This is, it turns out, a story about fear and cowardice. Standard disclaimers would apply if there were any actual sex in this but, as it turns out, there isn't. So, if relationship stories freak you out, or you're looking to get your keyboard sticky, now would be a good time to run away. No, really. Probably the best time, thinking about it.
Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.
* * *
I was digging out my bag from the back of my car, getting ready for yet another swell day of school. It was Monday, so all the books I'd hauled home for homework over the weekend were getting hauled back, along with a week's worth of gym clothes and assorted school crap. The voice startled me enough that I jerked up and smacked the back of my head on the doorframe.
"Ow! What?" I said, looking for whoever it was that'd called out. I suppose it wasn't their fault I smacked my head, but that didn't make it hurt any less.
"Oh, uh... sorry." Behind me was Rob. That kind of figured. Seemed like every time I turned around and got smacked by something, he was involved.
"It's OK, Rob," I said. Mostly OK, at least, since my head was throbbing. "No blood, I'm fine. What do you want?"
"I was wondering if maybe... y'know, after school, if you could come over. I've been thinking about the stuff you wrote last weekend and thought maybe we could, um... do some more?"
Through that whole speech Rob didn't look at me once. I understand the whole 'no eye contact' thing better than I want, but it sort of surprised me that Rob couldn't look at me. I wasn't sure what he was thinking about, so I did my best to memorize what he was doing so I could try and figure it out later. He had his head down, hands in his pants pockets, and scuffing the dirt on the parking lot pavement with a toe. Huh.
Still, it sounded like it could be fun, and Rob'd been sort of avoiding me since we'd gotten back from Atlanta.
"Yeah, sure," I said. "I can come over after track practice this afternoon, OK?"
Rob looked up at me for the first time since this conversation started, with a big smile on his face. "That'd be great. Thanks, Justin."
I spent the rest of the day thinking on and off about clever things to say in Japanese. It's a great language for puns -- it's loaded with homonyms, and it's not tough to find a word that has three or four completely different meanings, and to have a single character have two or three different pronunciations. Well, it's a great language if you're clever about that sort of thing, which I wasn't, really. I knew some of the standard tongue twisters and a few dirty jokes, but nothing clever.
I'd managed to come up with a half dozen or so that weren't too lame, and I swung by my house to pick up some books before I went over to Rob's place. Most of the books were reference things, school books I shouldn't have taken home last year but did anyway, my good kanji dictionary, and a couple of 'culture of Japan' things I'd harassed my parents into buying for me when I was trying to get ready to be an exchange student. I grabbed a couple of volumes of gag manga too. I figured that if my puns weren't good enough then we could maybe steal someone else's.
It was weird -- this was, I think, the first time I was going over Rob's house to visit Rob, knowing exactly what I was doing. Other than the first time, when I didn't know who lived there, and the times I went over pissed at Rob for hiding from me when I posed for his art class, all my trips had been to see his mother. Honestly, I don't think I'd spent more than twenty minutes at Rob's house actually dealing with Rob the past six months.
That I actually wanted to do this was rattling around my brain and leaving me a little confused as I rang the bell. Rob opened the door before the chime had finished. That was pretty fast -- he must've been in the kitchen or something.
"Hey, Justin, you made it!"
He made it sound like I was going to forget. Go figure, he'd only asked this morning.
"Yep, I'm here. Sorry I was late. Had to stop at home to pick up some reference books." Now, I wasn't actually late, since we'd not set up a time or anything like that. The apology'd just slipped out. That was one downside to digging back into my Japanese stuff. I apologized for more things.
"It's no problem, Justin," Rob said, moving out of the way so I could enter. "I'm glad you could make it."
"Where are we set up?" I asked.
"The living room," Rob said from behind me. I heard him shut the door as I headed into the living room.
Rob had pulled out a whole bunch of stuff for this. The living room had this huge window looking out into the back yard, and even in the winter it let in a lot more light than I expected it would. There was an easel set up in front of the window, placed so that when you sat at the thing your back was to the window. I guess it got better light that way or something. The coffee table had a few spiral-bound pads of drawing paper scattered around it, and there were colored pencils everywhere.
