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"Fucking Michael Jackson," I moaned. "Fuck Billy Jean already and get it over with already. I'm sick of hearin' ya sing about her. If it is a her."
I moved with a groan, tired, sweaty, sore. Fear, horror, dread. The same old usual. The new normal becoming the same old normal.
Why didn't I think of Michael Jackson the other day with Kevin in the cafeteria when I was thinking of gay guys in music? He is, so obvious. And so girly. Thank goodness Erich isn't that girly. He's nothing by comparison. I like Erich's little bit of girliness.
I snapped my eyes open and rethought my last few thoughts. And there it was again. I liked Erich's girliness. It was very subtle by comparison to Michael, but it was there. And I was shocked at myself. And at the fact that Erich really was kind of girly.
"But he says he's not gay," I thought aloud.
So complicated. I slapped off the clock-radio with far more force than was needed. I plodded into the bathroom with clean clothes. Showered. I wasn't panting badly as I dried myself, for a change, but I was feeling the exertion. I got dressed and performed the rest of the morning duties. The entire time, I thought of Tom, Jeff, Eric, Erich, finals, gym, Trey, of being alone.
It was all too much and I remained numb.
I trudged downstairs, considered breakfast, rejected the idea.
Crap. Finals day three. One more day of the double life. Then some time off. And then having to play in front of people.
At the due time, I shrugged into my coat and scarf and plodded outside to sit through another uncomfortable ride to school with Tom. I wondered if he would be busy yet again and miss the table this morning. I wondered if it would be the new normal. I wondered what he did instead. I wondered how long he was going to lie about working. I wondered how much longer he would bother picking me up in the mornings.
"Find out your schedule for this weekend?" I asked after a few minutes.
One word. Nothing else.
"Gonna come over any?"
"Maybe see ya Sunday."
I nodded. I might stay home, I thought. I might not, I thought.
A week ago I would have killed to make sure I was home if Tom was coming over. Even if it was only a possibility. Now, now I don't know if I even care if he comes over and I'm not there.
My own thoughts surprised me again. I was getting angry. I didn't want to do anything to risk my ride to school, though, so I rode in silence. Riding the bus with Jeff was about the only thing I could think of that could be worse. Except riding my bike.
As soon as we got to the main doors, Tom said he had things to do.
"See ya at the table?"
It hurt to ask, and I already knew his answer would be painful, too.
"Dunno," without turning around.
I swapped books, took my time at it, then headed to the cafeteria. I sat down with the regular guys, wondering if they would really prefer that I didn't. They were deep in their books, or ignoring me. I wasn't sure which. I didn't know if it mattered or not. I was actually glad that Erich was deep in study, hardly spared me a glance. Three empty seats mocked and taunted me.
Some double life. Used to be this was the fun part of the day. Now... geeze.
I got up to go to the bathroom. I wanted to stay in the stall and cry, but I didn't want to be such a wussy. When I came out, Thomas was at the sinks. He looked around cautiously.
"Alex? Can I ask you something?"
I nodded as I washed my hands, said, "Sure, what?"
I looked over at him and saw a familiar kind of concern on his face, but it was strange and out of place on his face. He looked around again. He cleared his throat.
"Um," the first time I had ever heard him make that sound, "Well, do you think I should go out with Patty?"
He turned a bit red in the face, mostly around his eyes and cheeks. His lips turned upward momentarily in an uncomfortable kind of smile. I felt bad for him, and wanted to make him feel better.
"Do you want to?"
He shrugged. Two guys came in. I dried my hands, but both went into stalls. He nodded toward the door, and I followed him out into the hall between the main wing of the school and the cafeteria.
"I don't know," he said. "I, think, maybe. But, the whole girls thing, it seems like such a time-consuming effort. I mean, I always thought I could put it off until college."
I noticed his voice. It was smooth and silky, soft and gentle, and I liked it very much. I put that thought away. When his eyes were visible briefly, I thought of that seeming tie between us. I almost considered staring into his eyes and thinking of that other side, and finding out what things I seemed to sense about him. But not there. It was all wrong. It had to be somewhere else. With music? And... darker? I put that thought away, too.
"But how do you say no when the first girl ever asks you out?"
"Did you tell her you would?"
"I told her I had to get out of something. Then I said I didn't know if I could get out of it yet."
He looked at me, his face worried. I felt even worse for him. I resisted looking into his eyes. I knew they were that warm, soft brown.
"What do you think I should do?"
"Why are you asking me? Of all people?" I asked him with a laugh.
He laughed a bit, then said, "Because you're honest, and I respect your thoughts more than anyone else's. Everybody else would say something like, just put your hand up her shirt and slip her the tongue."
He laughed. I did, too. More so because of what was said about him and Patricia yesterday by Wes.
"Dude, if you wanna go out with her, do it. If not, tell her you can't get out of whatever it is. And I know what you mean. I mean, going out with somebody, it's, it takes a lot of work. And a lot of time."
