After Brian's visit, I'd say that life settled down into its usual normal routine, but when did I ever have a usual normal routine? What was usual for me wasn't what other people would call "normal."
Neal seemed to be lying low, but he'd raised me to a perpetual level of Orange Alert, so I was always looking nervously around corners and over my shoulder, never completely able to shake the fear that he'd show up out of nowhere to throw a little more mayhem at me.
Jonah continued to be AWOL on and off. Many nights he didn't come home until after I'd gone to bed, if at all, and often left before I got up. It was maddening.
We acted as though things hadn't changed between us: Whenever we were together, on the surface things were good. We pretended that nothing was different. He and Chris continued to get along great, and nobody said anything that would acknowledge there was any kind of difficulty.
But there was no physical intimacy, and beyond that, we both knew that things were seriously off-track between us. I had no idea what he was thinking, but I felt it was all my fault. In my head, I even took the blame for his cheating. After all, I'd been jumpy and uninviting whenever he approached me sexually. I know that must have made him think I didn't want him. I couldn't talk about it with him, though. With everything I was dealing with, it seemed like too much. And he wasn't any more forthcoming than I was. So we continued living with a big elephant in the living room, and kept pretending it wasn't there.
And then there was Brian. And the things he'd said. And the things he'd asked for.
"Normal routine"? Yeah, now that I think about it, I'd say it was just that: Situation Normal, All Effed Up.
* * * * * * * * *
I focused on my classes and on Chris. Those things kept my mind occupied, at least to some extent. I couldn't stop thinking about Brian, though. He'd held something out to me, something I needed.
That's what it felt like to part of me, anyway.
The other part--the sane, survival-driven part--shuddered at the thought of the things he'd said.
Those things scared me. They made no sense at all, and I couldn't afford to believe them. If I believed them, I'd put my whole self into them, and if I put my whole self into them, and things didn't work out...
In any case, beyond the issue of my feelings for Brian and his for me, I was with Jonah. Things weren't good, but we'd said we were in this for the long haul.
As for Brian...
Well, Brian had issues. I resisted the lure of what he'd said by telling myself that Brian wanted the things he said he did because he saw me as a way out of his issues. The rational part of me hoped that all this would settle out and we'd be left with a solid, satisfying best-friendship once all these extremes that had been bottled up in us for years got vented and left behind. In the meantime, I needed to focus on being realistic, and part of that involved convincing the lovestruck teenager inside of me that there were very real difficulties that made Brian's dreamlike proposals impossible. And that there were very real dangers that made them unwise.
That was the kind of thinking that was dominating my thoughts of Brian. That was the thinking that I hoped would keep me safe and sane.
That kind of thinking didn't keep me out of panic mode, though. Not always; and not with everything I was trying to deal with.
Including keeping my feelings for Brian at bay.
* * * * * * * * *
He called a few days after he'd left. I picked up on the first ring and said hello.
My heart jumped inside me, and the sound of his voice stirred up a wild and difficult-to-suppress joy. I played it cool, though.
"Hi, Brian. I'm...it's good to hear from you."
There was a short silence. Then he said, "Thank God."
After a moment or two he added, "I thought...I thought maybe I'd lost you again, Sammy. I coulda kicked myself for doing all that stuff, for saying all that stuff."
He sounded hesitant, uncertain of himself. I felt terrible for giving him the slightest bit of doubt that I'd want to talk to him again.
"I told you, Brian, I just needed some time to get my head clear," I said. "I'm glad you called; I...I really need you in my life right now." I thought about his agenda, though, and added, "as a friend. My best friend."
"Even after everything I said, everything I did?"
"Yeah," I said. "I mean it; I'm glad you called."
"I'm calling every day, then," he said, sounding much more relaxed now.
"That would be nice. I'd like that," I told him. "Don't ever think I'm pushing you away again. I wouldn't do that any more. I'm done with that."
"Me too," he said.
That was unexpected. "What do you mean? You never..."
"Maybe later," he said, not letting me finish. "So how are you?"
We talked about everyday things for a few minutes. He was teaching again; I was glad about that. I think he needed some solid ground under his feet as much as I did. He was happy to be back in the States, back home, near family once again. His family had always been an important source of strength and stability for him.
I talked a little about my work, about my involvement in my church, about Chris.