"Looks like you're ready to go," I said, looking at the mess. It was an artistic mess, I guess. For a second I had this wild idea that maybe the room was performance art, and I ought to spell out dirty haiku in colored pencils on the rug, in Japanese. Probably not, though.
"I was just sketching. It's not working too well, though," he said. The pads had pictures of geisha girls, that tsunami wave thing that everyone puts on Japanese postcards, and Mt. Fuji. At least I think it was Mt. Fuji -- the Godzilla head poking out of the top was kind of a giveaway, even if the shape didn't match what I remembered it looking like.
"I dunno. These don't look too bad," I said, dropping my books and plopping myself onto the couch. "Anyway, so you're looking for some sayings, right? You want the gag stuff like in the restaurant, or something real?"
Rob was quiet for a few minutes, looking out the window onto the back yard. I couldn't tell what he was thinking, but the funny thing was it didn't bug me. I mean, up until now I'd not really spent any time alone with Rob, and what time I did spend mostly just with him all had some reason, something I could concentrate on. This time... this time it didn't. I was just really hanging out with Rob. I'd never done that before.
What was weird was that I wasn't bothered. Honestly, I was actually kind of comfortable, just lounging on his couch as he stood there, the same way that I was when we were walking in Atlanta last week. That sort of surprised me.
"Maybe..." he started, then fell silent again. "I think I'd like to do something real. Not a joke, you know? Something that means something."
"Oh, OK," I said. That definitely left me at a loss. I'd spent most of my free time in class today coming up with silly stuff, and while I hadn't managed much that didn't suck, I at least had some things. Meaningful, though ... that I didn't have.
What I did have with me, though, were some of my textbooks. While a lot of them were 'see Dick run' sort of stuff, I did have a couple of books with chunks of what someone considered classic literature. I flipped through one of them and got lucky -- it had a collection of haiku by Basho, who'd apparently been a famous poet for the past three hundred years.
Poetry had never been my thing ... it was something I just didn't get. Still, it was arty, and these were well-regarded. Doubly lucky for me there were English translations for at least some of them, so Rob wouldn't have to try and make sense of my translating art I didn't understand from one language to another.
"Are these what you're looking for?" I asked, as I showed him the page I'd opened to. "There's an English translation for some of them. I'm not sure how good it is."
Rob looked at me with a puzzled expression.
"It's poetry," I said, feeling a little embarrassed. "I don't get it. They're supposed to be kind of good, though."
Rob read them. I could tell he was concentrating, from watching his face, but I couldn't tell how he felt about them. Still, it didn't matter. If he liked 'em that was great, and if not, we could find something else. We had a few hundred years of modern literature to dig through and I was pretty sure we could come up with something.
"Mmmm," Rob said, breaking the silence, "I like these four." He pointed at the ones he had in mind. I grabbed a pen out of my pocket and marked them off so I wouldn't forget. There were rabbits and flowers involved, and I had no idea what they were really about, but rabbits and flowers probably made for good art, so that was OK.
"Huh, no problem," I said, looking at them. The kanji weren't that difficult, and they looked pretty good, at least in their typeset forms. I tried to figure out what they'd look like when handwritten, but I couldn't quite wrap my head around that.
"Could I grab some paper? I want to see how these look when they're written out."
"Sure," Rob said. He grabbed a drawing pad from off an end table and handed it to me with a pen.
I studied the first poem for a bit, trying to wrap my brain around the rhythm of the thing, and sketched out the first few characters of it onto the pad. Rob was staring over my shoulder at it, and when I looked up he was giving me a look I couldn't make out.
"What?" I asked.
"They don't look the same," he said. "What you wrote and what's in the book. They aren't the same thing."
"Huh? Oh, right," I said, looking down at the pad. I'd read the poem and then just wrote it out the way I would've if someone had been reading the poem and I was copying it down. "They don't. That's kind of the way it is. Some of the characters look almost identical when you write them out, and some look completely different. Handwritten versions are usually sort of simpler -- some of the characters are pretty complex. This one here," I pointed at one of the characters, "has thirteen different pen strokes in it. Nobody writes it that way, it'd take too long."
