We sat there together on that old stump for at least ten minutes. Neither of us spoke another word. Instead, we just sat there in peaceful silence. I wondered what was going through Chris's mind right now. After all, it was he who had initiated this small but much appreciated act of kindness and intimacy. I assumed he meant it as an affirming act of friendship. I also sensed that he understood the true loneliness I had expressed, a loneliness that he himself had felt at some point.
My pondering was interrupted by his sudden move off of the stump and the firm announcement "my dad's home". Chris pulled his shirt back over his head as he raised himself up and started walking toward the garage. Likewise, I quickly pulled the shirt from around my neck and put it on without delay, my previous shyness now fully restored.
Chris had heard the familiar sound of gravel being crunched under his dad's old blue pickup truck. As we both neared the house, the truck came into full view circling around an oddly placed tree before finally resting inside the garage. I had never been directly in the presence of Chris's father. I had seen him from a distance at school and I had certainly heard plenty about him from other students. He definitely didn't have a reputation for humor. Almost everyone saw him as very serious and took him very seriously. With the added advantage of having seen the old Army photos of him earlier, the reputation made more sense to me. I couldn't honestly say that I looked forward to knowing him better. His baseball teams had once enjoyed a good deal of success, but he seemed to be on a bit of a losing streak the last few years. His relationship with the schools other coaches had soured, and word was that several of the schools best athletes just simply wouldn't have anything to do with him now.
Chris had paid a price for his father's reputation. I had asked Chris why he didn't play football. The answer was some long standing feud between his dad and the football coach, his dad being adamant that Chris not play for "that son of a bitch". I could only imagine that baseball had its share of conflicts for him too. After all, who would be comfortable playing for their own dad? At least the school had a new basketball coach this year and even old hard-ass Coach Briggs hadn't had enough time to piss him off yet.
I was wondering what his first words to me would be. As he stepped out of his truck, he looked me over then turned directly to Chris asking "you fed my dogs?"
"Yeah" Chris replied not bothering to make eye contact.
I was struck by how stiff Chris's body language had become, starting from the instant he realized his dad was on the property. I was so use to seeing Chris full of energy, greeting everyone with enthusiasm and an engaging style. I hadn't expected that full version of himself with his dad, but what surprised me was the utter lack of anything remotely describable as warm between them.
I treated my own dad with his fair share of dull and unenthusiastic responses, but I was generally always glad to see him. My dad almost always treated me to at least a warm smile even if following that with a question of why I hadn't mown the lawn yet. I imagined it must be different since Chris and his dad were at the same place all day, even if not in constant contact. Maybe if I went to work each day with my dad, he would feel less obliged to show his affection. The one thing I was sure about was this wasn't comfortable to be around, triggering the reminder that I needed to be home myself.
"Your mother hasn't been home yet?" Coach now fully focused on Chris and demanded some eye contact.
"No" Chris meeting his eyes just long enough to deliver the short answer.
Coach reached back in his truck and grabbed a carry case before slamming the truck door and walking right by me as he entered the house.
Chris looked at me and tried to muster a smile, but his face was too stiff to allow the upward movement of his lips.
"I should probably call my mom and see if she can come pick me up" not really knowing what else to say. Chris looked down and nodded in agreement.
It was almost 6:00 and my mom was normally home by 5:30. I was surprised and a little nervous when she didn't pick up. I was sure that she was OK, probably just ran by the grocery store or something. My nervousness was due to the prospect of spending more time in the presence of Coach Briggs. Just then I heard another car pulling into the driveway.
"My mom won't mind running you home Matt." I was sure Chris could sense my discomfort.
I didn't want to leave him here, but I knew there was no other choice. This was his home. His earlier dry reference "home sweet home" came back to mind. It dawned on me that I could invite him home with me. Just then his mom entered the house.
She was carrying a very heavy frown and looked a little out of it. The woman who was walking toward me didn't even look related to the beautiful younger woman captured in the pictured frame down the hall. I wondered if she might be ill. As she staggered past me, she paused briefly making eye contact, looking at me as if she thought she might recognize me. Chris's voice broke the trance.
"Mom?" he asked it as though he wasn't sure who she was. I could see a mixture of concern and disappointment in his eyes as he stared at her intently.
The question jogging her back into motion, she walked on past me, barely brushing Chris on the arm with a poorly aimed hand as she continued on down the hallway into a bedroom and then behind a closed door. The trailing bitter perfume of alcohol answered any questions that were remaining in my mind about her odd behavior.
