Disclaimer: All the normal rules apply. Do not read if you'd
be offended by material of a sexual nature; if local laws prohibit
you from reading this, read no further. Do not copy or reproduce,
in whole or in part, without permission of the author, Nicholas Nurse.
All material is copyright Nicholas Nurse 2003. All individuals
depicted are imaginary, and any resemblance to real persons or events,
express or implied, is purely coincidental.
Although this chapter wrote itself very quickly, it did so at the expense of email communication. I write best with single-mindedness. I do, however, suggest that you keep an eye on my livejournal, which I update frequently and post teaser sections from the newest chapter and progress reports on Tristan's Redemption. I apologize again to all who have emailed me and are awaiting a response. My life has been incredibly busy of late! I'm really quite sorry about the pileup of emails in my box. Please do be patient with me! We're getting closer to the end with each passing day. Now, without further ado, here's Chapter Thirteen! And feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. All flames will, of course, be laughed at and summarily deleted.
By Nicholas Nurse
Chapter Thirteen: Coming Home
The rest of the weekend was the rushing of sea fog, there and gone again in a moment. Sunday came and suddenly I was up and over the clouds screaming southward on a flight that seemed as brief as the few days in San Francisco. The rest of the weekend had been a blur of activity—sightseeing and driving and dining and more clubbing, and in all that time we'd been so surrounded by people that Seth and I didn't have further time for more clandestine activities. Well, we'd had brief moments to ourselves, which of course we'd used as best we could, but there was no time for any extended fun.
No matter, I thought as San Francisco receded and the John Wayne Airport burst into view. Seth had invited me up again the weekend before the beginning of Christmas break, and he was going to be back in LA through then, so we'd have plenty of opportunity to see each other. I couldn't help but feel a bit dour at my return to Orange County, however; the weekend had been a welcome respite from nagging friends, parents who could never understand me and the looming threat of exposure I was risking by being the Vice President of the Gay-Straight Alliance at school. There wasn't much worth coming back to here and already I missed Seth like mad. He'd be back in LA on Friday, but that wasn't a whole lot of solace when I wanted to feel his body next to mine right now.
The plane circled for its final approach; the "Seat Belts" sign lit up and the intercom announced that we'd be landing shortly. I raised my seat, buckled up and closed my eyes, imagining as the plane descended that Seth was here beside me. When the landing gear dropped and the plane shuddered to a stop, I opened my eyes and grabbed my carry-on bag. No one would be here to meet me, so I'd claim my luggage quickly and make for the exit where I'd left my car in long-term parking.
There was something very small and sad about coming home from a journey and having no one there to meet you, I decided as I walked through the cold corridor that connected the airplane to the gate. It was raining and very dark; the sun was setting somewhere behind the veil of cast-iron clouds. Passengers reached for umbrellas in anticipation of the rain. We made our way into the airport and all around me passengers were greeting family members, scooping up children, hugging wives and husbands and shaking hands with business partners. People who had left the plane singe-file headed toward the escalators in pairs and groups. I stood and watched for a moment until it became too much to bear; before my chest could burst from longing I turned toward the exit. I hiked my satchel a little higher on my shoulder and trudged toward the baggage claim.
A clatter broke into my thoughts. I heard the sound of something metal falling to the ground, then hurried footsteps and my name. "Tris! Tris, wait!"
Not quite daring to hope that someone actually cared enough to see me home, I turned. A metal sign, the kind with paper inserts that could be changed often, was in pieces across the floor. Ahead of it, and still stumbling from the collision, was Jared. I grinned and my eyes burned for a moment before I dashed the upset away. "Jared!" I called. He ran up to me and I threw open my arms. He rushed into me and I hugged him fiercely. I let him go as I realized we were standing in the middle of a crowded passageway, but the slight smiles on some of the people's faces suggested only that they vicariously enjoyed the reunion of two friends. "It's good to see you," I said, putting an arm around his shoulder. He was soaked through, I noticed; his blond hair was matted to his forehead and his clothes were drenched. "What are you doing here?"
"I called and your folks said you were out of town," Jared said. "Why didn't you tell me you were going to San Francisco?"
"It kind of happened all of a sudden," I said.
"Well, it's okay. We haven't talked much at all this past week anyhow," Jared said, and although he meant nothing by the comment, I felt a twinge of guilt all the same. I had been distant from everyone around me. "Your parents gave me your flight information, but they said that you'd taken your car and that you'd just drive yourself home."
