Copyright 2010 by Ernesto66. All persons, places, things and events mentioned within this file are fictional, and no inferences should be made regarding their relationship to reality by readers, regardless of how they are represented. The author is responsible for, but not liable for, errors in regard to continuity, geography, weather, the public record, contemporary events, hairstyles, language and his own bad judgment. This story includes descriptions of adult homosexual men in sexual situations. If you are not of legal age to read this, then don't. If you are of age but somehow offended by such material, what the fuck are you doing here?
This file is freely shared, and the author encourages its distribution, dependent on proper attribution to him and only him. The file remains his intellectual (!) property and its unattributed use anywhere outside its orginal forum will result in harsh words to the offending site's host, as if there's anything they'll do about it.
I gratefully thank, and dedicate this story to, authors around the world who inspired me by posting their work online, most especially the two known as Ardveche and Ricardo Cabeza. It was in trying to emulate their beautiful stories that I first sat down to start my own, and writing "Homecoming" went a long way toward helping me through the hardest period of my life.
Thanks as well to my husband David. I started "Homecoming" before I even knew him, and although he had no idea I was writing it (at work), with his love and support he greatly influenced its direction.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
Chapter Ten: The Straight Story
"I think we're ready."
Michael stood back to admire his work, which so far mainly consisted of getting one of Kevin's fancy kitchen towels tied around Jeremy's throat. Setting up in the master bathroom, they'd found all of the bath linens too plush for this job. So there the boy sat, hair damp on his forehead, with a French peasant dishtowel over his shoulders and sitting on a chunky wooden bar stool from the kitchen.
The older man circled Jeremy with a pair of Kevin's craft scissors and a comb, trying hard to remember everything he'd forgotten about cutting hair in the last twenty years. He tested the scissors, snapping them and seeing how they felt in his hand. They were small and light, very similar to the ones he used all that time ago, and even had the little tail on one side for steadying them with your finger.
Lord, if I'm not ready, I never will be. Okay, think what you can realistically do with this mop. The most popular styles used to be... Well, Julia Roberts. Demi Moore, Meg Ryan. No, not a girl, you doof. One of the men. Harrison Ford. Brad Pitt.
"This isn't so bad," he said, more to himself than anyone else. "I can do this."
To Jeremy he said "Back in the day, ha ha, I taught myself how to cut hair. It's easy to just cut it, anybody can, but to style hair you have to picture where you're going. I learned what looked good, and all the popular styles, watching tapes from the video store my friend Ralph worked at." With his free hand he swept the black mass on one side all the way back, to get a better idea what shape Jeremy's face really was. Heart-shaped, as it turned out.
Michael let it go, then used his fingertips to comb it all straight back. He had a nice forehead too, squarish but not prominent. Need to expose that a little. "I got so good I kept doing it after I graduated, probably until... Ninety-three or -four, I guess. Thankfully before Jennifer Anniston became a star. It paid for my porn and liquor, anyway.
"Guys and girls both. Very similar. You wouldn't believe how many gay guys wanted theirs all short and butch like Demi when 'Ghost' came out."
The boy laughed and scratched at his ear. "Really. Maybe that was an Indianapolis thing." Michael tentatively snipped a good-sized swatch off one side. There, now they were committed.
"Maybe. Then the ones with long hair like you, I knew either wanted 'Pretty Woman' or Keanu Reeves. Really full-bodied or totally flat. I could reduce anything they wanted to a specific actor. I think some of those would still work today." He frowned. "Tell me something."
Jeremy glanced up and their eyes met in the big mirror over the dark blue countertop. Michael felt it hit him again. Without his glasses on, the boy looked so much younger and smaller. "What?"
"You've, um, seen a lot of films. What was the last thing from the Eighties you saw?"
Jeremy thought for a second. "I dunno. 'Empire Strikes Back,' I watch that every six months or so. Oh, of course. 'Stand by Me' was on TBS."
Michael nodded. "There you go. I forgot River Phoenix. Very popular. Not in that though, he had a buzz cut in that one. Maybe like 'Sneakers' or 'Last Crusade,' only a little shorter. I can see that in my head. Okay, make like a statue."
The scissors went chip, chip, chip. Things were quiet in the room for a while, except for that metallic sound and Michael humming Annie Lennox under his breath. He started with Jeremy's unruly edges, trimming away the excess and working his way in. He leaned in to blow a couple of stray hairs off the boy's nose and noticed his eyes were shut tight.
"Any time you want," Michael said softly. He continued cutting. The dark hairs began to pile up around his feet.
Jeremy opened his eyes. "You have to promise me, man," he started, "that you'll never tell anybody about this. And you can't, uh..." He trailed off and glanced away. Michael stopped, and put his head down next to the kid's ear. They looked into the mirror together again. "Don't worry, I'm not gonna cry over this crap anymore. But promise me..."
"God, don't judge me for what happened, please. Or go ahead, if you want I can't stop you. But don't tell me if you do."
Without hesitation Michael said "I won't. I don't care." He pecked Jeremy's cheek, straightened up and stood back. "If it didn't happen this weekend it doesn't concern me. Just tell me what's bothering you."
Most of the back of Jeremy's smooth neck was exposed by now, and what was left was a fringe only a bit lower than his ears. A good beginning. There was already a pile of hair an inch thick on the floor. Michael sighed and used two fingers to start trimming the uneven line.
Eyes on his work, he heard Jeremy draw in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Good.