"Oh," said Rob. He sounded... disappointed? Maybe a little sad, I wasn't sure. He definitely didn't look happy, though, and looking down at what I'd written I couldn't really blame him. My handwriting's just fine, but it was just that -- handwriting. It wasn't anything like the neat printed characters, or the formal flowing stuff you get with calligraphy.
"Um, if you want I can do it both ways. Y'know, once the way I'd just write it, and once the way someone would do it if they were doing formal calligraphy. You can decide which you like better..." I just let that trail off. The comfort I'd felt earlier was gone, and I suddenly felt guilty, like I'd let him down.
"It's OK," he said.
I cut him off. "No, no, that's fine. You want something like this, right?" This time I took more time and more care, and painted the character with the pen, rather than drawing it. The more formal version was obviously better looking, even to my eye, and while I certainly wasn't going to win any calligraphy prizes, I could tell by the way Rob's face lit up that this was what he wanted.
"Yeeaah," he said. He drew the word out, more breathing it than saying it. Rob just stared at the paper, his face a mask of concentration.
"You can probably do them better," I said. "You're the artist and all."
"Can you... show me?" he asked quietly.
I wasn't sure what he was talking about, exactly, since I'd just written the first poem and he'd been watching. I figured it had to be something else. I just couldn't figure out what exactly it was.
"Um, sure," I said. "What do you need?"
"Just..." he trailed off. "I need to know how it feels, Justin."
That, unfortunately, wasn't much of an explanation. Must be some sort of art thing or something.
"How what feels?" I asked.
"The... movement," he replied with a little hesitation.
I'm sure I gave him a big puzzled look before it hit me what he was talking about. "Oh, right, I get it. Never done any Japanese calligraphy? It's pretty easy," I said. I grabbed a long pencil off the table. It wasn't exactly a brush, but then I wasn't a calligrapher either, so it was probably fine.
"Here," I said, patting the couch cushion next to me. "Sit, and grab this." I waggled the pencil at him. Rob sat down and put his hand over mine. He was shaking a little, which I thought was weird. That's got to make it tough to draw straight lines.
With Rob holding on, I sketched out some of the simpler characters two or three times each, letting him feel how the pen moved. He was a quick study, and by the eighth character his hand had stopped shaking and he was doing just fine.
"Good," I said when we finished. "You've got the hang of it. They're all pretty much the same. Just draw the lines in the right order and it should look fine."
Rob went over to his easel, and while he sketched, I took a lot of paper and very carefully started drawing all the characters stroke by stroke. I used one of his markers with a huge tip, one that left lines that had to be an inch wide, and tried my best to make everything as big and clear as possible. Each character took a single page of paper, and after I drew it I took another pen and marked off the starting and ending points, labeling each line with the order in which it was supposed to be drawn. My dictionary had a little diagram for each character showing it being drawn line by line, and for good measure I copied that onto the bottom of each page. That took a while -- a thirteen stroke character had thirteen little pictures at the bottom. I had to redo things more than once as my hand got away from me and kept on going when it should've stopped.
It took a couple of hours, and by the time I was done it was dark out. The clock on the mantel said it was past seven, and I was a little surprised that Mrs. Greene hadn't come in to say hello.
With nothing left for me to do, all I had was to watch Rob at the easel, drawing away. I wanted to go and look at what he was doing, but I wasn't sure if I should or not. I remembered some of the people in the art class getting pissed at me for trying to look at the pictures they'd drawn because they weren't done, and I wasn't sure if Rob would be like that.
That left me at sort of a loss. I found I did like just sitting there and watching Rob work, but it wasn't really comfortable. I admit, I didn't want to bring it up, but it had been a week since we'd gone for sushi, and Rob hadn't said a word about the kiss I'd laid on him. I had been feeling a little guilty about it, too -- I knew nobody would say anything about it, but I hadn't exactly asked him if he wanted to go kissing in public. He didn't seem bothered by it now, and that made me kind of happy. Coach made it clear Rob'd dropped football, my friends all didn't care, and his mom seemed fine with Rob being gay, so I didn't see any big reason for him not to be out, and if he was, well...