"How'd you get here?"
"Bus," Jared said. "The connecting bus picks up about two blocks from my place."
"I'm glad you're here," I said again. "But what made you come?"
"I missed you," Jared said simply. "I would've called to tell you I was coming, but that would've ruined the surprise." He grinned.
"Well, let me tell you, I was kind of upset watching everyone else on the plane have friends or family there to meet them and here I was all alone. Thanks for coming, Jared."
"Well, it's raining, so I couldn't exactly go swimming today anyhow. And I already did all my homework and finished the book I was reading, too." His grin got wider. "It's really just cause I had nothing better to do."
I laughed and looked down. "So you got soaked virtually from head to toe just cause you had nothing better to do?" I asked.
He shrugged. "You're worth it," he said. "Besides, I figured I'd get a ride back with you."
"Sure," I replied, "but let's make a stop first, okay?"
"Where?" he asked as I snagged my bags off of the carousel. We headed for the exits that led to the parking structures; I opened my umbrella as we stepped out into the walkways, though at this point staying dry was moot for Jared. I let him snuggle under the umbrella with me anyway. It felt very comfortable somehow.
"At my place, so you can get some dry clothes, first," I said, "and then to dinner. I bet you haven't eaten in awhile."
"I'm fine," Jared said, "but since I know you're just going to insist, you're right—I haven't eaten since noon."
"Then you pick where we eat," I suggested as we got in my car. We turned
onto the 405 Freeway and headed for the 133, which would spit us out in the
canyon that wound into the hills near my house. Along the way, I turned
up my CD player and Jared and I sung along to Sarah Brightman the whole way
home. His humorous falsetto sent me into hysterics. My favorite
song on this album came on, and I quietly sung the words aloud:
Will be understood and
You can have all you need
Do you know you're beautiful? . . .
"It's so simple," I said, "and such a positive affirmation of self. I love that song." Jared nodded and was quiet the rest of the way home. I could sense that he was deep in thought, so I let him be. When we got to my place, I noticed that the lights were off. There was a note on the table near the door—We're at the office with the twins. Meet us for dinner? Love, Mom and Dad. I grinned, knowing the twins were probably bored out of their minds while my parents finished up paperwork. They were die-hards; few people made it into the office on a Sunday. "Come on upstairs," I said to Jared. He hadn't dried out much at all and since I wanted to go someplace fairly nice—I know I'd left the choice up to Jared, but I'd steer him in the right direction if necessary—he needed to look halfway decent.
"Do you have anything that'll fit me?" he asked. It was a legitimate question, since he was both shorter and thinner than I was.
"You should be fine shirtwise," I said, since I tended to buy my clothes a bit on the small side anyhow. "Jeans or pants—well, hopefully I have something I've outgrown that'll fit you fine. And you can borrow a pair of flip-flops. I'll toss your stuff in the dryer while we eat."
"Okay," Jared said. I rummaged through my closet and tossed him a black ribbed t-shirt and a pair of khaki slacks I'd not been able to fit into for a year or so. Jared took off his shirt and pants and stood there in his boxers, unsure of where to put his wet clothes. "Where do you want these?" he asked, holding out his clothes.
"Huh?" I asked. I have to admit that I'd zoned out staring at him undress. He was beautiful, there was no doubt about that, although his attractiveness was the opposite of Seth's—where Seth's beauty was deliberate, something honed and cultivated, Jared's was much more freewheeling and artless, the result of natural beauty and an innocent ignorance of just how gorgeous he really was. Where everything Seth wore was tailored to fit his form just so, Jared wore whatever he felt like; where Seth's hairstyle and accessories were designed to accentuate his best features and his exotic look, Jared's wavy blond hair fell every which way and he wore only a watch and a bracelet. Seth's body was the same—carefully tanned and toned and plucked where his sparse hair did grow. Jared, on the other hand, had a swimmer's tan rather than the tan of a dedicated sun-worshipper and his body was naturally fit from activity rather than slavish attendance at a gym. He was beautiful in all the ways that Seth was not, and I noticed this fact with startling clarity for the contrast.
"I asked where you want these," Jared said again. "My wet clothes." He looked at me, his lips quirked in concern. "Are you alright, Tris?"
"Oh, yeah, fine," I said, getting up. "Here, give them to me. Do you want dry boxers?"