"When I ran off on Wednesday it wasn't a spur of the moment thing. I don't want you to think I'm the kind of, uh, drama queen who runs away at the first sign of trouble, or goes batshit when something doesn't go his way. I'd been planning to do it for a while, but I didn't know where to even go. When I thought of my aunt in Chicago and how easy it would be to get there, I knew what I wanted to do."
"Easy? A five hundred mile trip." Michael laughed. "You mean because of 65?" He caught himself. "Sorry, I'll be quiet."
"Thanks. This whole thing started in like April. I am, I mean was, in the Advanced Program at school, and senior year I started taking college courses. It looks good on your transcript when you apply to a school, and the classes are way more interesting than anything else you're doing, plus you get the credit later when you actually go.
"So I took the bus to U of L every morning. This last semester I had an art history class once a week, Twentieth Century Art History. I was doing pretty well, plus I got to leave school and go outside, and it was really good exercise. You know how U of L's spread all over the place."
"And it made me feel... More adult, I guess. When I was growing up I always felt out of place with other kids because I understood things faster, I knew 'big' words" - he made quotation marks with his fingers - "and could talk to teachers more on their level. You know, big words like 'diagram' or 'represent.' I mean, get real."
Michael snorted. "Indubitably."
"Yeah. But most of the others didn't, and they held it against me. It was hard enough already being gay, not that anybody knew, but when you add being smart I felt like I had five eyeballs. No one wanted to hang out with me. I've always been out of place. It was so great getting into the AP in sixth grade, like getting into a party everybody wants to go to.
"Anyway. It was near the end of the semester and the school year, and I was having kind of a hard time. The professor's a complete tool, who sometimes acts like he's never opened a book on his own subject. I mean he was telling us about Charlemagne and how he was responsible for this amazing art movement, the Carolingian Something, and he pronounced his name "Charlie Mange." Like the dog disease. And all his tests were like, name this work, and the artist, and the year, and its movement, the medium, where it is today, one related work... I mean God, who cares. He made it boring and ridiculous at the same time.
"So the professor takes off for a conference the last three classes, and leaves his TA in charge. We're all freshmen and high school students, so I guess we're not that important. And that Friday the TA, Mr. Evans, comes in. It's a little weird at first since he usually sits in the back with us, but turns out he knows a lot more than the teacher and he knows why we're all having the exact same problem.
"He said anyone who's worried about the final can sign up, and he'd stay behind after class and help them in his office.
"Four of us sign up, and after class two of us show. The other guy is a jock who I heard was already getting tutored or something by one of the TAs, and I figured was only there in the first place 'cause he needed a Humanity.
"So it's pretty cozy, just the three of us. Mister Evans is talking things out, giving us tips on the test. I know mine won't really count, but I'm paying him all kinds of attention anyway. Because..." Jeremy bowed his head and Michael twitched the scissors away from his temple. Was he blushing?
"Because he is really cute," the boy rushed out. He rolled his eyes and couldn't stop smiling, thinking about it. "Yeah, it sounds gay. It is."
Still holding the scissors back, Michael said "I was trimming this guy once. The radio was playing and he started singing 'She's my cherry pie,' like this." He slammed his head front and back. "And I stabbed him right in his eyebrow. Be careful."
"Not a problem. Sit up." Jeremy complied. "Okay, go on. Your TA's cute. Lucky you."
"But see, Mr. Evans's got curly brown hair, and those glasses with the thick black frames that make him look really smart, and he isn't big, like the teachers and all the students are, he's skinny and more my size. Which I'm kinda sensitive about. He wore flannel shirts every day, and the same crusty tie, and his jeans were always busted at the knee... He was just cute, what can I say?"
"Sounds like a crush," the older man teased.
"I know how stupid it sounds when I say it like that, but it's true."
Michael shook his head and neatly snipped off the raw ends around Jeremy's right ear. "No, everyone's been there. I remember wanting to marry Mr. England. My second grade teacher. Imagine if I'd told him."
"Ha. Whatever." In an almost dreamy voice the boy went on. "He was like everything the girls I knew said they wanted in a boyfriend, only obviously four years too old for me. Or that's what I was thinking anyway, what did I know about it? People in school were dating each other, not their teachers. He was too old.
"Anyway. Steve and I - that's the jock - just sat and listened the first couple of times. Steve's like a total musclehead, doesn't say much, couldn't care less about the class. I don't know what he was even doing there. But I was getting a lot better. Mr. Evans was really easy to talk to, 'cause he was in our place only a couple of years ago, and the class was all of a sudden fun again..."
In the mirror Jeremy's eyes were shining. Michael realized that he envied the kid having that experience.
In high school taking hours at U of L had been only for the hardest-working students, which definitely did not include him. When he finally got into college in Indiana it was a necessity, not the Animal House experience it seemed to be for everyone else. He was constantly stressed out about grades, not having money, being so far from everyone he'd ever known. His classmates all got to go home at break, or on vacation to Chicago or the Dunes, while he just worked more hours at the bookstore.
"God I liked Mr. Evans. He wasn't anything like any teacher I ever had. He wasn't old and stuffy, and he didn't think class should be so serious. He made jokes all the time, puns on artists' names and stuff." Jeremy laughed. "Like, he was talking about Modern artists being inspired to paint, and he said 'Manet are called but few are Gaugin.'"
Michael chuckled. "Plus he wasn't afraid to say things about the professors, only he wasn't ever mean about it. Just funny. You could tell he really liked his job and got a lot out of sharing the stuff in his head. Most teachers act like they'd rather pass a kidney stone than relate to you. Not him.
"Steve and I sat on either side of a table in this big office, and Mr. Evans sat on top of it, with his legs right in front of me. I was closer. His knee would bump my hand and then just stay there. I made sure I didn't move. It was great.
