WHAT LIES WITHIN: CHAPTER 14
You come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly.
-- Sam Keen
It was just before sunrise. As I began my walk towards school at 5:45 AM on Monday morning, I noticed it was going to be one of those absolutely crystal clear mornings when it looks like you can see perfectly for miles. At least, everything seemed so crystal clear...and in such precise focus. Sometimes I think days like this can trick you into thinking you can actually see the world much more clearly than you really can. But, I felt like wasn't seeing anything in my life very clearly right now.
Even though I had spent most of the weekend locked in my bedroom...reading...ok, well pretending I was reading while I was really thinking...hoping...wondering what was gonna happen to me; I felt like I had even less of a clue now than I had before. There were just sooo many questions buzzing around inside my head that I couldn't concentrate on any one of them at a given time. And, I hadn't come up with any satisfying answers, either. Had I been officially `outed' at school? Would Rusty make it a point to keep even further away from me, if I was? Would little episodes like Friday in the gym become a constant source of fear and worry in my life? I was so tired of just sitting there worrying, I was actually glad when the alarm had gone off this morning, signaling the beginning of the rest of my life at school.
"No way Coach! I'm not gonna let that little fag stand there and take my picture in a Speedo just so he can whack off to it later!"
God, it was way too early in the morning for this! It was 6AM for cryin' out loud, and I had dragged myself out of bed at 5:00 just so I could come down here and listen to this? It was SOOO not fair. But, nobody ever said life was fair.
"Witherspoon, if you don't want to be in the damn picture, then you can hit the pool right now and start your laps. Just don't expect me to explain to your parents why the captain of the varsity swim team isn't in the team photo in his senior yearbook...because you might not like what I have to tell them. Think about that before you make your decision," Coach said calmly.
"Shit, `Spooner, you haven't got anything for him to look at anyway!" one of his teammates joked.
"Fuck you, asshole," he said with a defensive laugh.
He gave me a nasty glare while he went over his options in his head. Clearly, he wasn't happy with any of them. I'm sure he'll blame me for it somehow. Chris Witherspoon was one of the social and jock elites in our school. Everyone knew who he was (and, in case you were wondering, he was definitely worth looking at in a Speedo). He had the power to ruin anyone's life, at any given moment. All he had to do was just give the word...
I shot the pictures as fast as I could, and tried to get the heck out of there. I mean, there were a lot of cute guys running around in Speedo's, ya know? It just wouldn't look too good if they saw me getting' a lump in my pants after all that...I could just imagine my dead body floating there in the pool if they really found out just how true that idiot Witherspoon's comments were...
Well, sure I enjoyed looking at cute guys in Speedos as much as the next (gay) guy. But, that's about all it was. I certainly didn't get that same warm feeling inside me that I got when I was looking at someone I really liked...
Right then, it crystallized in my head. That was the difference. When I looked at him, it just felt different inside. But different how? What was that strange feeling I got somewhere in the center of my chest and the pit of my stomach? I'd never experienced that before, so I wasn't exactly sure. I mean, it wasn't love was it? I was just starting to really know Rusty...surely it wasn't that. Yet. But, it sure as hell wasn't "is that a banana in your pants, or are you just glad to see me?" either. I walked towards the library, hoping it was already open this early (so I could take a nap before school starts), and I ran through it in my head:
Yes, I found him physically attractive. I liked being around him. It made me feel good (well, most of the time anyway) when I was with him.
Yes, I thought he was an interesting person. I was intensely curious about him, and I definitely wanted to get to know him better. I just had this sense that we shared even more in common than either of us yet knew.
But wait a minute here...isn't he the one that just outed you in front of half the seniors in the whole school? How could he do that to someone he really cared about? How could you even want to be friends with someone like that?
I just don't know...there has to be more to it than that...
I was still having trouble deciding exactly how I did feel. But, I was sure of one thing...I just couldn't convince myself to give up on Rusty. Something inside me wasn't ready to let go yet.
I finished my nap in the library, and headed down the hill towards my homeroom class after the first bell sounded, and woke me up. As I wandered slowly through the halls, I felt this uneasy feeling growing in the pit of my stomach...and it made me feel a little bit anxious. Something simply didn't feel right all of a sudden. For some reason, my thoughts turned immediately to Rusty.