Jared shrugged. "These ones are okay, I guess—they didn't get too soaked. I'll just put this stuff on really quickly." He put on the khakis and the shirt and I realized that flip-flops would look a bit out of place. I dumped his clothes into the dryer, ran back up the stairs and dug through my closet until I found an older pair of shoes he could wear. I tossed him some socks.
"Let's do your hair really quickly, too," I said, going into the bathroom. Jared followed and I tossed him my hair gel. "Do you need a comb?"
"Nah," he said. "I never bother." I could see why; his hair naturally fell in a perfect part down the center and in waves off to either side. He gelled it quickly and turned on the blow-dryer to expedite the process. I watched quietly, marveling at the difference between Seth and Jared. Seth was all about control and image; he never let me watch him dress or do his hair, even when I'd stayed with him in San Francisco. By contrast, Jared was the embodiment of ebullient free-spiritedness; I felt as though he would let me into his world completely if I only said the word. "Okay, let's go," he said, putting on the shoes.
I paused. "Wait, Jared. There's something I wanted to tell you really quickly." I sat down on the bed and he sat beside me. "I was talking to a friend of mine—Seth, the one I stayed with in San Francisco—the other day, and I said something to him that I wanted to tell you. We were talking about how the week had been and I mentioned that I'd been to see your swim meet. The thing is, I referred to you as my best friend, and I said it without thinking about it because it's just become a fact. So I just wanted you to know." I was suddenly a little embarrassed. "That's all," I concluded lamely.
Jared was quiet for a moment. He looked at me suddenly and there was an emotion I couldn't read on his face, in the set of his lips and eyes. "Do you really mean that?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said, almost tousling his hair before I remembered that he'd just finished drying it into place. I put my hand on his shoulder instead.
"I'd always kind of hoped, somewhere in the back of my mind, that I'd be able to call you that," he said. "Once we started being friends, you know. I wanted to be able to say that. 'My best friend, Tristan.' " He paused for a moment. "My best friend. Tristan. Yeah, I like the way it sounds." He turned and hugged me awkwardly, since we were both seated on the bed, and I fell backward. Perfectly content not to move, I stretched out and Jared laid down beside me. I laced my fingers behind my head and Jared rested his head on my angled arm. "Thanks, Tris," he said after a few minutes had passed.
I shook my head. "Don't thank me for something that's simple fact," I said. "But as long as we're playing that game, thank you for being my best friend, Jared Luceri." I got up. "Alright, let's get going before we get too sappy for our own good. I already feel like this is Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Brotherhood or something."
Jared laughed and sprang up, darting out the door. "Bet I beat you!" he hollered as he bounded down the stairs, laughing all the way.
I grinned and leaped up, knowing even before I began that he would indeed win. I chased after him all the same, knowing that in this as in all things, no matter which one of us was following, the other would always be there waiting patiently with a smile and an outstretched hand.
* * *
"Okay, so. First off, there are four generally-accepted categories the gay community recognizes its members as falling into: gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, often just abbreviated 'GLBT.' Now, we're making it a standing policy that no one should feel that they have to voice whether they're gay, bi, or even straight—since this is a gay-straight alliance, I imagine some of you may very well be straight. Point is, it doesn't matter where you're coming from or what you are—everyone's opinions are equal in here." Julian paused for a moment and glanced my way; from my place in a chair along the wall, I shot him a thumbs-up. The meeting was going well so far, even if there were only about twenty kids here counting ourselves. Twenty kids when most statistics indicated that at least two hundred forty kids, ten percent of the school, ought to be gay. "Now, listen. I know I already introduced myself, but I have to introduce the remaining officers of the club, and then I'll talk a little bit about our intentions here. First, this is our vice president, Tristan Elliot." I stood up and waved from my corner. Nervous smiles greeted me. "Our treasurer, Taylor Darman." Taylor nodded at the group. "And our beautiful secretary, Sarah Vergell." Sarah made a face at Julian and smiled at the kids. "Lastly, but most importantly, we have our extremely supportive moderator, Ms. Heimdall." She waved, though everyone knew her already. Ms. Heimdall was a rather popular teacher at school; I wondered how her popularity would change if the student body knew she was a lesbian. I hoped it wouldn't change, but I wasn't so naïve. "Now, we decided to pass around a sign-in sheet. The sheet'll be kept by our secretary, who will provide each of the officers with a copy, and that copy will stay at home with each of us. If you are nervous about it, don't sign in. Because of the . . . controversial nature of the club, we understand." Julian pulled out the sign-in sheet, which he'd left blank except for the words "sign in" and the date, and handed it to the girl sitting in the first desk. "Now before I let the other officers talk—really, I'm kind of enjoying this too much—let me get to my last part: our goal here at the Gay-Straight Alliance. Really, we have a couple of aims. First, this is an open forum—whatever you want to talk about we can discuss. And not just about being gay or bi or transgender or whatever—it's a place to discuss politics, society, school or community issues, or even what you did over the weekend. This club is also supposed to be a support network where you can be with people who you can trust. We also want to be a community service club—we want to show the community that we, as a group, can do good around here. And lastly, we'll plan activities and whatnot—trips to wherever we feel like going. We're limited by what the school will allow, but within those restrictions we can do whatever we like." He turned to look at me. "Alright, that's about it that I have to say. I'm going to turn things over to Tristan for a few minutes. Tris?"