Instinctively, I looked at Chris, wanting to offer him some transference of strength or understanding.
His eyes had fallen to the floor, not following his mother's uneven steps as she went past him. I could see his jaw tighten and his shoulders narrow a bit. I quickly looked away deciding to offer him all the privacy that such an awkward moment would allow. I was quite certain that Norman Rockwell never painted this scene.
There was muffled loud talking from the bedroom down the hall. Thankfully, it didn't last long as Coach Briggs re-entered the main living room just as I was hanging up the phone for the second time, now unsure how much longer I would have to be party to the drama that had unfolded in the Briggs home tonight.
The long awaited first words to me from Coach Briggs now finally came, "How are you getting home?"
"I've called my mom a couple times. She should be home any minute now. She'll come pick me up. Let me try her again."
"I'll run you home" his stern words offering relief, followed by an all new disturbing realization.
"Come on Matt, let's go" Chris had spoken up quickly. I wasn't sure if he wanted to leave as bad as I did, or if he was just trying to save me the sure discomfort of riding 8 miles alone with his father.
"You're going to your room and you're gonna stick your head in an algebra book, or I'm gonna shove that book right up your ass! That's right, I had a little talk with Mr. Davis today. I swear to god Chris, if you fail algebra this semester, you can forget about basketball this year." Almost every word he had spoken had spread fear and dread, leaving my mind reeling to sort out which words had done the most damage.
I was about to be stuck inside a truck with this man for the next 10 minutes - alone. That was now obvious, there was no avoiding it. Chris has been crushed right there in front of me, causing us both great embarrassments. That was just a fact, there was no denying it. But the threat of Chris missing basketball was unimaginable. That was just unacceptable, and could not possibly be allowed to come to pass.
Chris's mouth opened trying to form some weak defense against the ambush of offenses that had been launched against him, but he was overwhelmed.
His father launched one last stinger, quieting Chris completely. "If it happens Chris, it's what you deserve."
It's a mystery how the human memory works. Some things we so desperately want to remember are so easily forgotten. Some things we so desperately want to forget are with us always. Some things enter into our memories as lies, only to slowly creep back out accepted as truths.
Less than 6 hours ago, Chris had said something to me that struck me as oddly out of character for him. While making the sad confession that sometimes he felt that Katie was just biding her time with him, waiting for someone better to come along, he said "if that happens, it's probably what I deserve."
In my mind, Chris didn't deserve any of this. He didn't deserve a girlfriend whose love he had to question. He didn't deserve a father whose love seemed far beyond his reach. He didn't deserve the drunken excuse for a mother that had staggered into his home and disappeared. To Chris, the lie had become truth.
My earlier nervousness had been replaced by a growing anger. I stood there watching my best friend emotionally crumble right before me from the unbearable weight of hopelessness and despair. How could they, I wondered. What drives people, parents for god's sake, to this kind of sorry behavior?
I still didn't know what had happened in Chris's past, why he snapped and lashed out. As I watched his train-wreck of a family derail before me, I no longer doubted that something had happened. Somewhere deep within me, I had finally grudgingly accepted that Chris was capable of harm. My only hope now was that he hadn't been damaged beyond repair. This boy that I greatly admired had far too many qualities and I wasn't going to give up on him. In many ways, I respected him even more. How many people could walk through this fire and survive? Chris was doing that every day, over and over again. Someone had to believe in him.
His dad walked past me and out into the garage, motioning for me to follow as our unavoidable trip together was soon to take place. Chris straightened up and walked over, looking me intently in the eye. "Don't show him any fear. Just don't!"
I kept his stare and nodded to him trying as best as I could to reflect his words back into his own will. As badly as I dreaded leaving with his dad, I dreaded even more the thought of his dad's return back to Chris. I reached up and put my hand on his shoulder giving it a firm squeeze. "Thanks for having me over and thanks for the coaching. Same time tomorrow, right?" It was important to me for him to know that I wouldn't be scared away, that I was in this with him, that he wasn't alone.
His face lightened just a little, and he looked at me, no doubt wondering "haven't you had enough?" He was still too numb to actually speak. I affectionately let my hand slide over to the base of his neck before releasing him and turning to the door. His last spoken words to me were repeating themselves over and over in my head. "Don't show him any fear."