Eventually we ran out of small talk, and at that point his entire tone changed as he said, "Okay, now I want to talk to you more about the serious stuff."
I swallowed hard. I'd known this was coming. "I don't know," I said. "Shouldn't we just keep it light, take it a little bit at a time? I'm not going anywhere again, and you're not either, right? We have time to get our friendship back on track."
He sighed. "I want more."
"Yeah, that's what you said," I replied. "But..."
"Sammy," he said, "I want to talk about what happened after high school. Please let me tell you, okay? I don't know if you're ever gonna let...if you and me...I mean, I guess I'm saying I know what I want but I can't decide for both of us. I realize that. But whatever happens, I want to tell you about how things went down for me after we graduated. I know you still don't get it, you don't know why I want...why I want to be with you. You think it's crazy. That's why I have to tell you about all this. Okay?"
What could I say?
I took a deep breath and replied, "All right. Tell me."
* * * * * * * * *
"Okay," he said. "I hope you're sitting down, because this is gonna take awhile. Get comfortable."
I was, and I told him so.
"Good," he said. "I want to start with senior year in high school."
"Do we have to?" I moaned, only half-kidding.
He laughed a little bit, and said, "Yeah, we do."
I sighed and said,
"When all hell broke loose with your crazy girlfriend," he began, chuckling, "that just kind of settled it for me."
My mind went back to the anguished confession I'd screamed at him that year, telling him how much in love with him I'd been. I thought about the aftermath of Amy overhearing that confession, hysterically phoning everyone she knew, telling them I was a fag. I thought of my parents, throwing me out of the house after she'd called them. I thought of being rescued by Brian's family, of collapsing onto his bed and being surrounded by warmth and love, feeling Mary--and him--holding me close, protecting me, comforting me.
"Like I told you at your place, Sam, holding you in my arms as you slept, that sort of confirmed things for me," he said. "I knew I was in love with you."
He continued. "So when you pushed me away...when you looked at me with the kind of fear I saw in your eyes...damn, that was painful. But then as the days went on, I decided it was just as well. You didn't need the trouble that you'd be getting by being in some kind of relationship with me. And I wasn't sure I needed it either. The whole fuckin' town was talking, seemed like, and I wasn't sure I was ready to get pulled any further into the gossip by getting with you, you know, like that. And so I decided it just couldn't be. It felt like hell to say that to myself, because by then I wanted you so much it hurt. But I wanted what was best for you. And I felt like you'd be better off with Mary. And I felt guilty about loving you anyway, because she loved you too, and I knew how much you loved her, and I just couldn't steal you away from my own sister. So I figured how we needed to play this was you needed to get back with Mary. She was still in love with you, and I figured if you got back with her, people would eventually shut up and forget about the whole 'gay' thing with you...and so would I. And that would be the best thing for everybody. You, me, Mary...everybody."
He paused. "But that didn't really happen. And then college came and you were gone. We were in the same town--hell, we were in the same house for a while--and you just avoided me."
He stopped. It seemed as though I was supposed to say something, but I didn't know what to say.
After a short pause, he added, "I was so frustrated with you, and so...I dunno...so sad. I...I didn't know why you were avoiding me. I guess I didn't know just how much you were feeling for me. I just thought you didn't trust me. And that really hurt me. I didn't want to lose you as a friend. I realized we couldn't...couldn't be together, but that made it even more important for me not to lose you as a friend. Then I went to visit you that time at your place and you just went off on me, and broke down and shit...so, like, I tried to do what you wanted, I tried to give you some space."
He sighed. "I tried not to care. And getting away and being off at school, well, there was an upside. I wouldn't have to look at you and feel the hurt of not being able to love you. And also, when I went off to college, I had the chance to go nuts. You know how it was in high school. By the time I started college, my partying was prolly already kind of borderline out-of-control. You were my brakes in high school, Sam. You were with me almost all the time back then, keeping me from going too crazy, and even when you weren't with me, I didn't want you to find out about bad shit I did; I didn't want to look like that to you. But now that I was off to college? No Sammy following me all around makin' me be a good boy." He laughed a little, but I heard the "sad" in it.
