked dumbly.
I bit into the sandwich and chewed to buy some time. After all the work I'd done, I didn't feel as bad as I did when I'd painted it. I'd paid a penance for for my part in it, but I wasn't sure what the right answer was here. I decided to just wing it and tell him the truth.
“Well, I knew some of the others wrote words and stuff, I didn't really see what it was. I mean,” I said and nodded to him, ”I kind of figured what it was, but I hadn't seen it. So I was reading what they wrote, looking at the whole mess in daylight.”
“So, out of all that, what did you paint?”
“I think it was the green stripe on the rainbow.” I looked down at my sandwich, half eaten. I was starting to feel guilty again. So much for feeling better about it.
“What about the rest?” he asked softly.
“The words? No, I didn't do that.” I put the sandwich down and felt my shoulders slumping again. One stupid move and I was paying and paying. Problem was, would telling them Bobby was involved even mean anything anymore? Where was my proof?
“You know,” he said taking a bite of his sandwich and chewing it, “I love bacon. It soothes something deep in my soul. Of course,” he swallowed and cleared his throat, “That much grease will have me running for the can soon, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.”
“Hell yeah, bacon is the shit. I mean.” I closed my eyes. What a dumb fuck.
“Yes, the shit. I can get behind that.” He laughed and took another bite. I looked at him and, once I realized I wasn't in deep shit, glanced back at my sandwich. My stomach trembled just looking at it.
“Chris, with the impossible to spell last name, this is called lunch. You should eat.”
That was all I really needed. I picked up my sandwich and had it gone in a few bites. Damn but that bacon was good!
“May I ask,” he started as he reached for a new slice of bread, “what you think of those words?”
I sensed a trap. I took my time chewing that last bit of sandwich to think.
“Please, I really want to know.”
I shrugged, “I don't think much about them I guess. They never affected me before.”
“So no one ever called you a nancy boy or a queer before?” He went back to building his sandwich.
“Not really. I mean, sure I've gotten called a fag sometimes, but it was all just shit talking. Oh, uh, excuse me.” I felt embarrassed and covered by starting to make myself a second sandwich too.
“No, I don't suppose anyone would ever mistake you for a 'mo.”
A 'mo. It's short for Homo.”
“Oh. Never heard that one before.”
“Must be fading into the not so glorious past.”
Lunch went silent for a bit, and I was grateful. I ate the sandwich and relished each bite. My parents would be pissed if they knew, maybe. I had been bringing a bagged lunch every day and eating outside. I sure wasn't going to tell them. After the food was gone I helped to clean up and Mr. Grantham ran to the can, as he promised he would. I was shocked at how fast the food had disappeared. I mean, I love bacon, but lunch was over in like fifteen minutes, and I think we each had three whole sandwiches.
I sat back down at the table and waited, and eventually he came back out and sat down with me. He was looking at me, and I really can't say that I know what his expression meant.
“You know, I pride myself on being a good judge of character, but you have me puzzled.” He looked up at the ceiling as he continued to speak. “Your actions prior to our meeting would make one think you are a bigot, a homophobe or a hooligan who, perhaps, enjoys destroying an old man's property.”
I stayed silent. What could I really say? Deny it? I'd done something, and he was right in a way, you might think any of those things about me.
“Yet, you have been remarkably stoic about the punishment you received, and you have done an exceedingly good job at every task I have laid before you. Everyone from your guidance counselor on down says you are a good person. Your parents are wonderful people, and they do indeed know their child very well. When asked you admit to what you have done, and so I am forced to consider the possibility that you are neither a hooligan nor a bigot, that you aren't a homophobe or and that you haven't a mean bone in your body.
“I keep coming back to wondering why you participated and why you won't say anything about anyone else who was with you.” His eyes came off the ceiling and looked at me. He didn't look mad like he had when he saw me looking at the damage we'd done. He looked curious. My shoulders slumped. “Caitlynn, Evan and I have been debating that for the past week or so.”
“Oh, they know?” My shoulders slumped further.
“Well, yes and no.”
“How can it be yes and no?” I practically mumbled. I guess somewhere in my pea brain I had entertained ideas about that girl, but who'd be interested in someone who spray painted peoples garages?
“How about this? Why don't you answer my questions, and then I'll answer yours. Deal?”
I shrugged and nodded, what did I have to lose?
“I'll answer your last one, as a show of good faith. I described the graffiti, but told them I'd seen it elsewhere and we discussed what kind of person or persons would do such a thing. They do not know it was you. Now, please tell me why you did that to my garage?”
I sighed and leaned back into the chair. “Bottom line is because everyone else was doing it. I never stopped to actually think about it, I just...went along with the crowd. I know how lame that sounds...”
“Peer pressure is a bitch.” Mr. Grantham nodded.
“Yeah but...“ My shoulders fell again and I stopped talking.
“I know, so many people your age, and many who are older, think that's a cop out. The fact is, we are social animals and 'monkey see, monkey do' has a basis in fact, Chris.” He steepled his fingers and fixed me in his gaze. “This doesn't make you a bad person, it simply means you made a poor choice.”
“I understand that, and I'm paying for it.”
“Yes, you are. I have another question, but I think it's your turn.”
“Evan and, uh, Caitlynn are here everyday. Are they your family?”
“Sort of. If my partner and I had been married, I suppose they would be my Grand Niece and Nephew. My turn. Why are you not saying who else was involved?”
“Well, 'cause it won't change anything. I still screwed up and if I say who was there - and I don't know them all - then it's just my word against theirs anyway. They didn't get caught, I did.”
“Yes, I guess I see your point. Even at that, telling the judge would get you out of your work here.”
“It's not the way I planned my summer, I figured the painting was fair. That's what my folks worked out, I couldn't control the judge. Besides...I felt like an idiot.” I looked down at my hands, “I couldn't stop my voice from trembling. I couldn't really talk, even if I'd wanted to.”
“Court can be intimidating.” He agreed, “Your turn for a question.
“You said they didn't know it was me, so how come Caitlynn seems like she doesn't like me?”
“Hm, well, all I can really say is that she is protective of her brother. I really can't say more than that.”
We sat in silence, but it wasn't uncomfortable. I was lost in my thoughts, thinking after I painted that garage, maybe I'd just tell the judge Bobby was there and I didn't know the others real well. Bobby might say he wasn't, but that wouldn't be my fault would it?
Saturday afternoon I showed up at Mr. Grantham's to find him sitting in his chair at the dining room, coffee in front of him and the paper spread out. His chin was on his chest and he was softly snoring. I wasn't really comfortable with the idea of waking him. I could startle him and give him a scare. That'd be all I'd need; him too for that matter. I glanced at the pictures in his dining room. There were old cars that I've never seen before, young soldiers in uniform, a group shot that was mostly guys in button up checked shirts and girls with arms around some of their necks. There was a picture of two men dancing, both older. One was dark haired, and the other looked a lot like Mr. Grantham.
The paper rustled as it slid out of his grip and swished to the floor. He must have felt it slide from his hand, and stirred.
“Oh, Chris.” His eyes settled on me. “I'm sorry, how long have you been here?”
“Not long,” I assured him. I pointed to the picture of the two men dancing. “Is that you?”
He stood slowly and came around the table to look at the picture. “Yes, that was me, not so long ago I like to think. At least it doesn't feel like it was a long time ago.”
I stood looking at the picture, the two guys with their arms around each others necks while they danced. I wondered idly who the other guy was, and decided to push my luck and ask.
“He was my soul mate, my partner of thirty two years.” Mr. Grantham picked up the picture and ran his fingertips over the glass. “That was the autumn of 1975, we had only been together a few years then. It was a dance in New York City. We had gone to meet friends, stay with them for a week long vacation. This was our last night there.” He smiled at the memory.
