The rest of that weekend and the following week were interesting to say the least. Even after his brother had calmed down and apologized for his outburst, Jason tended to walk around as though on eggshells. We continued to eat dinner together, and I did what I could to keep the conversation going, but sometimes it was like pulling teeth.
Saturday was pleasant enough. I had sent Mitchell to his own bed when I turned in Friday night, and he was up early and off to his part time job. I think Alex must have been watching out his living room window, because he was knocking on our front door within two minutes after Mitchell left.
"Hi, Uncle Pop. Is Jason up yet?"
"Nope. You know Jason. He likes to sleep late on Saturdays. You're up kind of early aren't you?"
"Yeah, but I didn't sleep too good. I was really kind of worried about Jason. You sure he's OK?"
"Yes, Alex, Jason's OK. At least there aren't any physical scars. Although there might be some emotional bruises. Mitchell was pretty rough on you guys, wasn't he."
"I'll say. Am I gonna be able to come over here again? I mean, he told me never to come back."
Just saying those few words brought tears to the boy's eyes. He had obviously been hurt by what Mitchell had said and done. I reached out for him and he quickly pressed himself against me, his arms circling my waist, his face buried against my chest.
I hugged him for a while as I gave him what reassurances I could.
"It's OK, Alex. Mitchell and I had a pretty good talk last night, and I'm sure we're going to have some more over the next several days. But you don't have to worry about him. He's really sorry for the things he said and did, but he needs to tell you that himself."
"Thank God for that, Uncle Pop. I was really scared."
"Why don't you run on upstairs and see about waking our sleeping beauty?"
After one last hug, Alex went quietly up the stairs and into Jason's room. I watched as he turned to look down at me just before shutting the door, and I noticed he didn't close it all the way, a signal that I was welcome to come in later if I wanted to.
Of course, Alex had no intention of waking Jason. By the time he reached the bed, he had stripped down to his Fruit of the Looms. As he slipped under the covers to cuddle his boyfriend, Jason opened his eyes.
"Oh Alex, I'm so glad you're here," he said, as he wrapped his arms around his friend. "I had this really strange dream that Mitchell came in and laid down with me. He was saying that he loved me and was stroking my hair and all sorts of strange stuff. Is he out there? Is it safe for you to be here?"
Alex wiped a tear from Jason's cheek and then from his own. Then he leaned forward and kissed him gently on the lips before speaking.
"Yeah, it's safe. Mitchell's already left for work. And it wasn't a dream. Uncle Pop told me about that. After he and Mitchell talked some, they heard you screaming. A nightmare, I guess. Uncle Pop was going to come in but Mitchell insisted on doing it. He really did come in and lay down with you. And he really was saying those things and hugging you and rubbing your hair and stuff."
Jason closed his eyes, a slight smile on his lips, as Alex snuggled down under the covers and wrapped him in his arms. They fell into a peaceful asleep, somehow knowing that I would come up and close the door if it became necessary. It wasn't necessary to close the door, but I did go up and look in on them.
I stood in the doorway for a long time, marveling at how beautiful two boys that age can be in the position they were in. I also marveled at how much I had changed over the past few years. Five years before, I would have reacted so much differently. As I looked at my son, well, almost my son... sort of... kind of... and his boyfriend, I realized I liked the new me.
The boys got up about two hours later and stumbled downstairs in their FOL's for some breakfast. They were munching on some Fruit Loops (don't laugh!) when I joined them with my mid-morning glass of Pepsi.
"You guys doing OK?"
"Sure, Pop, I guess."
Except for the boys crunching their cereal and me belching from the soda, we sat in silence for awhile.
"Mitchell kinda went nuts yesterday, huh, Pop."
"Yeah, Jason, I guess he did. But you sort of thought he might react badly, didn't you? You were actually afraid to tell him, weren't you?"
Jason hesitated before answering me.
"Yeah, I suppose so."
"You want to tell me about? Or would you rather talk some other time?"
I was trying to give him a way out of speaking in front of Alex. But he didn't need it.