"And if he made a point or he laughed at something I said, sometimes he put his hand on my shoulder-" Jeremy put his hand on Michael's, resting on the boy's neck, "-and leave it there a second. And all I could do was look at his knees sticking out of the holes in his jeans and wish I could-" Jeremy laughed and made a face.
"Nevermind. I know I was blushing the whole time we were talking. I just kept saying how warm it was in there."
Michael took his hand back and made sure he'd finished with the side he was working on, checking that the left and right were even. They were, as best they could be. "Do you think... He was flirting?"
Jeremy shrugged but said "Yes" anyway. He'd shifted the towel so Michael set it right again. "Nobody's ever done that to me, so how could I know?"
"Come on, I bet people have been doing it all along and you just haven't noticed. Maybe you just don't know how-" He cut himself off. A road nobody needed to go down. "How often that happens, I bet. Go on." He drew up a handful of hair on top, estimated where to cut, and lopped a third of it off in one go.
"Oh, wow," Jeremy exclaimed nervously when the last pieces of it had fallen into his lap. He brushed what he could onto the floor. "That's not too short?"
"No, look, it's practically in your eyes still."
"Trust me, I'm a professional."
"Unlicensed." The boy played with his new bangs a second and then sat up and closed his eyes. "I trust you though." Michael smiled and continued shearing at the crown of his head, trying to be more careful. Truthfully that had been a little much. Concentrate.
"So... Um, the third time is when this gets more complicated. I go after class to meet in the office, like we usually do. But he isn't there yet, and I was probably a little early, because I was looking forward to seeing him, you know? I go in and sit down, and take out my stuff to be ready when he gets there. And I notice that there's this huge-ass coffee table book, about one of the artists we're doing, laying there. I go over and start looking through it."
"Who was it?"
"David Hockney. You know who that is." Michael hmmed. "It was full of these big paintings of California swimming pools, and mountains, and houses. All very angular and modern. Then I got to the section that had all these other ones."
Michael smirked. "The swimmers? Those were the ones I always liked." Jeremy said yeah.
Michael silently considered what he'd done so far and congratulated himself. Jeremy's cut was finally taking shape, and of course it depended on what the kid thought of it too, but for being so very rusty he thought he'd done well.
Jeremy continued. "I kind of passed by all those, like casually, and I got to this one... I don't know what I was thinking. I guess I wasn't, I stopped to look at it for just a second, but it couldn't have been a worse one."
Michael reached out and squared Jeremy's shoulders, resat the towel on his shoulders, and dragged the comb across his head a couple of times. Yup, not bad. "Umm... nude swimmer?"
"No, more like this naked guy in a shower, bent over where his butt was hanging out. I mean, it was a painting, it didn't show anything, but it was exactly the wrong one at the wrong time."
Michael chuckled. "Let me guess, that's when he walked in."
The boy shook his head no. "Actually that's when he and Steve both walked in. They'd been so quiet walking down the hall, I didn't hear them. I couldn't just turn the page real fast and not look totally guilty. I was busted. I apologized and said the book'd been sitting there, but he didn't act like it was a big deal and we got down to business.
"So we were talking about contemporary artists, and I noticed that Mr. Evans started bringing the subject back to David Hockney again and again. That he was one of the most distinctive American artists of the twentieth century, very ahead of his time... All this crap that couldn't possibly be on the final.
"I thought it was pretty strange, but Steve just sat there and listened to him like he always did. Steve wouldn't know David Hockney from David Hasselhoff. So I said a few things that I knew about him, obviously not the part about him being gay, but I tried to pretend like I knew what I was saying. Mr. Evans seemed to buy it, so...
"I kept talking, throwing more and more stuff on top of that, everything I could remember about all the artists we'd been studying. Blah blah blah. When I thought about it later I knew what I was doing - showing off. I guess I wanted to make an impression." He shook his head. "Stupid."
He looked up into the mirror. "Mr. Evans and I talked a blue streak, about Hockney and the others, and when time was almost up he said 'Why don't you take the book?' I was like, what? He said he'd got it from the school library, it was an old one they were throwing out. He was like, 'Hockney is one of my favorites, but I can see what his work means to you too.' He made me say I'd take it with me.
"It was a very weird half hour."
Michael snipped one last shred of hair from behind Jeremy's ear. They were getting close to done. "Sounds it."
"So when I said I'd take the book he seemed to remember what time it was. We wrapped up, and he wished us both good luck on the test, and then he did one more strange thing. He asked me to stay behind.
"Steve looked like he even thought that was weird, like, for some reason he looked kind of disappointed. I dunno, maybe he wanted to say goodbye or something. But things were already so hinky by then... He just said 'See ya later' and took off." Jeremy paused and seemed to be searching for words.
In a minute Michael, intent on finding stray hairs, glanced up. He realized that the boy had fallen silent and briefly considered saying something to fill the gap. Maybe a joke about great art bringing people together. But for once in his life he remembered the old saying about discretion and valor, and shut his mouth.
For another sixty seconds the sound of the scissors slowly clipping away was the only sound in the room.
Then Jeremy suddenly piped up. "When we were alone I said to Mr. Evans, 'I'm sorry I was showing off like that just now.'
"He said 'Don't ever apologize for being smart, and there's nothing wrong with letting other people see it. Showing off is a way of letting your light shine, and my mammaw always told me never to hide my light under a bushel. Not that I knew what she was talking about.'
"I started to laugh at that but then he said 'You have a light in you, Jeremy. I knew what you were doing and I was flattered.'
"I'll never forget those words. My heart just about popped when I heard that."