“Where is he now?” I asked.
Mr. Grantham remained silent for a few moments before heaving a sigh and setting the picture down gently. “He died, three years ago. Lung cancer. He was a life long smoker.”
“I'm sorry,” I mumbled.
He turned to look at me, his eyebrows raised. “You are?” I nodded a reply. He looked at me in silence, it felt a little weird. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to say something, or if I'd said something wrong. “You look very nice,” he said and smiled.
“Thanks,” I replied. My dad had apparently gotten instructions from Mr. Grantham and passed them to my mom. I had my white dress shirt and a pair of dark blue khakis on with dark brown loafers.
“I had better get changed myself, and then we'll go.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“The Gay and Lesbian Community Center. They are having a social gathering and I thought it would be instructional for you.”
“Social? What am I supposed to do?” I was getting a little worried now.
“You're asking the wrong question Chris. The question should be what will I learn?”
“Uh. I feel weird about this. I'm not gay.”
“Yes, I know.” He emerged from another room, his bedroom I guess, and was buttoning a shirt over a wife beater. He had on nice slacks and shiny brown shoes. “But I am. I'm going to introduce you to a whole new world, and I'd like you to observe as much as you can. We'll talk afterward.”
“But...what do they do there?” I was actually thinking I was going to be bored out of my mind.
“All sorts of things. Come on, I have to make a few pit stops on the way.” So saying he popped a sunhat on his head and grabbed his keys, and we walked out the front door.
“You're not worried about your reputation I hope, riding around with the queer old man?” he said with a smirk, slowing down and half turning to face me. “Not worried I'll sell you to a bunch of old mo's as a boy toy?”
“Um, no. Whatever a boy toy...oh hey, come on!” I laughed.
“Hell yeah!” I laughed, “You can have the old guys, I'll take Ca-” I coughed into my hand quickly. I can't believe I almost burst out with his nieces name, what an idiot!
“Oh, you have your eye on someone do you?”
“Always,” I said, and smirked. He chuckled.
His car was at the curb, since he couldn't use the driveway while the sealer cured, and man it was one butt ugly car. I didn't recognize who made it, said AMC on the back. Must be foreign. We got in and the seats were this worn plastic stuff. The car turned over slow, then chugged a bit when it got running. Took a few minutes but it settled into a nice steady rhythm. I pulled on my seat belt and we started down the street and were cruising towards downtown.
We made a few pitstops, picked up a new paintbrush at the hardware store. Stopped at a grocery store where he bought a ton of spaghetti. I mean, cleaned the place out.
We pulled into the parking lot of a yellow brick building that looked old, but taken care of. Sort of like a school I guess. I helped with carrying in the bags of spaghetti through a heavy metal door in the side of the building, which led down a corridor with cinder block walls and into a large commercial kitchen.
“Thank God, the spaghetti is finally here. I was beginning to wonder what I was going to feed all these people!” A tall middle aged man said loudly. He was wearing kitchen whites and smiling at Mr. Grantham.
“Fear not, ladies, I have more semolina spaghetti than you have ever seen in one place. Better yet,” He said and smiled broadly, “I don't have to cook it!” He turned to me and placed a hand on my shoulder. “I brought a young friend along, Christopher these are the types of men about whom your mother warned you. Avoid them!”
They all burst out laughing and called out hellos. There were lots of people in the kitchen besides the one in cooks whites, and some were gay like we'd act in school if we were making fun of someone, and others looked like they might break you as soon as look at you.
“I'll be back to help in a minute, let me get this young man settled,” Mr. Grantham said and steered me out of the kitchen and into a long room. My guess about how this looked like a school wasn't too far off, because this looked like a gym. One end had a basketball court with some people playing and others milling about in groups, and the near part was set up with tables.
“I know you're not sure what to do here, so let me offer you some advice.” Mr. Grantham paused as if weighing his words. “This place is a sanctuary. I'd like you to observe, get involved as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. I won't just abandon you, there is at least one person you'll know.”
He pointed to the basketball court and I glanced at the kids clustered there and picked out Evan as he broke from a group and walked towards us.
“Hi Chris!” he said with a big smile.
“Hey Evan, what's up man?” I asked and extended my knuckles. Evan paused for a moment and then bumped knuckles with me.
“I was just talking with some people, you want to hang out a little?”
I looked up at Mr. Grantham but he was already heading back to the kitchen. “Sure man. Glad to see at least one familiar face here.”
“Your first time here?” he asked as we walked across the wooden floor.
“Yeah,” I nodded, “You?”
“I've been here a few times. Socials like this mostly, it's kind of lame sometimes, lots of older people. I like the socials though.”
A basketball bounced over towards us and I snagged it, bounced it a time or two and tossed it back to the kid that was chasing it.
Evan and I joined in on shooting the ball a little, there really wasn't a game going on, just some shooting around. I hadn't gotten to do anything other than fix stuff at Mr. Grantham's so I was really enjoying getting to play a little of something. In between shots Evan and I chatted; he was dressed up like I was, khakis and a polo with boat shoes, but he looked nicer in them. He looked very preppy. At one point he started to laugh at me.
“What?” I asked with a scowl.
“You're supposed to meet people at socials, you know...socialize,” he said and giggled.
“So? I socialized with you, what's so funny?”
“You're a mess now, who's going to want to socialize with you?” he said and burst out laughing. I looked down to see that, yes, I had been sweating a little and my shirt was untucked all the way around. I looked like a slob, I guess. I cracked a smile at him.
“That mean you're going to stop socializing with me?” I asked and snickered. He looked at me, stepping back and really overdoing the critical eye thing.
“You know, it's funny. It works for you; I guess you're just all guy.”
“As opposed to what?” I asked as we walked over towards the tables. The far end had a solitary table with cups, plates, utensils and a punch bowl.
“Well, you know, there's a reason there's a gay stereotype, all the prissy boys and stuff. You're not that.”
I laughed at his comment. I filled a cup and downed a cup of punch, which was ice cold and felt better than it tasted.
“That's funny. I guess your lips just always look like you just got done drinking punch,” Evan said and smiled shyly.
“My lips?” I repeated dumbly.
His smile faltered. “Yeah, I guess they naturally look like...you drink cherry Kool Aid all the time.” He reddened a bit. I turned that over in my head for a minute.
“Is that a bad thing?” I asked. He looked up, surprised and the smile was back.
“No, I don't think it is.”
We sat down to eat about ten minutes later, a big spaghetti dinner. Evan introduced me to some of his friends, ones who hadn't been interested in basketball I guess. I was mostly quiet, and Evan shared a few private jokes with me, gossip I guess about folks around the table. Some had some really wild hair cuts, some had blue dye or orange dye. The guy with the blue hair looked very weird with his pale skin and blue hair, but the orange was the worst. Evan said that girl changed her hair every month, dyed it some new color of the rainbow. I had a good time, damned if I didn't. Wasn't like I'd had anything lined up for tonight, I just thought I'd have the weekend to myself. I glanced at the wall clock to see that my time owed for the week was about over, but I wasn't going to worry about that. What was I headed home to but a whole lot of silence and sitting in my room anyway?
After dinner there was a movie planned, something I'd never heard of.
“I've never heard of it,” I told Evan.
“It's a good movie,” he replied.
“Does it have any guns or explosions?”
“Nope. It's a love story.”
“Aww man, a chick flick? Can we do anything else?”
Evan turned to look at me and smiled, “Sure, come on.”