"That's OK, Pop, we can talk in front of Alex. He probably needs to know this stuff too. It all goes back to our dad and how he hated queers. He never got on me about it, but every time he and Mitchell went white water rafting, Mitchell would come home all fired up about gay people. He never talked about 'em any other time. I mean, Mitchell likes everybody. But when dad got to him, he sort of changed for a while. I just figured that he'd react the same way dad would have. And he did.... Boy, did he ever."
The three of us sat there without speaking for several minutes. Thinking of his dad and how he hated what Jason was had obviously upset the boy, and tears were flowing down his cheeks. Alex reached over and grabbed hold of his hand, and they sat there holding hands while I got up to get some tissues.
It really hurt me to see Jason crying like that. As I knelt down beside his chair to hand him the tissues, he turned and threw himself into my arms, throwing his arms around my neck and burying his face in the hollow of my shoulder.
"Why'd dad have to be that way, Pop? Why did he have to hate me? Why'd he have to turn Mitchell into a gay hater like him? Mitchell's my brother, Pop. I love him with all my heart, and now he hates me!"
This time I couldn't hold back my tears. As Jason sobbed against me, I wept with him. Pretty soon, Alex joined us and wrapped his arms around Jason from behind, laying his head on Jason's back, trapping my hands between them.
Once we had our emotions under control, I moved back from Jason's embrace. Alex had moved to straddle the chair behind Jason so he could hug his boyfriend from behind. I looked at both of them as I spoke.
"Jason, your dad didn't hate you. He didn't know you were going to fall in love with Alex. He loved you very much. You have to remember that."
"But he hated gays, and that's what I am. And now Mitchell hates me."
"I'm pretty sure Mitchell doesn't hate you, Jason. In fact, I'm real sure. The real Mitchell is the brother you love so much. Deep down inside, he's good, and decent, and caring. And he adores his little brother. This stuff about gays is basically just some baggage he's carrying around from your dad. I'm sorry your memory of your dad has to have this bit of reality in it, but there's nothing any of us can do about that. Your dad was a good man and a good father. We all have our faults, and being homophobic was one of your dad's. Just try to remember the good parts and leave the trash behind. OK?"
"Yeah. OK. I'll try." Sniff.
"As for Mitchell. Well he was feeling pretty bad last night about how he reacted when he caught you guys kissing. He really does love you very much. It's just that he's going to need some time to work on the garbage your dad saddled him with. But you know Mitchell. He's a thinker. Give him some time, and give the two of us some space, and he'll come around. I'm sure of it."
"OK, Pop. Maybe I'll spend the night over at Alex's tonight."
"Good idea. But don't think you can hide from him. I want us all to sit down to dinner together tonight. That includes you, Alex, if you want to join us."
"Thanks, Uncle Pop. I'll think about it."
The boys cleaned up their dishes and joined me in the TV room where we channel surfed for a couple of hours. It was both fun and sad to watch them together. While I enjoyed seeing them share their love for one another in little ways, like looks, hugs, and little kisses, I could tell they were not going to get over yesterday's experience in just 12 or even 24 hours.
Jason and Alex were quieter than normal, more subdued. But if anything, they seemed to be more closely bonded to each other than before. Somehow this experience had molded them into a stronger relationship, one tempered by the fire of bigotry and prejudice. I couldn't help thinking that, like alcohol, if they had to experience it, I was glad it was at home where I could observe and help rather than some place where they would have been even more vulnerable.
Interestingly enough, I felt that Mitchell was probably going to come out of this experience more quickly than his brother and Alex. His behavior and attitude that morning had already shown progress. He was more his old self than Jason and Alex were.
As I watched Jason and Alex cuddled up on the couch, sharing looks of love, trading quick kisses on hands, arms, necks, cheeks, and even on the lips a few times, and thought of Mitchell, I shed a few tears. I loved these guys so much, and I was thankful that God had loaned them to me when He did, but I still felt the bittersweet pangs of grief that they would never really be my sons. They would always be somebody else's. I would never hear a boy's voice call me dad. But then I remembered Mitchell's comment last night, and I brightened up. At least he knew how much I loved him.