I took my seat in the truck and as the doors closed I wandered what gladiators must have been thinking when they heard the cage doors close, locking themselves and their adversaries into the arena of combat. I told Coach Briggs the name of the neighborhood I lived in, and he refused further directions as we made our way out the driveway and onto the dark road.
"I understand you're from San Francisco, Matthew." He actually knew my name. I was surprised and a little disturbed.
"From near there, across the bridge in Sausalito, sir." I was respectful of adults by nature.
"I'm very familiar with the area, son." I assume he called me son by some abuse of teacher-speak. "I spent almost 7 years stationed at the Presidio. You know where that's at, don't you?"
"Yes sir. What did you do in the Army?" As I asked he looked at me with surprise, evidently taken back that a 14 year-old would be observant enough to know which branch operated one of largest military bases in northern California. The Presidio was hard to ignore, taking up almost 1500 acres located just on the San Fran side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
"I worked the stockade" he paused, conjuring up memories of a job that must have left many in his mind. "We had lots of deserters, criminal types, pansies, degenerates, and such." I saw him looking at me out of the corner of his eye as he read the list. I figured there must have been lots of men in that stockade that "deserved it".
"Don't show him any fear!" I could hear Chris calling out to me, well beyond the limitations of the human ear. I turned the conversation back at Coach, again surprising him with my knowledge. "Sir, you know the Indians used to roam that same land long before the Army took it over."
He turned his head, taking a closer look at me, then turning his eyes back to the road. "Have you ever been there, son?"
"Yes sir, but only to play soccer." The Presidio had been abandoned by the Army, becoming a national park well after Coach Briggs had left. The hundreds of structures were mostly still intact, but athletic complexes and civilian recreational activities had replaced the daily grind of military life.
"Well son, we didn't play any god damn soccer when I was there. I'll promise you that. No sir. Everybody talks about Alcatraz being so tough. Men would have gladly taken a transfer out of our stockade over to Alcatraz. I guess San Francisco has changed a lot since I was there. What a waste." He was shaking his head in nauseated disgust, but was at least looking straight ahead this time.
I decided to be quiet for a little while, hoping that Coach Briggs would do the same. He didn't.
"Your dad must do pretty well for himself", again looking at me out of the corner of his eye.
Coach Briggs no doubt knew where our neighborhood was because it was one of the nicer ones in the county. My father was a marketing executive for his bank, a job that evidently paid much better than that of a high school teacher and coach.
"I don't really know anything about stuff like that, sir. He's not home all that much now days. I guess he does OK." That was an honest answer. I was smart enough to know we lived in a nice house. My parents had been thrilled at what they could buy here with the money they got for our old house in Sausalito. Our house there was much smaller and didn't come with any grass. Here, we had an hour and a half worth of grass, and a scattering of trees. Evidently, we weren't doing well enough to hire anyone to mow the grass. Mostly, I knew my dad wasn't home nearly as much as I would like. If not being home made a dad successful, then my dad was a smashing success! It's a shame that Chris's dad couldn't have been more successful.
"I guess your mom stays home, taking care of that big house." Now he was talking about my mother. I didn't show fear, but I might have shown a hint of irritation. This was normally the time I would display my unmatched skill as a smart-ass, but now wasn't the time to be a smart- ass. I took a quiet breath or two before replying, trying to look like I had taken his question in stride.
"No sir, my mom works at a veterinarian clinic in town. She's not a vet. She's just a vet technician." I felt like I had short-changed her somehow. My mom loved what she did and she still found time to take care of me and my dad too. "She also takes care of the house, and me and dad. I guess you could say she's working three jobs." I was trying to make it up to her.
If Coach Briggs was impressed, he didn't show it. He did accept some last minute direction as I pointed him to our house. Finally, the old truck made it up our concrete driveway. All things considered, I thought I'd fought him to a draw. I thought wrong.
"Matthew, what was that business up by the baseball field this afternoon?" He put the truck into park and turned so he could watch my reply with undivided attention. I was sure he had done this as a calculated strategic act. I had been too caught up in the roar of the crowd to have seen this last attack approaching from the rear. Chris and his dad shared at least two traits; physique and those damn x-ray eyes. Coach Briggs was at least well into his fifties, but was still as solid as a rock. At the moment, it was the eyes that had me most concerned.
"Think fast, think fast. Stay cool, stay cool" the words bouncing off the insides of my skull. Tommy's face appeared inside my head, almost as if he were a vision sent from a higher power.