We followed the group most of the way, but when they turned into a room with a big screen TV, Evan and I went into a separate lounge room with a pool table and couches and chairs, bookshelves and a radio. Evan popped the radio on and I walked around the room taking it all in. I turned back to the couch to find Evan watching me.
“How long have you known Raleigh?” he asked instead, by way of reply.
“Couple weeks,” I said as I walked to the pool table. “About as long as you've seen me there.”
“He likes you,” Evan stated. It was kind of a weird thing to say.
“He does? That's cool I guess, he seems like a nice enough guy,” I replied. I wandered over to the couch and sat down. Evan pulled his legs up and sat on his feet, reclining into the corner of the couch. I leaned back into the couch, staring at nothing while Evan and I talked, and talked. Nothing important, we didn't find the cure for cancer, but I guess we had one of those kinds of talks you really can't describe. It was easy, it seemed like it wouldn't ever end, and that was okay. In fact, it felt a little like those twilights, those elastic moments when you're at peace and just totally in the moment. Twilight time.
Mr. Grantham came and got us, and we rode with him. He dropped Evan off first, and he hugged Mr. Grantham goodnight and waved to me with a cheery goodnight. I waved to him and smiled back before hopping in the front seat of the car.
“So, how was your night with Evan? You two seem to get along very well.”
“He's a great guy, easy to talk to. I like him a lot,” I replied. I had my hand out the window, moving my flat hand up and down through the air current as the car moved.
“He likes you as well, I think. What did you learn?”
I thought about that. I reviewed the conversation in my head, as much of it as I could. We'd talked about so many things I wasn't sure what was supposed to be important and what wasn't, as far as Mr. Grantham's question. Finally I couldn't find any one thing he might be looking for.
“You know, I don't know what to say to that. Evan and I talked about a ton of stuff. TV shows, movies, music, books, school, sports. He even said you liked me, was that what I was supposed to learn?” I looked at him, convinced I'd at least scored a point. We pulled up in front of my house and he shifted into park and regarded me.
“If I didn't like you, I'd never have taken you there. That wasn't what you should have learned, I could have simply told you.”
“Oh,” I replied. I scowled. “We talked about everything, I just don't know what you're looking for.”
“Tell me what you learned about Evan tonight.”
“Okay,” I said in a drawn out way. “He shot some baskets with me, but he didn't seem to do that very well, like he doesn't normally play,” I said in a thoughtful tone. Mr. Grantham made a 'go on' kind of gesture.
“He likes spaghetti, he ate four bowls of it. He likes sitting on his feet on the couch. He likes comedies and dramas more than he likes action or adventure. I think he has a soft spot for chick flicks though.
“He's pretty funny, seems to know most of the other kids there. He was gossipin' with me about them a little bit.” Mr. Grantham frowned, and I hurriedly added, “Nothing mean. Like, he told me the girl with the orange hair changes the color every month.”
I scowled again in thought. “He's kind of a good observer I guess. He told me I'm a mess.” I pulled on my shirttails to emphasize the point that I was a slob, “And he told me I had permanent Kool Aid lips. No one ever said that before, but I guess he's kinda right.” I looked at Mr. Grantham.
“Kool Aid lips?” he asked. I explained the concept as Evan had related it to me.
“So many details, and yet one big thing you are missing.” Mr. Grantham shook his head with a small smile. I tried to figure out what I was missing. Like my old pooh bear I thought and thought. I smirked as I thought about some childhood book that said what I felt right then, I had puzzled until my puzzler was sore.
“I don't know what I missed. What?”
“Evan is gay,” he said.
My eyes slowly went wide with dawning comprehension. He was at a Gay and Lesbian Community Center, he said he'd been there before and liked the socials, fucking duh!
“I didn't even notice, it never...”
“Yes, so what you learned was that...?”
“I'm so twisted up that I missed him being gay, I have no idea.”
“Well, you just said you never noticed. Why do you guess that is?”
“I don't know, Evan was just...normal.”
“Exactly. There is hope for you yet. See you Monday.”
Monday rolled around and I had pondered Evan's sexuality over what I'd had of my weekend. What bothered me were the messages on the back of the garage and what Evan would think of me if he saw them. So that morning I had put on jeans and a thin long sleeved shirt so that I could try and keep the paint off my skin. I had worked myself up a lot, thinking about the back of that garage and even considered going over there on Sunday, but things just didn't work out. Dad was gone with the truck for something to do with his job and my sister was being fussy all day, which made my mom fussy. So I sat in my room a lot and worried.
If you'd have asked me a week ago, or even last Friday, if I had a lot of friends, I'd have said yes. That was before Evan and I talked forever. I realized, while I was worrying, that I never talked to anyone like that before, and that it was cool. More than that, I wanted to do it again, but I figured I'd be a dead duck if Evan saw that garage and found out I had something to do with it.
So on Monday I showed up ready to paint, only Mr. Grantham had other things for me to do. He walked me into the garage and pointed up to the rafters, where there was storage space. There was a ton of stuff and he said it all had to be gone through, reboxed in some cases, and basically reorganized. It was incredibly frustrating to know the back wall of that garage was so close, and that I couldn't do anything about it.
Oh I tried, I was probably a little overexcited about trying to convince him to let me get started, but he wouldn't budge. So I climbed the little folding ladder to the crawlspace and began bringing boxes down into the garage to be separated, organized, and eventually returned to the storage space. Evan and Caitlynn showed up about ten thirty, and maybe ten minutes later she wandered out.
“So, now you're my brothers friend, huh?” She put a hand on her hip and put all her weight to one side and, I swear to god, it looked like she was glaring at me.
“Uh, well yeah, I guess so.” I sat perched at the top of the folding ladder, she was scary beautiful when she was pissed off, like goddess beautiful. Fuckin' frightening, too.
“You guess so?” She arched an eyebrow.
“Well, we just hung out the one time, but we get along pretty good I think.” I regarded her for a moment and then a nightmare thought hit me. She knew about the writing on the garage. “Are you pissed at me?”
“I watch out for my brother is all.”
“Oh.” I couldn't think of anything else to say. She seemed to view me as a threat, and the only way I could figure she'd think that was she knew about the back of the garage. Which meant he probably knew too. I must have slumped a little, it's natural for me, that shoulder slump.
“Okay, wait a minute. Why do you look like someone just stole your best friend?” She changed which eyebrow was up in the air, but her tone had softened. A little.
“I'm just...nothing, I have to get back to work.” I stood and turned my back on her, heading for the boxes. She muttered something down there, and then I hear her footsteps recede. I felt like shit, all that worrying wasn't for nothing I guess. All I could think of was the good time we had, and how much it sucked to realize that was the kind of friend I needed and didn't know I was missing. I grabbed a box and headed down the ladder to find Mr. Grantham crossing his little patch of lawn and headed for the garage.
“Chris! Is everything all right?” He seemed concerned, so I figure Caitlynn had said something to him.
“Yeah,” I muttered, “I'm fine.”
“Really? You don't look fine. In fact, you look a little bit miserable.”
I set the box down and a puff of dust rode up and right into my nostrils. I sneezed, hard. And then did it a few more times till I felt a little light headed. I heard the sound of paper tearing over by the workbench, and a paper towel was pressed into my hand. I blew my nose and felt worlds better. I hope there was no mouse crap in that dust, that would be really nasty.
“Thanks.” I nodded at Mr. Grantham, and then tossed the towel out. He was just watching me, but it wasn't like the judge. Sure I felt pressure to talk, but it was a different kind of pressure, sort of a nudge in the right direction. Maybe I just needed to tell someone. I sighed.