Jeremy's breath caught and he twisted his hands together in his lap. "I never knew, what it would feel like. For someone to say something like that to you for no good reason.
"He smiled and said 'I've really enjoyed talking to you after class. You get what I'm saying, and a good professor would kill to see that in even one student.' Then he looked so sad, like, you know you don't normally see feelings from people in charge like that? Seeing it... Wasn't that different from a friend telling you he'd broken up with his girlfriend, only you aren't friends with teachers.
"Then he said 'I have to be careful here, I don't want to compromise myself.' And he stopped, like he didn't even know what to say. I was so confused, and I felt so bad for him. I didn't have any idea what was going on." Jeremy sniffed and tugged at a corner of the dishtowel. Michael set his scissors on the washbasin and unknotted it for him. He dropped the furry towel on the floor and handed Jeremy a clean white one from a ring above the sink. They were done.
Despite what the boy had said earlier about not crying, he seemed to be on the verge of doing it again. He was biting his lip and held the towel in his lap, balled up tight in his fist. As the older man watched, one thin tear traced down his cheek.
"But you know me, stupid, and all I've done is watch movies my whole entire life, and what do two actors do when they're alone and one's all sad and vulnerable..."
Michael winced and took a guess. "Kiss?"
"Yeah." The boy nodded and put the towel up over his face. Muffled, he wailed "God, I am so damn dumb."
Michael put his hands on Jeremy's shoulders, then leaned over to embrace him with both arms. Clean-smelling black hair cushioned his cheek. "No you aren't," he murmured.
They stayed like that for a long moment, Jeremy snuffling into the towel, until he coughed once and tossed it into the sink, making Michael back up a step. "Yes, I am," he stated in a watery voice. The boy began brushing his arms and shaking his head from side to side. "Okay, I meant it when I said no more crying."
He took a deep breath, putting his hands back in his lap and looking into the glass almost defiantly. "I did something then... I never ever do."
Jeremy turned around on the stool but his beautiful blue eyes stayed on the floor. Despite what he'd just said they were brimming with tears.
He sighed. "I took a chance."
Michael thought he'd never seen anyone look so lost or alone. "I know. C'mon."
He put a hand out and led Jeremy into the dark master bedroom, leaving behind the mess they'd made. The light from the bathroom followed them and reflected off the polished floor and the woodwork on Kevin's dressers and four-poster. They sat down side by side on the comforter at the foot of the bed.
"I stood up and made like to shake his hand, because I wanted to be grown up about all this weirdness. I knew it would be the last time I'd see him like that and we should be professional and shit. Only, he took my hand and we ended up just standing there holding hands, and nobody let go for the longest time. I took that to mean something. I mean, right?"
Jeremy looked up. "I thought, this is what everybody else talks about. This is how it happens. So I, uh, leaned forward and I swear, I swear, he did too. Leaned forward. I swear. You know what to do then, right?"
"I shut my eyes, and my heart was exploding it was beating so hard. I wanted so badly for this to be the best kiss ever, my first one, like I'd remember for the rest of my life. I was imagining I could already feel his lips, feel that connection. I had forever to think about it. And there we were. Only."
His lips trembled and it took an effort for him to get the next part out. "Only the door opened and all of a sudden there was Steve." Michael closed his eyes.
"He'd forgotten his books, and of course there they were, if we'd just noticed. He was looking down for them when the door opened, and when he looked up and saw us standing like that, he got the strangest expression on his face. I can't hardly describe it. He stood there like he was frozen," Jeremy snorted. "He looked like he was working a hard math problem in his head or something."
Michael squeezed the kid's hand and felt something weak in return. Oh, hell, he thought.
"When he finally figured whatever it was out, he turned around and started to leave, really slowly. Mr. Evans looked sick, he was so pale. He said something like it wasn't what it looked like, just like people do in the movies, but Steve wasn't listening to him.
"When the door closed he asked me to go, right then, and not to come back or try to get in touch with him. Not to tell anyone, he'd take care of it. And I was like, I didn't ask for all this, man, what the f- What the hell just happened?
"But I left. My stomach cramped for the next week, everyone thought I had the flu. I felt horrible... My mom and dad didn't know what was up, but they were too deep into planning our summer vacation to pay me much attention.
"Sure enough on Friday there was a whole other TA with our final, he told the class Mr. Evans had a family emergency. Right. When I got home I tried to call his office and they wouldn't tell me anything. I bugged out."
Jeremy had screwed a corner of the quilted comforter into a ball in his fingers. Michael smiled the best he could and gestured at it. The boy noticed, let the rich-looking fabric go, and tried to smooth it out.
"So I was dealing with this shit at the university, and all my finals at school, too. I'm going crazy and my parents finally start to notice something's wrong. My dad especially is badgering me to tell him what's crawled up my butt, and he won't leave me alone. He won't and won't and won't!"
Jeremy's voice broke, and he stopped to collect himself. He put his fists to his temples and closed his eyes.
"But I make it through finals and I think I'm in the clear, when the university calls home asking for me. I about had a heart attack. My mom gets it and says they want to talk to us A.S.A.P. She was mad, being in the dark, but I told her it was just something that happened in class and I wasn't in any trouble. She bought it, and I talked her into not telling Dad.
"She and I go the next day, to this big office in the Admin building, and there's the dean and two other guys in suits at the table but no Mr. Evans. They have a pile of papers, statements from him and Steve, and they want one from me too. Mom was pretty calm through everything, even when she heard my version of what happened. Course I cleaned it up, made it all sound innocent and left out what he'd said to me." Jeremy peeked out from under the new fringe of hair at his eyebrow. "And I lied."
