Brett's flight to Perth to visit his dad was just a week hence, and he was nervous. He was only seven when they last saw each other. "Part of me is excited, part of me is freaking," my mate admitted. "I need to see him, though. If I don't take advantage of this opportunity it may never present itself again. Besides, it's a missing piece of the jigsaw, a major part of my life. And yet it's difficult to imagine my dad and me being like you and yours. Yours is just so damn cool. Remember when he and I went fishing on the lake during the holiday at Somerset? It wasn't like being with someone's dad, more like being with a mate. He treated me like an equal, not some teen." Brett shook his head. "I can't see my dad treating me like that."
After showering together at his place, we remained naked in the kitchen as I watched him pour two coffees. "You know something?" he said. "If you hadn't stuck by me--I mean, if you hadn't taken all the crap I dumped on you--the moods, the aggro--and come back for more, I could've been--well--I wouldn't have changed."
"You didn't change. You were always who you are. You just kept yourself hidden."
"Yeah? So how come I couldn't hide from you?" he asked, leading the way to the courtyard table.
"Intuition maybe. I don't know. I just had a feeling."
"Where?" he grinned.
"Fuck off, Brett! It's wasn't like that."
"Okay," I admitted, "but in the main I was interested in you as a person. You were a challenge."
"You still are. I never take you for granted, Brett."
"Ditto. On the other hand, I know you'll stick around like shit to a blanket. That's the kinda bloke you are."
"And you're the kinda bloke who sticks up for his mates. You didn't fight Mitch today because he pissed you off, you fought him because he was crapping on me."
"One excuse is as good as another."
"Bullshit. What about the time you beat the crap outta him `cause he hassled Graham?"
"So what are you gonna do? Give me a medal?"
Friday was the last day before Spring Break, and our final assembly. I organized a few guys from the swim team, plus a few mates, for a get-together at my place. My dad already knew about Brett's planned meeting with his father. "He's probably just as nervous as you, maybe more so."
"It's hard to tell," Brett mused after ripping the ring-pull off a can of VB.
"Well, I can only judge it from my own perspective, and only imagine what it would be like for me to meet Kyle after ten years."
"It was you and Kyle who inspired me to phone my dad. I figure there was a chance that--maybe--you know--that maybe we could patch things up."
"You're like a brother to my son."
"Yeah, we kinda get along okay."
"Better than okay. His mother and I often felt guilty about not having more children. But not now. Kyle has you and Graham, and many other friends--just like an extended family. At least, that's how I feel about it."
"Thanks. I do, too."
My dad offered Brett a ride to the airport in the Kombi, for which he was grateful. And me? I spent the week visiting a friend on a farm near Lake Somerset in Queensland. But that's another story. Meanwhile, my dad revealed that he and mom did not have the money to keep me at school the following year for the post-matriculation course. Frankly, I wasn't too stressed about the news; planning instead to find a job and save enough to put myself through college in 2002 to study marine biology.
Brett and I got together again when school resumed, where, during recess, he told me all about his trip to Perth. "They have a son of ten; blond, swims, plays soccer. His sister is seven and a real little cutie. Both love me to bits, so does my dad and step mom. It was a completely new experience for me, Kyle--I mean, having a family like that and a strong sense of belonging. You've had it all your life, you're used to it. Anyway, I could easily live in Perth. There's loads of work there, and money to be made."
That last comment floored me. "You're not serious?"
"Hey, I'm not planning to go there right now. Stop stressing. Jesus, you make me nervous when you jump to conclusions like that."
"So how did you and your dad get along?"
"We had a lot of opportunities to chat; we have a good thing going now. I asked him why he treated my mom and me like he did. He said he really didn't have an answer except that he wasn't very happy in those days. He needed to escape the whole situation of marriage and fathering a kid. And now? He wants to make up for all the wrong he did, such as leaving me without a dad."
"You once told me, right here in the quad, that you didn't have a dad."
"That's the way I felt then, but it's different now."
"My dad said if I spent a few years in Perth he'd pay for college. He also said if I wanted to stay here in Byron Bay he'd help with college fees up the coast at Surfers, or maybe down south at Coffs Harbor."
"So what are you thinking?" I asked, fearing the worst.
"I don't think it would be fair to take my dad's money while living here on the east coast."
"So you're thinking of moving to Perth?"
"Jeez, Kyle, your bottom lip looks like it's been stepped on. Anyway, shut up. I never said I was going anywhere. I intend to work things out so that I can pay my own way. I told you that already. Jesus Christ, you'd swear we were lovers or something the way you're carrying on." Then the corners of his mouth turned into a smile, "and wipe that grin off your face!"
That week, the school conducted its Valedictory Service, the final assembly in the main hall for Year 12 students as pupils. All parents attended, including Brett's mom and SFB. During the ceremony, awards--based on votes by Years 10, 11 and 12--were presented to selected seniors. Frank was voted the person most likely to succeed. Bloody hell, that was no surprise to anyone. Mitch was awarded `The person showing most signs of promise'. What signs? They must've used a microscope. Tears welled in my eyes when the headmaster announced the winner of the certificate awarded to `The most caring person for always putting others ahead of himself--Kyle Taranto'. I had no idea of whether to appear happy or serious as I accepted the honor. Fortunately, the next award took the spotlight off me and focused its embarrassing attention on Brett, who reluctantly stepped forward to receive his certificate: `The most likable person in school, a fair prefect and an example of honor for the school'. Brett was clearly mortified by the cheers and applause.