“Mr. Grantham, I've been worried all weekend.” I went on to explain about how I felt like Evan could be a real friend, and how afraid I was about him seeing the back of the garage. I'd told him about my desire to paint that over before Evan saw it, but that I was afraid he already knew based on his sister.
“Oh, dear fellow, you're very stressed. You really must learn to calm yourself.” Mr. Grantham sat down on a stool and crossed his arms, regarding me with curiosity.
You're afraid you may be losing a friendship before it starts, so your fearful side asks 'What if Evan were to know?'”
“Yeah, that's about the size of it.”
“You're asking the wrong question, Chris. The question should be, do you want to start out a friendship with a lie?”
“A Lie? I haven't lied to him about anything!” I said hotly.
“But you want to cover up something, you don't want him to know you're human. That you make mistakes. That you can do stupid things and maybe, consider this, maybe our friends are so valuable to us not simply for their virtues. Maybe they become more real, more meaningful to us for their faults. Maybe those two things combined are what makes a real friendship.
“In any case, while you don't have to be proud about things in your past, you should always own them because they are a part of you. If you don't, they will own you and make you feel as you do right now, out of control.”
He headed off then, and I leaned against the wall of the garage and thought about what he'd said. I didn't want to think about it, I really didn't. If I believed him then that means I'd have to admit to Evan what I did, and what if he rejected me then? Worse yet, what if he found out after and assumed all the nice things I'd done to try and be his friend were all just bullshit?
He was right, I decided, I was asking the wrong question. I brushed myself off and headed for the house, rapped twice before entering, and went in to face this thing. If it didn't work out it wouldn't be because I was deceptive, that's for damn sure.
I found them all in the living room, Evan and Caitlynn on the couch and Mr. Grantham in his chair across from them.
“Ev? I need to show you something.”
“Ah, Christopher, come in, sit down for a moment, won't you?” Mr. Grantham waved me over.
“No thank you, I just need to talk to Evan for a minute.”
“I insist. Grab a chair for a moment.”
I frowned at him and then dragged a chair from the kitchen table into the living room and sat down. Hadn't he just told me basically to grow a set and own up? Why was he delaying things?
“We were having a great discussion about assumptions, Chris, if you'll just indulge me for a moment.” Mr. Grantham turned away from me. “Caitlynn, you have become very protective of Evan over the past few months. What do you think that people might assume from that?”
“They should assume that I'd kick their asses if they hurt my brother.” She shot me the hairy eye. I shivered.
“All right, they might. Do you think they might also assume that Evan is incapable of taking care of himself?”
“Assume all they want as long as they leave him alone,” she sniffed.
“Chris? What do guys think about girls who defend other guys?”
“That he's a pussy,” I looked down. I was afraid she'd laser beam me blind with a glare, both for what I said and for using the word pussy around her.
“Indeed.” He turned to face them again, “Therein lies the rub. In trying to be supportive, you may in fact make things worse for Evan.”
“What, I'm just supposed to let people walk all over him?” she huffed.
“Not at all. But Evan must learn to have the self respect to stand up for himself.” His gaze roved over to Evan. “What do you think of your sister's protectiveness?”
"Are you serious? I don't want to get my ass kicked!”
I barked out a laugh and he responded by laughing himself. Caitlynn glared daggers at me. My pulse raced.
“Well, for the sake of argument, let's accept that assuming something isn't the wisest course of action. If you defend him before he is threatened, some will assume he cannot defend himself. Also he cannot grow if he is in your shadow all the time.”
A stillness fell over the room. I felt like I was walking in on a therapy session or something. “So assumptions equal bad, got it.” Evan nodded in a silly way. I smiled.
“Do you 'got it'? I wonder.” Mr. Grantham appeared to be in deep thought and then looked at me with a surprised expression, “Goodness, Chris, didn't you come here to talk to Evan?”
I swallowed. I glanced at Evan and Caitlynn, and they couldn't have looked more different. Evan's face was relaxed and open, even welcoming. Cait was full of energy, no compassion there...but it was passionate none the less. My heart raced to look at her, but I realized she was probably going to slug me after I was done.
“I need to show you something,” I said very quietly. They all stood up to follow me, and I felt my heart hammering away in my chest. Isn't it dangerous for it to go that fast? I thought I read it somewhere; if there was a point in my life when my heart was going to burst, I was sure this was going to be it. We all trooped into the backyard and I stopped at the side of the garage, just before turning the corner.
“I was gonna just say this to you, Ev, but...looks like I have an audience.” I looked down for a minute, to gather my courage. “I really had a good time the other night, Ev.”
“Me too.” I saw his feet move closer in my peripheral vision.
“I never talked to anyone like that before, I felt like I was making a real friend. I mean-” I looked up and was surprised to find he'd closed the distance even more. I was looking into his eyes, which were fixed on me intently. My eyes flicked to Cait who was watching with suspicion. “It made me realize what I'd been missing. I thought I had lots of friends, but I don't talk to any of them like that. I really liked it, and I wanted you to know that.”
“That's really sweet, but why did we have to come out in the yard for you to say that?” Cait asked. Okay, her bitchy attitude was starting to get less sexy. Not entirely, but it wasn't as hot.
“Because of what's on the back of the garage,” I said quietly. I'd felt bad for painting on the old guys garage. I'd felt worse when I'd had to do all the extra work, paying for everyone's sins on that bit of vandalism. I'd felt like I'd paid some of that off, like maybe I was about back to even. Watching Evan's face go from curious to unbelieving to the tiny tremble in his lower lip made me feel like I was in front of the judge again.
“You wrote this shit?” Cait demanded, “How can a gay guy write faggot and queer on another gay guys garage? How fucked up are you?” She had her hand on her hip, glaring at me again. For a moment though, her beauty was lost on me. Evan was in pain, and I'd done that.
“Evan. Evan?” Mr. Grantham stepped between the two of us, breaking the line of sight. “Evan, I'd like you to think for a moment. I know you're shocked, but stop for a moment. All right? I have your attention?”
Evan must have nodded because I couldn't see him. “Now then, we were just talking about assumptions, what are you assuming right now?”
“I'm not assuming....assuming anything,” Evan's voice had a hitch in it. My heart sank, and I felt my shoulders slump. “He said he did it.”
“No, he didn't say that. He implied it, but he didn't say that. You are assuming he put those hurtful things on there, but you don't know that. Now.” I saw Mr. Grantham straighten up and place a hand on Evan's shoulder. “Caitlynn? Can you recall what Evan had to say about Chris this morning?”
“Oh god, do I have to?” Her face wasn't glaring anymore, she watched her brother and his pain had melted her.
“I think you should.”
She sighed. “He said that he was really nice, that they talked for hours like real people. Evan was happy he finally met a nice guy. He just kept saying that, Chris is such a nice guy.”
“Yes,a nice guy. Now Evan, think for just a moment. Be steady, think now. If he was someone you wanted to be closer to, you have to give him the chance to be honest with you. He's trying to do that, it's the right thing to do.”
“But he's-” Evan plunged around Mr. Grantham, cat fast and was glaring at me with tears in his eyes, “You're a fucking asshole like the rest of them! Why would you do that? How could you?” He was shaking, with a lot of rage, I'll bet. If it was possible I think my shoulders went down farther.
“Ev.” Cait put a hand on his shoulder, “I think you should let him explain.” Evan continued to glare at me for a moment, then he glanced at his sister and nodded. He clenched and unclenched his hands and started to breathe in longer, steadier breaths.
“Evan,” Mr Grantham started.
“Mr. Grantham? I got this,” I said as I stepped forward. Out of all the shit that had happened because of that one spray painted stripe in a moment of stupidity, this one hurt the most.
