Journey to Love
House in the Woods
edited by Cole, Peter and Scott
Preface warnings apply.
The day was cold, but clear and sunny. The drive was actually very pleasant. I did marvel at the fact Mr. Manning lived twenty miles from where he taught. I guessed R. E. Lee was about the same distance for from his home as Fort Defiance. I’m sure there were times when the weather made getting out impossible, but I also never remembered him missing a class.
According to the GPS, we were seven miles from his house when the paved road ended and a gravel road began. A mile from his house, the road ended in a turning circle. The GPS indicated a turn down a very narrow gravel lane, well cared for in spite of being narrow and winding, but definitely not state maintained.
I had tried to call shortly after we left the school, but got only a recorded message, in a voice I did not know, ‘If we don’t answer, we are probably outside, Manning slitting wood and me, Stu, chasing some poor hapless animal for dinner. If you’d like to see one of us, come on up and make yourself at home. We’ll be back sooner or later.’ I had decided to take Stu, whoever he was, up on his offer.
The lane ended in front of a large A-frame house set against a hill. I suspected the main floor was at near ground level in the back, but at the front it was twelve or more feet above the front yard. A deck extended out from the second level overlooking the trail we had driven in on. Levi parked and we walked up a flight of stairs on the side of the house.
Reaching the main level, we discovered the deck extended around the side of the house to the back. I could hear someone chopping wood out back and headed in that direction. When we rounded the corner of the house, a step lead led to ground level where Mr. Manning, his back to us, was splitting wood. Even though it was cold, his shirt was tucked in to his back pocket. I’d never thought of Mr. Manning being built, but his bare back rippled with muscles as he raised and lowered the ax. I didn’t want to startle him; he was, after all, swinging an ax! I stood quietly, Levi slightly behind me, his hand on my shoulder. When Mr. Manning tossed the splits onto a pile in front of him and reached for another block, I called softly, “Mr. Manning.”
He turned slowly and then practically shouted, “Derek! Derek, man, it’s good to see you. Brad told me you had to stay in Norfolk. He and Sam were really sad about that, but here you are. Come on in. It’s past time I quit playing woodchuck,” he laughed. I laughed with him, but noticed Levi looked puzzled. “Come on inside. I’ll be freezing if I stand out here long.”
The back door opened onto to a very modern, compact kitchen which showed evidence of being used. Mr. Manning led us into the living area as he pulled on his shirt. The room was furnished in the expected style, but clearly it had been done by someone who knew what they were doing and knew Mr. Manning, and I guess Stu. The room said a lot about who the two of them were as I looked around.
As soon as we reached the living room, I said, “Mr. Manning, this is Levi Epstein, a fellow diver, friend, now housemate and city boy. Levi, Mr. Manning, my English teacher and a good shoulder to cry on when I needed it as I told you. Mr. Manning, Levi quite obviously doesn’t know the question ‘How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.’”
“It’s an old speech exercise, Levi and welcome. You have to be a good man if Derek calls you a friend. So what are you two guys up to?”
“Mr. Manning. . . . ”
“Derek, you’re not in high school anymore and while I am several years older than you are, I think we can drop the ‘mister’ bit. My friends call me Manning.”
“Not going to be easy to remember (and even harder to say),” I said and smiled at his recognition of my growing up. “Manning, I needed to talk with someone and you came to mind. My dads are as involved as I am and talking to them wouldn’t accomplish a great deal. So do you have a minute?”
“As long as you like. You and Levi may have to join me in the kitchen while I prepare lunch later, but that’s all I have to do. Lunch needs to be done at 12:00 as Stu will be home for lunch.”
“Is he really out hunting?” Levi asked.
“Yes and no,” Manning said. “Yes, he’s out hunting, but no, not to kill our dinner. Stuart is a hunter and we always have a supply of venison, rabbit, dove and occasionally wild turkey, but today he’s out hunting a bear which is causing a lot of damage around Palo Alto. He works for the state fish and game division of the wildlife department. Stay for lunch and you’ll meet him. So, you needed to talk. Levi know about this?”
“Very much so,” I said. “Well, it started last night. As you know, Brad, Sam and I are all gay. . . . ”
“Whoa, hold up a minute, Derek, you’re gay?”
“Shit! Yes, I am, but I didn’t mean to out myself anywhere near Stanton.”