Dinner was cordial if nothing else. It was obvious that Mitchell was really trying to make up for the way he had behaved the day before. But it was just as obvious that he was having to work at it. Jason and Alex seemed to be trying to help him, but they were not as jovial and talkative as usual.
As soon as the dinner dishes were done and the kitchen cleaned up, the younger boys headed over to Alex's house. Jason took his church clothes with him as we had agreed he would ride down with Alex's folks. We agreed that for the time being, Alex didn't need to tell his folks what had happened.
I was feeling rather nervous about just how to broach the subject of Jason and Alex's relationship and Mitchell's reaction to it and had just sat down in my favorite chair when Mitchell took the matter out of my hands. He came into the TV room and stood by my chair.
"Pop, can we go in the kitchen and talk?"
"Sure, Mitchell. But what's wrong with right here?"
"Wrong setting, Pop. The chairs are too comfortable and too far apart."
An interesting response, I thought, as we headed for the kitchen. Mitchell grabbed a glass of water and I poured myself a Pepsi. Then we took seats on opposite sides of the table.
"I need to apologize, Pop, for the way I acted yesterday, for the things I said and did to Jason and Alex."
"Yes, I guess you do, Mitchell. And I accept your apology. But it's Jason and Alex who really deserve an apology."
"I already talked to them, Pop, right before dinner. I told each of them I was sorry for saying the things I did and for slapping Jason that way. I didn't tell them what you did, but I was thinking about it all the time."
"So where do we go from here, Mitchell? You ready to talk about it?"
"Well, sure, Pop. That's why I asked you to come in here."
He was silent for a while and I held my tongue, letting him gather his thoughts. He took a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. I could tell this was going to be tough for him.
"I guess I've suspected something like this was going on with Jason and Alex for a long time, Pop. I'm sure you all have thought I was blind or unobservant, but I'm not. I've seen how they look at each other when they think I'm not looking. I see them holding hands all the time. They're all the time pawing each other. You know, laying their hands on each other's arm when they talk or on each other's shoulder. But I've been praying real hard that I was mistaken, that Jason wasn't queer."
"I don't particularly like that word, Mitchell, and I don't like labels either."
"Well, shit Pop, what do you want me to call them? Homos? Gays? Faggots? It's all the same. That's what dad would have called him. That's what he always called guys who like other guys."
"Hold it, son. Let's get something straight at the beginning. I know we both used some pretty powerful gutter language yesterday when you were angry and when I was trying to make a point. But you know as well as I do that four letter words aren't necessary to have a meaningful dialogue."
He was silent for a moment, perhaps surprised at my response, but definitely thinking about something.
"You're right, Pop. I'm sorry. And I have a confession to make, too."
I waited for him to continue, allowing him to proceed at his own pace, without prodding or pushing.
"I didn't go to work today. I called Mr. Badner and told him I needed some time to myself. He said things were slow at the store and not to worry about it. So I went over to the park, done in that far corner where nobody ever goes. I spent the whole day just walking around, sitting on the bench, lying in the grass, thinking about things. And I'm just as confused now as I was before.
Everything dad ever told me about guys that like other guys was bad. We didn't talk about it a lot, but when we did, it was obvious where he stood. I mean, he told me that the whole gay community here in town was rife with AIDS. He said you didn't dare sit down on a toilet in certain restaurants for fear of catching it or some form of VD."
"He said THAT?!"
"Yeah! He said everybody knows you can get AIDS from toilet seats or sneezes or even from breathing in the virus from someone's clothes, like if you hug 'em or something."
"Oh gimme a break, Mitchell! You believe that garbage?"
"Well sure, Pop. Dad never lied to me!"
"Au contraire, son. That line of bs is one of the biggest lies I ever heard. Didn't you ever study this stuff in school? Haven't you paid any attention to newscasts on TV?"
