From the moment he entered the classroom and strode over to the teacher’s desk, I hated him. As he spoke with Mrs. Hollings, our homeroom and history teacher, he exuded confidence, self-assurance, perhaps even arrogance.
He turned towards the class as Mrs. Hollings said, “Class, welcome our newest student, Tanner Marshall.”
The class responded with the customary, “Welcome, Tanner.” He was taller than I was and certainly much better looking. I hated him for that too.
Mrs. Hollings motioned Tanner to the only empty desk in the room, which was unfortunately right next to me. He walked over, held out his hand, and said, “I’m Tanner.”
“No shit,” I answered under my breath. Tanner looked startled but continued to hold out his hand. Then, since everyone was watching, I held out my hand and said, “Owen Wilcox.”
“Glad to meet you,” replied Tanner, shaking my hand and managing a smile despite my rudeness.
Soon we were dismissed to our first period class. As we exited the room, Tanner asked if I could tell him where room 33A was.
“I’m not your babysitter,” I blurted out, and walked away, leaving Tanner to ask someone else.
I guess I should explain. I’m not usually that way. I mean, I’m not intentionally rude and I don’t usually judge people so abruptly. I still don’t know why, but for some reason Tanner rubbed me the wrong way, even without saying anything. It’s true, I suppose, that I’m a loner. Oh, I get along okay with my classmates, but I’m not close to any of them and I have no real desire to be, despite my mother’s urging me to make friends.
When I was younger, my parents sent me to a counselor a few times to find out why I was so solitary, but nothing came of it. Then, when I was 10, my dad, who was a fireman, died in a fire trying to save a little boy. He had already saved a baby, and, despite his captain’s orders, he raced back into the burning triple decker to find the 5-year-old. While he was in the house it collapsed. After the firemen put out the fire, they went looking for Dad, who was only 10 feet from the door. He was holding the little boy in his arms. Neither of them survived.
Mom knew that we couldn’t ever afford our house mortgage on her salary alone, so she sold it and with the money she gained bought our new house. It was a mess, run down and falling apart, but it was ours and there was no mortgage. Soon, firemen, friends of Dad’s whom we didn’t even know, began to stop by on their off days. They totally rehabbed the house. They even installed new kitchen appliances, a hot water heater, and a furnace. Then it was truly our home. It was small, and, with 5 of us living in it, it was hard to keep neat, although we did our best in the living room and the kitchen.
When I was 12, Mom decided that perhaps a dog would be good for me, even though, without Dad’s income, we couldn’t really afford one. We got a rescue mutt whom I named Agatha Christie, because I had recently been reading Christie’s mysteries.
Aggie was probably part miniature pinscher. The other part was not so obvious. She was somewhat bigger than a purebred min pin. We took to each other right away. She was very affectionate. Well, I couldn’t decide whether she was very loving or very needy, but it didn’t really matter. She slept with me, and soon began burrowing under my covers and snuggling up to me. Mom didn’t really approve of that, but she didn’t try to change Aggie.
School had started a week before Tanner appeared. I was a freshman that year, and, along with many others, was still adjusting to being in a new building and in high school.
I had been very nervous the first day because there were a lot of kids from other schools whom I didn’t know, but I stayed aloof and, although people tried to be friendly, they soon ignored me, which was fine with me.
The only classes I had with Tanner were history and gym. Of course, he sat next to me in history and seemed really interested. I thought history was boring because most of it was about dead old men. (In later years, people would say “Dead old white men” but then, in the late 50s, nobody, at least in our school, said that.)
Tanner did not yet have gym clothes, so he sat on the bleachers and watched us go through soccer drills. I actually liked soccer and I thought I was pretty good at it. Oh, not good enough to make the junior varsity, but good enough to hold my own in a gym class.
After school I rode the bus and got off near my home. I unlocked the front door and walked in, to be greeted by Aggie, who wagged her tail and put her front paws up on my legs. As I always did, I first took her out for a walk. I was really hungry, but we couldn’t afford snacks, and, as I was the oldest in the family, I had to set an example by not complaining. I went up to my room with Aggie and lay on my bed, reading while she snuggled next to me.
