If By Chance
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"Dennis, there's no real difference between a hamburger bun and regular bread," Gerald said, looking hopefully at me. I knew he didn't mean what he was saying, though. He just didn't want to hurt my mom's feelings. I cut my eyes his way and grinned, and then I looked at the pile of hamburgers my mom prepared at the last minute, and sighed.
"You're right," I relented. "Dad, I think mom did a great job with dinner, especially considering the circumstances."
"Oh, you two are just kissing her ass," my dad said as he rolled his eyes. "You know, it's not too late to find an open restaurant."
"Dan Mead we'll do no such thing," my mom admonished him. "We wouldn't even be in this situation if it weren't for you and your stupid IPod."
I looked over at Gerald, humiliated by the mess my parents managed to make of Thanksgiving. Not only had they ruined any chance of us enjoying a traditional turkey dinner, but also, they were fighting in front us. Of course, it was a minor spat, but I was still embarrassed.
"Gerald, you'll have to forgive Judy and me," my dad said. "We don't normally have such a hard time putting a nice dinner together for the holidays."
I'm not sure where it emanated from, but almost on instinct, I let out a very vocal "ha!" that caught everyone's attention. Before I realized what I'd done, all eyes were focused on me, so I cleared my throat and sat up straight before reaching out for a burger and two slices of toasted whole wheat bread.
"Dennis, would you like to say grace?" my mom asked me in a soft tone that I remembered well from my childhood. It was the voice she used when she felt that either my father or I were getting too worked up, and she wanted to set the example for us by speaking softly. My dad and I always knew that when she took the soft tone with us, it was time to line up because in her own way, she was scolding one or both of us.
When I was in high school, my mom would teach a real estate course on Wednesday nights, leaving my dad and I to fend for ourselves at supper. On those nights, we typically ordered a pizza and I would guzzle down a two-liter bottle of Coke with my dinner, while my dad would put away a few beers. One night, for some reason, and I don't know why, I decided that I wanted to drink a beer with my pizza. I worked up the courage to ask my dad if it was okay, and his answer shocked me.
"Sure sport," he said, then he went to the refrigerator and took two bottles of Coors Light out. I remember watching with anticipation as he popped the top off my bottle, then he went into the freezer, where he always had at least four frozen mugs, and poured our beers.
In my whole life up to that night, I don't think I ever enjoyed a beer the way I enjoyed that beer. I mean, I'd drank a lot of beers, and a lot of other alcoholic drinks too. There was something about drinking from that frosty mug, though, that quenched my thirst so perfectly. When we were finished with our meal, my dad and I sat at the table and talked like two men, and at some point, he got up and got us both another beer.
Unfortunately, my mom came home while we were in the middle of our second beer, and to say the least, she wasn't amused.
"Dennis, is that beer?" she asked, and I could only look to my dad for help.
"Judy, he's at home having a beer with his dad," my dad said, coming to my rescue.
"Dan, he's not old enough to be drinking," my mom said sharply. "It's not good for him."
"Well thanks for the information, C. Everett Coup," my dad said sarcastically, and my mom took a deep breath before speaking.
"I'm going to change out of this outfit," she said, using her soft tone, her disapproving gaze drifting from my father over to me, then back over to my dad. "Please pour me a Diet Pepsi and have a slice of pizza on a paper plate ready when I get back."
"Yes dear," my dad said quietly, and I knew he'd just been scolded. I quietly cleared my throat and waited for my mom to disappear before I downed what was left of my beer and helped my dad clear away the remnants of our dinner, including the empty Coors Light bottles on the counter.
It's amazing how some things never change.
Because as soon as my mom's soft voice emerged, I knew it was time to get serious and not argue. At the very least, I knew, my dad would be in trouble once we left. At the very worst, I feared, they'd have a blow out. Not that I'd known them to fight that way anymore, but having been out of the house for so many years, I had no idea what might happen.
I respectfully closed my eyes and bowed my head, reciting the same prayer that we'd always said at Thanksgiving dinner, then I waited until everyone said "amen" before opening my eyes. I gave Gerald a smile and a light shrug, and he responded by winking at me before he picked his burger up and took a bite from it.