“I should hope not,” Manning said. “So you’re gay. The thought never crossed my mind. Well, when you and Jeremy became so tight I did wonder, but I heard enough scuttlebutt around school to know if Jeremy were gay, he’d certainly convinced the young ladies otherwise, and very persuasively, I heard.”
I laughed. “Know what you mean. We double dated some. Never any doubt in my mind Jeremy was straight! Not to say I didn't wish he was gay. I was in love with the guy.”
“Was. Of course, I suspect your first love is always a part of your life.”
“Yeah. So you are gay. You the boyfriend, Levi?”
“No, we are just very, very close friends and housemates. I suspect we both hope we fall in love, but who knows what the future holds?”
“Damn, I hope you will forgive me, Levi. That was not a proper question and assuming you were gay was really beyond the pale. But, Derek, I’m sorry, I got us off track. So now I know that you, like your dads, are gay and have been in love with Jeremy. Did he know?”
“He did. I sometimes think he almost wished he was gay as much as I did, but we are just the best of best friends. I really miss having him around. I understand he’s bringing a woman home with him. His dad doesn’t think it’s serious, but knowing Jeremy, it’s certainly very close to serious if he’s bringing her to Stanton.”
“I’m off track again, Derek. What’s the problem--well, aside from the ones that are automatic when you are gay in Stanton.”
So, I told him about DeAngelo’s remark and what it had triggered, about how his being an unfeeling slut had torn me apart and how I wasn’t coping very well.
“Derek, what you are experiencing goes by many names, none of which changes the dynamic. It’s what happens when a child discovers there is no Santa Clause or when you discover you parents lie. It’s discovering that someone is not what you perceived him--or her--to be. Sometimes it’s called one thing at other times something else: crisis of faith, betrayal of trust, identity crisis, disillusionment. You get the idea.”
“Damn!” Levi exclaimed. “The emotional dynamic is like when I found Edward, legs in the air, being fucked while a line of men waited a turn at his ass.”
Levi told Manning of his relationship with Edward and how it ended.
“Pretty dramatic example of the dynamic, Levi, but spot on. Derek, DeAngelo has, not just by place of birth, been your big brother. He has protected you, led you and you have near worshiped him. I remember wondering what would happen when you were separated when he stayed at R. E. Lee and you transferred to Fort Defiance.”
“It was tough,” I said. “Not only were we suddenly in two difference schools, but we had always slept in the same room. We ran together, biked together, did everything together. I was his shadow. Suddenly we were in two different schools and had our own rooms. Even at the Center we were separated with me spending most of my time in the pool while he was doing fitness and janitorial stuff.”
“You had a year at Fort Defiance before I showed up there and when I arrived, I found a very different Derek than I had known at R. E. Lee. You were more confident, beginning to be less a follower and more of a leader. You were developing into Derek and not a shadow DeAngelo.” Levi grinned at me, an I-told-you-so grin. “Meanwhile, DeAngelo was changing as well. Who knows how he would have developed had he been surrounded with different people, but he wasn’t. He was a jock and jocks have to work hard proving they are macho. Strange, since they are the stereotype of macho, but I guess you have to work hard to create and maintain the macho facade when you decide to be a stereotype.
“Given the number of men on the basketball and baseball teams, statistics would suggest there is at least a gay man or two among them. I suspect at least one of them is the ringleader in verbal gay-bashing. ‘Gotta protect the image of manhood you know.’ So both you and DeAngelo have changed and the way he has changed condemns the person you are and the person whom you accept and find good while the person you find him to be is repulsive to you, and rightly so, if I may be permitted a judgmental statement. Too long a speech, Manning.”
“Not for me,” Levi said, “I kinda figured the whole crisis thing when I discovered Edward was not ‘who I thought and perceived him to be’, but I didn’t make the connection with Derek and DeAngelo. I guess I was so angry at Edward, but not for his being a slut. Been there, done that . No, I was angry because he thought so little of his sex partners that he was risking passing a death sentence on them.”
“Where does that leave me?” I asked. “I am sure Dad Sam is as angry as Dad Brad was and had Sam not restrained him, I think Brad might have done physical damage to DeAngelo. I was also angry.”
“A bit of an understatement,” Levi said softly.
“So do I just say, ‘Fine, DeAngelo, I understand you have an image to keep up, so gay jokes, multiple sex partners and unprotected sex are okay because they are important to that image?' That I find hard, if not impossible to swallow.”