"I wanted not to give a shit that you were gone," he told me, "but I couldn't get away from you. Not in my head, anyway, and not in my heart. I tried. God, I tried big-time, but damn, it hurt. There was this big fuckin' hole in me, and that whole first year of college I just kept thinking how it didn't have to be, how I coulda been what you wanted...all of it. And I kept thinking how maybe if I'd had the courage to go for it, I'd still have you.
"I fucked girls like there was no tomorrow. And I drank like a fish. When I wasn't studying and wasn't in class, I was drinking and chasing pussy. I was running from the past. Running from my feelings for you. Running from my guilt about you. I didn't want to feel the way I did about you; and I didn't want to remember how loving me had hurt you. So I drank until the light switch in the Sammy-room would click off. And I fucked until I thought my dick would fall off. I can't tell you the number of times I woke up in the morning next to some girl whose name I didn't even know."
I had enough presence of mind to try to lighten the mood: "And this would be different from high school how?"
"C'mon," he said. I could almost see the grin. "Gimme a break. And trust me, if you thought I was wild in high school, you would have died to see me in college."
His voice grew serious. "I kept my shit together enough to finish out the school year okay, that first year of college. But by the end of the school year I was ready to throw in the towel with you, bud."
I frowned to myself. "What do you mean?"
"Sam," he began, "I...I was miserable without you. And I decided I wasn't gonna be without you any more.
"See, this isn't some new crazy thing I've come up with. It was there already back then. That summer, when I asked you to come speak at camp, my plan...I mean, I'd decided...Jesus, Sammy, I was hoping we could have some time by ourselves and I was gonna to tell it all to you. Everything. I was gonna tell you I was in love with you. I was ready to tell you that I couldn't get you out of my heart, and that if there was a chance you still felt the same way I wanted to be your lover."
I had no idea what to say. I thought about that ill-fated trip, how Neal had slid in and swept me off my feet, how he'd made sure I never had any time to be alone with Brian.
At the time I'd been grateful.
"You and Neal...that was all my fuckin' fault. I...I was so scared about wanting to tell you how I felt...I mean, I wanted to do it, I was determined to do it, but I was so damn scared...and then Fucknut just came along and took you away from me, and by then I was too freaked...I didn't have the balls to just stand up and say it. To tell you that I needed you; that I wanted you. I saw the way you looked at him...you loved having that asshole around. So I...I just...just lost my nerve.
"I fuckin' knew that guy was bad news," he said. "I hated his ass back when we knew each other at home; his two-face goody-goody routine didn't fool me any. And I shoulda told you that if you knew what was good for you you'd stay away from that piece o' shit."
He paused, and sighed.
"But I was too chickenshit. And so I failed you, and you got with him, and then..." I heard his breath hitch, and he added, "I wasn't there for you...and you almost died because of it."
He stopped, unable to continue.
"You didn't fail me, Brian," I said, trying to fill the silence. "Neal was all my doing. I knew what he was long before I ever had the nerve to leave. All those women who let their psycho husbands beat them, they used to exasperate me at work so much...when all along, I was just like them. There's no way it was your fault. In fact, I pushed you away really hard. I pushed you away after high school and I pushed you away again during all the stuff with Neal. I didn't want you to see me like that. I was so ashamed. I didn't want you to know what a loser I'd been."
"But you weren't a loser and you didn't just sit there taking it," he replied. "You tried to reach out to me for help. I knew what was up when you called, I wasn't that out of it. I knew what you were doing by calling me, what you needed. I mean...I had no idea that he was dangerous, that your life was in danger; but I knew you were reaching out to me. But I was all caught up in my own shit, and so I wasn't there for you. After I didn't get my chance to tell you, when I...I mean, after I blew my chance with you...you know, after you got with Neal...I just couldn't think about you any more. It messed me up. I tried to put those thoughts behind me again. I tried to make myself not care so much. So I ignored you even when I could see you reaching out."
"When you were in the hospital," he continued, "after that sick bastard...after he...he did that to you, it all came rushing back again, how much I loved you, how much I wanted to put my arms around you and feel your skin against mine, how much I wanted to take care of you and tell you I'd always be there for you. It was my fault you even got with that creep, because I couldn't get over myself enough to tell you how I felt about you when you came to camp and met him. So I looked at you lying there in the hospital...and I would have given every fuckin' dime I had if you could have let me love you then.