My curiosity got the best of me and I decided that maybe I should just check and see if he was even here today. Discretely...from a safe distance, of course...since I wasn't sure if I actually wanted to talk to him just yet. Besides, I had to pass by the area where he (and most other seniors) was likely to be before school on my way to homeroom, anyway. I just needed to see him. For some reason, just the idea of seeing him held a little bit of comfort to me.
I peeked my head cautiously around the corner of the hallway as I walked slowly past. I hesitated, as I thought I saw him for a second. No, I realized...it was somebody else.
"Get out of the way, faggot!" I heard someone laugh, as I felt a shove from behind. I put my hands up and just barely caught myself as I flew into a bank of metal lockers. I regained my balance, stood up as straight as I could, and turned around to face my antagonizer.
Great. It was the same two idiots from the gym showers Friday afternoon.
"You looking for somethin' faggot?" he asked. "Maybe I got what you're lookin' for right here," he said with a cruel smile, as he grabbed at his crotch.
I looked him in the eye briefly, in an attempt to gauge my situation.
"I was looking for someone... from the, uh...yearbook staff. I just needed to talk to him before class..." I said as calmly as possible. I could feel the sweat beginning to form on my forehead, as it inevitably does when I'm under stress.
I turned to walk away, but I felt myself being grabbed by the shoulder, and spun back around.
"I didn't say you could leave yet, asshole," he barked at me.
Instantly, my eyes narrowed, and I gave him a cold stare. But, I didn't say a word, as I felt my face turning red in embarrassment and frustration. This whole thing was beginning to get a little scary, and I didn't trust my mouth very much in situations like this. I noticed there were now a few more idiots gathering around to watch the show. I was completely surrounded.
I was starting to get that queasy feeling in my stomach again...maybe I should just throw up on their shoes...ya, that would really teach `em a lesson...not!
"Hey Sully, DUDE!...I've been lookin' all over for ya!" I heard from behind one of the goons threatening me. This tall auburn-haired skater punk pushed through between two of the idiots, and got right in front of me.
"Hey dude!" he said, holding his hand out for a skater's version of a `high-five' (where you tap your fists together, knuckle to knuckle...). "All the guys wanted me to thank you for the awesome pictures you shot at the skate park the other day. We just want you to know that if you ever need anything man, just give us a shout," he said a little too loudly, giving me a quick wink.
Then, I recognized him. He was one of Rusty's skater friends from the park.
"Am I interrupting something' here dudes?" he asked innocently, as he looked at the guys surrounding me. Just then the bell rang, and the idiots seemed to suddenly lose interest in me. I don't think they were too interested in messing with a friend of the skate punks, either.
I looked up at him in confusion. "Uh...thanks. I remember you from the skate park, but I don't know your name..." I confessed. Come to think of it, how did he know my last name?
"Tim Petersen," he said with a little smile. "Don't worry. Glad I could help ya out. Look, we both gotta jet to class, but I just wanted to tell you something," he said, leaning closer to me and lowering his voice a little. "You know, I saw what happened Friday morning. Please try and forgive him if you can. He feels totally awful about what happened...Give him another chance, please? He's dealing with some really tough issues in his life right now, and he just needs to find someone he can trust. I've known Rusty for a long time, and he really is a good person underneath it all. Oh ya, and despite whatever he might say, he really does like you...so, don't let him tell you otherwise," he said with a conspiratorial grin, as he turned and walked off to his class.
I just stood there with my mouth open, trying to make a sound as I watched him turn, and hurry off to his class. But, nothing came out.
Just before he rounded the last corner and disappeared from my sight, he gave me another brief smile, and a quick wink.
Wow. I was surprised, confused, and a little bit excited at the same time. Surprised, because I had no idea that a guy like Tim Petersen would even think twice about me, let alone try and help me out against the high testosterone/low IQ squad. Confused, because he seemed to know so much about what was happening in mine and Rusty's life, yet I hardly even knew him.
Excited...well, because he actually said that Rusty liked me. As in liked me, liked me. I think.