I still wasn't going to be the one to ask, not until I knew he was out. That'd mean hiding, and I just don't do that well. I wasn't going to drag him out of the closet either. That was his decision to make. Still, I was hoping he'd ask. Since he wasn't saying anything, I figured I'd better say something.
"Uh, Rob, about last week..."
He looked up. "Yeah," he said. "That was fun. We should do it again some time."
Right, so that wasn't what I was expecting. I needed to start again. Maybe bluntness would be better.
"Rob, I was talking about the kiss. I kissed you. You kissed back."
Maybe it wouldn't be better. Rob looked totally panicked, to the point where he dumped himself off his stool and knocked over his easel.
"It's not... I mean, I don't... I didn't mean... I'm not, um..."
"Oh, god," I said, groaning. I should've known, I really should have. Fuck, anyone with half a brain would've known. Pity I didn't have that half. "Never mind. I get the message, Rob."
I stood up and collected my books, and looked at him a little sadly. "I should go. I think it's best. You've got what you need to do your project. If you want me for anything else... just ask."
I left. Rob didn't stop me. I was half-hoping he would.
* * *
"Hey, wait up a second!"
I was walking out to my car after track practice when the voice called out. I looked around and saw a familiar face heading my way.
"Hi, Dan," I said. "What's up?"
"Not much," he said, catching his breath. Kinda strange -- I'd have figured someone who swam competitively would've had better endurance.
"Hey, I meant to thank you. Working out with Rick and all. It's made a big difference for him." And it had. Puberty had hit Rick with a vengeance, and he'd put on nearly five inches since New Year's. There were days I swear he was noticeably taller in the afternoon. If it wasn't for the workouts he'd been doing, he'd have been bean-pole skinny. He still wasn't built like his brother, and probably never would be, but he was moving well and looking pretty good. Melanie certainly wasn't complaining.
"I'm glad to do it. Rick's turned out to be a good friend."
Social practice or not, I'd run out of things to say, and I still hadn't gotten the hang of small talk. Dan was just standing in front of me, fidgeting. It was kind of cute, really, though I didn't know why. He looked good. Nervous, but good.
I debated just begging off and leaving, but Dan was just standing there and squirming. He wasn't showing any signs of actually leaving, and he hadn't said anything worth actually running after me. I went through the list of things Melanie and Trevor had talked to me about. The way Dan was acting, he either had to go to the bathroom, or had something to say he wasn't comfortable with. Rural Georgia or not, we were in the middle of a parking lot, so I figured he didn't have to pee, which left having something to say that he couldn't. Dan seemed like a nice enough guy, so I figured I'd push a little, just to make sure.
"And you were going to say...?" I let it trail off and hoped he'd fill in the blank.
"What?" Or maybe not, and maybe he did need a bathroom. Melanie'd told me people often don't take a hint, though, so maybe not. Well, OK, she told me I wouldn't recognize a hint if someone hit me with it, but she said I wasn't that much more clueless than most guys. I wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a good thing or not. Anyway, I knew I needed to push if he was going to say whatever it was he wanted me to know but didn't want to say.
"You're standing there fidgeting. There's something you want to say or ask, but you're uncomfortable or don't know how, right?" I decided to leave off the bathroom option, just in case.
He gaped at me. Bingo.
"I've had advanced social training," I said wryly, thinking of the times Melanie and Trevor had play-acted common high school conversations with me. "I'm impossible to offend, so spill it. What's up?"
He fidgeted a little more, so lightly I poked him in the stomach. He suppressed a laugh. He was ticklish. I'd have to remember that.
"I could tickle it out of you," I threatened.
"Okay, I give," he said, throwing his arms up in the air in surrender. "I was talking with Rick, and he said you were...um..." Dan trailed off.
I knew exactly where this was going, remembering Dan's reactions that first day we met in the weight room. This was even one of the conversations Melanie'd run me through. Having scripts to work with definitely helped.
"Yes," I said firmly. "He's right. I'm a Yankee."
Dan's head shot up and he stared at me in shock. "What?"
"And gay too, if you were curious about that." I grinned at him. He blushed, but didn't say anything. I gave it another minute or so, since I figured he had something else to say, but I wasn't sure what, and at this point he needed to be the one saying it anyway.