"Tommy Johnson." I said shaking my head in mock disgust, turning to look Coach Briggs right back in the eye. "Tommy was goofing around during lunch and splattered some pizza on Katie Barnes. Katie got pretty upset and Chris came along right about that time. It was all just a big misunderstanding, an accident. Chris was pretty pissed off, sorry sir, he was upset. I was just making sure he knew it was an accident. Tommy can be a real goofball sometimes, but he didn't mean any harm." So far, I had told the truth, not the whole truth, but at least the truth. It was the only way I could look him in the eye. I was afraid a lie would show on my face. I wasn't sure he was completely buying it. After all, Chris and I were up there talking for quite a while. I made a split decision to give him just a bit more. "I think Chris was a little upset too about something silly him and Katie were fighting about. Things just got all mixed together, but it all got worked out. Poor Tommy was about to have a heart attack..." I thought by rambling on he might lose interest and write it off as teenagers just being goofy. He interrupted me before I could finish.
"Matthew, there's not much that goes on at that school that I don't know about. You remember that. Now try and have your transportation arrangements in order the next time you show up at our house."
"I will sir, thanks for the ride." With that, I limped out of the truck, a little bloodied and battered but still mostly intact. I would at least live to fight another day. I imagined Chris would be proud.
I looked back as Coach Briggs pulled around, past my mom's car, and back into the road. He might have been looking at me, or maybe he was just taking in a last look at our house. In some ways I felt a little ashamed, like we had too much or didn't deserve what we had. As the word deserve ran through my brain, my thoughts again turned to Chris. I sighed in a fleeting moment of relief, at least knowing that he would be free of his dad for another ten minutes. The sobering reality of his drunken mom spoiled that moment of relief before it even began.
I turned the door and entered into a much different setting. I had gotten so wrapped up in the many dramas of this day that I had failed to even let mom know I would be home late. What a day it had been. Spotting her in the kitchen, I headed straight for her barely slowing down before grabbing her with a big hug.
"Hey, where have you been? Matt, are you OK?" I didn't answer right away, trying as hard as I could not to cry.
I wanted to tell my mom all about it, or at least all about Chris's mom and dad. I wanted someone else to understand what he was going through. I needed someone to understand what I was going through with him, trying to keep his head above water. I was also desperately afraid that I might give away too much. Would my mom let me go back to Chris's house if she knew about his drunken mom, or about what a hard-ass his dad was? I had never had a friend as close as Chris, never had anyone I felt the way I did about Chris. Again, I was in un-chartered waters. Navigation would be at a premium. I suppressed my desire to burst out all the questions and instead first just told my mom how much I loved her. Yes, I was late and no, I didn't call her. Chris's dad gave me a ride home. But I talked about the "big picture" and how important it was that I had made a great friend and how happy she should be. I threw in some b.s. about how tough it was making friends at a new school just for added effect, but mostly I just told the truth - or at least as much of it as I was prepared to reveal.
"Hook, line, and sinker" - as they say. My mothers love had been a constant in my life. I had never doubted it for a second. It wasn't always enough, but it was always there. The excited joy in her eyes also spoke of relief. It was important to her that I be happy. I don't think I had ever fully considered that she might be so aware of my loneliness and the pain it had caused me. My mother was likely always suffering right there along with me, just in the background where I didn't notice. Maybe she had her own words for "Don't show him any fear." She suddenly seemed so much wiser to me. Was she wise enough to handle the whole truth?
The front door opened again. My dad was home early, it wasn't even 7:00 yet. Sure enough, he greeted me with a warm smile and a "Hey there Matt!" I surprised him with an even bigger smile in return and a bonus hug.
Tonight, John, Joanna, and Matthew Jordan sat around the same table, eating dinner together - for a change. I looked across the table at my mom and dad and tried to take a moment to be thankful for what I had. It might not always be like this. Again, my thoughts turned to Chris. The happy contented smile on my face gave way to a distant look of concern, a change noticeable enough to catch the attention of my dad.
"Matt, something's up with you. One minute you're bouncing off the ceiling, then all of a sudden it's like you're in outer space. I think I might know what it is." My dad had stopped shoveling food into his face and was staring at me with one of those proud, fatherly smiles.
"Oh, god, no. No. Please don't say it." My lips didn't move. I was the deer in the headlights, about to meet an 18-wheeler.
"You've got a girl, don't you?" He was so proud of himself. He was so proud of me. He looked over at my mom and nodded. She turned to me. She was so happy.