I stood up. "Okay, first of all, I want to congratulate all of you on having the courage to come here. It's a big step, really, no matter what you are—in many places, being vocally supportive of gay causes is just as bad as being gay yourself. Yes, I know we live in a relatively tolerant area, but remember, this is Orange County, and in general Orange County tends to be fairly conservative. This is soccer-mom suburbia, after all. So, my first words to you: be safe. And secondly, be strong."
I took a deep breath. I'd rehearsed this all last night, but it was very easy saying these words into a mirror. Saying them aloud to kids I didn't even know was another matter entirely. "I know the road we walk is not an easy one. If you'll excuse the pun, we aren't able or willing to walk the straight and narrow path that most people take. But each and every one of us has the chance to change this world just a little bit. I don't just mean in a sign-carrying stomp your feet 'we're queer and we're here' activist sort of way, either—just by quietly and simply being you, you are a positive force for change." I noticed that beads of sweat had formed on my brow. "Listen, many of you aren't out to your families yet, and many of you are not going to openly proclaim your sexuality throughout the entire school. I want each of you to respect each other's right to make the choice for themselves—high school gossip can be vicious, and we will not have any of our members contribute to it. Let me remind you that that can constitute a hate crime, and it's punishable by disciplinary action up to and including expulsion." I smiled. "I hate to be the military arm of things, but that's essentially what my duties consist of. Julian makes the rules; I enforce them. Capiche?" I added, in my best imitation of an Italian accent. I cracked my knuckles theatrically and several of the kids grinned. "Alright, so congratulations on being here and thanks for coming. I hope you all come back and feel free to bring your friends, gay or straight—this is a gay-straight alliance, after all. We want to be inclusive, not exclusive. The best way to change is to lead by example, after all. Now, I'm gonna let Taylor have his say." I stepped aside and wondered how this was going to go; Taylor and Julian hadn't exactly been on fantastic terms of late, though the why of it was a mystery to me.
Taylor stood up and I sat back down. He pushed his dark hair out of his face and pulled out a largish piece of posterboard, on which in his hurried scrawl he'd sketched out a pie graph and numbers. I rolled my eyes; it was so Taylor to have graphed out the club's money supply. "Alright, guys," Taylor began. "I'm treasurer mostly because Julian can't be trusted with money and Sarah has better handwriting than me." The group laughed. "Actually, I'm in charge of more than just the budget, but I wanted to start with that." Taylor talked for a few minutes about club funding, both from the school coffers and from donations sent our way by the Darmans and the Lambowskis, then discussed fundraising possibilities and what we'd do with the money. "So that's another part of my job—I'm in charge of club activities that require funding. So if you have any clever ideas, run them by me and I'll see if they're economically feasible. If you need to get the ball rolling on a suggestion, I'm your ball-pusher. And with that having been said, I'm gonna turn it over to Sarah. Oh, yeah, just so you all know, I'm gay too." I laughed aloud. That, too, was definitely done in true Taylor fashion.
