The next few weeks were a mix of strange and sweet and frustrating. The frustration came from Walker and I not being able to hook up, not the way I wanted. In fact we might hook up – like a quickie – later in our relationship, but I wanted a chance to really be with him for our first attempt at anything sexual. Sweet was every damn thing about Walker. Strange came from three different directions. First Kendra was walking around like I'd done something to her.
I mean, I'm sorry I'm not in love with you?
Then it was Corey. He ambushed me on the way to the cafeteria.
I paused, glancing at the line and deciding it wouldn't matter much. “Yeah?”
“Listen...I'm sorry for how things went down. Between us. I,” he said, holding his hands palm up, “was talking to a friend, and he was encouraging me to go for it and to show you I was serious and to not take no for an answer.”
I shook my head. “I don't understand that. If someone says no, it's disrespectful to force the issue.”
“I sort of get that now,” he said. “I think I'm a little smarter now. So,” he said and shuffled his feet. “I wanted a chance to try again. Will you meet me for coffee or something? Burger?”
I was a little taken aback by him asking me. “I. I'm dating someone,” I told him.
He frowned. “I'd respect if you said no, but you don't have to lie.”
I frowned back at him. “I don't need to lie. You've already proven you don't respect what I say – but the fact is I have a boyfriend.”
“I'd know. Who is it?” he demanded.
I took a step back, feeling uncomfortable. “You know what? I don't think I want you to know. Cross me off your wish list, Corey – I don't like you. I won't like you.”
He pushed his tongue against the inside of his lips. “One coffee.”
I held my hands up. “I'm out.”
“Damn it, Noah!” he said and took a step toward me.
Instead of backing off and giving in to the nerves and fear that were really humming through my system, I took a step forward and looked up at him. “See? You haven't learned shit, and you're not sorry for shit.”
His jaw tightened. “Why don't you get how much I love you? Noah, give me a chance!”
I shook my head. “You ran out of any chances you had a long time ago.” I turned to walk away. He grabbed my shoulder, but I shook him off angrily and went to join the lunch line.
I honestly don't get it. I don't think I'm something special. I'm not gorgeous. I don't have a killer body or personality. I don't have a massive following on my social media pages. Sure, I've gotten the occasional comment or DM for a picture, stuff that some people find creepy but I just shake my head at. I'm not famous. I'm not a model – yet I have Kendra claiming to love me, so she dates Marc to 'prove' I can change my sexuality. I can't even unravel that one. Then I have Corey, who is obsessed with me why? Again, I'm not that special.
I don't feel that special unless I'm with Walker, then...yeah. He makes me feel that.
A week later I was getting off work, just stepping out the back door and thinking about Walker and I going shopping for costumes with Matty the next night, when someone called my name. I turned and frowned.
He took a few steps, closing the distance between us. “Hey. Noah.” His speech was stilted and there was a tremor in his voice – nerves, maybe.
I held a hand up. “If this is more crazy shit with Kendra, I want no part of it. None.”
He shook his head. “Not her. Me.”
Darrion's advice about not owing anyone anything rose up in my head. “Well, I'm not sure I want any part of any of your shit, either.”
He visibly slumped, and his expression...it brought back a memory from a few years ago. I couldn't really remember what it was about, but something had happened, and he'd looked like this – defeated. Sad.
“What's the matter?” I asked, giving in. I am such an easy touch.
His eyes moved, studying my face. “I...I'm gay.”
I crossed my arms. “Could have fooled me.”
He looked down. “I know. I've been....”
“A dick? Mean just to be mean? A lousy excuse for a friend?”
He turned and leaned his shoulders against the side of the building. He let out a low breath and wiped his eyes. “Yeah. I have been.”
I hate tears. It's like a secret weapon.
I leaned up against the wall beside him. “So. What's changed?”
He chewed his fingernail for a moment, then pulled his hand away and tapped his fingertips against his thigh. “For...the record, I'm sorry. For how I ended things with you. For how I've been acting. For...everything.”
I looked away from him, unsure how to feel – and unsure what I was feeling. “Covers a lot of time and stuff.”
“Yeah,” he said softly. “But I figure you want to go home, and it's kind of cold.”
I nodded. “Why don't we go sit in the car? I can turn on the heat at least.”
