I’m not gonna get into all of the details of that first night when Alan and I were together. You can use your imagination for now.
For the next several weeks Alan and I hung out a lot more. Surprise! While I had always enjoyed his company in Spanish class we started really becoming better friends. Yeah there were plenty of sleepovers after I was done working on the weekends. I was still at Kroger along with Charles, and we had even both been promoted to cashier. Whoopidy-doo! Unfortunately Charles and I didn’t have any classes together, though we all took the same ones; so the only time I’d see him would be at lunch, in between classes, or at work.
Christmas was sneaking up on me and during the first week of December I got a phone call from Don. He had finished his finals for the quarter and was home for a whole month. God, I couldn’t wait for college myself. I could seriously look forward to four weeks of vacation, instead of the two that you normally get in high school.
Anyway, all of the things that Alan and I talked about that night in his backyard sort of went out the window. I could feel a pull towards Don that was unmistakable. Suddenly I’d reverted back to how I felt the previous summer and Alan went on the back burner. Or at least the middle burner. I was really excited that Don called me but I could feel an inner struggle the whole time we talked. I’m sure you already know what that struggle was: Don or Alan. It seemed that Don was winning. And all it took was a phone call. Was I weak-kneed or what? I had no idea then, but that struggle would plague me for years.
I don’t really know what was still drawing me to Don. Actually I should correct that. After all this time I do, in fact, know. He was the first guy that I loved and I couldn’t shake the feeling. It really made me feel like shit being around Alan and feeling that way. I think he sensed something because he went into sort of a somber mood when he found out that Don was back in town. I guess it’s really hard to hide a crush that you have on someone and I suppose I was like an open book to Alan.
I had to work on Christmas Eve until 6:00 when the store was supposed to close, and Kroger was a madhouse. The entire time I was working the lines from the cash registers stretched at least halfway down the grocery aisles, so how anybody who wasn’t in line did any shopping was beyond me. The lines never let up, but finally around 3:30 I was able to take a break. The lines for the express lanes were about twenty-five minutes long so I went to another grocery store in the strip mall where there were absolutely no lines. I bought a Snickers bar and a Coke then headed back to the Kroger Deli to eat it. As I did I passed all of those people in the express lanes and mumbled out loud, “There are no lines at Big Star.” A few customers laughed but everyone stayed where they were. I guess they thought I was kidding.
Don still worked at Kroger during this Christmas break and he was coming off of his break as I was going onto mine. I’d asked him if he wanted to come to Midnight Mass with my family but he wasn’t sure, because Carl was also in town and they might be doing something together that evening; maybe he might head over to Carl’s. In other words, he couldn’t make up his mind so I was the second best thing to do if his plans fell through with Carl. I see this now, after nineteen years, but back then I was like a puppy following his master’s bone. I told him that I’d come by his house around 10:00 that night and see what he’d decided. How pathetic.
My break ended and it was back to the maddening Christmas rush. I was so busy that I couldn’t even catch a breath. Why do people wait until Christmas Eve to buy a turkey or a ham? Or all the fixin’s? Criminy! Around 5:30 I glanced up from the ten millionth item that I’d scanned that day and saw the human package come in the door. I couldn’t help but smile and nod my head.
“Hey bud, what’re you doin’ here? Last minute shoppin’?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I ran up to Big Star to pick up some wrapping paper and tape,” Alan said. “D’you know there are no lines there?”
I turned to the people in my line. “See, I told you so.” The ones nearby just gave me a blank look and I went back to my scanning. “So what’s up, man?”
“Nothin’. Just wanted to know when your family was goin’ to church.” Coincidentally, Don, Alan and myself all attended the same church.
Oh crap. “We’re doin’ Midnight Mass. What about y’all?”
“Same. Want me to pick you up?”
Fuck. I turned and looked back at Don who was two registers behind me. He glanced up, saw Alan and nodded.
“Um. I might be goin’ with Don. Or he might be goin’ with us, I’m not sure.”
Alan looked a little puzzled. “Oh. Okay. Well, I was right here and thought I’d ask. I guess I’ll see you later.” I could tell that my reaction had bothered him, and why wouldn’t it. My reaction was basically the same as Don’s was to me: Sure, if I don’t have other plans. Did I see this then? No, because I was such a shmendreck. Do I see it now, as I’m writing this? Oh God yes. I was just in my own little Don-world again and was blind to everything else around me.
“I’ll see ya, then,” I said. Alan looked at me for a moment and then left.