"So," I said, breaking the silence, "need a ride home or anything?" Not the most sparkling conversation, but I'd been told not to try sparkling ... for me, that just came across as silly.
Now, I figured he probably didn't need a ride. It was well past the end of school, so either he lived within walking distance or he had a car, but it was a good excuse to give things a little more time. I was sort of glad he took me up on it. His shyness was... endearing, I guess. Besides, I figured from his question and the way he'd looked at me that he was gay too, and it was nice to spend a little time with someone who wasn't a mass of messed-up insecurities. Or at least if he had any, I didn't know about them, and that was good enough for now.
I pulled out, and Dan gave me directions. As I figured, his house was within walking distance if you pushed it. The drive was quiet. I kept looking over at Dan, but he had his eyes down and was still fidgeting. I resisted the urge to pat him on the shoulder.
We got to his house in a few minutes, and still no conversation. I parked in the driveway and saw there weren't any other cars, so we were alone, or good as. This, I figured, was going to be it -- if he couldn't work up the nerve to say whatever he had to say now, he probably never would. I was curious. Time to push a little.
"You look like you've got something to say," I started, "and if you don't say it now, you're never going to work up the nerve to say it again. So... what? It's OK, I don't bite, really." I smiled at him, though with his eyes fixed on his shoes he probably didn't see it.
No luck. Plan B.
Plan B, in this case, was evil and nasty. I started tickling him. Dan broke out laughing and squirming, trying in vain to stop me. I was persistent, we were in close quarters, and he still had his seatbelt on. He didn't have a chance.
"Okay, okay, stop! I'll say it," he finally got out between laughs and wheezes. "Justin," he said, looking me straight in the eyes, "would you go out with me Saturday?"
It's a testament to all the work Melanie'd put into me that this was one of the things I actually expected might happen. I even had an answer for it, which was good. If this had blindsided me, I'd have gaped a bit and said something stupid.
"Maybe," I said. Dan's face fell at that, but I put my hand on his. "No, it's not bad, really. There are just two conditions, and a question.
"First, you've got to be OK with being out. I'm not saying I'll be all over you at school or anything, but I bet Rick's told you about my... sub-standard social skills. I don't want you going into this thinking we can keep it secret, since I really can't promise that.
"Second, your parents have to be OK with this. Same reason -- we'll be out, and they'll find out if they don't know already. They've got to know before we go out."
Dan looked at me for a second. "I can do that. My mom already knows, and everyone thinks all the guys on the swim team are gay anyway, so it's not like I'll catch any more shit because of it. Besides," he said, looking at me with a grin, "nobody at school wants to mess with the guy I'd be going out with."
We both chuckled at that. My reputation at school was a standing joke with my friends. I'd even mostly gotten comfortable with it, since the people who mattered to me didn't care.
"What's the question?" Dan asked.
I gave a sigh at that. "It's a question I have to ask someone else," I replied. He cocked an eyebrow at me. "I promised someone else I'd date them if they asked, same conditions. They haven't, but I don't go back on my word, so I have to give them one last chance."
Dan looked a little sad at that. "It's OK," he said, "I think I understand."
"I want to go out with you. Really. But I did promise," I explained. "It's been ages, and nothing so far. I don't think another day will matter, but I have to ask. Here," I said, handing him a piece of paper, "give me your phone number. I'll call you tonight and let you know. I promise."
"And you always keep your promises, right?" Dan had a grin.
"Always," I said.
* * *
And now, for the uncomfortable part, talking with Rob. Yeah, I should've just blown him off, after what happened the last time I was over, but I really couldn't. I'd promised him, way back when he did that stupid make-up fight, that if he asked me out I'd go. I wasn't going to cheat on anyone, though, so if he wanted to go out this was going to be his last shot for a while.
It was just my luck; Rob answered the door when I rang the bell. He looked at me with some surprise. While I'd been over a few times a month, I had never dropped in unannounced just to visit him, and I'm sure he wasn't expecting me, especially given how I'd left the last time.
"Hi, Rob. Can I come in? We need to talk." As soon as the words left my mouth I knew they were a mistake. The last thing you should ever say when you need to talk to someone is 'we need to talk.' I saw from his face this wasn't a good thing.