"But after he...after he damn near killed you, I didn't think you'd ever let another man near you ever again," he sighed. "You were always a little jumpy around guys before; afterwards, even my dad made you cringe when he'd come near, and you can't get any more loving than my dad.
"I knew it was too late. I had a chance in high school, but I lost my nerve. I had a chance that summer after the first year of college, at camp, and I lost my nerve again. Now...after he...after he hurt you so bad...finally I had the balls to tell you I wanted to love you, forever. But it was too late."
"I figured it was just as well," he said. "I wasn't any good for you. I felt like something about me fucked up the people I was closest to: Tom died thinking I hated him for being gay. You almost died because I was too caught up in my own stuff to be there for you. Things didn't work out with you and Mary because I was in the way. So I decided I just needed to move on with my life."
He paused again. The things he was saying took me back to those days. I'm sure he was reliving them too.
"I never thought you and Erica shoulda gotten together," he said, picking up where he'd left off. "But it wasn't my call. And I'd always thought you'd be better off with a woman anyway. Still, man...I knew how much she partied for a girl who was supposed to be off drugs for good."
"She told me she was," I said.
"She lied to you, Sammy," he replied. "I know you told me at the time you were sure she was clean. Dude, I wanted to tell you that I knew you were wrong...but I didn't want to be right. I'd have given anything for you to be one who was right, buddy. You were fuckin' devastated when Mary got married; at her wedding I thought you were gonna throw up the whole time. I hurt for you so bad, because I knew how much you loved her. So when you got involved with Erica...well, I didn't like it, but I wanted you to be happy. I hoped it was your turn for some happiness for a change. You deserved it, after everything you've been through all your life..."
He added, "After everything you'd done for me."
After a moment's hesitation, he continued. "I was afraid it wasn't gonna be happily-ever-after with her, but I felt like I didn't have the right to say anything. So I just fuckin' crossed my fingers.
"And I went on with my life," he said. "Or at least I kept getting up in the morning. But I never stopped thinking about you. Never. It was pure torture, and I didn't like being tortured by the memory of you.
"I kept fucking every willing woman I found, but none of them were you," he said. "And so I'd drink until I passed out, trying to forget how much you had loved me--how much I loved you...and how much I had hurt you.
"Whenever we had our coupla-times-a-year talks back then, fuck, it hurt. After Erica, you'd tell me what was up in your life, you had your son and your education to be dealing with, and I'd be feeling like shit. You were working so hard to make something of yourself, and to provide for Chris. You did grad school and raised Chris all alone. That amazed me, Sam; we were still just practically kids ourselves. You could have used a friend to help; but I was too busy wallowing in my misery to get off my ass and help you."
He started to speak several times, but seemed to swallow back what he'd started to say, as if he couldn't figure out the right way to express what was in his heart. Finally he continued: "Right after you left Erica, I almost told you again; I almost told you a million times how much...how...god, Sammy, how much I loved you, how much I still needed you, wanted you, how empty my life was without you...Then it would hit me what I'd become: A drunk. A loser. And I realized you didn't need a damn drunk in your life, so I never told you. Sometimes in those days when you called, I'd even fake being drunk, or act all apathetic, because I didn't want you to know how much I cared; I didn't want you to realize that...that the shoe was on the other foot now. I didn't want you to realize that now I was the one hiding my feelings from you."
He sighed. "Once I got to that place where I was drunk more than I was sober, it was just too hard to sober up and take stock. I wasn't real proud of what I'd become, Sammy, but I didn't have anything going for me that made me want to stop...I didn't have you."
He paused. "I'm really not proud of the next part."
After a brief silence, he said, "When you and Jonah got together...well, I wanted to be happy for you. I've never wanted anything for you but happiness. But I couldn't help myself; I was so sad at your ceremony. So damn jealous. I just wanted to cry the whole time. I couldn't help thinking it shoulda been me standing next to you. Kissing you. Promising a life together forever. Why couldn't it have been me?"
He was quiet for a long time. The question hung in the air between us.
"It made me mad at everything," he said, "and that made me feel guilty. I was supposed to be happy for you. It seemed like Jonah was a great guy, and I couldn't even be happy for you. When I felt myself thinking like that, I knew I had to get away from you, from home, away from everything, and just get my head clear. I could never allow you to see how devastated I was. I needed to be happy for you, Sam, and part of me was. What kind of friend was I to wish you could be saddled with a drunken loser like me? The better man got you, I told myself. I'd just have to live with it.