And it often hurts like hell, I thought. But I didn't say that, not wanting to scare him off of the idea.
"Do you like her?"
"She's okay, I guess."
"Is there somebody else you'd rather go out with?"
He snapped his head around to look at me in surprise.
"O-o-o-o-h! Who?" I asked gleefully.
Such a reaction from Thomas was a veritable nuclear reaction.
He turned redder and shrugged, then looked at his feet again.
He shrugged. I was sorry for him. I was sure I knew how he felt. I thought about his original question.
"Well, if you wanna, if you like her enough to see what it's worth, go for it. If not, beg out on your excuse that you can't get out of whatever it is. Or, just go out with her to find out how you feel about her. See if there's anything there."
He nodded, smiled a little. Finally looked at me again.
"No problem. Hope it goes okay."
We walked back to the table together and sat down. I really did hope it went well for him, whatever he chose to do. I liked him, and wanted good things to happen for him. He was a good person, and I thought he deserved what he wanted.
Me, though, I thought sadly. Me, I'm stuck with nobody.
Three empty seats at the table proved that I had no close friends. I knew that Tom would no longer be spending any time at the breakfast table.
My spirits sank further. I didn't even try to study. I put my head down on the table and let the time tick past. I wondered again why I had to lose Jeff and Tom and Eric, if anyone would ever come forward and let me know they were gay, too. I wondered why no one had yet. I wondered what was wrong with me.
The bell rang and I shuffled off toward my first class. The exam wasn't too bad.
I kept my head down and almost ran to my next class, hoping to miss Trey entirely. It was useless.
"Alex. Hey, man, please. I got to talk to you."
"I said to leave me the fuck alone," I said venomously without looking up.
He grabbed my shoulder and forced me to stop walking and turn to face him. He wore one of the most pleading expressions I had ever seen in my life.
"I can't be late to class again. I got away with it yesterday, won't again. And what makes you think I'd want to talk to you, anyway?"
My voice was low, and the anger was obvious.
"Meet me? After last bell?"
"You've got to be fucking kidding me! Again?"
"Please! I didn't know... I, I, thought... about what happened... "
He looked confused.
"You thought I forgot it?" I asked him incredulously.
I had, in fact. But only by extreme effort. I still wanted to forget it.
"No! Not forgot. Maybe, forgave?"
His pleading expression somehow became even more intense.
My eyes squinted all on their own.
"Yeah. Not, huh?"
I could tell that he was hurt by my reaction. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. That uncertainty surprised me.
He was very cute. He had been taller than I was back then, but now was just a little shorter than me. His hair was the same, and his eyes, but little else. Still, I wondered how I hadn't recognized him.
Because I wanted to forget, I knew. But now, that'll never happen.
"We were friends. Before. Please, out of the friendship we had, as blood-brothers, please talk to me?"
"No!" I knocked his hand off my shoulder. "And don't ever talk to me again."
I quickly walked away. I put him behind me, in more ways than one - in all ways.
Some things can never be like they never happened, but they don't have to own me. Forget him. Forget them. Forget it.
Tests, free study, quiet rooms, boisterous halls. The morning passed in a slow blur of dread and despair. I saw James and his friend in the hallway between third and fourth period. They were walking directly toward me. I had no time to turn aside or hide behind someone as they walked past. I hoped they wouldn't notice me. My hopes were useless. James' buddy saw me first, then elbowed James and nodded in my direction. James saw me and lost his grin. He mouthed, "Faggot," at me as they passed. I wanted to flip them off. Instead, I looked down at my feet and kept walking.
I wondered how many times I had seen them before and never taken note of them. Neither one was very attractive to me, so I wasn't surprised that I hadn't noticed them before. I wondered if they had changed their minds about dropping out of the band yet, or if they would, and what that would mean to me.
Lunch. The same guys, subdued. Thomas talked to Patricia, came to the table, and was asked the obvious. He said he hadn't found out if he could yet or not. Everyone turned to studying and eating. I had no appetite, and concentration was impossible. I put my head down again and was left alone again. I wondered again why no other gay guys talked to me, if I was really the only one. I was alone enough before, now I felt completely alone.
"Shit!" Erich said loudly.
I popped my head up and looked quizzically at him, as did everyone else.
"Left the paper in the car! Due after next period. Damn it!"
"Want me to come with ya?" I asked. "Need help?"
"Nah, I'll get it. No reason for anyone else to freeze," he said, getting up from the table.
"I'll take your books to chem class, and let him know why, if you're late," I said, not knowing why, other than I usually carried them while we walked to his class.
"Thanks!" he said, taking off at a run.
I put my head back down, returned to my contemplation of my solitude.
Eventually the bell rang.
I grabbed Erich's books and started heading in the usual direction, Thomas along as usual, silent as usual. My thoughts about being alone were insistent, and I wondered if Thomas was a good person to talk to about them. He was smart, and honest, and I was sure he would be with me, even on this topic. He seemed a good choice, too, because he didn't talk overly much. He only said enough to answer what he was asked and didn't ramble on or offer more than was needed to deliver his answer. He was close enough of a friend that it didn't seem weird to talk to him about it. And he'd just asked me for advice. I screwed up the courage.