"I represent the straight contingent," Sarah said by way of introduction. "So if any of you boys are straight, leave me your numbers before you all leave." Some of the boys laughed. "So I'm secretary. I'll be keeping charge of all notetaking, official correspondence, advertising design and execution, public relations and general records-keeping that doesn't deal in issues of finance, since that's Taylor's forte." I was so glad she pronounced "forte" right—not as "for-tay" but as "fort." Almost everyone got it wrong; it was nice to hear someone pronounce it right for once. "As far as personal messages—since I see Taylor didn't waste his time with any—" she threw a smile in Taylor's direction, "—let me say a few things, since between them Julian and Tris gave you the gay equivalent of the 'I Have a Dream' speech. First off, remember: just because you may be different doesn't mean you don't have to put up with bigots and jerks. Nobody has to tolerate discrimination in this country. Second, not all straight people are homophobes—I'm proof of that. And lastly, remember that this is a gay-straight alliance; in an alliance, all parties are equal. Alright, that's it, and now I'm sure Ms. Heimdall has a few things to say." Ms. Heimdall got up, said a few words, mostly generic "these are the rules so don't break them" sort of noise, and then turned the meeting back over to Julian. He spoke for a few more minutes, gave the details of the next meeting and dismissed the group. I was a bit disappointed that Jared couldn't make it—he had swim practice every day and wasn't going to be able to attend meetings, barring cancellations in swim scheduling, until almost the last week of December—but I was less interested in wondering why Liza hadn't been there either. At the very least, though, it negated my having to explain to them why I was vice-president; I hadn't told the group I was gay, but I wouldn't lie if put to the question, either.
As we filed outside I noticed a couple of kids lingering nearby; as we got closer, I recognized a few kids from one of the Christian clubs that met near where we would be meeting in Ms. Heimdall's room. Not a word was said, but the tension in the air was fairly thick. The situation did not improve when a few kids leaving football practice took notice of the exodus from Ms. Heimdall's classroom. It was common knowledge, thanks to the number of flyers that Julian had put up, that the first meeting of the club was scheduled in her room, so I didn't take it as much coincidence that some of these kids were loitering nearby. Either they were interested parties too shy to attend—not likely—or they were potential threats. Kyle Faber's face as he screamed "Faggot!" at Julian was prominent in my mind. More prominent than his face were his broad shoulders and height. Faber wasn't here now, but the memory was far too vivid for me to blithely ignore the students waiting too conveniently near our meeting-place. I stayed relaxed and alert and suddenly wished Sarah had a more practical self-defense hobby than firearms. It's not like they'd let her bring her handguns to school for protective purposes, and scanning the group of kids as they left, I didn't really see any who looked like they could handle physical threats. If things got ugly, this would not go well for the Gay-Straight Alliance. Good thing we're not starting a militia, I thought, remembering my conversation with Julian at Jared's swim meet. These aren't exactly crack troops.
Surprisingly, the athletes were the ones who stayed quiet. Two of the Christian club members approached Julian, who was widely recognized as the only openly gay kid at school and the leader of the new Gay-Straight Alliance. The taller of the two boys looked at Julian and said, " 'You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.' " There was, I noticed, a disconcerting look of conviction on his face.
"Leviticus," Julian said quietly, looking up to meet the first speaker's face. Then he said, " 'You may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property.' That's chapter twenty-five, verse forty-five, just a few chapters after the passage you quoted me." Julian still had not raised his voice. "Shall I continue? 'And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves.' "
I could hear the sound of an ice cream truck somewhere in the distance, but that was all.
"What's your point?" the other boy asked belligerently after a few moments of silence.
"That the words of your God, filtered through human mouths and hands, corrupted by the changes in language and meaning after three thousand years, are not absolute," Julian replied. "That for as much as you quote passages supposedly condemning homosexuality, I can quote passages that uphold things we find morally reprehensible now. Like slavery. Or will you buy your neighbors, to hold their children and their children's children in your name?"
I had to admit, I was impressed. I didn't realize Julian had spent so much time perusing the Bible in order to refute the arguments of conservatives. The quiet conviction in his voice and in his eyes only lent him greater weight, and I could see the other club members, still gathered around us, carefully listening to his every word. More than with anything he had said in Ms. Heimdall's room, I could see his defiant stand here solidifying their respect.
"That doesn't matter," the first kid insisted. "Even Jesus talked about the holiness of marriage and the union of man and woman."
"Matthew, chapter seven, first verse: 'Judge not, that you be not judged.' And in case that's not enough, how about Mark, chapter twelve, verses thirty and thirty-one, about the first commandment of all? 'And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.' " Julian raised an eyebrow. "Where in that is hate and judgment a prevailing virtue of Jesus? And how can you justify Leviticus when it advocates slavery?"
"So what are you, some kind of atheist?" another one of the Christian students, a girl, asked. I couldn't detect if the question was asked out of frustration or just curiosity.
"No," Julian said. "Tell you what. If you're curious to hear my views, come to the next meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Everyone's views are welcome as long as you're willing to accept everyone else's views too."