We crossed the lot and settled into my car. At least we were out of the light, cold breeze that is so much a part of late autumn around here.
“So. This is kind of a surprise,” I said.
He nodded. “I'd like to say it's because I woke up and realized I'd lost you – as a lover and a friend. I wish I could say that I was brave and I was coming out and that I was going to try and find a boyfriend and learn how to have a healthy relationship, but honestly...” he took a shaky breath. “I'm a coward. I'm afraid. But I have reasons for that.”
“Okay,” I said slowly. “So what do you want from me?”
He nodded, as if agreeing with himself. “A chance to explain. A chance to...salvage...something from us.”
I shook my head. “I have a boyfriend. I'm...I love him.”
He glanced at me and nodded. “Okay. Not what I meant. More like...I need someone I can talk to to keep me sane. You don't owe me that, and maybe you'll tell me to fuck off after I'm done because of how I've been. But...you're all I have.”
“Wow. I feel special,” I muttered.
“I know. It's selfish,” he said and turned toward me. “Will you listen anyway?”
“I guess I will,” I agreed, though I didn't know why. I put the car in gear, figuring I could head in the direction of his house and drop him off to end the conversation if I needed to.
“You know my parents,” he began. “But you don't know what it's like to live with them. My dad lost his job just before we started middle school, and things were tough. I don't remember them being that bad, but I guess we really struggled.” He took a breath. “To fill some of the time, my dad would go to church every morning and pray for help finding a job before going out to fill out applications and send in resumes.”
He looked down and fiddled with his fingers. “One morning there was a broken water line, and he couldn't get to the church, so he stopped at another one. He figured they are all basically the same. While he was there the pastor came over and started talking to him. Next thing you know my dad's a handyman for the church and we’re going on Sunday mornings. The pastor would talk about what it means to be a man, and my mom and dad would fight, because according to the pastor, she was supposed to be quiet.”
“That's some fucked up thinking,” I said.
He nodded. “My mother never totally bought into it, but they were both religious. This was new, though. They were specific in telling everyone how men acted, how women acted, and how they fit into the holy order of society and stuff.”
“Never made sense to me,” I said.
He shifted again in the seat and placed his palms down on his thighs. “I always knew I was different,” he said softly. “And when you came out I felt like...it was a sign. Every time I went to see you, I'd feel guilty after, because the pastor said...and my dad said...but it felt...it was the right thing, when it was happening. I felt like I belonged and I was being who I was supposed to be. Until it was over, and I knew I had to go back to my own house. And to that church.” He paused and took in a hitching breath. “Then, almost at the end of summer, my dad said I was hanging around with you too much and that I should be looking for a nice girl. He said that...that I...that people would think I was a faggot and that we -we're f-fucking because we were together so much.”
Setting aside that we were fucking, that was a shitty thing to say to your kid.
“Is that why you broke things off with me?” I asked.
He nodded, and a fat tear rolled down his cheek. “It was like he knew, and I was so scared. I just...panicked. I told Kendra I'd always liked her, and when we talked it came out that you and me...what we'd been doing. She wanted to know all about it, and she was really, like, eager to show me what it was like with a girl. She always wanted to know if I felt more straight after.” He wiped his face. “I tried. I swear I tried so hard. But I'm gay, Noah. I'm gay, and my father hates that. If he finds out....”
“Then he won't,” I said firmly. “You and Kendra broke up?”
“Then you tell your dad you want to focus on school for college. No more dating at all. If he pushes you, just say you need to have a good job to provide for your family,” I said.
He nodded and sniffled. “But...will you still be my friend? I can't do this by myself.”
I sighed. “Yeah. I have to talk to Walker, but...yeah.”
I dropped him off a block from his house, so his father wouldn't see, and I hate to say it, but it hurt my heart to see him slumped like he'd already lost. It was a little late, but I needed Walker, so I headed to his apartment. I texted him that I was there, and I was thankful that he hadn't fallen asleep. He opened the door, looking tired, his hair messy. He smiled as he saw me.
“I must have been good today,” he said as I entered and toed off my sneakers.
“Hi, Noah,” his mom said. “School tomorrow, so pretty soon it's going to be ‘Bye, Noah.’ Okay?”
I waved my hand to her. “Yep.”