Soon, the front door slammed open and I heard my two brothers and my sister come in laughing and chattering. They went to a different school, which began and ended later than mine. They pounded up the stairs, casting aside their coats as they came, and burst into my room. Well, I really shared the room with my two brothers, Max, who was 10 and Will, who was 8. Jessica, my sister, was almost 13. Of course, she had a room to herself. I sometimes wished that Max and Will had been girls so I could be alone, but fate decided otherwise.
I did have a twin bed to myself, while Max and Will had bunk beds. Max slept on the top and Will on the bottom. We shared a closet and a dresser. There wasn’t a lot of room for three boys’ clothes, but we really didn’t have many anyway. The problem was that all three of us tended to drop our clothes on the floor instead of hanging them up or putting them in the laundry hamper. The result was that we were constantly scuffling through a layer of clothes on the floor. Mom frequently complained about this, but to no avail. There was one small desk and chair which had been mine when I started going to school but later, in the new house, became catchalls for the three of us. We all did our homework at the kitchen table.
The three of them greeted Aggie and said hi to me before settling on Will’s bed and reading comics. It didn’t seem to matter to them that the comics were the same ones they had been reading for months, or that the comics were by then torn and some of them were missing covers or pages.
Mom was a librarian at the town library. She was home in the mornings when we left for school, but she didn’t get off work until 5 in the afternoon. When she arrived home my brothers and sister ran downstairs to greet her and tell her how hungry they were. Even from upstairs I could hear her sigh, and I predicted correctly what we would have for supper—plain pasta and beans. Sometimes, we had rice instead of pasta. Mom was able to get some food, including vegetables, from a local church food pantry, so we didn’t always have beans, but we had them often enough that I worried the beans would cause me to fart loudly in school. I learned to control my farts, letting just a little air escape at a time.
After supper we did our homework. It was Max and Will’s turn to take a bath that night, so when we finished our homework, Jessica and I went into the living room to read. In the late 50s, a lot of people didn’t yet have TVs and we were no exception. Usually, she and I either played board games or read.
By the time I went up to bed, my brothers were already in their bunks, but they were anything but quiet. In the bathroom I changed into my pjs, brushed my teeth and peed. Back in our room, I turned off the light, saying, “Okay, shut up now and go to sleep.” The boys giggled, but at least they quieted down. Aggie jumped on my bed and lay while I rubbed her tummy for a few minutes. Then I turned on my side, which seemed to be her signal to crawl under the covers.
In the bathroom the next morning, I looked in the mirror at the zit-covered face reflected there. I sighed and applied medication to the zits before returning to our bedroom to awaken the boys and get dressed.
At school, Tanner said hi to me as he took his seat, but I pretended I didn’t hear him.
At lunchtime I usually sat at a table with the same group of boys every day. Tanner decided to join us that day, and he and the other boys chatted and gossiped away. (Oh yes, boys gossip as well as girls, and often about girls.) I didn’t take part in the conversation, but I did learn that Tanner had moved from Boston, he was an only child, and his father had something to do with investments. Big deal, I thought.
Tanner had his clothes for gym that day, so he was able to participate in 3 on 3 soccer drills. I wound up in his threesome. How did I get so lucky? I wondered. I decided that he had good skills, but he was a ball hog. One more reason to hate him I thought.
Day after day Tanner and I went through the same morning ritual. He said hi to me and I didn’t answer. He seemed to know a lot about American history and was not shy about showing off his knowledge. In gym, he appeared to be very skillful and quick to learn.
The fall moved along slowly until one day when Mrs. Hollings announced, “Today we’re going to begin a cooperative learning project.” I groaned inwardly. “You will be divided into groups of 3 and assigned a topic to research. Then you will report what you’ve learned to the class.”
Great! Didn’t she know that threesomes were the worst for cooperating because the group always broke down into 2 on 1?
Looking around the room, she asked, “Does anyone know what happened in Boston on March 17, 1776?”
Someone offered, “Saint Patrick’s Day?” A titter ran through the class.
“Well,” Mrs. Hollings said, smiling, “there were probably very few Irish people in Boston at that time. No, that’s not right.”