The girl looked thoughtful, but the first boy to speak looked like he wanted to spit on Julian. "I'm not going to go to a meeting with a bunch of queers," he said. I heard a few of the football players laugh. I guess they really hadn't followed much up until the insults started flying.
Julian sighed. "Your true ignorance comes out," he said, as much to himself as to the boy in front of him. He turned to address the other kids gathered there. "You all are welcome to come and share your views, if you listen to ours in turn. Bring a Bible if you want." Several of the kids looked repulsed at the idea of even attending a meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance, but there were a few who showed little reaction. I held out a little bit of hope. Julian cut through the kids without glancing left or right. I had to admire his fortitude; gone was the kid who slunk away from Kyle Faber's taunting. Perhaps Julian fared better at intellectual debates rather than physical threats. Fine. If he would be the philosophical arm of tolerance, I would be the physical safeguard to back him up.
I was somewhere halfway between amusement and chagrin at the realization that this kid whom I'd at first dismissed as boring, ordinary and not particularly intelligent had just shown determination and courage that I could only hope to emulate. Couple that with his rather impressive, and heretofore unsuspected, command of Scripture—I had long ago admitted that I'd been dead wrong in my initial assessment of Julian Lambowski, but I realized today just how far off the mark I'd been.
Taylor was right beside me. I turned. "That was pretty impressive, wasn't it?" I said in a low voice, so neither Julian nor the others would hear. "Julian's Bible-quoting, I mean."
"I didn't even know he could do that," Taylor replied.
"Neither did I. You two have hung out a lot; he's never mentioned it to you?"
"We . . . haven't hung out much recently," Taylor admitted. "Which reminds me—I wanted to talk to you later. About . . . some stuff I heard."
"Alright," I said, wondering at the tone in Taylor's voice. "Let's go to the beach after this and we'll talk."
"I'll be right back; I'm going to go talk to Julian." Taylor didn't follow me as I headed in Julian's direction. He was walking by himself, most of the other club members having dispersed after he walked through the hostile sea of Christian students. "That was amazing, Julian," I said simply when I'd caught up to him.
Julian looked up at me with eyes full of pain. He grabbed at my hand; I noticed that his own shook. "Tris. I can't do this. It's too hard, too much—I feel like I'm going to drown in it—"
So he didn't feel as confident as he had looked. Somehow I suspected that it might be so. I knew full well what it meant to put up a brave front when all you wanted to do was crumble into dust. "There is someone who would be very proud of you right now," I said.
"I know." Julian exhaled heavily. "It's just—it's hard, and it's never going to be enough. Nothing I do'll bring him back. He's the one who did that, you know. The one who had me read some of the books of the Bible. It's almost like he was preparing me for this fight . . . but he's not here to fight beside me."
"I'm here, Julian," I said. "For what it's worth, I'm here. And so are Taylor and Sarah and Jared and a whole roomful of kids who believe in you now after what you did back there. Did you see the way they looked at you when you stood up to the Christian kids? Did you see the way their eyes widened, their backs straightened—they stopped looking like kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar and a little bit, the tiniest bit, like they had as much right to be there as any other person. Do you know what it means to fill the downtrodden with confidence? Do you know what it is to lift them so? Because that's what you did." I couldn't help but wonder if I was capable of the same thing. Did I have Julian's courage? Did I have the strength of character to fight for my convictions? "It was a brave thing you did back there, Julian. You took them on alone and came out the moral victor. But listen—you are never, ever alone. So don't ever even for a second think that you are. Alright?"
Julian nodded. "I know."
* * *
Heisler Park was just off of Pacific Coast Highway. Rolling grassy areas and walkways fell off sharply at the edges of rocky cliffs that overlooked the sea. Stairways led down to a small beach that, when the tide rolled in, was almost entirely submerged. The park was always crowded with all manner of people: rollerbladers and barbequers and picnickers and joggers and beachgoers all mingled in a riot of tanned skin, plastic and flip-flops. It was a beautiful beach, even if parking was atrocious during the day, and the sunsets over the Pacific were the fleeting sort of thing that lit the sky and sea afire with purpose. Taylor and I walked along the edge of the ocean, occasionally jumping out of the way of the surf. It was cold and small clouds hung over the water, stained purple in the dying light of the sun; we passed few people, most of them particularly die-hard surfers, in those brief minutes before twilight could bleed into silver and black. I had rolled up my jeans and ran barefoot on the sand; Taylor still wore his shoes, his only concession to nature a reluctant tucking of slacks into shoes to prevent sand from rushing in. "What was it you wanted to talk to me about?" I asked after we'd walked in relative quiet for a few minutes.