I started at the beginning, I walked through the whole thing. I didn't name names, except mine. I didn't stop with the paint though. I told him how I'd never thought about gay people at all, and how much more I understood now after meeting him and how much I really liked hanging out with him. I was hoping to salvage something, I was hoping to stop him from hurting and make him see that I wasn't the type of guy that would write those things. Maybe I had been, even a few weeks ago I wouldn't have really thought twice about it, but now - I knew better.
Evan had relaxed, and was looking at me with a dubious expression. He walked over to the garage and I walked behind him, hesitantly.
“So...out of all this you did...what exactly?” he asked.
“The green stripe,” I replied.
He studied the wall, his eyes flicking around, taking it in and thinking. Mr. Grantham steered Cait away from us, and I was grateful. It had been hard enough to tell him, but in a way it was a good thing that someone he trusted had been here, but now it was just us and maybe a chance to patch things up.
“These words. You didn't write any of them?” he asked.
“Nope.” I shook my head, “I swear Ev, I didn't.”
“They are really hurtful, you know.”
“Do you?” He looked at me and then back down. Slowly he extended his right arm to me, and I was confused. I thought maybe he was reaching his hand out to me, so I started to reach back out of reflex, but he turned his arm to show me the inside. To show me the marks that were faintly etched in his skin by his wrist. “Every day I'd walk down the halls and every day people would harass me. I had no friends, no one to talk to. My sister and I didn't have the relationship we have now, one good thing that came of this, I guess.”
“Ev. You...” I realized at that point I didn't know the words to say to him. Maybe there was no making it right. Maybe making it right wasn't the point, maybe I was just supposed to listen.
“Yeah, I sort of half assed tried. It hurt and I've always kind of been a wuss. My mom walked in while I was trying to clean up the blood, and she freaked out. It all came out then, that I was gay, the shit at school. I was so miserable.”
“You seem so happy though, you don't look sad at all,” I said to him. He barked out a harsh laugh.
“Yeah, well...things have been better lately. My sister turned into a real person, the school districts rezoned so I'll be in a new school this year. My parents really wanted to move to help me out, but they really can't afford to. Raleigh told them changing location doesn't change the problem, and that's when I started to come and see him. That and...” he trailed off and looked away from me.
“You're not gay,” he stated.
“No,” I said, a little confused. “Does that matter?”
He sighed and let out a weird little laugh, a nervous laugh. “You are such a guy.” I felt like we were getting back into a good place, that comment was one he'd made to me when my shirt was untucked at the social.
“Yeah, you said that worked for me though.”
“Yeah, but...Chris, how many guys comment on your lips?”
“My lips? Oh, the Kool Aid thing?” I laughed, “No one.”
“No one except the gay guy, right?”
“Well, you...yeah, a gay guy said it.”
“Chris do I really have to spell this out for you? It's embarrassing.” He gave a small, bitter smile.
“I'm sorry Ev, I'm not trying to embarrass you, I'm just confused,” I replied honestly.
“Not only are you a guy, you're a really good guy.” He shook his head and looked down to the ground. “I was happy because I had a...crush.”
“A crush? On who?”
He raised his eyes and met mine. I returned his gaze, utterly confused. “The blue haired guy? I don't think he's right for you.” I deadpanned, trying for a joke and to cover my confusion.
“Dense guy. You aren't just a total guy, you're a dense guy. It's you, Chris. I thought you were gay.”
“Me?” I asked, thunderstruck. “Why would you crush on me?” I asked in bewilderment, “And why would you think I was gay?”
“Amazing! You actually aren't offended are you?” He looked at me in shock.
“Offended? No, why should I be? And stop avoiding the questions. Give.”
“I thought you were gay because you were working for Raleigh. I thought maybe...he was helping you like he was me. Then you came to the social. When you asked if we could go somewhere instead of watching the movie, I thought maybe you wanted to...” His face reddened.
“Holy shit, you thought I wanted to fuck?” I asked.
“What? No! I thought you wanted to make out!” he cried out and then started to laugh, maybe nervous energy. “I can't believe I'm having this conversation.”
“Holy shit Ev,” I said and then chuckled a little to myself. “I'm sorry, but I thought we were just trying to make friends.” I looked at him earnestly, “I really do like you Ev, I'd really like to try being friends. It'd mean a lot to me.”
Evan convinced me that I had to tell the judge who else had been with me that night, and I agreed with him. That Thursday my dad and I went to court and I told the judge who else had been with me. The judge dropped the community service part of my sentence, but since the garage wasn't painted yet, I still had that to do.
Friday morning when I showed up, Evan was there too, with Caitlynn. God damn those shorts were perfect on her. That shirt couldn't get much smaller. Evan teased me out of her earshot and what could I say? I called him an asshole for messing with me, especially after he said he'd ask her out for me. Like she'd ever go out with me!
The memorable part about that Friday wasn't the way she was barely dressed, though that was worth noting. It was that we three painted the garage, starting at the back. The only thing we weren't allowed to paint over, was the rainbow, Mr. Grantham wouldn't allow it.
“That little jerk tore my flag, that rainbow will stay on that garage and hell with him if he doesn't like it. Rainbow's don't hurt anyone's feelings.”
Bobby got picked up by the cops and gave them all the names I couldn't. I was pretty sure he'd be trouble at some point that school year; and when I thought about it I realized I'd never really liked Bobby all that much. I spent the rest of my summer weekdays going to Mr. Grantham's and doing odd jobs. I'd have lunch with Evan and Cait, and she even started warming up to me a little. Turned out that the new school Evan and Cait were going to was mine, and that suited me just fine.
We three were sitting out in the backyard under the tree, stretched out on the grass after lunch and just talking. Being in the shade was like that elastic time all over again, and the talk just happened. School, what they could expect from teachers, where each of us lived, about our families. That's where Raleigh walked out to find us, lazing about under the tree and bullshitting the day away.
Mr. Grantham had brought out sandwiches and iced tea and was listening to us, interjecting here and there. Sometimes it was just to correct our English.
“This is so weird,” Caitlynn observed.
“What is?” Evan asked.
“This spring you and I couldn't stand each other. We were in a different school. We barely knew Raleigh and didn't know Chris at all. It's so random.” She pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around her knees.
“Makes you feel a little out of control,” I opined.
“If things stayed the same, imagine how boring they'd be,” Mr. Grantham replied to us, “Think how gray and dull life would be if we knew all the answers and our days were filled with endless repetition of...nothing special.”
“Uh oh, here comes the philosophy again,” Evan said and chuckled.
“No, I promise, no philosophy. But you do have to wonder what we're doing here, in the shade at the end of summer.”
“I thought we were bullshitting,” I replied.
Evan looked up into the branches of the tree above us and muttered,“You are such a guy.”
“Really, what are we doing?” Mr. Grantham asked. “Many great thinkers discovered profound thought in conversing with their peers. Aristotle. Plato. Socrates.” He looked around expectantly.
“I get the idea of being out of control forcing you to do new things, I do. But what's the point of Evan suffering like he did? What was the point of us treating each other like crap for most of our lives? What is the point of people shitting on him for being gay?” Caitlynn uttered in exasperation.
“The answers are in a much larger question,” he replied.
“The meaning of life?” I asked.
“Ah, Christopher, Christopher: always asking the wrong question.” He smiled down at me, “The meaning of life is simple: not dying. The real question is, what is the meaning of living? And the meaning of living is learning.”
“I don't understand,” Evan replied.
“Well, if you hadn't gone through the experiences you had, if you hadn't gone down the path you did, you may have never discovered the relationship you have with your sister. In turn, you learned about me and we have a much broader relationship.
“By the same token, Chris followed another path which also led him to a great deal of learning. Life is meaningless without actually living, and to truly live you must learn.”