Then Tanner put up his hand. When he was called on, he said, “On March 17, 1776, the British evacuated Boston.”
How in hell does he know that? I wondered.
“Right,” said Mrs. Hollings. “I think you’re the first student I ever had who knew that fact. How did you happen to know?”
“I grew up in Boston and we always had March 17th, Evacuation Day, off from school. A lot of the kids thought we were getting Saint Patrick’s Day off, so every year, the teachers told us the name of the holiday. But I really don’t know the story of what happened.”
“Well, good,” said Mrs. Hollings, “because now your group is going to find out about that story and tell it to the rest of us.” She consulted a paper she was holding and said, “Your partners will be Susan Browne and…Owen Wilcox.”
Shit, I thought. Why me? Why him? I barely knew Susan Browne, but I believed at once that she and Tanner would be the twosome and I’d be the odd man out. I didn’t see any reaction on Tanner’s part, but Susan was clearly happy.
Mrs. Hollings continued to divide the class before giving out a list of instructions. She assumed that, while we might do some work in the school library, we would also have to meet a few times outside school. Then she gave us the last few minutes of the period to meet in our groups.
When the three of us were together, Tanner immediately took over ̶ of course. “I have an extra room with a big table in it where we could meet and spread out our materials,” he said.
“What materials?” Susan asked.
“Well, like books and paper and stuff. And then we’re supposed to do some sort of project in addition to writing what we’re going say, so we’ll need room for that too.”
“Where will we get the books?” she persisted.
“The school library. Does the town have a public library?”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “My mom’s a librarian there.”
“Great,” said Tanner. “Could you and Susan go there after school and look for books about the American Revolution and anything else you can think of? I’ll look in the school library.”
“I can’t today,” Susan said. “I have a dentist appointment after school.”
“I guess I could go,” I said, so it was decided. The next day Tanner and I would bring in whatever books we found that might be useful.
At the end of the school day I walked over to the town library, which was not far away. Mom greeted me at the checkout desk and asked what I was looking for.
“Books about the American Revolution that would tell about the evacuation of Boston.”
“Well, you know where the card catalog is,” she said, and returned to what she was doing. She had always insisted that I learn the Dewey Decimal System and how to use the files. In those days before computers, all the books were listed on cards in multi-drawer wooden file cases. There was a card for each book’s title, one for the author, and one for the subject.
I looked up the American Revolution in the card catalogue and found a number of books, all of which began with call numbers in the 900s. I went upstairs to the non-fiction rooms and found the American history books. I spent some time browsing through them, looking for any that had a good section on our topic. Finally selecting four, I took them downstairs and checked them out. Mom was no longer at the checkout counter, so I just took the books and left.
Since there was no bus to take, I had to walk home or wait for Mom. It was a nice fall day, so I decided to walk, listening to the crunch of dry leaves under my feet. Part way home, I regretted my decision, because the four books were heavy.
When I got home, I put my books down and went upstairs. In addition to me, Jessica had a key to the house, so she and the boys were already in the bedroom reading the old comics. Sometimes my brothers went to friends’ houses to play after school, but none of us ever brought friends home. We would have been embarrassed not to be able to offer snacks or any place to play.
In the evening when I finished my homework, I did some reading in one of the history books and, despite my dislike of history, found it kind of interesting. The book also had a map and an old picture which helped me understand what had happened.
When I was in bed and my brothers were quiet, I found myself thinking about what I had read. Good Lord, I thought as I drifted off to sleep, those men must have frozen dragging cannons from Fort Ticonderoga all the way to Boston.
When Tanner said hi to me the next morning just before the homeroom class was called to order, I grudgingly answered him and took a minute to tell him what I had found.
As I made my way through the school day, I found that I was eager to share everything with my group after school. “Eager” was something I couldn’t remember ever feeling before in school, certainly not about history.
After school, Susan, Tanner, and I rode a school bus to Tanner’s house. As we went up the front walk, I couldn’t help staring at the large, white two-story house ahead of us. Tall white columns on either side of the front door rose from the porch. The door itself had a stained-glass window. I had ridden past the house many times, always wondering who lived there. Now I knew.