"Sure, but dad always said that stuff was a bunch of lies promoted by the liberals in Congress. I just accepted what he said as the truth. After all, he was my dad."
"Well let me tell you something. You know those weekend retreats I go on every two or three years? Well I was on one eight years ago with a young man who was dying of AIDS. We spent the better part of that weekend sitting as close as you and I are right now. We hugged over and over again throughout the weekend. He even cried on my shoulder several times. I knew he had AIDS. We all did. He told us. But do you think that made any difference? Don't you think if what your dad said were true that after eight years I'd be showing signs of being HIV positive? And yet every two weeks I go over to the blood bank and donate platelets. And each time I donate, they have to check for the virus."
He looked at me in silence and I let him. For once in my life, I let the silence hang in the air, allowing him to think through what we had just said.
"But what about living in the same house with one, Pop? Sooner or later Jason is going to get it. They all do. Aren't you worried about getting it from him eventually?"
"What do you mean they all get it?"
"That's what dad said. He said that sooner or later every man who lays down with another man was going to get AIDS, that it was God's way of punishing people like that."
About this time I'm starting to get really pissed at Tom. For a man whom I respected and who seemed to be pretty level-headed out in public, this guy was turning out to be a real idiot when it came to his bigotry.
"Come on, Mitchell. Think about what you're saying. Think about what you've heard from every source other than your dad. What are the two most common means of transmitting the virus? And forget about sneezes and toilet seats."
"Sex and drugs, needles."
"Right. Now, is Jason a needle user? Is he on coke or heroin or anything else I don't know about?"
"Heck no, Pop. You know Jason hates getting legal shots. He'd never get into that kind of stuff. Heck, the way he hates how antibiotics make him woozy, he'll never even try weed."
"So that leaves sex, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"So how many people do you think Jason's been having sex with?"
"Only one, Pop, you know that."
"What? How many?"
"Your brother's only 14, Mitchell. Except for masturbation, he and Alex haven't done anything at all. They aren't 'having sex' any more than you and Tammy are."
He actually blushed at that comment. It made me wonder what I might be missing in his relationship with his girlfriend.
"And how about straight sex, Mitchell? Do you really believe, with all we've heard on TV and read in the newspapers, that AIDS is a gay disease? What about that big name basketball player, whats'isname? Did he get HIV from sleeping with thousands of guys? No! By his own admission, if you can believe him, he slept with about a thousand different women. How many of them had it or have it now?"
"Ok. So I guess I've been pretty stupid when it comes to accepting what dad was telling me about AIDS. But what about Jason's behavior, dad. Pretty soon he's going to develop a lisp and start walking with a swish and everybody's going to know and start laughing at us behind our backs!"
I looked at him and thought I saw tears starting to pool in his eyes. Where had Tom gotten this crap he had been feeding his son?
"I suppose your dad told you to expect that from guys who like guys, huh?"
"Yeah. He said they all acted that way. That you could always tell a queer...sorry, I mean guys like that a mile away."
"Is that so?"
"Yeah. And he proved it. He'd take me downtown every once in awhile in the squad car and point them out to me at the gay bars and on the streets. I got to the point where I could identify gays and lesbians by the way they walked and dressed and even stood."
"Interesting. That easily, huh?"
"Sure. Now everybody's going to be able to tell my brother is that way, and I'm going to lose my friends and become the laughing stock of my classmates."
I sat in silence for a minute or two, thinking to myself. This kid is more worried about what other people are going to think of him than he is about Jason.
"So. What's the name of our church organist, Mitchell?"
"Charlie Adams. Why?"
"And how long have you known him?"
"Ever since he came to the church, about five years ago I guess. Why?"
"He's gay, Mitchell."
"Yep. To use his words, 'queer as a three dollar bill'. You know Dean? Sings tenor in the second service choir?"
"They live together. They're life partners. Been together for about fifteen years."
"You know Sandy and Madge? The ladies who work with the kids at church camp?"
"Yeah. They're the ones who pray for people and get messages from God and then put them down on the placemats we use at dinner."