"Can I ask you something?" I asked him quietly.
"Just did," he said, cracking a rare smile.
He had a very nice smile. I sighed a small laugh.
"Can I ask you what you think about me?"
"What do you mean?"
I looked at him, but he seemed intent on his shoes.
"I mean, everybody knows I'm gay now, right?" I asked, still softly. "So, am I a totally lost case? Am I completely ugly? I mean, there's almost a thousand students in our class, another almost thousand seniors. Right? So, gotta be more gay guys than me. Right? So, how come none come talk to me? Is there something wrong with me? Do I wear the wrong clothes? Am I rude, or something? What?"
He was quiet, still watching the floor pass under his shoes.
"Come on. You're probably the smartest of us at the lunch table," I said to him. "You gotta have an idea."
"No, I'm not. And no, I don't have to have an idea," he replied.
"Sure you are. You're never wrong."
He wasn't. He hadn't been. Sometimes we doubted his answer, but he'd be proven right in one way or more.
"Sure I am. I just don't say anything if I don't know for sure."
"You are the quietest at the table, and you do shrug a lot," I thought out loud.
He nodded. We reached the point where he would normally turn. I stopped along the wall.
"So that shows you're smarter than almost anybody else right there. Most people pretend they know when they don't."
"Yup. Sometimes you can tell how dumb someone is by how much they talk."
"And you can tell the smart ones by how quiet they are," I said, elbowing him.
He finally looked up from his shoes, blushed, and grinned.
"What class do you go to next? Honors Level Advanced College Placement Astrophysics?"
He laughed. It was good to see his full laugh. It was quite nice.
"So, what's your hardest class?"
"What? Just English?"
"Yeah. English. No honors, no advanced placement, no college prep. Just plain old English Three. The English language sucks."
"Okay, what's the most difficult or highest class you're takin'?"
"Chemistry... what?" I asked knowingly.
"Chem Three. A. P.. Ya happy?"
"Yeah. Things are right with the world again. Everything makes sense once more."
He looked at me directly. He seemed nervous. He was definitely blushing. I knew he was worried about being seen with me in the halls. Alone.
"Alex, there is nothing wrong with you. You are, you're good looking. You're attractive. I guess. Your brown eyes are warm, and, nice. You have a good smile, too."
He looked back at his shoes.
"And you're nice to everybody. If nobody talks to you about, being gay, it's probably because it's so hard to talk to anybody about. I say just give it time. It's only been a month. Maybe it takes more time for someone to work up the courage."
That was as much as I had ever heard him say at once, and I couldn't argue with his final statement. It was indeed a very hard thing to talk to anyone about. I had taken years to talk to my very closest friends about it. I had only told the ones at school because Charlie Derek had forced the subject, and the truth.
"See. You are the smartest at the table," I said again.
He snickered. He turned away and headed toward his next class, then turned back toward me.
"Alex. I am not as smart as you think I am."
He looked a little sad, perhaps disappointed; it was hard to tell what someone was feeling from their expression when they rarely showed any emotions. He turned and walked quickly away without waiting for any reply.
I wondered what he meant, and tried to puzzle it out, but got nowhere. I tried right up until Chemistry class started and Erich came running in three minutes after the bell, red and huffing.
Some Latin, some German, some laughs; multilingual jokes about oral exams after school.
Lit and more exam questions and essay answers.
Gym. Changing with the new group in the same old aisle that was now completely different. It felt good again, but was damped by my mood and thoughts of a duty to keep my eyes in my locker at all times. The new, larger group formed again as we waited to be released. I wondered again if any of them, or anyone among the hundred or so other guys in the class, were gay.
I wondered what showers would bring next week.
The dreaded English exams. Horrible.
Civics. Dreadful. A hint about staying after class one day soon from the teacher.
Free period in the little computer lab. The watcher watched from the auto shop doors. The glaring crowd glared as I walked through their private, macho neighborhood. I finished the next-to-last late program. Something good for a change.
The first half of my double life complete, I headed to my locker, looking forward to Erich and my ride to the other half, and some fun. At my locker, there was a short piece of tape peeking out from one of the louvers at eye height. I opened my locker, dreading finding out what was taped to the other end of it. It was a piece of notebook paper. It was folded in that old way that I hadn't seen in years. It could only be from one person. I snapped it off the tape and unfolded it with shaking hands. It was his small, tight, neat handwriting, fairly unchanged.
How the fuck can he use our names like that? After... what happened? Does he think using our secret note and our secret names will make it all go away? Like nothing ever happened?