Michael cocked his head. "What about?"
"I said we were shaking hands when Steve walked in. I said we both jumped when he threw the door open, that's what he saw. I think maybe Mom even believed me, then. But the guys at the table already had all that paper, so who knew what they'd believe?"
He paused. Michael reached out and gently brushed a couple of stray hairs from the boy's white t-shirt. He felt a little ashamed for envying Jeremy earlier.
It was so unfair he'd had to deal with all this drama, before any of the traditional gay defense mechanisms were in place in him yet. Ironic distance, a thicker skin, wit...
Michael realized that in Jeremy's place, for a time anyway, he'd had an ally. At least he'd had that.
The boy took the older man's hand and clasped it in both of his. Their eyes met, and Jeremy's were burning now, blue fire. Michael thought that this must finally be the crux of the whole thing.
"Turns out, they believed Steve. Like he didn't have any damn reason to hurt Mr. Evans, and like the two of us had some terrible secret to hide. I never got to talk to him again. I tried calling his office all through June, every chance I got, to tell him what I'd said, but he never answered. Eventually I got a secretary who just wanted me to stop bothering her, and she told me he was gone-" His voice wavered.
Michael couldn't believe it. "Oh my god, he didn't..."
Jeremy laughed his single laugh, and dropped Michael's hand to put his hands over his mouth to stifle it. It was the first of those that hadn't sounded like a laugh at all.
He pushed off of the comforter and stood on the rug at the foot of the bed.
He choked out "Kill himself? Jeez, no, of course he didn't. She said the dean 'asked' him to leave, and he moved back home to Greensboro. She said it was going to look really bad, him just taking off before he finished his degree, and the university would never recommend him or endorse him or whatever, so he might not be able to teach anywhere else for a long time."
Jeremy threw his arms wide and pleaded to Michael. "So you see what happened? I mean, nothing. Nothing at all, and a guy's life is just ruined! I got off free, but he has to pay the price, and after just one bad thing! Now he can't do the job he loves, he can't live where he wants, even if he could teach he'll probably never trust a student again!"
Michael got up and pulled Jeremy to him, hugging him so hard he lifted the boy off the floor a little. He wasn't crying but shaking, hard, as if he were cold or angry, and he tightened his arms around the older man's middle. He stood rigid but the longer they embraced the more he relaxed against Michael.
Sheila explains about people wanting to get caught, and he still doesn't see? Michael thought, Can I tell him?
He doesn't have any idea what he stumbled into. Poor Jeremy. Poor dumb Steve, too. The oh-so innocent Mr. Evans, though?
"All for something I did," the boy moaned into his chest. "Why is it so hard for people to just let you alone? When you're happy, why is someone always out to get you, like what you want isn't even important? Why is just living your life so much work?" The arms around Michael's stomach tightened like they would never let go.
Jeremy's words rang a distant bell and Michael realized how close they were to something he'd said back at the mall. What was it? You can't "be" happy, it's a lot of work, something like that.
Imagine carrying the weight of everyone else's happiness on your shoulders, for so long and so intently, that you'd pour your heart out, as Jeremy had, to someone you'd just met. Even if the words made no sense to them.
They did now. For just a second Michael let himself hate that asshole, the TA, and the game he was sure the guy had been playing.
"I wanted to tell him I was sorry, for... For me taking a stupid chance, I guess. It only gets everybody hurt, far as I can tell."
He slumped in Michael's arms like he'd run out of things to say.
Michael hugged the boy harder, then let him go and took a step back. "I hate that this happened to you, Jeremy. But you have to know..." He closed his eyes.
Your TA was an manipulative jerkoff. Something more complicated was surely going on there, and you walked into the middle of it like Forrest Gump.
Michael wrestled with the urge to be spill the beans, but not for too long. Facing the truth was one thing, but it was obvious even to him that the boy having his illusion was more important right then. He'd figure it out one day.
The urge quietly died. Maybe there was something to that discretion stuff after all.
"It would have happened sooner or later. A bad romantic thing, situation. Everybody has them, and it's pretty awesome you handled yours as well as you did."
He added "And about taking chances, listen. When I had the chance to make myself happy - happier - I took it, and here I am. Am I happy?" he asked, smirking. "Not particularly. But I'm not unhappy. If I'd stayed, would things have been any better? No way.
"My parents, if they'd chosen not to act like they did, would anything be better then? No. I'd have still had to deal with Billy, and he with his parents, and so on.
"You, you could have taken your book and run like a thief. But you'd have had some other experience and gotten hurt eventually. Hell, Mr. Evans..." Michael paused. "He might have gotten involved with another student later and been in even bigger trouble. Who knows?
"There's more than enough drama in the world. Deal with your own shit, and leave everyone else to theirs. Hopefully in the long run life runs more smoothly, but even if it turns out there's no prize for doing the right thing, what's the harm?"
Michael watched Jeremy listening to him, and realized he was ranting. Again. He glanced down and caught sight of a wet spot the size of a pancake the boy had left on his t-shirt. He patted at it and said "End of lecture. Did any of that make sense?"
Jeremy shrugged. "In a reading-the-whole dictionary way, yeah." Michael laughed. "I guess that's your definition of Karma, huh?"
Michael nodded. In return the boy asked, "Okay, did what I said make sense to you?"
"Yes. What part exactly?"
"I mean, do you understand... How big a deal it was, to me, to try to leave home in the first place. Or to get back in the car with you." The boy sat back on the edge of the bed and folded his hands. "Or to let you fuck me."