That night after work I showered and got dressed for Mass. I told my parents that I’d meet them at the church by 10:30. There’s a choral program at 11:00 before every Midnight Mass that we always went to, which is why we had to be there so early. I drove over to Don’s house and saw Carl’s van in the driveway. Not good. I should’ve seen it as a premonition and kept on going. Of course Don couldn’t go to church with me because he was doing something with Carl after all. I was hurt and pissed but had I been thinking like an adult instead of a dopey seventeen year old I wouldn’t have gone over to his house in the first place.
But I wasn’t an adult. I was that dopey seventeen year old. I felt hurt and was pissed as I stormed out, slamming the front door when I left. I got to the church, which was already crowded, and found my folks sitting in a pew and holding a spot for me. I looked around a bit and saw Alan with his family in the next section, a few rows up. He and his brother were talking and laughing about something, then his brother saw me. It was always kind of odd for me whenever I was over at their house because at the time Alan’s family didn’t know that he was gay. His brother had heard rumors about me, from Don (again, something I ignored out of sheer immaturity), and wasn’t really outwardly hostile to me. He was just sort of, I don’t know, always watching me. Anyway, his brother spotted me and sort of sneered my way. This caused Alan to turn around and see what he was looking at.
He waved as I walked up to the pew where he was sitting. There were no seats around and the church was filling up fast. I knew that I was going to sit with my parents but had hoped that he and I could sit together.
“Keller not here?” he asked.
“Nope, couldn’t make it.”
“You gonna be okay?” his brother snickered.
I gave him a look that said, ‘what the shit?’ and then Alan elbowed him in the ribs. I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “Oh well,” I said. “Just wanted to come over and say hi. Merry Christmas y’all,” I said to his family. I went back and sat next to my folks. Mr. Dam, Mrs. Dam and the whole Dam family, as my grandmother used to say. I sat on the edge, on the outside of the family, next to the aisle. I was really disappointed because Don wasn’t there. I hadn’t seen him in months, and finally when I did he was hanging around that vapid, empty-headed individual, Carl. How was my friendship not better than Carl’s? I wondered. Don was always complaining, or always complained, about how unreliable Carl was, how much of a dickhead he was, and yet he still hung out with the guy. I, on the other hand, was very dependable and was a nice guy. Why would he chose Carl over me, especially after hardly seeing each other since school started?
After Mass was over everyone slowly made their way out of the church. “Paul!” I heard Alan call out. I turned around. Man, he looked fine in a coat and tie. I didn’t really notice before because he was sitting down. What a good lookin’ guy he was. Is.
I smiled when I saw him. “Hey man what’s up?” We did our little handshake, which was basically a sideways high-five, then made a fist and bumped the top and bottom of our fists, then pressed the knuckles together. A simple “hand thing.” How and when we came up with this I don’t remember, it just seems like we’ve always done it.
“Dude, I wanna come by tomorrow. I have something for you,” Alan said.
“No sh-“ I remembered where I was. “No kidding? You didn’t have to do that. But that’s cool ‘cause I got something for you too.”
“You did?” he looked surprised. Actually I didn’t. I had bought a really nice sweater for Don and quickly decided to give it to Alan. I mean, I didn’t want to be a dick and not have something for him if he was giving something to me. Martha Stewart would be proud.
“Yeah man. I’ll call you in the morning, sometime after we do our shpiel.” Just then my parents came up.
“Alan!” my dad said. “Merry Christmas!”
“You too, Mr. Lyons,” he said, flashing his dimpled smile that I soooo loved to kiss. “Mr. And Mrs. Lyons, these are my parents, Ben and Allison. And my brother Steve.” Everyone made their rounds of ‘hellos’ and ‘howdy-dos’. Looking back it seems funny how relaxed it was for The Parents to meet. His family also met my brothers and grandmother who were just coming out of the church. After talking for a minute we all bid our farewells and went on home. A part of me wished that I was going to Don’s. Another part of me wished that Alan was coming home with me.
* * * *
Christmas Day was a flurry of activity in our house. At least in the morning. We always ate our meal in the early afternoon and I knew that Alan’s family ate theirs on Christmas Eve. I called him late in the morning and invited him over to give him his sweater; or should I say Don’s sweater. Oh well. When he came over my parents asked how his family was, oh it was so nice to meet them, all the typical bullshit. I went to the tree and pulled a still-wrapped box from beneath it, handing it to Alan.