September rolled in, school started, and I was found raking leaves at three houses. My own of course, Mr. Grantham's and I helped Evan with his too. That third week in September I was at his house and we were bagging leaves in his back yard when Cait came out on the back porch, pair of jeans on her that made my pulse skyrocket.
“Mom's ordering pizza; you guys have to hurry up. Chris, want me to call your mom? You're staying right?” Cait called out. While Evan and I had raked, she'd been conscripted into a huge house cleaning while the weather was still warm enough; once winter set in it was hard to get in a really good cleaning, or so I'm told.
“Sure, that's be cool,” I replied. Evan dug me in the ribs. “What?” I asked him. He mouthed 'thank you' at me.
“Oh, Uh, thanks Cait!” She was halfway through the sliding glass door and waved that she'd heard me.
“Chris, you are such a guy.”
“What did I do now?” I asked. I rolled down the top of the big paper lawn bag and went to grab another one from the stack.
“You practically drool when she gets within a hundred yards of you, and you start to sweat like you're melting if she talks to you.” He smirked at me.
“Dude, I know this will sound weird to you, but you're sister is smoking hot.” I looked at him seriously and he burst out laughing, shaking his head.
“Such a total guy. Why don't you ask her out?”
“What? No way man. She'd rip my head off and shit down my neck if I did I bet.” I shook my head at him, “Are you trying to get me killed?”
“What, my sister intimidates you?” He smiled. I threw a handful of leaves at him.
“Yeah, you know she does,” I admitted.
“You know, if it wasn't for the fact that you've been hanging out with me and doing a ton of shit work for Raleigh, and with me like right now, I'd think you were friends with me to get to my sister.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he cut me off.
“But then I remember you're a pussy who won't ever have the balls to ask her out so-” He was cut off as I tackled him into a pile of leaves. We tangled, wrestling and laughing, trading insults. We collapsed on our butts, exhausted. Evan reached over and picked a leaf out of my hair.
“You know Chris,” he said with a sigh, “I really wish you were gay.”
“I'm sorry?” I said while running a hand through over my face and scowling a little.
“Yeah, you actually are a little, aren't you?” He tilted his head.
“Well, it's not like it's something I can change. I like you a lot, you're my...well, I know it sounds totally third grade, but you're my best friend. But hey, maybe I'm not the one using you...maybe you're using me!” I smirked at him.
“How so?” His eyes narrowed.
“You just want to be friends cause you think I'm hot,” I burst out laughing and he threw leaves at me and called me names.
We finally got back to work, scraping up the leaves we'd made a mess with and bagged them up. We kept up a steady patter of bullshit, trading mild insults and whatnot. Guy stuff. Cait came out and yelled that the pizza was there and we rushed to stack the last of the full bags on the curb.
“So seriously, why don't you ask her out?” Evan asked.
“Seriously? Like she'd ever go out with me.” I laughed.
“Why wouldn't she?”
“Ev, man, she's out of my league. She's smart, she's smoking hot, she's funny.” I ticked these items off on my fingers.
“She scares the shit out of you.” Evan held up a finger.
“Yeah, there's always that,” I replied.
“She'd say yes, I think. If you asked her,” Evan opined as we walked to the back of the house and the sliding glass door.
“I dunno Ev. Wouldn't that make things weird between you and me? I don't know if I want to risk that,” I replied.
“You'd let a girl come between us?” he asked with his eyes narrowed comically.
“Dude, it's your sister!”
Evan opened the sliding glass door and we stepped into the warm kitchen and the smell of pizza filling the room. Three boxes were on the counter top and Caitlynn was already at the table with her parents. She looked at me and I froze. Evan nudged me and I blinked. Evan started to laugh and Cait's eyes narrowed in response.
“What are you two up to?” She asked. Oh no, no way was I ever going to ask her out. She'd dismember me.
September gave way to October. Evan and I hung out daily and were inseparable at school. I'd gotten a part time job and my folks let me have a cell phone; that was just in time for Evan's birthday and his folks got him one too. We texted excessively, and I swear at least half of his were calling me a pussy for not asking Cait out. Bobby and I seemed to be even farther away in social circles than we were before last summer. I don't think the cops hurt his reputation all that much, some people thought he was a dick for it I guess, but most people probably didn't care all that much. Except of course for the people Bobby had ratted on, he'd definitely gotten a few new bruises that fall. Maybe he didn't get off as easy as I'd thought.
It was Friday and Evan was walking home with me from school, he was sleeping over. I guess we were the tiniest bit old for sleepovers, but my parents loved Evan. So did my baby sister, she smiled whenever he showed up. He'd talk to her and she'd coo and giggle, reaching for him until he picked her up and held her. Figures, gay guy is a lady killer.
After dinner we went downstairs, where the basement was a play room sort of set up. There was a TV and an old couch and a fridge. Evan and I preferred to hang out here rather than my room because the bedrooms were kind of small and I didn't have a TV in there. I turned on the radio and we plopped down on the couch, Evan with his feet tucked under him and me sprawled, like I had no bones my mom would tell me.
“Bobby was being an asshole today,” Evan stated. I rolled my head towards him and lifted an eyebrow. “He was telling people you must be gay cause you're friends with me.”
“He's just jealous because he's a closet case,” I snorted. We both had a little laugh at that.
“Seriously though, doesn't it bother you that people might think you're gay?”
“For hanging out with you? No. Besides, I have to be friends with you, how else am I going to get to your sister?” I laughed and he hit me with a pillow.
“Seriously, for real!” he said and laughed, “How can you shrug that off?”
“I can't change what they think, that's how.” I slouched into the couch again, “and if thy want to listen to Bobby then I'm not too sure I want to change their minds about anything.”
“Yeah but, do you think that's really fair?”
I snorted, “Fair to who? Me? What can I do about it? Why do I care what Bobby fucking Simeon has to say?”
“Are you kidding me? What about all the other closet queens that are gonna go for you now?”
“What?” I asked, raising both eyebrows.
“Sure, Bobby says you're gay and all the other guys who haven't come out will start looking for a way to get a shot with you!” he said with a very serious expression.
“Oh, come on.” I snorted.
“I mean it. Just think about all those guys who are too scared to come out, going home and waxing their poles thinking about Chris Modzejewski!”
I took the pillow and whacked him that time.
“You could have legions of gay fans,” he opined.
“Come on, the school is small. Hey, is there anyone else that's gay in the school?”
“Not that I know of,” he said kind of quietly. It had to suck. We sat in silence for a few minutes, just listening to the radio; or not listening really, both of us lost in our own thoughts. I should try and find out if there are any other gay guys in our school.
“Hey, how come you don't go for one of those guys at the Community Center?” I asked.
“Most of them are scary for one reason or another,” he replied.
“Like the blue hair.” I nodded sagely.
“No, James is actually a nice guy if you can get past the hair, but that's all. We have nothing in common, we can't even have a conversation. He's like...this shaggy piece of blue furniture.” We both laughed.
“Alan thinks he might be a woman, and I really think he needs to figure out his own issues before he looks to be in a relationship. Tyler is a cutter, I think he's in therapy. Trevor is an alcoholic. Mike doesn't shower.”
“What about...” I couldn't think of the name, “Orange hair?” I asked.
“She,” he glared at me, “Is a lesbian.”
The conversation changed direction maybe sixty or seventy times after that, and at one point I had an epiphany. I couldn't remember ever being happier than I was with Evan as my friend, I think I finally realized what the term 'friend' really meant with him. We did stuff I'd never done with people I'd called friends before. Sleepovers were common, and sure we'd stay up late, that was a given, but we talked for hours...it was twilight time whenever we were together.