"That's why I left the country. I cut way back on my drinking. Not enough, but a lot. I worked at odd jobs, hung around at all kinds of places. It felt as foreign and strange as it could be, and that was perfect with me.
"I didn't tell you I was gone because I was afraid you'd ask me why, and I was afraid I didn't even have the strength...I was afraid it would all come rushing out of me, that I wouldn't be able to hold the words back anymore. And I couldn't do that to you. I figured you wanted to get on with your life and put me in your past. And now you had a chance to, with Jonah; you could finally forget about me and all the shit I'd put you through."
I interrupted his monologue. I had to tell him something.
"I never stopped missing you," I said. "I didn't want to forget about you. Even after Jonah. I needed your friendship."
"I know," he said. "And you reached out. You found me. You sent me Drew's story. You sent me Rip Current."
I could almost see him smile as he said, "And that's when I started coming back alive."
* * * * * * * * *
"I wasn't sure why you did it. I thought it meant something," he said, "but I was afraid to get my hopes up. Then you followed up with the letter. And between Drew's story and the letter, I realized something. I realized I might not have lost you as a friend after all."
"I did a lot of thinking when I was down there in South America," he continued. "And I realized that I might not ever get to love you like that, but if God gave me another chance, I'd try to fix our friendship. When you sent me Rip Current I knew you were ready to face our past. I didn't know if you still wanted me like you did when we were in high school, but at least I knew you wanted me back as your friend. So I answered right away. I think...I think that right then was the moment I was ready to be alive again. I felt like if I could just have you as a friend again I'd start to feel like life was worth living. When you sent me that story, part of me wondered if you still loved me like that. But mainly I just wanted you back in my life.
"That first visit was so amazing, Sammy," he said. "I wanted to hold you and kiss you and tell you how much I loved you. But I also knew it was too late for that, so I was happy just to be around you again. I wasn't real happy about some of the things you'd been telling me about Jonah, though. I kept going to myself, 'Jesus, not another person to fuck him up,' but for your sake I was determined to make my way back into your life as your best friend. And that meant accepting Jonah. But after that first visit, I saw that it wasn't working with you two. And that...well, that's when I decided. It wasn't just about what I wanted. I realized that I could make you happier. I would be better to you. I would..."
He didn't finish. There was a long silence. Finally, he said, "Anyway...I just wanted you to know all that. I needed you to know the missing pieces. I know you don't think I'm being real. So I needed to tell you how it was. How it's been for years. What was going on in my head while you were living your life. It's...damn, Sammy; it's always been about you. All these years."
* * * * * * * * *
We were both quiet for a while. Finally he said, "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," I said. "A little shaky, but I'm fine." Truth was, I was reeling. I knew he didn't make any of this stuff up, and that was almost overwhelming to me. I tried imagining how it must have felt to be him during those years if the things he'd just told me were true. My heart went out to him. He'd been hurting as much as I had.
It didn't change reality, though. I didn't see that either of us could do anything about this. What he'd asked of me during his visit was unthinkable. It didn't seem like a path to happiness. It seemed crazy, unstable. It seemed like two lost and hurting guys reaching for an impossible fantasy. I shuddered again, and worked to reinforce my resistance to his frightening proposal.
My life was crazy enough. Neal had me on the verge of a breakdown with his on-again, off-again stalking. My life with Jonah was complicated beyond my ability to know how to fix it. My work and my son consumed what remained of my time and attention. And now I had one more crazy-making reality to deal with. As I'd told Brian when he visited, it was too much. The whole bag of issues scared me.
"I'm sorry I pressured you when I came to see you," he said, breaking in on my dark thoughts. "But I don't feel any different."
He still wanted to talk about this; he still wanted to believe it was possible. I was pulled several different ways on all that. I focused with all my will on what I thought was the right path.
"I know you think you don't," I replied.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
I sighed. "Brian, you and I both know it's not realistic. The very thought of it scares the hell out of me."
"Why?" he asked.
"I don't think we need the same things in life," I said.
"Tell me what makes you think that," he said.