Michael heard no hesitation with the word that time, none. He'd sounded very adult just then.
He softly answered "I do, now."
"Yes." He took two steps to stand beside Jeremy. He put one hand on the kid's shoulder and brushed his new hair back with the other. "Okay, if I can ask, what have you been doing since all this happened?"
Jeremy ducked his head out of Michael's reach and swatted at him. "When I heard Mr. Evans left town, I seriously freaked. Starting the day after graduation, I didn't leave my room for like a week. Every morning my mom would leave for work and cry, and I'd tell her it would be all right, I was just depressed about school being over. And my dad would come home, and pound on my door, and I'd tell him the same thing." He sat down at the edge of the bed again. "I'd already started letting my hair grow out, and I stopped washing or changing clothes.
"They got sick of that pretty fast, and I definitely did. In a week I broke down and told them everything one night after dinner. I mean everything," he said. He leaned back against the bed's corner post. "There didn't seem to be anything else to do. It took half the night to say all the things I never had, about me and how I like boys, and how I always feel left out, and then the whole thing with Mr. Evans."
Michael stood by the bed and didn't say a thing as Jeremy spoke, only folded his arms. His and Billy's decision to come out to their parents, together, had been mutual, not something they'd had no control over.
Think how much worse that mess would have gone, if we'd been like him, totally unprepared. Billy and I did what we did to be closer, to start college on the right foot, like adults. Jesus.
Jeremy went on. "My mom cried through the whole thing, and my dad looked like he wanted to put his fist through the wall. I can't believe I thought they'd be happy for me, finally being honest with them.
"When I was done, they sent me back to my room and argued for the rest of the night. In the morning they told me they'd decided I should go to Our Lady of Peace for a while."
"Oh, shit, no," Michael breathed.
Put as simply as that, it was hard to imagine what it would be like to hear your parents tell you it was time to go to a mental hospital.
Jeremy looked up at him. "Oh shit, yes. They're not the most right-wing people in the world, but you know the South End, and they're it. Their son does this ungodly stuff, and seduces his teachers, and he's antisocial... They thought there must be something seriously wrong with me. And I didn't completely disagree with them."
Michael sank onto the comforter, its thickness easing him down slowly next to the boy. "Oh, Jeremy, you-"
"No, what I mean is, I did actually feel depressed. I couldn't picture what it would be like, staying with them, and coming out to everyone else too, being this - thing - that I didn't understand... But I begged them not to send me away, to try just therapy first, and once they thought about how it would look to the neighbors, they gave in."
Michael said "Enter Sheila, huh?"
The ghost of a smile crossed Jeremy's face. "Yeah. And she turned out to be like my guardian angel. She listened to me like no one ever had before, and when we all got together and my dad would say something stupid, she defended me, she put things in a way they understood. And she gave me these tools, like tricks, to deal with them, and I thought they were working. She was so, so great to me. I miss her a lot."
Michael scooted back from the edge of the mattress, then patted his lap with both hands. "Come here."
Jeremy slid over and planted his butt between Michael's legs. The older man wrapped his arms around the boy and held him tight, back to front.
"Thanks, man." He put his hands over Michael's and rested his head on one side as he went on.
"Anyway, long story short, my parents finally went ahead on vacation last month. Without me, of course. To not waste the deposit."
"Eh. They were pissed off about every single thing all summer and fall. It seemed like every little thing would set one of them off, worse and worse, so I just avoided them as much as possible. It didn't help. Sheila kept calling and telling them there wasn't anything wrong with me, it would just take time for me to work my issues out. She could have been speaking Serbian for all they knew. They just wanted me 'cured.'
"So they took off for Fort Myers and left me behind for two weeks. It was a relief to have them gone and not hating me, but I also never felt so... alone, in my life. My friends would invite me to things, and I couldn't go, I'd have to tell them what was going on and I wasn't nearly ready yet.
"When Mom and Dad got back, they were tan and they looked like they'd had a great time, then they saw me and they right away started talking about OLOP again. Like Sheila's stuff wasn't working - which to me it obviously was - and I still needed my head bleached out."
Jeremy breathed deep and rested his chin on a knuckle. "What I hated most about this whole thing was seeing how different it made them. They weren't the same people I'd grown up with, bought me ice cream and took me to the park. They were like strangers.
"It was like they'd been pretending to be these other people all that time, and now they didn't have a reason to pretend any more. I didn't want to know those people. I wanted my parents back."
Michael pushed closer, tightened his arms just a little, and kissed the back of Jeremy's head.
"They cut me off going to Sheila. She said she'd still see me for free, but they made excuses about the insurance, and having to drive me to the office because I didn't have my license yet. So if I felt lonely before... Now I didn't even have her.
"For the past two or three weeks I managed to put them off, trying to think of something else I possibly could do that would make them happy."
Jeremy tilted his head to the opposite side, his cheek on Michael's wrist. "Them," he added in a bitter voice. "Happy.
"I knew how the whole thing was gonna end for me. When I was a kid, I begged them to get me a fish to keep in a tank in my room. Begged and pleaded. One day we finally went and got everything at the store, and the fish in a plastic bag with a knot in it. I was so happy. When the water was warm enough I wanted to let him loose, and I started trying to untie the bag, but my mom got the scissors 'cause she didn't want to wait for me.
"I couldn't get the knot out, so she took the bag away from me and snipped it open." The boy was silent a second. "She cut my fish in half with the scissors. And then made like it was no big deal, we'd go get another one. They couldn't understand why I screamed my head off over it, and when they got another one I didn't want anything to do with it. It died too."