We switched on the game console and did that for a while and when we ran out of gas talking and gaming we blew up the air mattress and lay down to watch a movie, something to drift off to. This was my turn to pick, so we watched Tombstone. I'm not normally a fan of Western movies, but this one was kick ass. Evan and I had switched up picking movies each time we stayed over and I'll admit there were a few chick flicks he had that were good. Not a lot, but a couple. He'd definitely expanded my cinematic experiences.
We ate junk food and I was totally into the movie, Evan was struggling to stay awake. I glanced over to see his eyes drooping and him fighting to open them, to sit up. He must like this movie more than he thought he was going to, usually he'd drop right off if he didn't like it. It was no use though, his breathing settled in and he was out. Evan wasn't a night owl like me, he turned into a pumpkin sort of early.
I continued to eat the popcorn till the bag was empty, and tried not to wake Evan when I'd laugh at Val Kilmer playing Doc Holliday. That was a perfect role and I loved it. It was right about when he was winking at one of the Cowboys, setting off the gunfight at the OK corral that Evan rolled over and one of his arms went across my chest. I glanced at him as his face pushed up on my side and he exhaled, dead to the world.
I went back to the movie. By the time Wyatt Earp's brothers were on the train out of town, Evan had his head on my chest like a pillow and one arm wrapped around me. I pulled the arm up on the side he was on and just draped it over him, and went back to the movie. Whenever we slept over Evan treated me like an extra pillow in his sleep. I think he had a body pillow in his bed, but I couldn't recall. Finally the movie got to one of my favorite lines.
One guy says, “What are you doing this for Doc?”
Doc replies, “Wyatt Earp is my friend.”
Guy replies, “Hell Doc, I got lots of friends.”
Doc replies, “I don't.”
I glanced down at Ev, wishing he'd heard that part. He was all snuggled in, and all I can say is it was just Evan. I tousled his hair a little and told him he was my friend, feeling a little foolish talking to a sleeping person. The movie ended and I slipped out of his deathgrip to use the bathroom and brush my teeth before I shut the light out. I daydreamed, sleepy dreams about being rich, being famous or both. Maybe having my own island. Hey, maybe even dating Cait, as long as we were dreaming.
That was just one example of a normal night with Evan. Sometimes we'd wake up tangled together in the morning, which would have been weird with someone else. But more than anything else it was the communication, time spent together happened outside normal time. I don't think I can make it any clearer. We both dressed up for Halloween, even though it had been at least two years since I'd dressed up before, with Evan it was all right.
Really, I think that's what it was. All the rules changed with Evan, there were suddenly no standards to live up to or lines that weren't to be crossed. I never felt like I had to hold back what I thought, or that there were things that couldn't be said. That's not to say we didn't disagree, sometimes we argued long and loud, but it was never personal. I probably argued with him as much as we laughed, and fifty percent of both of those times it was about his sister.
Finally, a week before Thanksgiving, we were over at his house arguing in his room. He was telling me to ask her out, and I was telling him for the millionth time that she was out of my league and would never say yes. Finally, we'd argued for about an hour when I reached that point, I marched upstairs full of mischief to prove him wrong. I cannot stress how stupid and nonsensical that phrase sounds, but my courage was actually up to ask her out because I knew she'd say no, and I would finally get Evan to shut up about it.
I knocked on her door and she called out to come in.
“Hi Cait, can you settle something for Evan and me? A little disagreement?” I asked, full of confidence that I'd fail and in so doing win the argument. I know, demented logic at its best.
“Sure, what are you two arguing about this time?” She smiled and rolled her eyes. She leaned back in her chair and her shirt pulled tight. I swallowed.
“Evan keeps telling me to ask you out and I keep telling him you'd say no. So, would you like to go to the movies with me Saturday?” I asked in a rush.
“Wait, let me make sure I understand.” She leaned forward with a gleam in her eye. Instinctively I realized she was on the hunt, had my scent so to speak. “Are you asking me a hypothetical question, or are you actually asking me out?”
The question threw me. “Well, uh, actual. Yeah, actually asking you out. I mean, it settles the bet, you know...but...um...yeah, actual. Actually. Asking.”
She looked at me, a smile spreading on her face, “I'd love to.”
“You...you would?” Sweat broke out on my forehead.
Evan's razzing that he'd won was overshadowed by the fact that I'd had an even bigger win. Evan came over Saturday afternoon and went through all my clothes, telling me what looked good on me and what didn't.
“Jesus Ev, just because you don't think it looks good, you don't think she will? What gives?”
“Seriously? You don't think we had this talk before I came over?”
I'd heard my dad complain that he wasn't allowed to dress himself, but having your best friend pick out your clothes for your date with his sister had to be a new one. The date was a ridiculous success, and Cait often reminds me that she's out of my league, usually before I get kissed. Hot damn.
Having a girlfriend had a few side effects, mainly that Evan and I didn't spend quite as much time together alone, and that developed into a problem around Christmas. Evan's mom pulled me a side because Evan and Caitlynn were bickering over who I was there to see, and they both complained when their mom grabbed my arm. “Look,” she said to them, “We only have one Chris and I'm using him now.”
I got split up like a time share. Their mom sat them down with me sent up to Evan's room so they could talk. Evan had shown me a long time ago one of the vents in the bathroom let you hear what was going on in the dining room, which is where they were. Their mom was mad, she reminded them that they were related after all. Cait complained that I was her boyfriend and she wanted to spend time with me. Evan complained that I was his only friend and he also wanted to spend time with me. He tossed in that he'd seen me first, which was kind of funny considering they were arguing.
In the end their mom got frustrated enough that she told Cait she had to share, that Evan needed me and it was selfish to monopolize my time. I felt bad cause I wanted to see them both too, and I was happy with them both. But I did get different things from each of them, things I thought made them both valuable. For once I got the subtext; their mom was afraid Evan would get depressed and try to hurt himself again.
When Cait and I talked she told me she'd picked up on her mom's subtext too, and that worried her. Next time Ev stayed over I brought it up and made him promise to talk to me if he ever felt that way. In some ways that little fight brought us all just a little bit closer.
Spring rolled around and prom season was on us. Evan took great delight in going with me to pick out a tux, and he made me try on like sixteen thousand different jackets. He claimed that some of them just had subtle differences in cut, but I'm ninety five percent sure he was just making me change to mess with me.
I picked her up in my mom's car, and all I can say is that when she came down the stairs, she took my breath away. I didn't know anything about the dress, I wasn't sure if Evan had helped her with that like he did me or if her mom had done it. Probably both. But it fit her perfectly, making her skin glow and her eyes sparkle. She was terrifyingly beautiful and I was stunned again that she was my date.
Evan straightened the flower in my lapel before we left, muttering that I was 'such a guy'. The prom was pure twilight time, people that you normally see at school were transformed. I've never danced in my life. My mom tried to show me a few steps in the kitchen, but I wasn't exactly light on my feet. Cait led, she guided me and we glided around the room for what seemed like an eternity, a blissful one.
I lost my virginity in the back seat of my mothers car that night.
It wasn't till two weeks later that the only flaw in the night began to show. Evan was out shopping with his mom and Cait and I were just chilling in their living room, watching TV when she picked up the remote and muted the screen.
“Chris, I feel like such a monumental bitch.” She put her hand to her head.
“Why would you say that?” I was smart enough to not just say 'Why' because that implied I agreed she could be a bitch, not something I ever wanted to cop to.
“I stole my brothers boyfriend,” she said miserably.
“I don't get it,” I said slowly.
She patted my cheek, “You are such a guy. A good, wonderful, beautiful, caring...total guy.”