I tried to stifle the anger and rage, but it wanted out. I wanted to shove the note down his throat. An idea occurred to me. I wrote my own words above his lies, the same last words I had spoken to him so long ago. I added three more words at the bottom, refolded it, then put it in the outside pocket of my pack where it would be easy to reach tomorrow. I tried to stifle the anger and rage, but it wanted out. I changed books and headed out to meet Erich at the doors to the student parking lot. I avoided looking at anyone else, but I heard the snide comments and phrases. I tried to stifle the anger and rage, but it wanted out.
How much more can I take?
The question rang out loudly, over and over. I had no answer.
Erich arrived, looking upset.
"Something wrong?" I had to ask.
"Fucking Darrel Myers," he said, stalking toward his car.
Once we were in the car, I asked what had happened. He was reluctant to talk about it, but I pried, worried.
"Okay, look. Don't be pissed, okay?"
He looked over at me with those big, clear, sparkling gray eyes.
I nodded. He started the car.
"He's in the math class you carry my books to after German. He said that we're together. You know, together."
I could see Erich shivering, or shaking. His brow was furrowed in a way I didn't like, and his bright eyes were dull and hollow. He obviously was hurt, and that hurt me. All the more so since I was the sole and total cause of that hurt to him.
I tried to stifle the anger and rage, but it wanted out. It came roaring up, tearing the steel bars apart like twizzle sticks. It had been ignored, only poked and prodded, used but kept caged for too long. Suddenly it was free, and I was left with nothing to stop it.
I worried that this was the breaking point. All the weights and pressures, problems and worries had built up, and now I was off and about to lose it. I didn't want that. I nearly panted with the effort to control my rage.
I threw open the car door and stamped toward the school. I didn't know what I was going to do, but my mind was working at super-sonic speeds, possibilities raised, examined, discarded.
Don't go overboard. Don't lose it. Stay in control. Keep your head cool. Think! Gotta do something. Nobody is gonna make one of the last people to be a friend with me suffer because of me. No, fucking, way.
I'm a founding member of the Circle, if I can't come up with something by the time I get to the shop classrooms, I don't deserve to keep the Circle.
I knew he would be there. He was one of the macho dicks that lived there after school. I had seen him heading that way almost every day that I had been in the little computer room. And I had just left there. And I had just seen him heading there.
I created and eliminated plans, walking quickly. Erich was suddenly there beside me, asking me what I thought I was doing.
"Just watch," I repeated. "And stay back."
There was no way I was going to let someone who liked me, who I liked, be treated like that. And not by a jerk like Darrel Myers. He was stupid, dull-witted, and slow. He was bigger than me, but I'd never heard of him fighting anyone. He liked to talk big, even push around the small guys, but never actually fought. He was just a bore.
I dismissed a stupid idea, but I got another from it. It wasn't bad, but then another came out of that one, and I grinned.
"Dude, you got that grin goin' again," Erich said worriedly as walked through the halls.
I aimed it directly at him.
"Man, what are you gonna do?"
I had never seen him so worried, but his pain was intolerable, and I wouldn't be the cause of it.
We were almost at the shop classrooms. There was no watcher.
"Where you going? You shouldn't go in there! Come on! It was nothing! Forget it!"
He was nearly frantic, but I wasn't going to let it go. And my plan was just too good not to carry out.
"Alex! Come on! Forget it! Let's go!"
He even tried to pull me away from the doors.
"Damn it, Erich! No! He's not getting away with this! Just cool it and watch. Stay out here."
I peeked around the doors. He was alone, sanding a piece of wood in a vise. There were about a dozen others in the classroom, mostly in pairs. None of them were with him, and I didn't see the teacher.
Perfect, I thought.
"Stay here and keep out of sight," I said to Erich. "But watch."
"Shit!" he hissed, looking more worried and scared that I had ever seen him, even the day Kevin had stood behind me at lunch.
I turned the anger toward Darrel and thought, "Sic 'em." It growled, then leaped. I stormed up to him. He looked up and did a double take.
"Raymond?" he said quietly, looking around.
"You mother-fucker!" I yelled.
He quailed, looking uncomfortable.
"Why'd you do it?"
"What? I didn't do anything." he lied, his eyes darting around the room.
"You fucking know what! You try to get me to suck you off so you won't beat the shit outta me, then go and tell your fucking dick-head friends I already did!"
He turned red, beet red.
"Now I gotta deal with everyone thinking you got me to suck you off and I never even did! The whole fucking school! You asshole!"
I turned around and stormed toward the door. I turned around to face him again. Now I had good reason to really yell, being half way across the large room.
"Worse, now I got people thinking I'm doing Erich. How funny is that? One of the nicest, coolest guys I know, and he don't want nothin' from me but to be friends, and you tell people he's gay and we're, together! And he ain't even gay or nothing! But you expect me to blow you, so you won't beat me up. Which one's really the gay one?"
I stormed out.
"Come on! Before his brain catches a gear and starts working!"
I ran. Erich followed.
I ran out of breath long before the parking lot. We pulled up in a bathroom so I could catch my breath.
"What the hell you gonna do tomorrow?" Erich asked.