'Well, you're straight," I began.
Before I could continue, though, he said, "Not that again; I explained that to you and I'm telling you it doesn't make any difference. I'm in love with you. Straight or not, I want to be with you like that. I know I can. I know I want to."
I sighed in exasperation. "You didn't even let me finish. "If you're straight, you'll want a family. A conventional one. But you're even confusing yourself in your own mind about that. You told me you don't want kids. I think maybe you're not sure of what you really want in life and you're reaching out to this because of the way you used to feel."
I waited while he considered what I'd said. He replied, "I said it wrong at your place. I was trying to make you see, but I said it wrong. I do want kids."
"It goes to my original point, then," I said. "I can't get pregnant, in case you missed that."
"Dammit," he replied, "That's not what I mean. I don't care about that."
I sighed. "Will you make up your mind? Do you want kids or don't you?"
"I want your kid, Sam. I want Chris, and he's all the kid I'll ever need. He's a great kid, and he and I get along great. I love him, Sam, and I bet if he gave me a chance, he could come to love me."
"It wouldn't take much," I said, half under my breath. Chris had hardly stopped talking about Brian since he'd left.
"Anyway, I promised myself I wouldn't put any pressure on you," he said. "I just called to see how you are. And I needed to tell you how it was."
We talked for a little bit longer. I was glad we had plenty to talk about besides his crazy idea for us. It allowed the pressure to ease up, and God knows I needed that.
After a few minutes of light conversation, he said, "Well, I should let you hang up."
"Yeah," I said, "I have stuff to do. But...it was really great to hear your voice. I'm glad you called," I said.
"I'm glad I called, too," he said. "And...well, I want you to know this. I won't pressure you, but I'm not gonna drop it either. I still think this is right, what I want. I think it's what you want, too. What we both want. What we both need. So I'm not done talking about it.
"But we can talk about other stuff, too," he laughed.
I couldn't help but laugh myself.
* * * * * * * * *
In the days that followed, Brian was never far from the front of my mind. He called every day. It was great to have him back in my life. He didn't bring up being together with me every time he called, but he let me know that it was still his goal and that he wasn't giving up just because I was resisting.
For my part, well, I knew that he'd messed up his life pretty significantly. I felt a boatload of guilt over that, because I felt I had a huge role in his troubles. And with his teaching and his move back home, he seemed to be pulling his life together. But that didn't obscure the fact that he seemed to be using some fantasy of an intimate life with me to give him some emotional anchoring and stability. He felt lost and uncertain and in his quest to take control of his life again, he looked back on how good our friendship had been--how much we had loved each other--and he combined that with his guilt over the fact that being in love with him had caused my life to change in some painful ways. All of that, taken together, had gotten him to a place where he had actually decided that his best shot at finding himself again was to go against the grain of his sexuality and offer me what I didn't dare even to dream about in my earlier years.
In spite of the fear, I couldn't keep myself from feeling the pull of his proposal. The forbidden dream I'd harbored as a kid: He was holding it out in front of me, offering it to me.
It tortured me. I knew that none of it was the answer, for either of us. Chris and I, long-term, would be a complication to his needs and goals. His crazy flip-flops over the issue of kids only proved it. But knowing that his idea was crazy didn't keep me from thinking about it, dreaming about it.
And that caused me to fortify my defenses.
For a long time, even long after I'd accepted deep in my gut his explanation that he loved kids, and loved Chris, but didn't want any of his own because Chris would be all he ever needed in that area, I allowed myself to use the initial garbled conversation as an excuse to think of him as confused about whether he wanted a wife and kids or not.
Because of that, we continued to have this stupid and cyclical conversation about kids and Chris over the course of several phone calls. It always went something like this:
He'd say something about wanting to be my man and to love Chris like a father.
I'd reply "But you don't like kids."
He'd say. "Yes, I do. Where did you get in your head I don't like kids?"
I'd say, "You told me that you don't want any."
He'd say, "I don't."
I'd say, "But I come with Chris, and you don't want kids."
He'd say, "But I want Chris."
I'd say. "Well, Chris is a kid."
He'd say, "Yes."
I'd say, "Well, then, I don't--"
And on and on it went. Part of me actuallly believed that Brian was confused about whether he wanted kids or not. But the wiser part of me knew on some level that my concern was purely a smokescreen that I was throwing up, an attempt to resist the lure of what he was asking for.