We went to his room, and he pulled me in for a hug. I honestly couldn't imagine any better place to be. His chest felt so solid and warm against my face.
“Someone needed a hug,” he said, teasingly.
“Yeah,” I murmured. “I need to talk to you.”
He stilled. “What's wrong?”
“Ugh,” I said, moving back and scrubbing my face. “So, when I got out of work tonight, Marc was waiting for me,” I began.
“Why?” he asked, his eyebrows drawing down. I sat on his bed and explained the situation, explaining how I felt uncomfortable, but also like I felt as if I would be being a bad person if I walked away from him. Walker sat down heavily beside me, taking my hand.
“Do you like him?”
I looked at him. “You mean like am I attracted? No. Anything we had like that is dead. I just feel like...he didn't get the support I did for being who I am, and he's asking me for help. He apologized and asked for help.”
He put my hand between his. “So I don't have anything to worry about? He's not trying to take you from me? Because you've got Corey and Kendra after you – I don't need someone getting close to you and stealing you from me.”
I chuckled and shook my head. “I don't get it. All of a sudden there's Corey, now Kendra, and I find you...what is going on? Like, I'm not that special, so why do I have all these people thinking they want me?”
Walker grinned. “The fact that you don't know makes you much cuter.”
I shot him a look. “Okay, you think you know why? Hit me.”
He punched my shoulder, and I yelped and hit him back. “You know what I meant!” I snarled as he laughed.
“I don't know about these other people,” he said, smiling at me. “But it's not because you're going to stop traffic with people staring because you're so cute. It's because I'm talkative and outgoing, and you balance me – you're quiet, and you listen. You like to stay in and cuddle, but you care enough to try doing things I like just because I like them.” He shrugged. “Plus, the longer I know you, the cuter you get.”
I smiled at him. “I love you, Walker.”
He ran his tongue over his teeth. “Very good answer.” He sighed. “I'm not really thrilled about this guy hanging around you.”
“Yeah. I didn't want you to...like, I didn't want to make things weird or upset you because I didn't tell you.” I sighed and leaned into him. “And honestly, it's been such a weird time, I just needed to come tell you what was going on.”
He chuckled. “You need a person.”
I leaned back and looked at him. “You're my person. You.” He opened his mouth, and I covered it with my hand. “No. If I'm mad at you, you're still my person. If you're mad at me, I'm still yours. Maybe...you need more than one person, but I want you as my person. And my boyfriend. And my friend.”
I moved my hand, and he shook his head, smiling. “I did not know what I was getting with you. Thank you for telling me.” He paused and tilted his head. “You're right. I think I might have freaked out a lot more if I found out you were hanging with an ex. I'm still not, you know, thrilled, but...I trust you'll tell him no, like everyone else.”
“I only say yes to you,” I told him.
The smoldering look he gave me sent a shiver down my spine.
Walker and I settled on going as Mario and Luigi for Halloween but made the mistake of telling my mother. She insisted on taking us shopping for parts of the costumes – which might have been okay if it was just going to a thrift store for stuff, but for some reason she decided we were close enough to a mall and we could round out what we needed there. It sounds fine, but it turned into this awkward thing where she was buying us both clothes. I didn't really need anything, but she was practically insistent with Walker. My mom gave me a pair of jeans and told me to go try them on.
“They're the right size. Why do I need to try them on?”
“Different brands are made slightly differently, so please try them on.”
“I don't really need them. I'll just put them back,” I said.
“No! They look like they'd be so cute on you. Go try them,” she urged. I sighed and went to do as she'd asked. By the time I got back the temperature had dropped significantly. Walker was quiet, and my mother wrapped up our shopping trip. Walker asked my mom to drop him at home; he told me he just wanted to chill. As soon as he left I rounded on my mother.
“What did you do?”
“Watch your tone,” she snapped.
“No. Not when you're interfering with my boyfriend.”
“You don't know anything about it!” she retorted.
“So tell me!”
“It's not my place,” she said and refused to say anything else. I slammed the car door as we got home and went to my room, flopping onto my bed.
ME: Are you okay?
After a few uncomfortable minutes he replied.
HIM: Yeah. Just...
HIM: It's complicated. I'm going to nap.
ME: Call me later?