"Gerald, I'm sorry we aren't having turkey this year," my mom said, her soft tone still present. "I promise to make it up on Christmas, okay sweetie?"
"Yes ma'am," Gerald answered with a polite smile. "Everything's delicious today."
In reality, I felt really bad for my mom, and for my dad too. They tried hard, I know. Mom had the turkey defrosting in the garage because there was no room in the kitchen. She had pies to make, so she asked my dad to take the turkey out to the garage to finish defrosting. Obviously, that's not exactly the smartest place to put a turkey, but I think she figured my dad would find a sensible place in the garage to store the bird.
Instead, my dad set the turkey on the trunk of his old Buick. Not in the trunk, but on the trunk. At some point, he forgot about the bird and backed the car out of the garage. He didn't take the car anywhere, but apparently, if you have a turkey on the trunk of your car in your driveway, it's fair game. By the time he realized what he'd done, the turkey was long gone, and so was any hope of a grand dinner with stuffing, gravy and green bean casserole.
But my mom, being my mom, didn't fret for long. Instead, she defrosted a five-pound roll of ground chuck and ordered my dad to fire up the grill on the patio. While he was cooking the burgers, she wedged some potatoes and put them in the deep fryer. There were no hamburger buns, so she toasted bread instead.
I found it a little odd to smell cooking burgers when we pulled up, and of course, I had to inquire about the choice of cuisine. I instantly regretted it, though, because I got two versions of what actually happened, and I had to sort out the truth for myself. When we sat down at the table to eat, I went for a bun and that was when I added to the discourse.
"What in the world is this?" I demanded. "No hamburger buns?"
I'm probably more inclined to bitch when I'm eating at home because it's home to me. Gerald's politeness was probably a breath of fresh air to my mom, who I know wanted to do so much more for us on Thanksgiving. I couldn't help myself, though.
Luckily, Gerald spoke up and my mom was able to interject with a minimum amount of irritation. Hopefully, I thought, we'd be able to talk about something else and keep the conversation off of dinner. At least then there'd be a chance that my parents wouldn't fight about what happened once we left. What I wasn't planning on, though, was my mom and dad bringing up Gerald's parents.
"So where did you grow up, Gerald?" my mom asked.
"Provincetown, ma'am." he answered quietly.
"Massachusetts?" my dad said, and Gerald nodded.
"My parents moved to Boston when I was in college," he said.
"So what made you pick this area?" my mom pried, and I cleared my throat loudly, trying to send a message that these questions were not okay. Gerald never batted an eye, though, and answered the question with as much clarity as he could have.
"I'm not really that close with my folks anymore," he said in a barely audible tone. "Also, I got hired right out of college when I went to work with Dennis."
"Do you still talk with your parents?" my dad asked, and I wanted to sink down into my seat and die.
"From time to time," Gerald said with a brave smile. "We have a few things to work out between us."
With that, my mom reached out and took his hand, giving it a firm squeeze as she smiled lovingly at him. It wasn't out of sympathy, either. Her smile was motherly, and I could tell that she was silently communicating with him, giving him something he hadn't had in a while.
"Sometimes I look at these pictures and I wonder what the hell happened, you know?" he said with moist eyes. "I don't even think they know I have these."
I could feel Gerald's pain. We were snuggling in front of the fireplace, leafing through the photo albums he'd managed to save from the fire. There were dozens of pictures of a young family, including pictures where Gerald was nowhere to be seen.
"I wasn't even born when these were taken," he said. "They look so happy, don't they?"
"They do," I agreed, nodding my head and smiling at him as he wiped a few tears from his cheek.
"Of course, I had to come along and fuck all of that up," he said bitterly.
"That's not true babe," I told him, stroking his hair gently. "Your mom and dad were on the course they were on whether you would have been born or not. They were the adults, you were the kid."
"You know, I have no memory of them being happy," he said. "If it weren't for these pictures, I'd have never known that they were ever a happy couple."
