Fizzing and foaming across my tongue, the beer was cold and delicious. It soothed my still burning throat and trickled into my stomach. Mingled with whatever was left of the first gift Tim Price had given me that evening.
`It's a shit story,' I said.
`It can't be that bad,' he said, slumping back into his chair across from me at the dining table.
`That's not what I meant,' I said before taking a bigger sip, this time to loosen the knots twisting tighter inside my gut.
`If you don't want to talk about it, we don't have to,' he said.
I nodded. Opened my mouth to speak. To change the subject. Ask for a tour of his house. Get him on his feet and moving so I could brush up against him. Push my arse into his groin. Find somewhere comfy and horizontal where I could finally take off my running shorts and show him exactly how big a boy I was.
But the words weren't coming.
Like he'd kicked a hornet's nest, memories of that fateful morning were swarming angrily around my mind. The beat of their footsteps against the concrete as they circled me. The thunderous drone of their shouts and jeers echoing through the red brick courtyard. The agonising sting as they kicked and stamped and smiled.
I couldn't look at him. Fixed my gaze on my beer bottle instead. Concentrated on its neck, moist with condensation, as the all too familiar rage began to simmer. I watched a stray water droplet lose its grip and hurtle south. Alone. Separated. Fragile. Saw it slow down over the bulge of the bottle before catching on the glossy paper label. I squashed it with my thumb.
`What's it to you anyway?' I said.
This time I looked up. Into his bright blue eyes still searing over me. They softened as we connected and a kindness glistened across their surfaces. It spread out into the rest of his face. Into his strong jaw muscles: lifting them into a gentle smile. Unnoticeable from afar, but undeniable sat less than a metre away. Under the harsh light from the bare bulb hanging above and accentuating every one of his powerful features.
`Nothing,' he said before taking a sip of his beer. He placed his bottle gently and silently on the table. `I told you about my wife, now it's your turn. I believe they call it a conversation.'
The corner of my lip curled into a grin. It seemed Mr. Price was more than just a handsome face attached to a heavenly body. Sexy and funny. A side to him I'd never seen at school.
But it wasn't enough to change my tune. My mind was stuck on repeat, replaying a scene over and over in fast forward. A scene I'd forced myself to forget. One that I'd pushed down to where all the other disappointments dwelled. Safely buried alongside my parents. Until now.
`I don't need your pity,' I said, placing my beer on the table harder than I'd intended. Glass clapped loudly against wood in the night time still of his house. His eyes darted down and back up.
`You won't get anything if you do that to my table again,' he said, still smiling and playfully kicking me under the table.
`Whoops,' I muttered.
`You haven't told anyone before have you?'
I shook my head. Words escaping me again. I hadn't told anybody. Not a soul. Plenty of people knew. Plenty of people had watched it happen. Said nothing. Did nothing. But no one knew the whole story. No one had ever asked.
`It's good to talk,' he said.
`How would you know?'
He sighed. Quietly and quickly. Sipped his beer. Placed it back on the table harder this time.
`You think it was easy for me?' he said, his tone tougher but still open. Firm but friendly. Once a teacher always a teacher.
`No,' I said, unable to stop myself sounding like a moody teenager caught running in the corridor.
`And you know how I dealt with it? How I'm dealing with it?'
I shrugged and looked away. Toward the hallway and the front door. Anger bubbling hotter and heavier. What happened? I thought. When did it get all sentimental and serious? I hadn't run around some field every day for the last three weeks and given him the best blow job of his life for a beer and a counselling session.
`I talked about it,' he continued, his gaze still burning over me in my peripheral.
`Who with?' I said suddenly, twisting to face him. `Your wife?'
`No. A therapist.'
For three seconds neither of us said anything. His face hard. Blank and uncaring. Just like he'd been when I'd first seen him in the park. When I'd smiled and winked and got nothing.
I gulped down a large swig of beer and the red haze of anger began to lift, diluted by a rising panic. I suddenly remembered where I was and who I was with and why I'd run around that field in the first place.
`Sorry,' I said, tearing off a jagged strand of label. Soaked through it peeled off the glass like a hot knife through butter. Left a trail of gooey white paper bits. `I take that back.'
His smile returned. Bigger and more obvious. Said, `It's ok. Let's talk about something else.'
`No,' I said. `You're right. It is good to talk. But I'll keep it short.'
`Short and sweet,' he said.
I nodded. Placed my almost empty bottle on the table. Wrapped both hands around it. Gently squeezing the cold glass, I took a deep breath. Told myself to be like the bottle. To be hard and strong but see-through. He was obviously interested. In me. In my life. And that was a good sign. The best.
But I had to be careful. I'd suppressed this for a reason. It reminded me of when I was that person. Weak and beaten and broken. The last thing I wanted was to talk too much. Break down and shatter into a million razor sharp pieces in his dining room.
`It happened about six months ago,' I said, relaxing my grip on the glass. `I'd been chatting to this lad online.'
`Gaydar?' he said.
`Yeah. You know it?'
He nodded. Smiled shyly. Said, `I've heard of it. Haven't tried it.'