I lay in bed for a bit, then decided I should do something to keep busy. I sent a quick text to Marc to ask how he was and then pulled my tablet out and started to sketch the idea I'd had the other day with Walker and I each making half of a heart with our hands. Marc texted back that he was fine, and I alternated between trying to renew ties with him and sketching Walker and me. I really wish I were better at it. After two hours I decided it wasn't going to get any better and sent it to Walker. I hoped it would cheer him up when he woke up.
Walker was quiet about whatever my mother had said, not wanting to bring it up. He told me instead about the comments our pictures were getting on his page, and I think he took great delight either in making me squirm or in making the comments up – maybe both. Some of them were kind of hot though, and he was going to be in trouble pretty soon if he didn't stop.
Halloween night I went over to his house for dinner, a little surprised his dad wasn't at home. Things seemed normal enough. When we got changed into our costumes, I discovered Matty was going to be Yoshi – so we did match.
We started in the neighborhood, walking the blocks and passing by groups of parents that were escorting their kids for the evening.
We talked some school gossip. He asked about Marc, and I told him I was more or less just being available to talk. Kendra was ignoring me completely, playing the role of the spurned woman. She was also telling everyone that Marc took it in the ass, and he was freaking out that his father would hear about it.
“You think his dad would beat him or something?” Walker asked with concern.
“I don't really know his dad, not anymore. He used to just be another adult, but from what Marc said, he's changed a lot in the past few years.”
“What if he throws him out?” Walker asked.
“I guess I'd have to help him. Maybe he has relatives he can stay with. I'm sure he can sleep on my couch a few nights if he has nowhere else to go,” I said, discouraged by the idea. “I had such an easy time coming out. My parents really didn't care one way or another. What about your parents?”
Matty came running back, squealed something unintelligible – probably not even a word – and was off to the next block.
“Lina is pissed at you, by the way,” he said.
“Yes. She doesn't like you claiming me as your person.”
“You need more than one,” I said reasonably. “Family, friends. Makes it tough with you, though.”
He chuckled. “Yeah?”
“I'm not even going to ask. You're just waiting to get revenge for the picture comments,” he said with a laugh.
“Yep!” I replied, laughing. I took his hand. “But just so you know, I hate that something is bothering you and you won't tell me what it is.”
We walked in silence for a few minutes, and then he asked, “Have you ever been embarrassed by your parents?”
“You have met my mother. I think that answer is obvious,” I replied with a grin.
“No,” he said, stopping and looking at me. “Like so embarrassed that telling someone feels like...like the scariest thing. Like it can be used to hurt you.”
I studied his face with concern. My confident, smooth-talking Walker was nowhere to be seen.
“No,” I said. “But that would be something they did, not me. I'm not sure why I would be embarrassed.”
He nodded a little and looked to one side. “Matty! Wait up!” He pulled me by the hand until we had Matty a little better in our sights before he spoke again. “When I told you my family lost their business a few years ago, I left something out.”
“Okay,” I replied.
He took a breath. “My dad is a gambler. He lost so much money – the savings he had with my mom, the college funds they'd started for Matty and me, even the company he owned. All of it down the toilet because he won't stop betting on everything – anything.”
I squeezed his hand. “I'm sorry. I think I heard someone tell me once that gambling is an addiction like a bunch of other things. Does he go for help?”
He shrugged and rubbed the side of his face. “He says he does. When he gets dressed up in a suit, like the other night when you came for dinner, he was coming back from a meeting. He always dresses up for those things, like he has to show the other gamblers he's doing well.”
My heart went out to him. “I'm really sorry you have to deal with that. Thank you for telling me, but even if I knew before – it doesn't change anything. Not for me.”
We paused at the end of a walkway crammed with kids. Matty was in line, trying to get closer to the person handing out candy, like he was afraid it was going to run out. Walker turned me toward him.
“Your mom knows.”
I tilted my head. “How?”
He shook his head. “She heard about my dad's business, but when she met me, she put it all together. That's why she's buying me stuff and...whatever. She thinks I'm a charity case, like we don't have anything.”
Fire rose up in my belly. “Damn her. I keep asking her what she's doing, and she won't say.”
He shook his head. “Feels bad. I know she's trying to be nice, but I have a mom. She works hard for us. I get that your mom is trying to make things easier for us, and I appreciate that, but it still feels bad.”