"I was sitting in my room all day, every day, thinking my life was over, and they wanted to be happy again. Like this was all so inconvenient for them.
"So, last week 'Stand by Me' was on. I saw those guys going on that hike, and it seemed that was the perfect solution. Walk away. I wasn't gonna let my parents do that to me too."
He raised his head a little, bumping Michael's nose, so the older man gave him enough room to sit up. Michael kept his hands clasped around the boy's chest as Jeremy turned just enough to face him. "All over nothing."
He shook his head and tried to smile. "But that's where you came in. God, I didn't realize how much history that was, out loud."
"Not terribly much. Thank you, for telling me all that. I've been really worried for you, off and on all weekend. Now at least I know I had a good reason to be worried. And-"
"I'm okay," Jeremy insisted.
"I was going to say, and now I also know I had no reason to worry at all." Michael saw more loose hairs on the back of his arm and brushed them onto the floor. "We need to give you another shampoo."
"In the shower? I'd like that." The boy smiled as suggestively as someone who'd just started having sex could.
Michael resisted. "Anyway... now you've had your own break, you say you're ready to go back?"
Jeremy's half smile faded. "Oh, well, yeah. I don't have a whole lot of choice, right? I've got like no savings, and my only chance of going to school is to stay with them. I mean, it's only four years, isn't it. It won't hurt too much. The last eighteen weren't too bad."
He hitched his shoulder. "And it's not like they haven't changed at all. I think they're getting used to it. The longer they see I'm not gonna suddenly be straight just because they want me to... They'll get even better, right?"
"Sure," Michael said. "I admire your strength, Jeremy." He swept the boy's hair behind his ear. "I was thinking before, you made it though all that pretty well, with only Sheila's help. I don't know that I could have."
"You never know. Not til you try. She-" He cut himself short, looking over toward Kevin's dresser. His eyes widened.
"What, she what?" Michael chuckled. "What are you-"
He looked too, and realized Jeremy must have just caught sight of his reflection for the first time, in the full-length mirror beside the dresser.
The boy ran his hands through his cropped mane, pulling it out to as long as it had been and letting it fall as it came up short. He looked surprised at what he was finding and, Michael was pleased to think, he looked happy with the cut.
More hairs were landing on his skin. He released Jeremy to let him go stand in front of the mirror.
In an amazed voice the kid said "Oh my- God, this looks awesome, man."
Keeping his eyes on himself, he played with the new 'do, finger-combing it and flipping it around. In the front it hung to where it would brush the top of his glasses frames, and on the sides it was just long enough to tuck behind his ears. It might be a little too out of style to be stylish, but maybe they'd start a new trend.
"I mean it, I look terrific. Thanks so much." He threw his arms around Michael's neck and the older man returned the move to hug him.
But instead of it being only a hug Jeremy startled him. Warm lips moved from his cheek to his lips, and in the spirit of the moment Michael forgot himself and kissed the boy back. Before the older man knew it their tongues were pressing together and he was tasting Jeremy's spit in his mouth. He wanted to resist, he wanted so badly to back off and say no, end this thing now. He knew where they were going.
He wanted to, but he didn't. He gave it all back.
Took Jeremy up to him as close as he could, ran one hand over the boy's smooth neck and the other into the warmth under his t-shirt, around his ribs and up to his nipples. Jeremy squeezed Michael's arms and pulled himself even nearer, firmly together until the older man felt the combined heat of their erections building. No, no...
He firmly broke them apart, his head swimming. Who was he kidding. No, no?
He took a breath. "Let's, uh, clean up the bathroom and then get to bed. It's going to be a long day."
Jeremy nodded, adjusting the front of this jeans and smiling. "Okay, if you insist. I'll get the hair up in there. I think there's a Dust Buster in the pantry." He playfully kissed Michael and left the bedroom. "You're gonna shampoo me, huh? First?" he called over his shoulder. "I love my new hair!"
Michael watched him go and frowned as he went back into the bathroom. He wasn't going to keep on rationalizing it to himself, he decided. He was tired of making excuses in his head, tired of saying 'Yes, but,' tired of playing games with Billy's memory.
He shook the kitchen towel out over the toilet and hooked the stool over his arm. Fine black hairs sifted down onto the tile.
They were both there, they were both men, they both needed something. Life, help, someone else's energy. What the fuck ever it was called.
That's all there was to it.
He picked up the craft scissors and returned Kevin's comb to the glass beside the bathroom sink. He heard Jeremy stomping back toward the front hall, and sighed.
Not quite awake, Michael slowly turned onto his right side and stretched one arm across the bed. The different substances coating his crotch and legs and ass stuck to the sheets and dragged them along as he rolled over. He burrowed his hand under the comforter to keep it warm and realized there was no body lying beside him.
Where was Jeremy?
He cleared his throat and tasted the dregs of the wine they'd had with dinner. "Hey, where are you?" he croaked.
He leaned up on his elbow and squinted, trying to make out anything in the room. All he could see was that inky dark you only get out in the country - no streetlights, no other houses, no cars and tonight no moon or stars in the sky.
Michael slid out from under the covers and blindly felt around with his foot until he found one of the robes on the floor next to the bed. He put it around himself as he stood and headed in the direction he thought the landing had to be.
It was lighter outside the bedroom door, and he realized they must have left the TV on when they'd come upstairs. He peeked into the bathroom, the other bedroom and the craft room. No Jeremy.
The boy couldn't have run off into the freezing night, obviously, not that that was even a possibility. So where was he? Michael cracked his neck and yawned, looking down into the shifting colors that filled the living room like a pool. On the television was an unflattering digital picture of the Backstreet Boys, and if he strained his ears he could barely hear the chorus of "I Want It That Way." The couch and recliners were empty.