"Matthew, is this true?" My mom's words now completely paralyzed me.
This could not be happening to me. I was in a complete state of silent panic, and couldn't remember my last breath. My face went hot, then cold. My hands tingled. I did the only thing I could do. I passed out.
"Matt. Matt." The voices seemed like they were coming from another room.
"Matthew, son." I opened my eyes. The faces were blurry at first, but slowly snapped into something that looked familiar.
"Matt, are you OK?" I had been out for only a few seconds. My dad had reached my side just before I slid completely out of my chair and onto the hard kitchen floor. I wasn't there to see it, but it must have been the fastest he'd moved in 20 years, or 40 pounds - whichever came first.
"I'm OK, a little space please?" I was still a little dizzy, but was mostly just irritated, still remembering the sequence that led to this point.
"Really, I'm OK. Mom, dad, I'm OK" and I tried to laugh. They weren't laughing.
My mom wanted to call our doctor. I begged her not to. It dawned on me that I hadn't eaten all day. I was running late getting ready for school and had skipped breakfast. The pizza fiasco killed lunch. Mom and I normally had dinner by 6:30. It was almost 7:30 now and I had barely started in on my lasagna. I had played basketball with Chris for almost 2 hours, burning whatever fuel I had left in my system. It all sounded reasonable enough and my mom finally agreed that we would hold off on calling the doctor for now. I had to promise that I'd tell her if I felt at all dizzy again. I slowly finished my dinner, rubbed my full belly and pronounced myself cured.
The phone rang. My dad answered. "Yes, he's here. Yes, you can speak to him. Hold on please."
"Matt, phone call." I looked at him unsure. I didn't get a lot of phone calls. My mind raced again and I feared it might be Chris, in some type of trouble.
"Mattie. It's me." No one else called me Mattie. Tommy needed no introduction by name.
"Tommy, everything OK?"
"Oh yeah, Mattie. Everything's great. Hey, are you going to the homecoming game tomorrow night?" I hadn't even thought about it, but then I didn't need to.
Homecoming games were followed by homecoming dances. Homecoming dances were attended by boyfriends and girlfriends, and, oh shit, how much more of this torture could I stand? I hadn't even begun to contemplate how I was going to deal with seeing "them" together - again.
"Tommy, do you know any hit-men?"
"Never mind, it's not realistic. I don't have the cash."
"Matt, are you OK? You sound kind of out of it?"
"Yeah, Tommy. I am sort of out of it. But to answer your question, I will NOT be going to homecoming. Why do you ask? You weren't going to invite me to the dance, were you?" trying to distract myself with humor.
"Tommy, you still there?"
"Matt, I don't think they would let us go to the dance together. All I wanted to know is if you wanted to come over tomorrow night and go camping with me down by the creek behind my house. We'll do some cat- fishing and stuff, it'll be fun."
"Camping and fishing, huh? That does sound like fun. Hold on a sec and let me check with my folks." It really did sound like fun and I realized that I needed the distraction. Homecoming night was second only to prom night in its effect on the promiscuous hormones of teenage girls. Whatever defenses Katie had been putting up against Chris were likely to be lowered tomorrow night. I felt sick.
It took some convincing but my parents finally agreed, only under the condition that my mom give me a clean bill of health tomorrow afternoon. If everything was OK, she'd drive me over to Tommy's. Any warning signs and I'd be staying home for the night and in a doctor's office on Saturday.
Tommy was ecstatic. He was becoming the younger brother I never had, even though we were the same age. Tommy was slight of frame, a couple inches shorter than me - maybe 5'8" tops, and was immature even for his young age. With light strawberry hair and a few scattered freckles, I occasionally teased by calling him "Opie". Tommy's dad wasn't a sheriff. He was a professor at a state college near Charlotte. Tommy was a serious brainiac, scoring 1550 on an SAT he had taken this summer. An idea started brewing and I wondered if Tommy had any potential as a math tutor. Mmhh.
Dinner was finished, plans for tomorrow were made, and I was ready for an early bed. What a day.