That thought sure made me feel something good inside. I felt like I had a pretty good idea what was running through Rusty's head Friday, and I had already made up my mind to try and forgive him for what he had done, as long it seemed like he was truly sorry about it. But, I have to admit that my patience was not limitless, and if I didn't get the feeling that I could turn things in a positive direction between Rusty and I, then I would have to pull back a little bit to avoid getting hurt even more than I already was. I mean, I wasn't paranoid, but I was definitely into pain avoidance.
As I settled into my seat for homeroom, I began to get a weird feeling. I glanced around the room as inconspicuously as I could, and I noticed several people looking strangely at me. Now usually, people don't look at me at all, so this couldn't be good. But, aside from the odd looks, nothing else unusual happened. People don't talk to me much anyway. I'm pretty used to that.
First period algebra was pretty much the same. More strange looks, but that was all. I wasn't quite sure what to think about all this. It was a little bit unsettling to have people staring at me like that...but it was easy enough to ignore if I put my mind to it. So, I took my usual seat in the back, pulled out my book, and read for the rest of the period.
Second period history seemed pretty much the same, but just as I was getting settled in with my book in the back of the room, the teacher called me to his desk.
"Mr. Sullivan, it appears you are needed urgently by Mr. Brill. Please report to the yearbook room for the rest of this period," he said with obvious disinterest, and handed me a small yellow slip.
Okay...that seemed even stranger. But, I guess that's part of this whole photographer gig. I'll just have to get used to it. Besides, I don't want to complain too much...I hate history.
I got to the yearbook room, and pulled the door open carefully. Mr. Brill was sitting at a desk in the front of the room, rather than in his office as he usually did. He looked up at the sound of the door opening, and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Mr. Sullivan...Ian...I'm glad you're finally here. One of us has been going a little crazy waiting for you to show up," he smiled, then looked towards the back of the room. I followed his eyes, and saw Rusty standing nervously at the entrance to his cubicle/workstation. He gave me the briefest of nervous glances, then looked away shyly.
"Sooooo, I think you two have some things to talk about...and I think I need a cup of coffee right now...real bad...a big cup...I'm sure it will take me a while...you know, I might not even be back until the beginning of third period, sooo..." his voice trailed off.
"Oh ya...one last thing: the door will be locked from the outside. I don't think you two need to worry about getting any unexpected visitors while I'm gone," he said, as he was stepping out the door.
My eyes stayed glued to the back of the door, as it shut behind him with finality. Oh man, my hands were already starting to sweat. I really think I need to sit down.
I heard Rusty clear his throat lightly from behind me, and I turned to face him as I collapsed into a chair. He was walking slowly towards the front of the room with his hands in his pockets, but he froze dead in his tracks when our eyes met again. He seemed really nervous. It even looked like he was shaking slightly.
"Hey," I said softly.
I gave him a little smile, trying to let him know I wasn't totally pissed at him or anything. A brief look of panic crossed his face when he realized it was now his turn to speak, and he couldn't put it off it any longer.
"Um...hey...I, uh...well, I really want to talk to you about...uh, you know...about..." he started to say, and then he paused to choke back a few sobs. I could see the tears running freely down his face. "Shit...I'm sorry...just give me a second. Damn, this is a lot harder than I thought it would be..." he said through his tears, as he wiped his face with his hand.
"It's ok Rusty. I think I...uh...I understand. Just take your time, ok? Take a deep breath and relax. I'm not going anywhere, alright?" I said softly.
He paused for a moment and stared deeply into my eyes, searching yet again for the answer to that question. This time, I sure hope he found the answer he was looking for. My heart was screaming out YES, YES, YES!!! as loud as it could.
His face softened a little bit, and he let out a deep sigh. "I just don't know quite how to tell you how, uh...how sorry I am...and how bad I feel about what I did. I just hope you can forgive me some day...if you give me a another chance, I promise I'll never..." he said, as he started crying again, and his shoulders slumped as his eyes sank down to the floor in embarrassment and defeat. But, with great visible effort, he clenched his fists tightly and willed himself to stop crying. He looked up at me again with determination, and he continued, "I really want you to understand...it just wasn't me talking. It was all my fears acting against me...despite how I really felt inside...I just wasn't strong enough to deal with it. But, I spent all weekend thinking about stuff. I have a lot of things clear in my head now. I'm...uh...I'm ok with who I am. I'm ok with a lot of things, actually...
like how I feel about you," he said, looking down nervously.