"How was San Francisco?" he asked.
It was a rather artless evasion, but I let it slide. "Nice," I said flatly. He would get no more out of me until he answered my question.
Taylor let out a slow breath. "Listen, Tris . . . " If this was hard for Taylor to say, it had to be pretty serious. I was quiet; sometimes silence resulted in better answers than any question a person could ever ask. "I was talking to some friends up at USC this weekend. They know Seth—he used to live on their floor. Ah . . . they didn't exactly have good things to say about him."
"They're probably just jealous," I scoffed dismissively.
Taylor certainly didn't seem to think so. "I'm not sure," he said. His evasive attitude was already grating on me; I wanted to tell him to either spit it out or shut the fuck up. "They're pretty good guys—not the jealous type."
"Fine," I said. "What did they say?"
"Did you know Seth doesn't even speak to his parents?" Taylor blurted out.
I laughed. "Bullshit. I just spent all weekend at his parents' place in San Francisco."
"Were they there?"
I paused for a moment, wondering why it mattered. "Well, no. They were in Osaka."
"Did Seth talk to them at all that weekend?"
God damn, Taylor enjoyed playing twenty questions with me. I began to get a bit irritated at his insistence. "I'm sure it would've been an expensive phone call."
"I'll take that as a 'no.' "
Now I was pissed. I suddenly found that I didn't want to be here, that I didn't want this place fouled with this invasive conversation, with Taylor's nosy queries. "What's your point?"
"Listen, here's what they told me—Seth's parents put him through school, send him money and buy him the things he needs, but they don't have any contact with him, not since he left for college." Taylor didn't meet my eyes the whole time he spoke, which was good because I felt like punching him.
I sighed, exasperated. "Big fucking deal, Taylor. Some people just don't get along with their folks. Maybe they threw him out cause he's gay. It could just as easily not be his fault."
"There's more to it, Tris."
"Oh, please, do continue."
"Hey, no need to kill the messenger here. They say he's been with practically every gay kid in their dorm, and more besides. That he fucks around, that he dates guys and tosses them aside like trash, that he doesn't know how to love."
That was it; I'd had it. How dare he say this! He had no idea what went on between Seth and me. He had no right to say—"Taylor, you have no fucking clue what you're talking about. Every time we're together, it's . . . amazing. All weekend long we were together and he's so attentive to what he wants to show me, to the things he wants me to see with him . . . listen, fuck you. I don't need to explain this to you." I started walking away from Taylor.
"Tris . . . there's more. I didn't explain why he's not in the dorms anymore. Wait, Tris!"
I wasn't having it. "I don't want to hear it, Taylor. Save it for someone who cares."
"Tristan Elliot! Listen to me! I'm doing this for your own—"
I turned, furious. "Go the fuck away, Taylor! Don't you have some college boy to fuck, you goddamn hypocrite? I just fucking think you wish you could have Seth to yourself, since you're all up in the college boy-toy scene. Find your own fucking way home, Taylor. I'm not going to ride with a liar and a hypocrite." I turned and left, walking quickly. Behind me, I heard Taylor call my name, but I ignored him, flung myself into my car and drove off.
When I am angry, I drive aimlessly. This time I found myself at Fashion Island. I got out of my car and meandered without purpose through the giant outdoor mall, passing the stores without interest. Finally, just as it got too cold to be outside, I decided to duck inside the large Bloomindales at one end of the mall. I slipped through the racks of clothes, lost in an angry cloud that literally obscured my vision to the point that I ignored what was a few feet in front of me. So I almost walked right into Garrett, who was going through a rack of jeans in the men's department. With a startled "Fuck!" I darted to one side before he could see me wandering the mall alone and furious. I saw him look up as I turned the corner and ducked behind a display, but I knew I was out of eyesight by then.
As I stood and watched from behind the display, I saw, of all people, Liza. She walked up behind him and asked, "Did you find them?"
"Yeah," Garrett said. "These are them. What do you think?" He held out the jeans for inspection.
Liza shook her head. "Looks like something Tristan would wear."