My mom said, “I thought that was Don’s.” Thanks Mom.
“Nope, it’s for Alan,” I said.
“But I thought that the tag said ‘Don’ on it.”
Oh crap. “I just must’ve mis-written it, that’s all. No big whup,” I said.
Alan just laughed and handed me a small box. “I hope these are the earrings that I’ve been asking for,” I said and Mom and Alan just laughed, then she headed out to the kitchen to do whatever she does on Christmas Day.
I had bought the sweater at Macy’s and it was black with two broad blue stripes going across the front. It looked really good on him, especially with his hazel eyes. I opened the box he gave me and looked in.
“Oh man! Awesome!” I said, pulling the brushed silver watch out. The face was sort of cobalt blue and had two smaller dials in addition to the actual watch face itself that had the dates on one and a compass on the other. “This is, like, so friggin’ cool. Thanks man!” I looked to see if anyone was near the living room, then I gave him a quick, silent kiss. He was beaming. “I’ve never seen a watch with a compass.”
“That’s so you’ll always know which direction you’re going.”
“Well, I guess you’re sitting north of me,” I said.
“Because the arrow’s pointing to you.” I thought about this for a second and then looked up at him. He smiled and raised his eyebrows at me. I laughed and put the watch on, then we did our “hand shake thing” and headed into the den to watch whatever football game was on.
My folks really like Alan, which was cool since we hung out so much. I sat in the kitchen yentering with Mom and Grandma as they finished making dinner; Alan was in the adjoining den with my dad and brothers. Over the past couple of months he had slipped into my family as if he’d always lived with us. Alan is basically a really good guy who never really meets a stranger. Today we’d say something really stupid like, “he fits in his own skin.” Whatever. He’s just a really nice guy and people feel comfortable around him. He could talk sports with my dad, which I couldn’t because I’m such a retard in that area, or he could just blab away with my mom; they both really liked him. And not once did Mom ask me if I did drugs with him.
The rest of Christmas break I pretty much only saw Don at work. Carl was in town so Don was never really available. But I was still the puppy, hanging on every word and hope that he’d start hanging out again like we had months before. The one thing bad about puppies is that it takes them a long time to figure things out for themselves.
* * * *
Our last weekend of Christmas break myself, Alan, Deanna and her friend Tammy went to go see the movie “Stand By Me.” It had already been out for a while so we had to hunt down a theater that still was showing it. Finally we found one not too far from Northlake Mall and made the drive out there, which was about a half hour away. The theater was actually pretty packed and we had to sit up near the front.
I must say that I absolutely love that movie. Y’all know what it’s about so I won’t go into it. I was surprised that such a great movie could come from short story. Gotta love Stephen King. Anyway, I was doing fine up until the scene near the end where the ‘writer’ in the story lets the audience know what happens to the main characters after they were grown. I was doing alright until he started describing how River Phoenix’s character died trying to break up a bar fight.
That was it for me. I didn’t lose it then, at the theater, but I had this enormous lump in my throat. Here are four kids who have this great relationship, something monumental happens in it, then they all grow up and go their separate ways; one guy ends up dying, of course the one who reminds me the most of Don and how close he and I once were. I was okay until the drive home. I couldn’t keep the tears from streaming down my face. I was so filled with sadness and just plain grief because I really felt that I was missing so much, now that Don was off living his own life. For some reason the story in the movie seemed to parallel that of my own life. Nobody in the car really talked that much; I guess I made them uncomfortable with all of my crying. But I didn’t start boo-hooing, just sniffing and wiping my eyes. For friggin’ twenty-five minutes we rode home like that. Halfway home I had to turn on the radio just to bring some sort of joy into the car.
Right before I dropped Alan home I tried to make jokes to alleviate the situation, and it seemed to work a bit. We were all laughing and I even started joking about my reaction to the movie. They all got a kick out of that. So I dropped Alan and then Tammy off at their houses. As I pulled up to Deanna’s house I threw the car into park.
“So, wanna talk?” she asked.
I looked up and shook my head a bit. “Oh God, that movie just hit me right here,” and I tapped at my heart.
“I mean, it was good and all, but to cry over it?” she laughed.
“It just made me think of Don, that’s all. I mean at one time we were really great friends. Closer than brothers, or close as brothers, I should say. Then once he left…I just don’t get it.”
She sat there, saying nothing. That was exactly what I needed though. Silence.
“I just thank God for Alan,” I said.