Opening the door, Tanner invited us in. We walked into a big, two-story hallway at the end of which was a wide staircase which split in two halfway up. Tanner escorted us into the living room and introduced us to his mother, who was sitting on a sofa thumbing through a magazine. The room had tall windows and the sunlight was pouring in. I felt myself sink a little into the plush carpet as I looked around at what was clearly very expensive, highly polished furniture. His mother invited us to sit, but Tanner told her we had some schoolwork we had to do.
From the living room he took us through a dining room which had a polished table with twelve chairs around it. On the far side of the room, we walked through a swinging door into a huge kitchen, where a woman was working at a counter. Tanner introduced us, referring to her as Viola, his family’s live-in cook. Then he motioned for us to sit at the kitchen table. Viola brought over milk and BLTs for the three of us. It was the first after-school snack I had had since Dad died. Boy it was good!
When we finished, Tanner took us upstairs, guiding us first to his large bedroom, which was extremely neat. Clearly, Tanner did not throw his dirty clothes on the floor.
From his bedroom, he took us to another room, which he called “the games room”. Around the walls were shelves covered with board games and art supplies. In the middle of the room was a ping pong table. Tanner removed the net from the table and invited us to pull up chairs.
We sat towards one end of the table, where Tanner had already put three books from the school library. I added my four books to the pile.
Cocky as usual, Tanner took charge right away. “I think we should start with the school’s books,” he said. “I can only keep them for 2 days because other groups are going to need them.” He passed out paper and pencils and suggested we each take one of the books and take notes on what we found. We were silent as we read, although each time I looked up I saw Susan looking at Tanner and wondered whether she had read anything. As I read, I learned that, after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the colonists laid siege to Boston, so the British, who were occupying the city, could only get supplies by sea. That was a key to what caused the evacuation.
I told the group about that. Tanner was very interested and took notes. Susan showed no interest.
When we finished for the day, we had gathered some good information, although there was no contribution from Susan, and Tanner and I communicated only rarely. We agreed that we would reconvene the next day and use the books I had found.
Mom picked me up a little after 5 as I waited on the curb in front of Tanner’s house. “How did it go, Sweetie?” she asked.
I wished fervently that she wouldn’t call me that, but she always did when we were alone together. I was grateful that at least she didn’t do it when we were with other people. “Okay, I guess,” I replied. I knew she was secretly happy that I was working with other kids, but she didn’t know that Susan had eyes only for Tanner, or that I disliked Tanner.
After supper the four of us did our homework. I had left my four books at Tanner’s house but, before bed, I wrote up what I had learned so far.
After school the next day we again met at Tanner’s house and began looking for new information. Again, Susan did almost nothing while Tanner and I worked steadily.
On the following day, we discussed our project. At Tanner’s suggestion of course, we decided to make two big maps, one of the City of Boston as it was in 1776, and one of the route from fort Ticonderoga, which was at the southern end of Lake Champlain in Vermont, south to Dorchester Heights, which overlooked Boston. Susan and Tanner would work on the map of Boston while I did the other map. We also split up the report into 3 parts, giving Susan the easiest part, about the siege of Boston. Tanner took the history before that, including the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Boston Massacre, while I, of course, took the part about the cannons.
During the rest of our time, we borrowed each other’s notes and began searching for information the others had found but we had not. We decided to work alone over the weekend writing up our notes. On Monday we would read what we had to each other and begin work on the maps. The report was due by Thursday.
After school on Monday, the three of us again rode to Tanner’s house, said hello to his mother and went into the kitchen where Viola gave us sandwiches and milk. I decided I could really get used to this if I could ever learn to like Tanner.
Upstairs in the games room, we shared our reports. Susan’s was barely literate, so after Tanner and I shared our writing and got each other’s approval, we tried to help Susan with hers. At first, she burst into tears, but when she finally calmed down, we were able to cobble together a passable report. Then we turned to the maps.
Tanner produced some large sheets of white paper and he and Susan set to work creating their map of Boston. It was then that Susan’s talent finally emerged. She was expert at enlarging the map to the size of the paper. When it was time to go, she had finished half the map of Colonial Boston. I planned to work on a map showing the route the patriots took with the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights, but I couldn’t find a copy of a map to enlarge.