“Now see, when Evan says that...the total guy part, not the rest...it sounds like a compliment. You saying it makes me think I'm dense.”
“Sometimes you are, it's part of your charm.” She smiled at me. I scowled in return.
“Did I tell you he went with me to help pick out a dress for me?” she asked, diverting her gaze to the muted television.
“No,” I replied.
“He was armed with all the little things you've ever told him you liked on me. Colors.” She rolled her head to look at me and rolled her eyes, “the body parts you like accentuated. He knows you so well.”
“He made me try on a ton of suit coats,” I offered.
“Yeah, he picked one out that he knew I'd love to see you in.”
“Am I missing something here?” I asked in confusion.
“See? Dense. But you're so sweet, it's the most endearing thing about you sometimes. I think that's why he loves you so much. You are just an all around nice guy.”
I didn't know what to say to that. It never occurred to me that Evan loved me, but when I thought about it, I loved him back.
“I still don't understand,” I confessed.
“Evan didn't go to prom,” she said simply.
“Evan didn't...did he want to go?” I asked.
“Who is he going to go with? You know anyone who is out at school? I don't. He put all this energy into making us deliriously happy for one night, even to the point of dressing us for Christ's sake, and he has no one to take him anywhere. I feel like shit about that.” There was a weird change since Cait and I had slept together and it was almost like Evan could sense it. He began to withdraw a bit, declined to spend the night and would beg off going out. I was losing my best friend.
That night we sort of broke up. No crying, we both realized something essential had changed for us. Outwardly little changed; we dated on Friday nights, had plenty of together time, but it adapted and included more of the threesome we used to be, but it wasn't quite the same. In the end our love for Evan outweighed our love for each other.
I sought out advice on what to do. Evan insisted nothing was wrong, and he wasn't exactly lying, but he wasn't exactly telling the truth either. Cait couldn't put her finger on it either, and we sought solace from each other for the fear that gnawed at us about Evan and his growing distance. In the end, of course, it was Raleigh Grantham who pointed me in the right direction.
I spent a goodly portion of my Saturday talking with him, explaining all that had transpired. I explained my concern for Evan and how my relationship with Cait had cooled. No loss of love, we still cared deeply, but perhaps something just wasn't quite right with it. I tried to take the complex emotions I was experiencing and put them into words, and felt as though I were failing.
“Ah, so, you have been attempting to learn how to live, that's wonderful,” He smiled. The smell of perked coffee filled the house, a smell that comforts me.
“I've done a lot of living,” I smiled at him, “Or at least I've done a lot of not dying. I think I'm still searching for the meaning of living though.”
“Well, don't be too hard on yourself. Part of the journey of life is discovering just those answers, and what fun would it be if you figured all that out as a teenager? What then would you have to look forward to? It's not a race, it's an experience.” He smiled at me.
“Well, that's great for the rest of my life, but what about now? How do I help Evan now?”
“Oh, Chris, one thing I love about you is your consistency.”
“Let me guess,” I said, raising my hands to him, “I'm asking the wrong question?”
“You are indeed. Ask not what you should do for Evan, but ask what you can do for yourself. Have you ever heard of an alternative prom?”
“No, what is that? Indie bands or something?”
“Indie? No, an Alternative Prom is held every year at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. It's for GLBTQ teens so that they can go to a prom, have the experience in a safe environment.”
“I can take Evan to the prom!” I said standing up in my excitement in seizing on the idea.
“Yes, that would be wonderful.” He leaned back in his chair.
“But wait, what does that do for me? You said what I can do for myself.”
“Some things are better, and sweeter, if you discover them on your own,” and so saying he raised his cup and sipped his coffee.
That brings us to now. It's spring, May 27 to be exact, six weeks after the prom at my High School. My parents weren't so behind this idea, neither would let me use their car. Mr. Grantham came to the rescue again with his strange foreign car, the AMC Ambassador. Amazon Motor Company?
I pulled up to Evan's house and Cait popped out. She looked beautiful as ever and met me halfway up the walk. Her eyes were fierce and she set my heart racing again.
“You,” she said straightening the flower in my lapel, the strangest sense of deja vu, “are such a guy.”
“I didn't think I should bring him a corsage, I got this instead, what do you think?” I opened the plastic to show a single blue carnation.
“It's his favorite color, it'll match his cummerbund.” She gave me a critical eye, “I picked out a nice suit for you. I think I like this one better than the other one.”
I shifted from foot to foot. She straightened my tie, brushed the front of my shirt and then froze.
“This feels a little strange, you taking my brother. Especially with...how our prom night went.” She met my eyes with her own blazing orbs, “But it's right. It feels right. It feels exciting, a little taboo maybe. I wonder if this was what Raleigh meant by the secret of living? Is that what we're doing?”
“I asked him that,” I told her with a smile, “He said it's all about experience. I guess if that's true, we're having experience, we're living.”
“Maybe we're learning a thing or two. At the least, we're doing pretty well at not dying, right?” she said and laughed and I joined her. The front door opened and Evan stepped out, frowning a little.
“You know, 'prom' is short for 'promenade', like the way Cait did down the stairs when you picked her up. I'm not getting to promenade.” He laughed.
“Promenade down here,” I called to him and he did. He walked with a confident pop to his step, all signs of his recent melancholy gone, and here was the Evan I knew. Something jarred inside me as he approached. His eyes wet with emotion, but his face smiling. Beaming. His walk. The swing of his arms and the tilt of his head. They were all Evan.
He stood in front of me and I stared into his face, soaking in the pure joy he was radiating. A sharp jab to my ribs and a not so subtle reminder from Cait that I had a flower to present. I popped it out of it's case and slipped it into the lapel of his coat. His smile unexplainably beautiful, like sunshine at sunset.
We motored to the community center and they had laid out a red carpet leading to the front door. They were taking pictures as we entered, and Evan entwined his arm with mine. We mugged for the camera. Twilight time, the strongest and yet the most fragile ever set in. Something was tickling the back of my mind, something that Mr. Grantham had said about finding out for myself was bouncing in my skull; but then Evan would laugh or smile or simply talk to me, and the notion would float away; gossamer threads of incomplete thoughts.
They were playing a slow song, the lights were dimmed and little lights danced around the room from a disco ball. We were on the dance floor together, my arms around Ev's waist and his palms flat on my back. His head was sitting on my shoulder, his cheek pressed to mine. We moved slowly, rocking side to side and I felt Evan sigh.
“You okay?” I whispered in his ear.
“I'm perfect, why?” he asked.
“You sighed.” I pointed out.
“That was a sigh of contentment, don't you know that?” He squeezed me, “You are such a guy.”
I saw Mr. Grantham sipping his coffee in my minds eye, looking at me and saying, 'Chris, some things are better, and sweeter, if you discover them on your own.'
I felt Evan pull back and look at me. “Why'd you stop? Chris?”
I stared into his eyes, understanding slowly beginning to dawn.
Some things are better, and sweeter, if you discover them on your own.
I lifted my hands and cupped his face, cradling that smile. The sunshine at sunset smile. Twilight time morphed into something else, something beyond the elastic fragile eternity and engulfed me, stretching the minutes, the seconds, the eons that I stood rooted; staring.
Some things are better, and sweeter, if you discover them on your own.
“I love you,” I told him. Then I kissed him.
He was right. In the space of one kiss I realized the meaning of living is learning, is experiencing, and in no small part is loving.
I can't tell you how long that kiss lasted. I don't know how long it took before he closed his eyes and kissed me back. I don't know how long it took for his arms to hold me tighter. It all happened in twilight time, you see, and I was busy experiencing the meaning of living.
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