“I think you and your dads have made it very clear that you do not approve or accept his standard of behavior,” Manning responded.
“I assure you that has been made very, very clear,” Levi grinned.
“He has been told why it is not acceptable and will be suffering some consequences resulting from it. Maybe as little as a sore butt from a massive dose of antibiotics, maybe a slow death, but neither he nor you can undo the past. The future? You have done all you can. Just as DeAngelo cannot make you a gay slut, you cannot make him a responsible straight man. The decisions are the individual’s to make and truly, no one can make them for him. Derek, you came to talk and ended up listening. Sorry.”
“No need for an apology, Manning. I came to get my thinking straightened out, expecting to have to do a lot of talking, but ended up listening and thinking. I got what I expected I would get from time with you. Thanks.”
“So, Derek, tell me about life at OCU, and feel free to join in Levi,” Mr. Manning said. For the next half an hour Levi and I talked about our experiences. I told him about the lit class and he was pleased that what I had learned in high school put me a step ahead of many in the class. Levi told him about the comp class I would be taking next semester and I felt that I was well prepared for it as well. Finally, Manning called a halt and said, “Time I got on with preparing lunch. Hope you guys like venison. I’ve marinated it all yesterday and started it roasting earlier. It’ll not be as gamey as most, but will still have some of that. If you don’t like it, I’ll fix you a sandwich.”
“I’m always ready to try something new,” Levi said.
“Well, I’m not so sure about eating Bambi,” I chuckled.
“Not Bambi,” Mr. Manning said with a grin, “it’s his baby brother.”
“In that case, count me in.”
Levi and I got the table set and Levi made a salad while Mr. Manning finished lunch preparation. We were just finishing when a man built like a Mack truck walked in with his eyes on Manning and said, “Hi, Babe,” as he continued walking toward Mr. Manning, then stopped short and blushed. The man would have been a natural to play Paul Bunyan, the legendary lumberjack of North American logging camps, so the blush really looked out of place.
Mr. Manning started laughing uproariously and said, “You almost slipped up didn’t you, Stu.” He met Stu, wrapped his arms around him and kissed him. “Derek, Levi, my man, Stuart Hangar. Stu, Derek Wilson is a former student and his friend Levi Epstein is his housemate and they are dive team members at OCU. They are gay, so you can be at ease.”
“Boyfriends?” Stuart asked and for the umpteenth time, we explained we were not, but not ruling that out for the future. “Well, don’t jump into something too quickly. I did and almost missed out on the love of my life as a result.”
“How long have you two been together?” Levi asked.
“I say eleven and a half years and Stu says eleven,” Mr. Manning said. “See, we were housemates with three other guys beginning our junior year in college. I fell in love with Stu practically from the moment I laid eyes on him and we spent all our time together when we were not in class. I count that as being together.”
“I don’t because, I slipped into something and lied to myself about how I felt about Manning for six months.
“My senior year in high school, I finally admitted to myself I was gay and told my best friend. He told me he also was gay, and so, almost by rote, we became a couple. I mean that’s the way it happens in all the stories when two best friends admit to each other than they are gay, right?
“He was ordained from birth to go to Mr. Jefferson’s University, UVA, and I was headed for Virginia Poly to do Forestry and Wildlife Management. It was a three-hour trip between the two and both of us were very busy and carrying heavy loads, so biweekly visits became monthly visits and so on until we only saw each other on holidays. Nonetheless, we both stayed glued to the idea that we were a couple and we were, therefore, in love. Note I said we were in love because we were a couple and not the other way around.
“At the end of my sophomore year at VPI, three of us who hung out together met two guys from Radford University who were, as we, outdoors types. We did a lot of hiking and camping. One Sunday afternoon, a couple weeks before we finished the year, we were cross-country hiking and came across a huge old house on a back road about midway between Radford and Blacksburg. There was a weathered real estate agent’s sign in front and on a lark, I called the number. The place had been for sale for five years and wasn’t likely to sell anytime soon, the agent said. When I asked about renting the house, he said, ‘Well, would be some income for the owner, maybe pay the taxes. I’ll get back to you.’ He called the next day and said if we were really interested, he’d show us the house and give us some options. When we looked over the house we found the inside needed cleaning, but the furnishings were fine, just neglected. The long and the short of it was, we rented the house for what three of us were paying for our dorm space. We said we’d do the cleaning, keep the grounds looking neat and paint the outside of the house over the summer for a rent-free summer. The owner was happy to accept.