As I lay there, all of the events of this most-eventful day came flooding back into my memory. Chris and I were friends when this day started, but we had made so much progress in just one day. Were we now at least best friends? What did Chris really think of me? The familiar spoiler of self-doubt crept into my thoughts. Was I reading too much into too little? I had admitted to myself today that I was attracted to Chris. I had yet to even comprehend that he might actually be attracted to me. I knew that I had always recognized appeal in other boys. I had never been dishonest with myself about it, it was just simply a fact that I accepted along with the fact that I was right- handed, or that I didn't have an outie - like Chris. Chris was the only person I had ever met that I could identify a strong physical attraction to. I never labeled myself as gay, or as anything else for that matter. I never thought of myself as sexual at all. Was I gay? Did I care? Others would, that was for sure. I saw the look on Chris's dad's face when he described the "pansies and degenerates" and San Francisco in general. I wasn't sure what a pansy was, but I had a good idea of what he meant by "degenerates". "What a waste" he had said. A waste of what, I wondered. I also saw the look on my own dad's face. Would I see that same look if I told him I loved a boy? Would my own mom still love me as much? I was an only child. My parents might never have grandchildren. Did I owe that to them? What did they owe to me? What did I owe to myself?
All of the questions faded as sleep slowly started to overtake me. The image of Chris returned to me, free of any clutter or complications. I saw him sitting there on that old stump, shirtless, taut muscles straining against his smooth skin. I felt the warmth of his bare back as it pressed up against mine, melting my own body into his. Finally, we had a peaceful setting where we could enjoy this moment for hours on end, free of the interruptions by parents and people. The birds were chirping again, at least they were happy for us.
This time it wasn't the appearance of Chris's dad that scared us off the stump, but rather my alarm clock dutifully going off at 6:30am. An hour to get ready and eat breakfast before my mom would drop me off at school on her way to work. I pushed myself up onto my elbows and let my droggy head sort out reality from the dream. It didn't take long. Today was homecoming at school. I didn't know exactly how they did it here, but I imagined it would involve way more enthusiasm than I was willing to offer. I wondered what Chris was doing right now. I caught myself rubbing on my morning woody and decided I better hit the shower. I loved a hot shower. I loved to feel clean and fresh. I never understood why some kids liked being so grungy, I could never be comfortable that way. Right now, I loved the feeling of a soapy hand. I leaned into the wall of the shower stall, my left arm raised as a prop, the water beating against the top of my head. I closed my eyes and drifted back to the dreams of the night before. My right hand slid up my stomach, gliding around the side and then the back of my neck, drifting slowly downward over my chest circling a small nipple for a moment or two before retracing its path, briefly bumping the small pit that was my belly button, before arriving at its final destination and settling into a slow rhythm. I might have stood there all day had it not been for two things. The first was a rapidly diminishing supply of hot water, the second was a voice.
"Matthew! Get a move on!" Nothing spoiled a personal moment for a teenage boy like the loud voice of his mother. Sarcastically, I thought to myself that I had a pretty good move going on already, thank you very much!
Oh well, the moment had passed. It was back to reality and back to homecoming day - shit! The night had been comforting, the morning promising, but all of that now gave way to the sheer irritation of the day.
I quickly dressed. After all, low long does it take to through on a shirt and a pair of jeans? I tied my black tennis shoes and declared myself physically ready to take on the day. Emotionally ready? That was another story.
My mom insisted that I eat a full breakfast, not wishing to repeat the late-day fainting spell from yesterday. I gladly wolfed it down and gave her a big healthy reassuring smile. I hated the thought of my mom worrying about me.
It was a bright sunny day, still warm. I thought about my camping trip tonight with Tommy. I had never been camping before. I couldn't remember ever spending a night away from home. This would be another day of firsts for me.
As the school came into view, so did an unusually long line of cars with parents waiting to drop off their kids. I saw my mom glance at her watch. The combination of my earlier adventures in the shower and the long full breakfast had thrown us several minutes behind. I didn't want her to be late, my mom was pretty picky about stuff like that and I knew it would bother her. She insisted on dropping me off in the mornings, though I usually rode the school bus home in the afternoon.
"Mom, just swing in the student parking lot and drop me off. It's not that far. I don't need curb-side service." We laughed together at my little joke and my mom was glad to make up the lost time.
"Matthew, you call me this afternoon like we agreed, OK?"
"I will, mom. I promise. I'm OK, don't worry about me." I flashed another big smile and closed the car door.
She waved at me as she pulled away. I decided just to smile in return because I didn't really want any of the older kids to see me waving at my mother. I was trespassing on their turf after all, though I didn't plan to make it a habit.
As I watched my mom pull away, I heard the slam of a door not far behind me. I turned my head and got a close-up view of the old black truck that had caught my eye the day before. The rear window was tinted and I couldn't make out the face still sitting inside, but I was sure it was him.