"Sure," he said uncertainly, opening the door for me. I walked in and headed into the living room. I should've sat down, but I was fidgety, so I started pacing instead.
Rob looked at me uncertainly. "What's going on Justin? You look nervous. I didn't think you could be nervous."
"Funny, isn't it? One of the downsides of joining the human race, I guess." I probably shouldn't have said that, but I did. It's true, though. The past months had been really good for me, but with the good comes the bad. Time to just spit it out.
"Rob," I said, a little hesitantly, "you remember what I said a few months ago in the nurse's office, after the fight?"
"You said a lot of things," he said, his tone guarded.
"Yeah. I remember that." I could tell he was still uncomfortable with it.
"I've got to ask, Rob. Are you going to ask me out on a date?"
He looked shocked, and surprised, and a little panicked.
"I'm not asking you," I said. "I told you, if you wanted to you'd have to ask. What I need to know is... are you going to ask?"
He was quiet for a bit. "Why?" he asked softly, not looking at me.
"Because someone else has asked me," I replied. "I haven't said yes to him yet. And I won't, if you ask. I told you my conditions then. They haven't changed, and I haven't withdrawn the offer, so if you ask I will go out with you. But if you don't ask, then I'm telling someone else yes."
I could see the struggle in Rob. I knew he wanted to, but I knew he was afraid as well, and it was tearing at him. If I dated Dan it'd hurt Rob badly, and I really did hate that thought, but it was my life, and I had to live it for me, not anyone else.
"I'm not saying, Rob. Once we start dating he's out, and I'll say then. But until we make it official I'm not going to out him, the same way I won't out you. I'm sorry, but I can't."
"Justin, I... I can't," he whispered. "I can't do it."
I didn't think so. I did like Rob, and I'd hoped he could do it, I really had, for his sake. It wasn't the same, what he and I had gone through, but I knew what it felt like to throw off the masks and just live. It's a good feeling, but you can't take someone else's mask off for them, not without hurting them very badly.
"I'm sorry, Rob, I really am. We can still be friends," I offered, though I knew we really couldn't, not now at least.
"Thanks," he said, a little bitterly.
There wasn't anything to be said after that, so I didn't.
* * *
While I'd like to say that Dan was the love of my life and we lived happily ever after, that's not the way it turned out. Not a big surprise; it wasn't what either of us expected, which was fine. I was Dan's first boyfriend, and he was barely my second. He was also a senior, and off to college in the fall, so we both knew going in that this'd only last a few months.
Still, it was a great few months. We got along pretty well and had a good time doing it. The fact that we knew it was going to end actually helped, since it didn't take too long to find out that we really weren't cut out for a long term relationship together. While we didn't really grate on each other, neither did we truly click. We used the time to figure out how to figure out what the other wanted, and what we wanted.
Learning about sex was fun too, but we won't go there, even though Dan and I did, as often as possible. Dating someone who can hold his breath for five minutes is an experience I can definitely recommend. And hot tubs. Definitely hot tubs.
We ended up parting as friends mid-May, and despite myconditions, I don't think more than a couple of dozen people ever knew we were dating. That surprised me, since I expected the news to rip through the school within a day of our first date. Guess you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. Most of the drama folks knew we were going out, as well as some of the other guys who swam with Dan. Rick and Melanie knew, of course, as did Rob.
Rob was the one downside to it all. I knew when I started that I wasn't going to not date because of him, and I tried not to feel guilty knowing how he felt, but... I did anyway. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but when we saw each other in school it was really clear that he was miserable. I felt bad because I knew I was partially the cause of that unhappiness.
I wasn't the only one who'd noticed, either. He'd stopped hanging out with most of his football cronies before the play, and by now, in late spring, he wasn't talking with any of them. He'd mostly withdrawn from everyone, really, even Melanie -- they'd officially broken up in late April, two weeks before her birthday, as a sort of present to her, and she only saw him in the halls between classes. In a way it was sort of strange; Rob'd started out the year popular, athletic, and social, while I was lonely and withdrawn. Now that the year was nearly over we'd changed places. I felt kind of bad about that, but I wasn't sure why. Or what to do about it.
* * *
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