I hugged him, apologizing in his ear. Matty came back and threw candy corn at us, telling us to stop kissing so we could go get more candy. We ended up walking a few miles. It started to get cold fast when the sun dropped out of view, and we headed back to Walker's apartment. His mom looked at Matty's bag and laid out less candy than he wanted to eat right away, but of course she knew he'd been eating candy the entire time he was out with us.
When I left, Walker went out with me, and we leaned against my car, arms wrapped around each other. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice muffled. “I love you.”
I hugged him tighter. “I love you, too.”
I drove home, wanting nothing more than to stay with Walker, and the more I thought of it, the angrier I became at my mother. She'd embarrassed him by just making a decision and not seeing how anyone else felt about it, just like she always did. She decided she'd made a choice and she'd stick with it, and then have the balls to not tell me why she was doing it? Why she was involved in my relationship?
I pulled in and walked inside looking for my mother. Instead I found my father in the kitchen.
“You missed all the trick or treaters,” he said with a smile. “Did you guys have fun?”
I looked at him for a moment. “Did you know? What mom's been hiding from me about Walker?”
His expression tensed. “I did.”
I balled my fists. “Let me guess: you're going to defend her again.”
“She is my wife,” he said sternly. “And frankly, she was right – it's not your business unless Walker chose to make it your business.”
I shook my head. “No. You guys don't get to decide what I know about someone I'm in a relationship with.”
He held his hands up. “We thought it best, and that's what we did. I'm sorry you're not happy, but we-”
“Embarrassed him. That's what you did. Made him feel like crap. Like a charity case.”
My dad pursed his lips for a moment. “That wasn't the intent, Noah.”
I held my hands out to him, fingers splayed and palms up. “But did it ever occur to either of you to stay out of it? Or to ask him discreetly if you could be of help? Or talk to his mom? No? You guys just start buying random things you don't know if he needs and then being cryptic about it around me? About my own boyfriend? You really can't see anything wrong with that?”
He sighed. “Of course it wasn't ideal, Noah. We thought it was the best way. A few extra necessities here, feeding him and sending some leftovers there. We didn't think it was that obvious.”
I stared at him. “Obvious. Did you see how many things mom bought?”
He shrugged. “You have a lot of things.”
I shook my head. “You know, you two are amazing. I don't think I've ever heard you guys admit to being wrong about anything. You'll look sad, you'll say that wasn't the intent or something like that, but there is never any admission that you screwed up.”
"Noah,” he said in exasperation. “We found out by accident. If he's so embarrassed, why do you think we didn't tell you? He was obviously uncomfortable, and we thought he should be able to tell you in his own time.”
“Right,” I said, nodding. “Sure. Let's just leave out how you embarrassed him and upset things between us for days where he was embarrassed to tell me what was wrong – because my parents knew.”
“Like I said-”
“Yeah, that wasn't the intent,” I said, waving a hand at him and leaving the room.
“Noah. Noah! God damn it,” my dad muttered as I went into my room and threw myself on the bed. My dad pushed the door open, and I sat up and pointed at him.
“Leave. I swear to Christ if you don't I'm going to say things to you I can't take back. So back. Off.”
He pursed his lips, but he closed the door as he left the room. I flopped back onto the mattress and seethed. Of course I was angry they'd embarrassed him, and of course I'd want to support him any way I could. Why can they never admit they weren't right? Usually she did it and Dad just backed her play. Grumbling I got up and took off the overalls and tossed them in the hamper, followed by my socks, before I shut off the light and climbed into bed. I looked at my phone and sent a message to Walker.
ME: I don't know if you didn't tell me because you were worried about what I'd think.
ME: Or what.
ME: But I want you to know I don't care.
ME: I mean I do because it makes you sad.
ME: But I don't care because I love you.
ME: I can't imagine that changing.
ME: And I wish I was with you right now.
I stared at the screen, refreshing it twice before I let it go idle. I plugged the phone in to charge and lay back, thinking and trying to let my frustration go. About twenty minutes later I heard a car pull in, then my mother and sister as they came into the house. I tensed as her footsteps passed by my door, wondering if she'd come in and start defending herself, but it didn't happen. Just as well. I was sick of being told they were right.