“We camped out the first week after the spring semester while we cleaned the house and furnishings, got the grounds in order and made a list of what we needed to bring from home, then all took off for home.
“Justin, my boyfriend, was leaving for Charlottesville three days after I got home. We had a couple of mediocre sex sessions. We were not very good at it and I think, in looking back, had anal sex because we thought we were supposed to. I saw him off and we said we’d see each other at the beginning of the summer and planned a camping trip.
“A week later the three of us were back at Swan’s Pond, the name of the place we had rented. We made an inventory of what we had brought from home and made a list of what we needed to buy, worked on the grounds and were ready to spend the summer working on various projects, summer school or jobs as well as painting the house. When the final two arrived, they were well-loaded with beer, brats and the trimmings. We soon had the sausages cooking in beer, getting them ready for the grill, and we were wasting no time between beers. When we had eaten, we got down to some serious beer drinking and, of course, the subject turned to sex.
The other two guys from VPI were from Lynchburg and would have gone to Freedom had they been able to get the courses they wanted. They usually avoided the beer and all talk of sex. For some reason, that night they were leading the way in downing the brews. Finally, one of them, Lewis, said, ‘You know, my girlfriend Geraldine and I had been saving it for marriage, but while I was home, we kinda got going too good to stop. Once we started, we had sex two, three times a day while I was home. Man, was it great!!’
“‘You can thank Jo, my girl for that,’ Harold, the other Lynchburg guy, said. ‘We decided we were married in the eyes of God a year ago and saw no reason why we couldn’t have sex like any married couple. Jo talked to Geraldine about being married in the eyes of God, she saw nothing wrong with that, so now you are having sex. We have been having sex for a year, so once a day is generally enough for us, but it gets better and better.
“‘You guys are lucky then,’ I said. ‘I had sex a couple times with my boyfriend and I don’t think it would rank even passable.’
“’You’re queer? You’re a hell-bound faggot!’ Lewis shouted.
“’I’m not going to live in the house with a queer,’ Harold shouted. ‘I’m leaving.’
“’You can wait for me,” Lewis said.
“‘I’ll be back for my things in the morning,’ Harold said and Lewis agreed. They staggered out the door. I guess they headed back to Blacksburg and were picked up just as they entered the edge of the campus. Fortunately, they were stopped by the campus police who had them get out of the car and told them to find a place to sleep it off.
“We three remaining housemates went to bed, slept late the next morning and had breakfast at noon. Nothing was said about the previous night’s incident until we had finished breakfast and cleaned up. That accomplished, I asked, ‘So what do we do? We’re down to three housemates instead of five to pay the rent and do the work.’
“‘Rent should be no problem,’ Keith, one of the Radford students, said, “We’ll be paying the same as we paid in the dorm. The work, especially painting this old house is another matter.’
“’We’ll manage,’ Daniel said, ‘but we may as well post a ‘housemate wanted’ notice at VPI and Radford. Not likely anyone will be interested since it’s summer and the campuses are more than half empty.’ But the notices got posted. People at VPI were to contact me and those at Radford, Daniel.
“I was posting the notice on a board at VPI when this short redhead asked, with a definite burr in his speech, ‘Yea wouldn’t be looking for a roommate now would yea?’
“‘Not a roommate, but a housemate.’
“‘Beyond me purse, I’m sure,’ he said and started to walk away.
“‘It will cost a bit less than a dorm room and it’s a lot nicer, but of course there’s work involved. Buy you a coke if you want to talk about it,’ I told him. We went to the student union and I laid out the whole package. He was ready to sign on the dotted line when I said, ‘There is one other catch. One of us is gay.’
“‘So, one of us is not. What’s the problem?’ was his response. So it was that Jarlath--we called him Lath--became the fourth member of the Swan’s Pond crew.”
Manning had been waiting patiently for Stu to come to a break and when he paused for breath said, “Stu, maybe you can finish your true romance tale after lunch. It’s ready.”
The food was great, the venison the best I had ever eaten, by far.
Levi and I cleared the table while Mr. Manning made coffee and brought it and a plate of cookies to the table. “So what happened next?” Levi asked as soon as we were seated.
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