Garrett made a face. "Scratch that, then." He put them back on the shelf and turned to walk away. Liza followed, chatting all the while. The empty words drifted upward like ashes. My body shook as I rose from my crouch. So they talked about me behind my back? I was a joke now? I turned and walked out of the store, my fists clenched at my sides. I forcibly relaxed my face as I strode, stiff-legged, through the mall, pushing through the crowds and running down the escalator to my car. How could he be so cold? Did he feel nothing—was his heart truly so vast and empty? And Liza! Liza, Liza, you fat little bitch. I revved my engine and threw it into reverse; if it was possible, I think I drove even faster than I had when leaving Taylor at the beach.
When I got home, I slammed and locked the door to my room, even though no one was home, simply because it felt good. I sat, then stood, then sat again, and then reached for my luggage bag, which I had yet to fully unpack. At the bottom, wrapped in a shirt and a brown bag, was something Seth had given me. "If you decide to get brave sometime," he said as he put it into my luggage. I unwrapped the bag and pulled out the bottle of vodka and the shotglass. Fuck Taylor. What did he know about love? All he did was let college kids jerk him off in his car. I unscrewed the cap on the bottle. Fuck Garrett. I'd wasted so many years of my life on that undeserving piece of shit. The smell of alcohol was strong in the air as I poured out a shot. Fuck Liza. I tipped the shot back into my mouth, swallowing convulsively as the searing liquid nearly made me gag. I could feel it, like Drano, as it slid down my throat and into my stomach. I trembled, my throat clenched and my tongue tried to twist its way free of my mouth. Then the moment passed and I set the shotglass down. Fuck them all. How did I end up with such a worthless pack of useless friends? And why did I let it hurt so goddamn much? I glanced at my phone, but Seth hadn't called. I needed to talk to him. I dialed his number; the phone rang, once, twice, four times, and then his voicemail kicked in. I hung up before I left him a message, not trusting my voice just then. I remembered not all that long ago, when I would've called Garrett to ask him if he wanted to come over and swim, or practice karate, or just talk and maybe watch a movie. Tears stung my eyes. I poured out another shot. Liza and I used to sit for hours under the trees at the park near school and laugh at nothing at all. Another. Stupid Taylor. He and Garrett and I used to go swimming together, the three of us horsing around in the pool, laughing and trying to push each other under . . . sometimes Liza was there, too, screaming whenever she was finally forced under the surface . . .
By the fourth or fifth shot, the burning wasn't nearly so bad.
I needed a Kleenex. My nose was running and my eyes were watering uncontrollably. I hated the world. My cell phone rang; I reached for it, but I couldn't see my phone clearly and my traitorious hands knocked it right off the table. I stumbled off the chair and felt around for it on the floor, and then when I found it I opened it and laid on my side. It felt good to lie down. For a moment I thought I couldn't stop my eyes from rolling around in circles, as though in endless disgust at the world in general, and then I realized that it was just the room spinning.
I heard my name from somewhere. "Tris? Tris?"
Oh, yeah. I put the phone to my ear. "What?"
"Tris, is that you?"
Who was this? "This is Tris," I said, hoping that would help.
"Tris, it's Julian. Are you okay?"
Am I okay? What a stupid question. I'd already said who I was. "No, I'm Tris."
"What do you want, Julian?"
Julian was quiet for a minute. Well, it felt like a minute, anyway. I wasn't too sure. "Just to . . . talk, really. Are you busy? You don't sound okay—what's wrong?"
"Everything is shit, Julian."
"Everything. It's shit. Life, friends, all of you—you're all shit. At the mall, at the beach—shit." I could feel something fighting its way through my confusion. Anger. A great anger, something vast that was rising, slow and bubbling upward like magma, or fire—"Fuck you, all of you. I fucking hate you all. You don't understand any of it, anything of what it is to be me—I don't know what the fuck I'm doing half the time and all I know is that I fucking hate every single one of you." I pushed myself up on one arm, but couldn't rise beyond that. Tears were running down my face.
"Tristan, why are you yelling at me?"
Yelling? I wasn't yelling. I was speaking softly, whispers, library voices. "You've all betrayed me. Over. And over. Too many times. Fuck off, Julian—all of you! You're all shit!" Church whispers. The phone fell from my hands and I slumped back down to the floor. Where had the phone gone? I could hear his voice, that stupid small little whiny voice, and I wanted to smash it. But I couldn't see the phone. It was too dark and why the fuck wasn't the sun out; wasn't it daytime somewhere?
I gave up. I let myself curl up on the floor. The last thing I thought was that I was glad Seth had given me the bottle of vodka after all. Then it got even darker and I remembered nothing more.