“Y’all are getting pretty close, huh.”
I nodded. “I’ve never been good in the friends department-“
“Oh bullshit,” she interrupted.
“You idiot, you know more people than I do.” I pondered that for a minute.
“Yeah, but I don’t feel like real friends with them. It’s not often that I feel comfortable with someone. Comfortable enough to not even talk. Does that make sense?”
“I think so.”
“Well, with you and Alan, it’s like if two of us are in the same room or hangin’ out or whatever, we don’t always have to talk to fill in the void. It’s like…how do I say it… we don’t get uncomfortable if nobody’s talking, thinking that something needs to be said or spoken.”
“Don and I were that way, now he’s gone.”
“So what’s your problem?”
I sat there thinking of that. What was my problem, exactly? I had lots of friends that I hung out with all the time. I also had Deanna and Alan who were at the time my closest friends. “I guess I’m missing something that I can’t have?”
“Yeah. Now why don’t you try concentrating on the things that you do have. Because you being miserable sucks. Plus I hate seeing people feel sorry for themselves.” We both laughed at that. “Concentrate on your friendship with Alan.”
Deanna had no idea about Alan and I. Hell, nobody did. We’d even double date, take the girls home, then spend some pretty nice alone time together.
“But we’re graduating soon and he’s still a junior,” I said, referring to she and I being seniors.
“So. You going to Budapest anytime soon?”
“No,” I snorted. “But still-“
“Still nothing. Just be his friend, dumbass.”
“That’s what I thought would happen with Don,” I told her.
“Don, shmon. Enough with him already! If you wanna have friends keep concentrating on the ones you have. They come and go babe. Get used to it.” Leave it to Deanna to tell me like it is. Like I always knew it deep down inside. “Don didn’t turn out to the be greatest friend to you. So what. You’re seventeen for cryin’ out loud. You’ll have more friends.”
I sat there and looked out the window. “What about Alan?”
“What do you want from him?”
“I want to stay friends,” I said.
“Then goddammit, just be his friend. Don’t puss-out on me.”
I died laughing. “Chick, you got one helluva way with words.”
“Well?” she said. “If you want something different with Alan than you have, or had, with Don, then you have to do something different.”
I looked down at the steering wheel and found that I was tapping my fingers against it slowly, just as he had that night in front of his house. I smiled as I realized that I had picked up one of his mannerisms.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
But she never spoke. I turned and looked up at her questioningly. “What?” I asked.
“I…um…feel funny asking this....”
“You? Yeah right,” I laughed and she smiled.
“Are you…” She paused. Oh shit. Now I knew what was coming. I thought about how I’d answer her before she even asked the question.
“Am I what,” I said.
She took a bit of a breath. “Are you gay?”
I started the car up again because we were getting cold, and cranked up the heat. Why do people need to know which side a man’s bread is buttered on? It’s not like she was going to ask me out. Or hell, maybe she was.
“Why do you ask?” still tapping my fingers on the steering wheel.
“Well, you hang out with Alan a lot. I mean, y’all are practically inseparable. And now all of this. I mean, how many guys worry like you do about other guy friendships.”
I shrugged my shoulders and lay my head against my window, feeling the cold of the glass against my skull, my chin in my left hand. It’s funny how many deep conversations are in cars, don’t you think?
“What if I am?”
“Oh hell, I don’t give a shit,” she said matter-of-factly. I died laughing at that. “You’ll still be my bud.”
I smiled. “Yes Deanna, I am.” There it was said. Someone besides Alan knew. And you know? The world didn’t stop revolving on it’s axis. I wasn’t exactly shouting it out, mind you, but I actually felt better about myself after I told her.
She just nodded in response.
“Can you keep this to yourself, please?” I asked.
“Oh hell, you don’t have to worry about that. I know when to keep my mouth shut.”
“Sometimes,” I laughed.
“Yep,” she smiled.
Suddenly for some reason I felt closer to Deanna than to my own family. I hadn’t shared with them about that part of my personal life. Obviously Alan knew, and now Deanna.
“You know somethin’, gal. I don’t know how long you and I will remain friends-“
“Oh Jesus,” she said.
“Paul, we’re not even graduated yet.”
“Just shut up and listen, wench,” and she laughed. “I don’t know if we’ll be friends after high school or what, but you’ll always be in my heart as the first person I’ve ever told. I’ll always remember that. It’s important because it means I’ve feel like I can be totally honest with you. I don’t allow that to happen a whole lot.”