The mysterious dark-haired boy stepped out of his truck and made blunt eye contact with me. I should have turned and started walking, but something kept me there a little too long. His features reminded me very much of the actor Jared Leto, just not as pretty. He was wiry thin and had that same well defined face, straight black hair, big dark eyes and brows.
"What's the matter, are you lost? Need your mommy to come back and drop you off a little closer to the school?" He looked right at me as he coldly delivered the words. Was he just teasing, or was there real menace in his words? I wasn't frightened of him - yet. I didn't know who this boy was, but I had a growing suspicion. It wasn't my nature to take a shot like that without firing back. I decided to kill two birds with one stone.
Raising a hand to my ear, I tilted my head and mockingly replied "I'm sorry, I COulDN'T hear you."
The anger radiated from his face, but it was tempered by embarrassment, the kind of embarrassment one feels when a handicap is rudely pointed out. His identity was confirmed, this was definitely Jay Henson. I could now report to Tommy that the rumor that Jay's injuries included deafness in one ear were most definitely true.
My feet were now moving. I wasn't about to stand around and challenge him further. I didn't feel good about what I'd said, but I also felt like he kind of deserved it. A tiny shock wave blew through my mind at the realization that those very words "deserved it" had worked into my subconscious vocabulary. Did Jay really "deserve it?" Now I felt really bad. I was also starting to feel a little scared as I could hear his footsteps closing in behind me. Maybe I was about to get what I deserved.
I heard a voice that was music to my ears. Around the corner, Chris was standing with his back to me laughing with a few friends before homeroom. The music hit a sour note however, when I saw the girl standing beside him. I couldn't even bring myself to say her name anymore. I stopped in my tracks, briefly forgetting that Jay was close on my trail. I turned half expecting him to plow right into me, but he was nowhere to be found. Puzzled, I walked around peering into the open spaces expecting to catch a glimpse of him, but it was as if he had vanished into thin air. This whole episode was a little spooky and I retraced my memory trying to reassure myself that I had really seen him at all. I looked out into the student parking lot to confirm the presence of his black truck. It was there, but where in the hell was he?
Just then, two hands grabbed my shoulders from behind. I wheeled around wildly, dropping everything in my arms, escaping the warm grasp I was in.
"Matt, oh shit! I didn't mean to scare you. Are you OK, buddy?" The startled look on Chris's face must have mirrored my own. He reached out again, this time resting his hands gently down on top of my shoulders.
I desperately wanted to lean my head into him and just fall into his arms, but I didn't.
"Chris, it's you. Oh man, I'm really jumpy this morning. Sorry, I'm just a nervous wreck" my voice was rattled and I bent down in front of him and starting to gather a couple books and loose papers from the ground.
Chris knelt down beside me picking up a stray paper or two, handing them to me and offering support with his eyes.
"Matt, about yesterday." He paused and my heart fluttered wondering what he was going to say next. My old companion self-doubt was screaming the words ahead of him, like an irritating movie-goer who's seen a movie enough times to be able to speak the dialogue ahead of the actors on the screen. He would probably tell me it was best if I didn't come over again. Maybe he would use his dad as an excuse to push me away. After all, he had so much more to lose than me. He had a girlfriend, he had a reputation, he actually had a real life - even though he had the real-life problems to go along with it. I felt a bit dizzy again, but I knew this was no medical problem.
"Matt, about yesterday" he started over. I bit my lip and made myself a promise not to cry. "It's not always that bad, OK. I know it looked really bad, but.." he paused again, his eyes full of pain and his head involuntarily shaking in a pattern I now recognized.
I was so ashamed of myself for letting doubt distract me. Why couldn't I just believe in Chris? Why couldn't I believe in me? He was so brave.
"Chris, you don't have to explain." I paused for several seconds, now struggling as Chris had earlier to complete the words. "Don't show any fear, Chris. Don't show any fear." As the words escaped, I broke my promise and felt a disobedient tear stream down my cheek. I saw his eyes follow the trail of the tear, then return to meet my eyes again, making a silent statement to calm me. He reached out once again, touching me as I had touched him the night before, gently grasping the curve at the back of my neck. I'm not he was even aware we were very much in public.
It was confession time, if only silently to myself. I wasn't only attracted to Chris and I didn't only admire him. The three short words that had eluded each other in my head finally found each other in my heart and spoke as one. I loved him.