`I don't know. I suppose I like meeting people in person. Call me old fashioned,' he said.
I smirked as a wave of blood rushed south and filled my balls. Vivid flashbacks of the Old Creek forest tingled my body. My knee, still raw and muddy, pulsed in time with my heartbeat.
`Since when has tying up boys with shoelaces been old fashioned?'
`Oh forever,' he said with a wink before draining his beer. `Want another?'
`Keep talking. I can hear you from in there.'
`Ok,' I said, watching his perfect arse cheeks rise up and down under his tight, black rugby shorts as he walked into the kitchen. `So this guy,' I said, the fridge door suctioning open. `He was my age.' Bottles clinked. `Lived up north but was down visiting family. We agreed to meet at the bowling alley out by the cinema.' Two hisses whispered into the room as metal caps were prised off. `It was a Sunday so it was quiet. We played a couple of games. Had some fun in the toilets.'
Placing two fresh beers on the table he sat back down. Slouched forward. A hot hand gripped my shin. Lifted my leg into his crotch. Began to massage my other foot.
`The bowling alley toilets. Good to know,' he said.
I nodded and took a swig of my new beer. It was a different brand. Tasted sweeter. Smelt stronger.
`But we were caught,' I said.
`No. They wouldn't care if you started fucking on the lanes. It was worse.'
`Some kid in my year. Mark Jenkins. He walked into the toilets just as we came out of the cubicle. Me with a boner running down my jean leg. The other kid all teary after trying to deep throat me and then gagging on my load. You don't have to be Sherlock to figure out what we'd been up to. Besides, even if we'd only been snorting coke, you know what rumours are like in a town like this.'
`I remember that kid. Nerdy looking. Big thick black glasses?'
`Yeah, that's him.'
`Harmless, surely. What did you say to him?'
`Nothing. We all froze. Then he turned on his heels and legged it before I could say anything. I knew then and there that shit was going to hit the fan.'
`Big time,' I said. `The next day he must have told anyone who would listen. All morning they whispered. Stared at me. Laughed and pointed. Then at break a group of them came to find me.'
He nodded slowly. He knew full well what my school was like. How vicious boys can be when they're lumped together for years on end without any female interaction. How ugly things can turn when pack mentality kicks in.
`Where?' he said.
`The physics courtyard.'
`Did they hurt you?'
I wanted to say no. Shrug it off. Tell him I ran away. Make up some lie. I was done talking. Done remembering. Done feeling. Done forcing down the lump in my throat. But my face was giving him all the answers he needed. He nodded again. Stopped massaging. Softly placed his hand on the top of my foot.
`I'm sorry I wasn't there to help you.'
`I told you I don't need your pity.'
`You're right,' he said. `You don't. But I'm still sorry.'
I realised I'd been staring at my bottle again. I'd picked it up and had been squeezing it so hard I was surprised it hadn't smashed and ripped open my hands. I looked up. Into his eyes. A warmth ran through me. Not hot, but warm. Warm and easy and simple. It really did feel good to talk.
`They broke four of my ribs. Pushed me to the ground and stamped. I didn't even fight back. Just curled into a ball and waited for the teachers to break it up.'
`The usual. The group all got detentions. I was told to get up and walk it off. So I walked straight out of the school gates to the hospital. Told them it was a rugby accident.'
`I didn't want to talk about it. Pretended it didn't happen. Until tonight I still do.'
`It's nothing to be ashamed of.'
I laughed. Said, `I'm not ashamed. I'm angry. Angry at myself for not fighting back and angry at those fuckwits. But I'm also glad. Because that Oscar doesn't exist anymore. The one who pretended to be something he's not. Hiding his shame. He died on that courtyard and he's never coming back.'
For a second he stared at me. Disbelief in his eyes. For half of that second I knew how he felt. I had no idea where that had come from either. But I felt better. Stronger and harder and more see-through. I smiled. Shrugged.
`Anyway, that's my shit story, and you were the first to hear it. Consider yourself lucky.'
He widened his eyes and took a large swig of his beer. Said, `I do. Very lucky. The worst I got was a few scratches and bruises when she caught me. What did your parents say?'
I laughed. Said, `Nothing. Mum left when I was fourteen. Didn't say goodbye. Dad didn't even notice when I got home all battered and bruised. He stopped caring about me a long time ago. But that's ok. He's a twat.'
`Wow,' he said, shaking his head.
`You've had it tough, matey.'
`It's not all bad.'
`No,' I said. `No parents mean I can do what I want. Case in point.' I nodded. He nodded back. `And, since I was so publically outed, all the other boys struggling with their sexuality know who to call, don't they?'
He laughed. Loud and booming. Grabbed my foot with both hands and squeezed it hard. Dug his fingertips deep into my sole. My leg kicked out all by itself under the intensity. Shook the table. I wrenched my foot out of his grip.
`Lucky fucker,' he said.
`I wouldn't say that.'
Standing I picked up my beer. Looked left to right. Locked my eyes on his.
`Well, for one, I've been here for almost an hour and you still haven't given me a tour.'
To be continued ...
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Copyright Jack Ladd 2016
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