He laughed to himself. Nothing had happened. He could easily solve the whole mystery by just saying the kid's name aloud, but as silly as it sounded he didn't want to break the silence in the house. He went down the stairs.
At the bottom his heels squeaked on the bare vestibule floor. He turned and followed the runner down the hallway. No one in the dining room or the kitchen either. That left the office and the master bedroom. He turned around and went back toward there. What would the kid be doing in either of them?
Michael started around the corner to the office doorway and stopped himself just before his nose hit wood. The hall was so dark he hadn't even seen the door in his face, pulled to. What the hell?
"I'm in here, Michael," he heard Jeremy say from the other side.
He reached out and pushed the door open. Silver light from a Macintoch monitor, bright enough to make him squint again, showed him the silhouette of a figure sitting at the office desk. The figure turned, looking up, and his bleary eyes saw Jeremy, in the other robe, cross-legged in Kevin's expensive executive chair. Miss Cat sat curled on top of a tall printer in the corner of the room.
And was that-? Hell, yes, it was. Something that looked very familiar floated on the monitor's screen behind the boy. Michael grimaced. The little spy.
"Ugh. You like that one?" he asked. "I can't take credit for the idea, but I think it came out pretty well. Got me nominated for some award, I forget which." Michael pulled the robe's belt tighter and stepped into the room.
"It's pretty neat," Jeremy said. "Is that really all the trees in Indiana?"
Michael's eye flicked over the image, a much smaller version of a poster he'd done years ago, one of his first projects at Pioneer. It was a kind of circular flow chart, identifying sixty or seventy of Indiana's trees, the chart itself in the shape of a big tree. Words running along its many branches named the things that distinguished each species from the rest, and every branch ended in that tree's leaf. It had been a damn good design.
"The guy from the state said they were the most popular, not every single one. Some aren't even native." He pointed at the screen. "Osage Oranges were planted by settlers, and they're from, uh, out west I think."
Michael crouched beside the chair and rested his elbow on its arm. He poked the boy's knee. "So, whatcha doing?"
Jeremy shrugged and gestured at the screen. "I couldn't sleep and I didn't want to wake you up, so I came down here and turned on the TV. I was watching that rock channel, when a Tina Turner song came on and there was a trivia thing about her real name. It reminded me what I always do when I meet someone new..." His glasses and the blue eyes behind them reflected Michael's tree.
"You Googled me?" The boy nodded shyly. "I'm flattered. What did you find?" Michael halfheartedly lifted the edge of Jeremy's robe to peek underneath it.
"A bunch of people. A serial killer in Oklahoma, a singer, a therapist - a gay one - lots of doctors actually. There are a ton of guys with your name."
Michael shook his head and stroked an imaginary beard. "You've stumbled onto our secret, Mr. Duffy. At our December meeting I'm going to recommend to President Shelton that we eliminate you." Jeremy laughed his one laugh and they grinned at each other. "Our treasurer, Mike, won't like the expense, but old M.S. in Operations used to be in the Corps and he's always looking for the chance to kill again. I hope you understand."
"Okay," the boy giggled. "But you all should really work on your recruiting." He turned in the chair, clicked the browser's history button, and scrolled down to an earlier page. A Google image screen popped up, twenty thumbnails of a pretty rough-looking group of guys. Number eleven was Michael, with Anita and a couple of other staff people, sitting and fake-meeting in Pioneer's board room. From their online brochure.
He turned back to Michael, still smiling. "See? There's only one guy on there I want to sleep with tonight."
The older man groaned and put his forehead down on the soft leather of the chair's cushioning. "You're killing me, Jeremy."
"Huh?" Michael felt a hand tentatively touch his wrist. Oops. He straightened his back and did his best to act like guys said stuff like that to him every day. No big thing, that's what he'd told the boy. Those words still hurt.
"What else did you find? I haven't been on Pioneer's site in a while."
"Well..." He scrolled down the history menu, making new screens appear. So many projects, each one with a credit for Michael at the bottom. "There was this brochure, pretty cool..." The Indianapolis 500. He'd never felt more out of place in his life shooting those pictures. Click. A Chicago band's CD cover and release-party invitations. "And this..." A logo, letterhead and bumper sticker for a northern Ohio medical group. Not bad.
Michael put his hand in the air. "Whoa, I'm familiar. My best stuff isn't even on there. I don't know why they bother if it's all gonna be second-hand." He glanced up at the boy and his mouth twisted. "I'll shut up now. It's too late, or early, to get worked up over office politics."
He stood, feeling every muscle in his legs scream in pain. He'd hurt something, somewhere, probably Friday morning. "I'm uh, going back to bed-"
"Wait," Jeremy exclaimed. He stopped. "I found something else, you didn't-"
Michael waved him down. "Hold on. Tell me in the morning. I seriously need my rest for tomorrow and I think I can get back to sleep if I go right now." He dragged his feet over to the door and looked back. "You stay if you want, I know how energetic you young'uns are.."
The boy touched the glowing power icon at the bottom of the monitor frame and the screen winked out. "No, I'll come too." He unfolded his legs from the chair and joined Michael. "But remind me to tell you."
The older man put his arm around Jeremy's shoulder and they made their way up the staircase in the dark. From behind the fireplace on their left, Michael could faintly hear the first notes of "Only in My Dreams."
"Okay, but my memory sucks, so I'll never remember. Remind me to remind you to tell me."
"You write me a note first thing tomorrow-"
"Whatever. Write me a note, man. To remind me to remind you."