I looked back at him, and I just had to smile a little. My heart was totally bursting inside.
"Rusty, in my heart I knew you didn't really mean it...but it means a lot to actually hear you say it. I understand what you've had to live with since Billy died...and I'm glad you're finally getting past it. But mostly, I was just worried about you. It hurt me so much inside to know that you were going through all that painful stuff alone...and, well...all I wanted was to just be there for you...so you wouldn't be...you know...all alone."
He looked at me with a little bit of surprise. "Aren't you upset at me for outing you in front of half the senior class? Why are you more worried about me than about yourself? I just don't get it..." he said quietly. "I'm still not sure I can even forgive myself for what I did."
"Rusty! I told you before...I care about you, ok? I think you're an awesome person. I really liked what I could see at times behind those walls you put up, and it always made me want to see more," I said sincerely. "You're the first person who's ever really given me a chance, accepted me for who I am...and I really appreciate it. A lot."
"As far as getting outed, well...I've always promised myself I would never deny who I am when the time finally came. I've had enough time to come to grips with it, and I'm ok with it. I'm not gonna apologize to anyone for being gay, Rusty. Ever," I said firmly.
"Heck, if anyone had asked, I probably would have just told them anyway," I laughed nervously.
He smiled weakly at that, and then thought to himself for a moment.
"You know, I think I'm really lucky to have you as a...um, well...as a friend," he said earnestly. "But, more than anything, I really do want you to get to know the real me...I want to prove to you so badly that it wasn't really me who did all that stuff...it was...it was just somebody else. Not me," he said, giving me a teary look that just begged for my understanding.
I stood up out of my chair, and moved to stand directly in front of him, as he sat on the edge of a desk.
"Rusty, that's all I've wanted since the day I met you," I said honestly.
He stared into my eyes for a long time again, and I could feel something subtly changing inside me, and inside him. Something was definitely changing between us.
He stood up to face me, took a deep breath, and began again. "You know, dude... Ian...every time I talk to you, you just blow my mind more and more," he said sincerely. "I'm not sure if I even deserve you...but you know...uh...I think I'm really starting to like you...ya know...um, that way," he said shyly, as he looked down at the floor again. He let out a huge sigh.
"God, I cannot even believe I just said that," he muttered slowly to himself. Then, he looked at me in a panic. "Not that I didn't mean it, Ian...I really do mean it...a lot...it's just that, for so many years I never thought I'd ever hear myself actually say that...you know, to another guy. Out loud. It feels kinda strange, but it's ok. It's more than ok, really. It's pretty cool," he said, with his trademark wry smile flashing briefly across his face.
We stood there facing each other for a long time, with our eyes locked together. I could feel his eyes searching my heart...for some assurance that it was ok...that his feelings were safe with me...that he could truly trust me. I tried to open myself entirely to him...I wanted more than anything for him to find what he was looking for inside my heart, because I knew it was in there...it had to be. I could just feel it.
Finally, I couldn't take the intensity of the feelings growing inside me, and my eyes cast downwards for a moment. I took a deep breath. As I stared at my hands, I saw his begin to reach out tentatively for mine, and I responded. He took my hands gently in his. They felt so warm, and so strong...
I think we both shuddered involuntarily at the intensity of the feeling, but it was only because it felt so good. Almost too good. I looked back up into his eyes again, and I could see his tears flowing freely down his face. I'd never seen such softness and vulnerability in those amazingly intense eyes of his, and it tugged powerfully at my feelings. Suddenly, I was completely lost at sea...in the deep blue-green ocean of his eyes. And, I wasn't sure if ever wanted to come back...
If the room hadn't been absolutely silent except for the sounds of our beating hearts, I'm not sure I would have even heard him...but thankfully, I did. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever heard in my life.
In the barest of sobbing, halting whispers I heard him ask, "please...hold me?"
He fell into my arms, and began sobbing even more freely. Heck, by that point I was crying pretty hard myself. We held each other tightly, and we cried.
For a very long time.