The deep, rapid breathing was loosening material deep in my throat. I coughed up into a sink several times before I was able to talk, though breathlessly.
"I'm gonna give him... the evil eye all day ... and flip him off all day." I gathered more breath while Erich goggled at me. I coughed more yellow and tan mucus into the urinal. "Then tell everyone I never did... just that he wanted me to... or he'd beat me up."
"What if he comes after you?"
"He won't... be the first. And... it'd look bad."
As my breath settled, the need to cough increased. More and thicker mucus, darker too, was cleared from deep in my chest. The smell and taste of the burning van filled my nostrils and mouth. That, and the panting, triggered the fear of suffocation. I struggled against that fear, leaning over the sink, hands against the wall, panting, coughing.
I could tell from his expression that he wasn't getting it. I managed to sigh even though I was panting for breath.
"Pretend you're him. Just turn your... brain off for a minute."
"That just happened. Now, if you do shit, it will look... like it was true."
"He's gonna let it go, thinking all he can do is stay away from you. Because if he's seen pushing you around, even trying to fight you... "
"Too late for him to argue now. He's gotta be thinking that... he just has to ignore it. And wishing he hadn't said a thing about you. He might even put two and two together... and apologize to you."
"Hah!" Erich laughed. "If he apologizes, I'll suck... "
He looked surprised suddenly, turned red, and looked away.
I knew what he was going to say, it was a common bet against an impossible occurrence, and never made with any expectation from either party that it would ever be paid off - except between Tom and me, or Ryan and me. It was just an empty bet, a way to say that something would never happen. I wished that he would make that bet. I would never have tried to force him to pay off, but I would have teased him about it.
I took it as a good sign that he had almost said it. I felt that it meant that he saw me as just a normal friend in that moment, and not as the fag that I was. It didn't bother me that he had caught himself, I was glad that he felt normal enough around me that he had almost said it before he heard what he was about to say to his gay friend.
"Damn, Alex, you're one devious bastard," he said gently.
"Thanks!" I said enthusiastically, grinning.
A few more coughs, then my breath returned to normal. Better than normal. I took deep, long breaths. My lungs seemed to fill more than they had in a very long time. The air moved smoother, easier. I felt as if I could fill my lungs enough that I could yell loud enough to be heard on the other side of the building.
I inhaled as deeply as I could, then let loose with, "W-h-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-h-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!"
It was full, loud, deep. The bathroom echoed it back. Erich was stunned. I grinned. Then I coughed a bit.
"Holy fuck!" he said in awe.
I spat pink phlegm into the sink and washed it away.
"Damn, I feel way better. Like I got the last of the shit out of my lungs. I can breathe again."
I inhaled and exhaled luxuriously.
"Your voice sounds like it got deeper."
"Is it? Did my voice change? Is it different? Deeper, maybe? La-la-la-la-la."
"Cool. Now I sound like a man!" I struck a muscle-builder pose. "Muh! Me man!"
We laughed uproariously.
"Skinniest muscle builder I ever saw," he said with a grin.
I looked into the mirror. I turned, posed.
"I am skinny, ain't I?"
"You used to be... " He turned a little red, then shrugged. "Not so skinny," he finished.
"Come on. Let's get outta here."
We walked quickly to his car, then he jammed Metal Health at nearly full volume. The seats vibrated, and I wondered how many nuts and bolts were shaking loose between screaming along with the songs.
When we got to my house, there was a delivery van in the driveway. When I walked up to it, the delivery guy got out and asked who was me.
"Delivery. Needs to be inside. Can't freeze."
He handed me a clipboard to sign.
"What is it?"
"From Mason's Beverage, downstate. Probably pop."
I knew what it was. I'd been waiting for weeks, over a month. I was overjoyed it had finally come. And it brought with it thoughts of Toby. I opened the garage door and showed him where to put it. He rolled down the ramp with a stack of large boxes that had, "Mason's Original Root Beer" printed on the sides.
"Wow, how many did she send?"
"One dozen cases."
"A dozen eight-packs? Wow!"
"No, a dozen cases. Three eight-pack bottles to a case.
What am I gonna do with that much soda?
"Needs to be inside," he hinted.
I led him through the door and to the storage room. He brought in three more dollies full. They stacked into the mostly empty corner nicely, filling it.
He left, and I goggled at the seemingly endless supply of the wonder beverage. I opened a case, removed a pack, touched a bottle. It was cold, very cold. I pulled a bottle from the cardboard carry-case. It was the real thing. The paint of the Mason's symbol and the words raised above the level of the smooth sides of the glass bottle. I flicked my thumb nail over the rough paint, feeling a once common sensation I had forgotten.
I was taken back in time, to when things were so simple, and so easy.
"Good stuff?" Erich asked.
"Best root beer on earth," I said.
I passed him the bottle, having momentarily forgotten that he was even there. I grabbed another and headed into the kitchen. I opened them. They fizzed the perfect amount. I put the top of the bottle under my nose and inhaled. It smelled wonderful! Thoughts and memories of Toby, of summer sun and heat, of making music and love. Of learning that I wasn't alone, or so different.