"They're lesbians, Mitchell. They've been partners for twenty-five years now. Sandy's the homemaker, Madge is the 'breadwinner' so to speak."
"But none of them act that way."
"Need I say more?"
Once again we sat in silence as he thought about what his dad had taught him and came to realize that most of it was garbage.
I guess we could have talked a lot more that night. There was certainly a lot more to discuss. But by this time it was late and we needed to get to bed. So we agreed to sleep on what we had talked about so far and continue our discussions later.
And we did just that. Every night that week we sat down to dinner, the boys did their homework, and I would tuck Jason into bed. It pleased me no end that even at the age of 14, he wanted to be tucked in and share goodnight kisses with me. We had a little ritual that we used every night as I turned the lights out and shut the door.
"Good night, Jason. Sleep tight, and don't let the bed bugs bite."
"Good night, Pop. I love you."
"I love you, too, Jason."
And each night, Mitchell would join me at the kitchen table to continue our discussion. We talked about every aspect of homosexuality that we could think of, every little thing that Mitchell could conjure up of what his dad had taught him. And little by little, piece by piece, we tore down the walls of bigotry and prejudice that his dad had so stupidly built for him.
Wednesday night, Mitchell got together with Scott, Nick, Joey and Keith to work on a couple of special songs that he was trying to put together for Jason. They were Christmas songs that he was hoping Jason would have an opportunity to sing somewhere, even though nothing was scheduled yet.
As Scott and Mitchell worked on the lyrics, Nick and Joey worked on a tune to go with them. Keith helped with the rhythm. It was interesting that the lyrics prompted Scott to say something that furthered Mitchell's education.
"You know, Mitchell? I think this song is going to mean something special to Jason and Alex."
"Oh? Why? And why the two of them?"
"Well, it just fits two people in love. They are a couple aren't they?"
Mitchell was shocked. How did Scott know? Who had been talking?
"How did you know? Who told you?"
"Some people call it 'gaydar' Mitchell. I don't know that I like that word, but let's just say it takes one to know one. So I'm right, huh. They're in love."
"Yeah, but what do you mean 'it takes one to know one'?"
"Well look at Nick and me. We're a couple."
"WHAT?! I never would have guessed! You mean you guys are queer... I mean gay?"
"Thanks, Mitchell, gay is a nicer sounding word. But yeah, we're gay."
"But it doesn't show!"
By this time the other guys were listening to their conversation, and Nick had slipped his hand into Scott's as he entered into the conversation.
"What were you thinking, Mitchell? That all gay guys talk with a lisp or walk with a swish? That we all have signs painted on our foreheads or march in parades?"
"Well, yeah, I guess I just assumed that it would always be obvious to everybody. That's one of the things that's been bothering me ever since I found out about Jason and Alex."
"How long have you known, Mitchell?"
"Only about a week or so for sure."
"Well, we've known for almost six months. So I think you can forget about being afraid that everybody is going to know. You didn't see it. Why would anybody else?"
Mitchell thought about that conversation a lot the next couple of days.
On Friday, Jason was exceptionally tired as a result of the wrestling tourney he had been in that day. He had done well and had moved from one event to another, wrestling four times before being beaten in the final event. So he headed off to bed right after dinner which allowed Mitchell and me extra time to talk. This was good, because this was the night we dug out the Bible and got to the crutch that Tom had used to justify his attitude about homosexuals and homosexuality. Once again, I was able to help Mitchell as he used his own natural intelligence to work through things and reach the truth.
It helped that I had recently participated in the pastor's Sunday School class on this topic. I had taken pretty good notes, but I also called pastor and borrowed his class notes which included every scripture in the old and new testaments dealing with this issue. Pastor was a scholar of the original Greek translations and had been able to identify the common thread of all these scriptures - that condemnation of same sex activity was aimed at the act of sex, not the relationship between two people. Sex for the sake of sex was condemned just as often when it occurred between two people of the opposite sex as it was between two people of the same sex. Nowhere could we find that God condemned loving, committed relationships between two people, regardless of their sex.