“Does Alan know?” she asked.
I lied and shook my head ‘no.’ “I wouldn’t want it to ruin our friendship.” Actually I was just concerned about his reputation. I didn’t want word getting out that one of the star football players also liked playing tonsil hockey with guys, or even that he hung out with a guy who did. There’s no telling what kind of shit he’d have to endure if that were made public. Not that I didn’t trust Deanna, I just thought that if he wanted to tell someone about himself then it was up to him, not me.
“Why would it ruin the friendship?”
“Well, what if he thought I was starting to fall in love with him? What if he started to think there were more to my intentions that just being a friend?” As I was saying this I started to realize how I was really feeling about Alan. Yeah we made out and ground crotches a lot (albeit still fully clothed) but it was during my talk with Deanna that I started to think that I had more than just the hots for Alan; more than just really enjoying his friendship. Over the past couple of months I had started to develop some really solid feelings for him.
But then shit, we were just kids when you think about it. I thought I knew what love was. Dammit, this was all so confusing.
“Do you think he’d really make that leap?” she asked.
“I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out. I’m thinking this is the sort of thing one keeps private.” Deanna laughed at that. “Well?” I said, mocking her. I sighed. “Well chick, thanks for listening.”
“Hey, anytime Paul. I’m always here for you.”
I smiled at her. “Gimme a hug.” I thought she’d strangle me, as tight as she held onto me. “Um. Can’t breathe!” I gasped.
“You know Paul, I love you, no matter what,” she said, sitting back in her seat.
“Love you too, gal,” I said.
“Well, go home and tell your parents you’re gay!” We both laughed at that. “Call me if you need me, hun.” She opened the door and got out.
“See ya, Deanna.”
She closed the door and I watched until she went inside and flipped off the light. What a gentleman I was. I headed home and started thinking about telling my parents. I know that she was only joking when she said it but I figured what if she was onto something? I had a feeling of enormous trust that I had gained in telling her. Maybe things would work out as well with my parents.
What to do, what to do, dammit!
Merry Fuckin’ Christmas. I’m gay! You still makin’ black eyed peas for the New Year’s Eve dinner Mom? Oye vey.
And how should I handle Don. Well that one was easy to answer. I wouldn’t handle him. He’d pretty much left me and our friendship by the way. I don’t want to sound dramatic. We were still good acquaintances, still friends; it just had changed in depth or intensity. I needed the maturity to accept it and go on. I didn’t have to remain as ‘brothers’ with him as I used to be. I, too, had to leave that phase of our friendship by the way.
I pulled up to my house and looked at it, still lit up brightly for Christmas. The miniature lights were all over the shrubs and we had some floodlights aimed at the wreaths in the windows, their red bows trailing down and fluttering in the cold wind. As I got out of the car I noticed that the air was really hazy, or so it seemed at first. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Snow! It was snowing! Not a common sight in the Atlanta area. I’ve always loved snow because it reminded me of when I was a little kid in New York. I always had a nostalgic feeling when it snowed. It always made me feel like life was renewing itself and I was getting another chance.
I didn’t give it a shitload of thought but I knew that I could do this. Do what, you ask? I could tell my mom and dad that I was gay. How I’d do it was beyond me. I just knew that I really needed to feel like I could completely trust them and the only way to do that was to risk being open and honest.
I stepped onto the front porch and could feel a major part of my life, my old life, falling by the way as I slid the key into the lock. I was determined to leave immaturity and uncertainty behind me. It was time to grow up and make some adult decisions, even though I wasn’t quite an adult.
I was ready to see what it would be like to open myself up and love Alan. Again the drama, I know; but hey, I was seventeen. We were good at being friends; we were great at making out. Would we be good at trying more? Would we be good at being, what, boyfriends? How would that work? Man, there was so much unknown that I was facing, that he and I might be facing together. I needed to talk to him. But I needed to talk to my parents first. I couldn’t open myself up to him if I couldn’t open up to them first.
I stepped into the house and closed the door behind me. I felt like I was at another change in eras in my life, only this time I welcomed the change. I would embrace it and live for the opportunities that it would afford me.
My old life was on the other side of that door. I walked into the den where Mom and Dad were sitting watching television. My brothers weren’t home and Grandma was upstairs in her room.
“Mom and Dad, can we talk?”
And so began the new phase in my life. An older and a little bit less mature phase was still outside in the falling snow. The new one I was welcoming -- the old one I had cast by the way.