I grinned and thought of Toby, and what I began to suspect that he was, that I was, that we all were.
I grinned, exhaled, took a mouthful with some air.
Rich, spicy, sweet, almost smoky. The flavor tingled on my tongue, the fizzing tingled, too. It was bliss.
I opened my mouth and inhaled.
I swallowed and it tingled all the way down.
The resulting belch was vented quietly.
I remembered Erich and caught him watching me. I was embarrassed.
"Need a cigarette?" he asked, obviously seeing my enjoyment.
He took a sip, agreed.
"This is the shit! How'd you get so much of it? Win it or something?"
"Incognitis nonnihil," I said mysteriously.
He looked intrigued, and probably overdoing it. And he looked cute.
I wasn't ready to share the story. We headed upstairs. I still remembered her number and dialed it. It rang and then I heard her answering machine. I left a message thanking her, and promised that I would call again to thank her personally.
"Who was that?" Erich asked.
"The aunt of someone very special. She sent the Mason's."
"Cool. Not gonna tell me who?"
He grinned around the mouth of the bottle, making me grin too.
"I promised myself I wouldn't hide him from anyone. I had this guy, over the summer last summer and the one before. We, were, ya know, boyfriends. His name is Toby."
I caught myself using the present tense, and having trouble with that topic in class, it stood out even more to myself as I continued, and continued to do so.
"He's a year older than me. A little taller. He has this awesome strawberry-blond hair, all straight but curved up on the ends. The greenest eyes you will ever see. From Georgia, and has the coolest accent. And he's got the best sense of humor of anyone I ever met."
And that's just what he looked like, I thought. What I can't describe is what was beneath all of that, the Toby behind the body. What was still Toby, had always been Toby, would always be Toby. But I didn't have the words.
I didn't feel sad, much. I felt the loss, as I knew I always would when talking of him, but I knew he was fine, safe, happy. Going on.
"Sounds like love," Erich said solemnly.
I nodded and grinned.
"He coming up this summer?"
I sighed and looked at my bottle of Mason's.
"No. He's, he died. Last summer. On the way back home."
"Oh, shit, sorry, man!" he said quickly.
"It's okay. Been eight months."
"Oh! The guy you mentioned in practice."
Lost in thoughts of Toby, I missed the obvious.
"Hey, you gotta have a joint with the Mason's," I said, brightening.
I rolled one quickly and we passed it back and forth in silence broken by an occasional cough or belch.
I wondered what Toby thought of what I was doing with Erich. Or, rather, to him. I didn't think he would exactly disapprove, but I couldn't see him completely approving, either. I could see him shrugging, saying something like, "What? You think I expect you to go celibate without me?"
The root beer didn't last long, and neither did the joint.
I enjoyed the memories of Toby, and even felt a little of the old sensations of being in such a new, exciting, sexual situation. I wondered if Erich was waiting for me to make the first move, or say the first thing about our usual activity. I could only think of one way to broach the subject.
"Well, you about ready?"
He looked at me with his bright gray eyes, then said, "Ya know what? I don't really want to. It seems like you shared something with me, kinda, and, like, doing that would almost be like, I don't know, cheapening it, I guess. I'd rather just relax and chill."
I wasn't shocked, nor let down, just a little surprised. I agreed with him.
I lifted my Mason's and saluted him. He returned the gesture, and we drank. He turned on the radio and we listened to the hard rock station. I liked several songs in a row, until something sung in German came on that was far too hard for my taste. He insisted that I listen though, in order to translate what I could.
I found it difficult to make out the words, and had to listen intently. I saw what he was doing. I tried hearing the familiar in the unfamiliar intonations. It was maddening. He laughed at me in a good way.
I found myself enjoying that afternoon with Erich a lot. We used German and Latin at times, listened to music, told each other a little about ourselves. I got to know him in ways I hadn't thought of. I found that I liked him even more. His laugh was adorable. I loved looking at him. I loved listening to him.
Shit, I'm gonna be able to fall for him so easy, I thought. A straight guy, another one, and I'm able to fall. But he's so cute! And fun. And funny. And nice. And smart.
Far too soon he said that he had to go. I was immediately saddened. I saw him out the front door, and watched him do that cute wave, his hands wrapped in those ridiculous gloves.
I felt much the same way I had shortly after meeting Jeff. And again when Jeff and I had settled things after my hospital stay. I groaned against the door.
Erich. David. Geeze. Two fucking hot dudes, and both straight. What am I doing to myself?
Is Erich Puppy Dog? If not, who else could it be? Is he the keyboardist? If not, who else could it be?
And David. Wow, what a hot one! And so sweet. Maybe there's a chance he's gay. But he knows I am, and he seems to stay well away from any talk of anything even remotely gay. He sure hasn't made any comments or anything to hint he is. He can't be. He's just too new at school to have a girl yet.