This one was a real eye opener for Mitchell. And I think it was the key that finally allowed him to unlock the door that bound Mitchell to his prejudices, step through and lock that door behind him. There was just one more thing he seemed to need to get off his chest, and I tried to give him the opportunity to address it.
He told me about his conversation with Scott and Nick and his shock at finding out that they were gay. He even admitted that he had been more concerned about himself, about his own reputation and image than about Jason.
"We all have choices, Mitchell. That's what defines us as human beings, the ability to choose and the right to exercise that ability. You can continue to love your brother as you always have, or you can choose to hate him."
"I don't hate him, Pop. You know I can't bring myself to hate anybody. But I'm still a little uncomfortable with what Jason has become."
"Mitchell, Jason hasn't become anything. Geez, son, Jason is Jason. He's the same person today that he was last week. You loved him then for who he is, your brother. Are you saying you can't love him today? He's still your brother. I'm not saying you have to love him because he's gay any more than I love you because you're straight. We love others for who they are, not what they are. I don't expect you to start treating Jason special because he's gay. I expect you to continue to treat him special for the same reason you always have, because he's your brother, because you love him."
He thought about that for a few minutes and I was pleased to see a look of acceptance and peace come over him. Then I saw a grin begin to creep up at the corners of his mouth. Just as I pushed my chair back from the table, he spoke again.
"There is one thing I hate, Pop."
"Yeah? What's that?"
He laughed at the shocked look on my face, then jumped up and ran from the room like a scared rabbit. He was at the top of the stairs by the time I gave chase, and I caught him just as he hit the bed and turned onto his back, laughing and holding his arms close to his sides.
I jumped on him and straddled his thighs and began tickling him.
"What do you mean you hate cooked spinach! I thought it was your favorite!"
"Come on, Pop. You can be so blind at times. Didn't you ever pick up on how I always held my breath when I ate that stuff? I only ate it because you cooked it for me. I didn't know how much you hated the smell. I didn't have the heart to tell you I didn't like it."
He was laughing and giggling all the time he was telling me this.
"Whatever gave you the idea it was my favorite vegetable in the first place?"
"Jason told me!"
The sound of silence was never so loud as at that moment. Jason had obviously pulled a fast one on both of us from the very day I moved in with them.
"You mean all the time I was holding my nose and trying not to puke in the sink while that stuff cooked, Jason was laughing behind my back?"
"I guess so," he said, laughing. "And every time I took a bite or tried to find someplace to hide it when you weren't looking, he was laughing at me."
Coming on top of a week of heavy discussions, this moment of levity quickly grew all out of proportion to its true humor. I started tickling him again and laughed loudly at his laughter. And I was enjoying every minute of it. How often would I get a chance like this, to sit astride my seventeen year old son, well... almost my son... sort of... kind of.... might as well have been... but wasn't.... and hear him laugh this way.
Before too long, our laughter had awakened Jason who came in to see what was going on. We soon had him involved as Mitchell and I ganged up on him. Then the boys turned against me and soon found out my secret, that I am way more ticklish than either of them, something I had hoped they would never learn.
By the time we were all out of breath, we each needed a shower, so off we went to our respective bathrooms. As I came out of my room to say goodnight to my charges, I saw Mitchell leaving Jason's bedroom and turning out the light. I cried as I heard their exchange.
"Goodnight, Jason. Sleep tight. Don't let the bed bugs bite."
"Good night, Mitchell. I love you."
"I love you too, little brother. I really and truly do."
I let Mitchell make it to his bed while I dried my eyes and went in to say goodnight to Jason. Then I went into Mitchell's room. As I snugged the covers around his shoulders, I leaned down and kissed his cheek.
"Thanks Mitchell. He needed to hear that, and so did I."
"Thanks, Pop. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Mitchell. I love you."
"I love you, too...." his voice seemed to trail off as though he was leaving something unsaid.
As I was shutting the door to his room I thought I heard him finish his sentence.
But I was probably mistaken.
... to be continued
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