With that, I turned the page and grinned. Pictures of Gerald as a tiny baby jumped out at me, and my heart raced as I got a glimpse of his earliest years. He was smiling so brightly, just like he I'd known him to, and he looked like he didn't have a care in the world. There was another picture of him crawling under the covers of his parents' bed, and his dad was smiling and reaching out for him. He couldn't have been older than two or three in that one.
As we turned the pages, it was easy to see how his parents' lifestyle changed with the years. In the earlier pictures, they didn't seem to have much more than each other. But as Gerald got older in each photo, their clothes were nicer and their house looked like it was furnished with better stuff. Unfortunately, the smiles looked forced, and in some instances, they weren't there at all.
"How did you cope with it?" he asked, and I knew what he was talking about.
"I think I just tried to block it out," I said. "I used to think it was harder in our household after they stopped fighting, but I know it's not true."
"What made you think that?" he asked curiously.
"Because they don't love each other," I said. "How many times have you seen them touch each other?"
"Your mom and dad?" he asked disbelievingly. "They're like the most loving people I know."
"Sure they are," I told him. "To everyone but each other."
"Wow, I never noticed," he said. "Why do they stay together?"
"I don't know," I said with a sigh. "I think at this point, they're too old to go their separate ways. They don't know any other way."
"I never want to fight with you like that, babe," Gerald said, nuzzling his head into my shoulder.
"I promise I'll never raise my voice to you that way, sweetie," I told him. "I love you too much for that, Gerald. I'm sorry for how I treated you in DC."
"I don't want you to think about that," he said, planting a kiss on my lips. "Let's just think about the future."
"Let's go somewhere this weekend," he said. "I just feel like getting out of here."
"Where to, babe?" I asked, my interest piqued by his proposition.
"Let's go to the mountains," he said. "I've always wanted to see the Blue Ridge Mountains."
"We could always do the Shenandoah," I said, then I smiled and added, "Or we could do both."
"In one weekend?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"What do we have to be back for?" I asked. "Bring your laptop along, and we'll just come back whenever."
I could tell that Gerald was mulling it over, but I already knew he had his mind made up. He likes to give the impression that he gives everything deep, serious thought, but in reality, he's a pretty spontaneous guy, just like me. By the time he agreed to my plan, I was already thinking about where our journey would take us.
We'd driven through the Blue Ridge Mountains on several occasions. We'd been to Roanoke, and from where we are, you almost have to drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains, unless you want to get lost taking some ass backward state route. That said, the crest of the mountains is beautiful and Gerald and I talked about staying at a lodge sometime in the area, probably somewhere around Charlottesville.
I got on MapQuest and figured out a reasonable path from Charlottesville to Luray Caverns, just on the other side of Culpeper. I figured that we'd follow the interstate up to Harrisonburg, then hop on a back road to the caverns. I was a little worried that reservations would be hard to land, but as it turns out, not too many people were interested in visiting Virginia's majestic mountain terrains on the first weekend of December.
As we packed our stuff, I couldn't help but smile at Gerald. He was so studious about his clothes, not wanting the slightest wrinkle to sully even his socks. We hadn't actually planned a return date, and I left the reservation at Luray Caverns open ended just in case we decided to stay a while longer. At Gerald's behest, I called my mom and let her know we were going out of town, and to please collect our mail and not worry if we didn't get back in a few days. I had just got off the phone with her and was walking through the living room, back toward the stairs, when I heard the mailman on the front porch.
I opened the door just in time to see him walking across the lawn to my neighbors house, and when he saw me, he smiled and gave me a friendly wave. I waved back and retrieved the mail, then I hurriedly closed the front door as a powerful chill ran up my back. I rummaged through the various envelopes, sorting out the junk mail from the various bills and a couple of magazines when something stopped me in my tracks.
It was a letter, addressed personally to Gerald, but it wasn't the fact that Gerald had a letter that gave me pause. There was nothing odd about him getting personal mail. No, this letter caught my eye because in the top left corner, the sender's name was hand written, so there was no mistake. I just wondered why in the hell Peter Miller would be writing my boyfriend a letter.
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