Both so cute, both so impossible.
What kind of fucked-up life am I living? I asked myself again.
Again, I had no idea.
I plodded upstairs. I started studying, trying not to think of my messed-up life.
"Dinner, son," Dad said from the doorway.
"Geeze!" I cried, startled, spinning around in my chair.
"Seems your heart is fine," he laughed.
"Not the best way to test it," I complained, then followed him downstairs.
I ate my dinner like a dutiful son, and informed them that the twins' mom had talked to us and made provision for dinner from now on. They seemed doubtful, but I assured them that they could call the twins' house and ask the staff. They agreed that if I found an earlier ride, I could stay there through dinner, but had to be home by ten all the same.
I prompted Dad by asking if he had the car keys. He sighed, tossed them to me, and went to get his things. Mom reminded me to be home at a decent hour. I told her I would call around nine. I warmed up the car in the driveway, acutely aware of the possibility of asphyxiation. I refused to let the garage threaten me, but I wasn't going to sit in there in a running car, either. Dad gave few instructions as I drove through the darkening streets. I grinned the entire way.
Everyone else was already there and set up. We started with the songs for Friday and Saturday, but only after I had been given a joint. We practiced Foreigner's "Cold As Ice" in particular. We played, we laughed, we smoked. I sneaked away for lines in the bathroom. They went to dinner.
David stayed behind and we worked on "Cold As Ice." I enjoyed being so close to him, so I was glad to do it. I enjoyed his cologne, the smell of his hair, touching his fingers as I showed him how to play the effects, sneaking peeks at his lap. He left after a couple times through the song to join the others downstairs.
I stayed behind, not hungry, just wired and wanting to play alone. More "Tainted Love," the hurt over Toby lessened, mostly by the fact that I knew he wasn't gone, just not present. "Jeopardy," the more recent hurt over Jeff fully present. I growled the lyrics out during both songs, using what I had learned on my own as well as what the guys in the band had taught me to sing George Thorogood. I made the lyrics more angry, rougher, lower. I liked my new voice. I didn't have to make it lower now, just let it be what it was, and was able to give more attention to using it. Singing them that way was even more satisfactory, touched more of my pain and loss.
I switched to "Bad To The Bone," enjoying the easy, almost simple piano lines, and was caught again while doing it. I was assured that I sounded good, and that I should do it this weekend. I threatened to leave them without a synthesizer player if they didn't drop it. They relented, and we returned to practicing Paradise Theater.
Kevin had us play through the album again, and took note of where I or David was better at what parts. Then we talked about how he and I felt about getting better on what we were weak on. David and were left with a sort of homework list to work on together.
Then more Styx songs we needed to work on, and for a few hours I forgot Jeff, and Tom, and Eric, and Erich, and gym, and Trey, and the crappy Plymouth, and Darrel Myers, and being alone.
I passed on the last couple of joints, and called for my ride at the usual time. I was home, un-bandaged, un-medicated, and alone upstairs, freshly showered, and studying by ten. No pills, no wrappings.
I couldn't stop thinking of Jeff, and Tom, and Eric, and Erich, and gym, and Trey, and the crappy Plymouth, and Darrel Myers, and being alone.
Erich sure doesn't deserve having jerks say shit about him just because he treats me decent, I thought angrily. Just because he walks with me in the halls. Just because I carry his books for him.
I blinked, my hand jerked.
No wonder! We sit together in the morning and at lunch! Everybody sees us walking in the hallways all the time! I'm usually carrying his books for him! Holy shit! We talk in German and Latin in chemistry, like we're saying secret stuff! Fuck, we are saying secret stuff! And everybody has to know I ride home with him! Cripes sake! No wonder people think we're... together!
I was stunned that I hadn't thought of it before. I was also stunned that Erich had willingly been seen with me so much, walked with me so much, talked to me so much, even driven me home after school.
How can he not be Puppy Dog? To do all that! Knowing people have to think that about us! But, wait. I didn't think about that until now. Has he? How come I never did? What the fuck?
I was confused. Shocked, too. I worried and thought on it, sitting at my desk with my arms around my knees. Studying was forgotten. I literally rocked with worry.
What am I gonna do? Do I stop talking to him? Do I stop carrying his books to his class for him? Do I stop riding home with him? I'd have to stop what we do, if I stop getting a ride home from him. I don't want to stop, but maybe I should.
By eleven I had lit a joint and smoked it, thinking of nothing but the situation with Erich. Well after the joint had been smoked, I still couldn't stop thinking of Erich and how we must have appeared to everyone. Frustrated, wanting an escape from those worries, I sat at the synthesizer and started playing the songs for Friday and Saturday. I dove into music, abandoning thoughts and worries, concentrated only on playing the songs better, smoother.
By three, I had become so tired that I was making more mistakes all the time. I finally slipped into bed, trying not to think. I knew that I needed sleep, badly. I had gotten only two or three decent nights of sleep since coming home from the hospital, and those were each separated by nights of nightmares, waking sore, tired, un-rested.