Discouraged as I left Tanner’s house, I was surprised to see that it was dark out until I remembered that we had switched from daylight saving time to standard time the day before. Fortunately, Mom was waiting so I didn’t have to stand on the curb in the dark.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Susan finished her superb work on the map. Since I couldn’t find a map, I had decided to show a picture on the overhead projector of the men and oxen dragging the cannons towards Boston. I had also found another picture which might be useful if we got questions about early Boston. We still had time to review our reports, using the map and pictures as props. We were ready to go.
When I sat at my homeroom desk on Thursday morning, there was no sign of Tanner. Since he not only did a third of the report but was going to bring the map and the picture with him, I had no idea what we would do if he didn’t show up. By the beginning of history class, I was really worried. Then the door opened and Tanner walked in, followed by his mother. Tanner took his seat and smiled at me but didn’t say anything. His mother sat in a chair in the back of the room.
About halfway through the class, Mrs. Hollings called on us. We taped our map to the blackboard, pulled down the projection screen and faced the class. Tanner opened his mouth to begin but nothing except a croak came out. Quickly, he showed me something he had written on the back of his report. I faced the class and said, “Tanner has laryngitis and a fever, so he is asking me to read his report.” I looked at Mrs. Hollings and she nodded.
Fortunately, Tanner had typed his report. As I read it, he pointed occasionally to spots on the map.
No questions were allowed until the end of our report, so Susan went next. Finally, I gave my report. I projected the picture I had found and told the class that over 2000 men and 400 oxen were used to take the cannons the 225 miles from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston.
I ended the report by saying, “When the cannons were installed on Dorchester Heights looking directly down into Boston, the British agreed to depart. They left by ship the next day, March 17, 1776.” When I finished, I asked if anyone had any questions.
In the back of the room, Dexter’s hand went up. I called on him. “It was a good report,” he said, “but that map doesn’t look at all like Boston.”
I nodded. “You’re right. Remember, this is a map of Boston from 200 years ago. You can see that Boston was nearly an island. There was just a narrow neck of land that connected it to the mainland. You might remember that one of the streets in Boston is named Tremont Street, which means three hills. Tremont Hill or Trimont Hill was actually made up of three hills ̶ Mt. Vernon, Beacon Hill, and Pemberton.” I put my other picture in the projector.
“There were also two other hills, named Copp’s Hill and Fort Hill. In the early 1800s, workers cut into Mount Vernon and used the dirt to fill in the water around where Charles Street is now. Later, part of Beacon Hill and most of Copp’s Hill were cut down and used as more landfill. The men used horse-drawn wagons, and picks, and shovels. The work took 21 years. Other projects continued until about 1882. They included filling in around the narrow peninsula that joined Boston to the mainland. Logan Airport was later built on landfill, too.”
There were a few other questions before we were allowed to sit down. Well, Susan and I sat down while Tanner retrieved the map and the pictures and went home with his mother.
On Monday we learned that we had gotten A’s for our report. I think it was the first A I ever got in history, and I was happy because I had worked hard for it.
I hadn’t really changed my mind about Tanner. He was still cocky, and he had naturally assumed the leadership of our group as if it was his right. He was still a ball hog, although I no longer cared as much because, after Thanksgiving, the sport changed to basketball and I wasn’t any good at basketball anyway. I also resented that his was rich and really good looking—or at least I thought he was.
Three days before Christmas we got a heavy snowfall, and I mean heavy in both the amount and the weight of the snow. This was a wet snow which stuck to everything. All four of us kids cleaned off Mom’s car, shoveled the driveway, and then shoveled the front walk. By then we were cold and retreated inside. Entering the house, we smelled the welcoming aroma of hot cocoa. Of course, we almost never had it, but Mom had made us a special treat as a reward for our hard work. We removed our jackets and boots and gathered at the kitchen table, where we discovered there were also some Christmas cookies.
“I was going to save these for Christmas, but I decided you deserved them early.” We took two each and saved the rest for Christmas Day.