After the service, and singing of the school song, the Year 12s walked through the hall to farewell the rest of the students. Brett and I made our way together through the crowd and eventually joined Graham whose tears contradicted his beaming smile. "So, Conan, now you can't touch me anymore."
"Says who? I can still beat you up."
The grommet chose that moment to disappear. He would surely have cried his little heart out if he'd stayed a second longer. Hell, I wasn't doing much better.
It took me a while to find Graham, sitting on a yard bench on his lonesome, face buried in his hands. "You okay?" I asked.
"Yeah, except school sucks."
"Why? Hey, Conan's going so he won't hassle you anymore." His shoulders shook with sobs, otherwise he remained silent. "It's gonna be okay, y'know. We'll still beat you up. And you live right next door."
"Not the same."
"Well, not exactly."
"Brett was helping me with boxing," he sniffled, "and you were always there to talk to."
"Brett can still help you with boxing. Hey, I'm not happy about leaving you to walk to school by yourself. I'm gonna miss this place. My whole life revolved around school and all my friends here. You got loads of friends here, too." I paused to wait for a reaction but all I got was sobbing and more sniffling. "Looks like what I'm saying isn't helping any. I know how you feel, though, because I feel the same. I'll miss the school and the vibe, big time. Sure, the classes and the studies get you down but I've had such a good time here, and made a stack of friends. I remember the Valedictory Service last year. Even the teachers were crying. And now it's my turn. It's so weird--saying goodbye to all the juniors we helped during the past two years on the swim team, and knowing that--apart from returning to write exams--this will be the last time we're in school. It's like--totally unreal."
Later, Brett asked me about Graham. "No, he's not okay," I answered, "but it's one of those things he needs to handle. It's not as if anyone can do anything about it. By the way, he's grown to like you a stack."
"I've always liked him. He's a kick-ass little shit with a big heart."
"You should get a job writing for Hallmark cards." I cracked, then added, "The most likable person in school? You? The guy who called me a fag and had me beaten up?"
"Shut up, Kyle," he laughed, "before I smack you."
"Hey, I always reckoned you're likable. It's you who's always put yourself down."
"There's one amazing thing about my years at school, Kyle. You. They're right. You are the most caring person here. You were first to show me it's okay to care about someone, like when you visited me in hospital. Actually, I suspect you came just to see if I had bed covers."
"You would've done the same."
"Nope. Don't believe that. I was an angry, pissed-off-with-the-world person. The only reason I'd visit you in hospital is to gloat, hoping you were hurting more than I was. I learned a lot from you."
"Ooo! Want me to get down on my knees now? Is that a zip or button fly?"
Late afternoon, the Year 12s boarded a bus complete with driver rented by the students. On board was more booze than a pub. We toured the local area, drinking, laughing, joking and making a helluva noise, then drove down the coast to Ballina, where we stopped for fish `n' chips. From there, we headed inland to Lismore, then back through the hilly coastal country to Byron Bay, arriving at 10pm.
Brett was too trashed to walk me home, so we said our goodnights at his gate. On the way to my place, I stopped at `our' tree and took a leak. Suddenly, I felt so incredibly alone; a million school memories simultaneously flooded my mind. The end had screeched to a deafening halt, leaving in its wake an eerie, empty silence. It was over: school, friends, the swim team, everything.
"One door closes, another opens," Brett said when he phoned after lunch the next day.
"What door? It's like I'm not prepared for any of this. It's not like the end of a chapter, it's like the end of the whole damn book!"
"Hey, mate, you're stressed. It'll all work out."
"Yeah, right. And you'll be in Perth."
"Jesus, Kyle, I don't have any plans yet. Anyway, you got a vision of you and me in some Byron Bay nursing home in wheelchairs when we're both 100?"
"Don't make me laugh."
"You taught me to laugh. Now it's my turn. Feeling better now?"
"You seen Stuart lately?"
"Nope. He's probably hanging with his posh mates. Leave me outta that."
"He was at Susan's while I was away. Susan told me about it. And I know he wasn't there for a cup of tea."
"No, and I believe Susan. But you already know what went down between him and Melanie. That blond himbo can't help himself. It's as if he's gotta prove something over and over. What's the matter with him? He's got enough pussy to last him a lifetime."
"Insecurity? What the hell are you talking about? He's an ace surfer, looks to kill, popular--what else does he want?"
"I dunno. Maybe he feels like he's gotta keep testing people--you know, to see how far he can go."
"He won't be going very far if I catch him with Susan. Anyway, mate, I just thought I'd call to see how you are."
October 17, 2000, Brett's 18th birthday. He was a Harley Davidson fan, so Graham bought a Harley key ring and presented him with a hand-made card. Susan bought a beautiful silver chain with a heart attached, inscribed with the date and `Love, Susan'. Brett received a stack of presents from his mom and SFB, while I gave him a 2001 Harley Davidson calendar.
"I can see that, Kyle, so what are all these little notes written on each page?"
"This is the day we all went on holiday to Lake Somerset," he read aloud. "This is the day last year when you decked me. This is the day last year when we pissed against the old tree." He flicked through the rest of the calendar, then asked; "Jeez, Kyle, what's the matter with you? You keep a bloody diary or something?"
"Yeah, but I only write about stuff that's important."