I fought the thoughts, not wanting to think them. I tried hiding under the pillow, tried pulling the blankets tightly around me, tried concentrating on one not-so-bad a thing, anything, so long as the usual horrors, and the new ones concerning Erich, were kept at bay.
I couldn't stop thinking of Jeff, and Tom, and Eric, and Erich, and Trey, and gym, and the crappy Plymouth, any my bad grades, and lying to my folks, and being alone, and Darrel Myers, and going insane - not until the blackness finally came to claim me and hand me over to the stench of gasoline.
"Sure," I said, leaning forward, moving the medallion aside, grabbing the ignition key, and pumping the pedal once.
The engine turned for several seconds, almost catching, but not quite.
"Yeah. Old Chevy... " Dad began.
Jeff in his uniform, Eric in a toga, Trey wearing the black jeans and blue shirt as always, All together, as they always had been that day in the garage. I knew I was fated to relive it over and over, the three of them always there, watching, enjoying the spectacle. As always.
God. There is no God.
"See if you can pop that hatch cover, will ya, son?"
Jeff grinned, tossing and catching his ball. Eric glowered, just as always, just as he did that day in my garage, ready to leave and abandon me. Trey wore his cute smile, inviting, but I knew something sinister lurked behind it.
I watched from inside myself as I pulled and yanked on the latch, shaking the van.
Dad asked me to try starting it again.
"Yeah, I dare ya," Trey said softly, gently, wearing that smile that was so cute. "Just one time."
Erich was suddenly there. He was naked, looking confused, worried, scared. He finally saw me. He ran toward the van.
I joked about having not started the van before. Dad grinned playfully. Jeff and Eric said, "Too bad." Erich struggled to open the door, to get to me. He looked terrified.
I moved aside the medallion and then turned the key. Dad called for another pump of the accelerator. The engine caught with a pop.
Please, no. Please. Run, Erich. Please, RUN!
He opened the door and reached in to help me out of the van. I didn't reach out to him, as badly as I wanted to. Instead, I held the ignition key fully to the right, the starter whining, the engine coughing and sputtering.
Another, louder pop, then a loud, whooshing boom, an orange light. I was knocked against the van door, the side of my head hitting the pillar.
Everything went fuzzy, wobbly, blurred. Dad yelled my name in horror. Jeff and Trey called my name mockingly, laughing together. Erich, now sure that I would burn, ran away.
Flames on the dashboard. Heat. Smoke. Fear. Flames on Erich.
Erich yelled at me to take his hand, the gloves on fire. I saw his skin blistering on his arms, the agony on his face. Jeff and Trey shoved him into the van.
"Here, have him," they said together.
They slammed the door shut behind him.
"You let Tom! Toby! You let Ryan, too! Even him!" Jeff yelled at me, pointing at the burning Erich. "Why not me?"
"I dare you!" Trey said, smiling so nicely from the other door.
"You want him? He's all yours," Jeff said to Erich, or me, or both of us.
No, please, I pleaded weakly, watching Erich's skin redden, blister, split.
Oh, please! No! Let him go!
I wanted to scream, but I coughed uncontrollably, painfully. My eyes stung, watered, refused to close, focused on Erich's agony. I couldn't breathe.
Dad's voice calling my name again. Trey laughing from the passenger door, visible through the flames raging upward from the seat, the upholstery, Erich.
Jeff laughing from the near door, holding it closed.
"Suck his dick! Suck it now!"
"Yeah, I dare ya," Trey said softly, gently, wearing that smile that was so cute.
Erich wailing in agony, curling into a ball, his burning skin and muscles hissing and popping.
The smoke increased. The heat increased. My fear increased. Erich's wails increased.
I shoved my face out the partially open window, Jeff pushed me back in.
I saw two bodies being pulled from the van, our wailing parents held back by police, Jeff and Trey smiling, laughing, high-fiving.
Panic. Flames. Heat. Smoke. Fear. Their laughter. Erich's dying wails as he flailed in agony.
Agonizing coughing. Struggling for air, just one breath of clean air. My heart pounded against my ribs. I pushed against Jeff, but he kept pushing me back inside the window, laughing at me, joining Trey in that horrible, frightening laughter. Erich sighed weakly, gurgled wetly, then was silent, unmoving.
The pain in my temple flared with each cough. The familiar dizziness came.
I blamed God. I worried about not being with Toby in the afterlife. I was grief-stricken that Jeff had always been unable to help me in any way, that Trey would want me to burn, that Eric could only walk away, and that Erich' had to die for wanting to be a friend to me.
The heat, the pain, the horrible suffocation, the laughter, the feeling of abandonment, the guilt and remorse.
All of it fading, but clearly Jeff saying, "Now I can play ball!" and Trey saying, "Come on, I dare ya. Just one time."
Then only my thoughts, my fears, my stuttering heartbeat.
They grew dim, hazy, irregular, then ceased.
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