One day, in the middle of a phone call where the whole tired dialog about kids came up again, I repeated that he'd said he didn't want kids, and that Chris was a kid.
Something in him seemed to reach the limit of his tolerance for this discussion.
He sighed; I could hear the exasperation in his voice. Then he said, "I want him. And you know I do, and you know what I'm talking about in all this, so stop pretending to be confused. I want him, and I want his father. I love him, and I love his father; and I want to be with them. Forever. And I'm done talking about this issue."
What could I say? I knew he was right. I was using the "kid" thing to keep distance between us. But it was plain to see how much he loved Chris. And Chris adored him.
But Chris loved Jonah too. And there were promises made, promises that bound Jonah to Chris as much as they'd bound Jonah to me.
* * * * * * * * *
Life went on. Neal continued to terrorize me every other week or so, sometimes by following me at a distance on campus; sometimes by leaving ugly little notes on my windshield; sometimes by calling me over and over and hanging up or breathing into the phone; sometimes by shouting out curses and gay slurs in public. I had a chronic case of jitters because of him. And I was dreadfully afraid of the day he might go over the top and hurt me or Chris. I was determined to prevent that. So I was always on guard, and that wears on a person.
Jonah continued to come and go without much interaction with me. We had civil conversations; we had enjoyable meals together; and he continued to be great with Chris, who adored him. But there was a wall between us. And I couldn't summon the nerve to talk to him. I had no idea what I'd say to him.
Brian kept in touch. He had meant it when he promised he'd call me every day. I never told him much about Neal or Jonah, and he didn't push the subjects.
For his part, Brian never wavered in his intent to let me know he wanted to make a life with me. He was gentle and respectful in making his case, but he was consistent. I felt the pressure mounting as my resistance began to wear down. I knew I couldn't risk believing in that dream. I knew that even if I bought into it, it would mean radical changes in my life. I'd have to break a vow I'd made to another man, just as I'd broken a vow to the woman who was the mother of my child. Things weren't good between me and Jonah, and that was mostly my fault, I thought; but the idea of breaking another permanent covenant was deeply shaming to me. I didn't want to consider it.
I had to drop the issue about kids, though. I knew perfectly well what Brian felt and what he wanted. He'd made that clear. I couldn't pretend I didn't understand and I couldn't pretend that I didn't believe him. I wouldn't do that to our friendship.
So I went a different direction in defending myself against him.
During one of his phone calls we'd been talking about trivial things, just enjoying conversing with each other, when he changed the subject and said, "Okay, now, about us..."
I took a deep breath. "Brian," I said, tenderly. "You...look, I know that a lot of this is my fault too...but you have...you have an alcohol problem."
He didn't say anything for a long, long time. I wasn't surprised. It's why I hardly ever brought it up in the first place.
When he spoke up, he sounded quiet. Whipped. "Yeah. I do," he said. "For now."
We hadn't talked for any length of time about Brian's drinking; it made me feel too guilty. I was the reason he'd hit the bottle. I withdrew my friendship when he needed it the most, and he took solace in drinking. I should have pressed him on the issue regardless of what he wanted in my relationship with him; friends don't let friends stay addicted. But with everything else swirling around in my life, I just didn't know how to do it. I knew that confronting addicts sometimes alienates them from the people doing the confronting, and quite honestly, I needed Brian in my life. I know that's selfish, but it was what it was. I was hoping he was working on his problem himself; but I knew that he wasn't managing it entirely, and you can't make a life with an addict. I'd already tried and failed. We both needed to face that.
His words hung in the air for a bit, then he added, "I can get clean. I will get clean. For you."
"Not for you?" I asked. "It has to be for you."
"I know," he said. "Yeah. For me. For all of us."
My heart broke a little bit for him.
"That would be good," I said tenderly. "That's more important than...than this other stuff," I said.
"I'll do it," he said.
"Brian," I said. "I know you can. But addiction is hard...it's hard to beat, lots of times."
"Not so hard if your life is waiting on the other side of it," he said quietly.
I wondered if he could beat it. I hoped he could, whatever happened between us. But in any case, as long as he hadn't, what he wanted was unthinkable.