Christmas was not a big deal in our house as none of us could afford presents. Mom had saved through the year and she had gotten new LP’s which she knew my brothers would like. She gave Jessica a new blouse and me a couple of fun T-shirts. We children didn’t give presents, but we did make cards for each other. Our gift to our mother was to cook the suppers, do the dishes, and clean the house for the week-and-a-half we were out of school. Several years earlier, Mom had bought a small, artificial tree and some strings of lights from a thrift shop, so on Christmas Eve we put up the tree and strung the lights on it. Then we made some popcorn strings to decorate it more. Except for Christmas dinner, that was our Christmas. We knew that other kids got lots of presents, but we always said it didn’t matter because we had each other. And when I lay in bed on Christmas Eve, I realized that was true.
Dinner on Christmas Day was a feast for us. Mom had been able to get a turkey and some vegetables through the food pantry and kind neighbors had brought us pies and rolls. By the end of dinner, we were stuffed, a feeling we seldom had.
Christmas afternoon, as we munched on Christmas cookies, my brothers and I played Monopoly on the floor in the living room. We asked Jessica to join us, but she was getting a knitting lesson from Mom. She had been given yarn by a family friend who claimed to have more than enough. Her goal was to knit sweaters for her three brothers for next Christmas.
Around 3 o’clock the doorbell rang. I was closest to the front door, so I got up and opened it. Tanner was standing there with a wrapped package in his hand. “Merry Christmas, Owen,” he said and thrust the package at me. I was angry and hurt and I have to admit I slammed the door in his face. I didn’t want any presents from a rich kid. I had all that I needed or wanted. Who was he to treat me like some poor little kid getting presents from charity? I think I was angrier with him then than I had ever been before.
Back in the living room, Mom asked who was at the door. I told her it was Tanner, but that he just wanted to ask me a question.
“Is that why you slammed the door?” she asked.
“Well, we had a little argument, but it wasn’t important.”
“Why didn’t you invite him in?”
“Because I was in the middle of a Monopoly game and I didn’t want to interrupt it.”
That night in bed I wondered why I had acted the way I had. I finally realized that I was ashamed because he could give me a present and I couldn’t give him one, and I would have been embarrassed for him to see our house. It was fine for us, but it was nothing compared to his.
Three days later, the doorbell rang again. This time, Max answered, and before he could react, Tanner pushed past him and started up the stairs calling out, “Which room is yours, Owen?” I wasn’t going to answer but Max did.
I sighed and went upstairs to our room. Will was there reading a comic, but when he saw the look on my face he quickly departed.
Tanner sat on my bed and looked around. Aggie climbed up beside him and then settled with her head on his lap. Embarrassed, I hastily tried to pick up clothes off the floor.
“I don’t want you here,” I said.
“I know,” he replied, “that’s why I pushed past your brother. I’ll apologize to him on my way out, and to your mother because I came in without ever having met her.”
“Okay, so say what you have to say and get out.”
“It’s not what I have to say so much as it is what I have to ask.” We were silent for a bit just staring at each other while Tanner absent mindedly rubbed Aggie’s tummy. Finally, he asked very quietly, “Why do you hate me so much? What did I do to cause you to be so angry with me?”
So there it was. The big question, which I hadn’t even been able to answer satisfactorily for myself. I sighed because I didn’t know how to answer him.
“It started the first day I came to school, didn’t it?”
“I guess It was because you were so cocky and self-assured,” I answered at last. “It didn’t seem right. I thought you should just come in quietly and take a seat. But you talked with Mrs. Hollings like you’d always known her and then you acted like you knew that everyone would accept you and like you. And that turned out to be almost totally true.”
“Except for you.”
“Yeah, except for me. It looked like a big act to me, and I wondered why the others couldn’t see through you.”
“Is that all?”
“No. In gym I envied your really good skills, but you were a ball hog.”
I knew as I talked that these were pretty thin reasons for disliking someone. “Well, when we met as a group for the project you just naturally took over. You organized us, you told us what we would do, and we did it. Didn’t it ever occur to you that someone else might have an idea?”
“Okay. What about slamming the door in my face on Christmas afternoon? You did everything but shout ‘Bah! Humbug!’ Why didn’t you just accept the present from me?”
I looked down at the floor as I began to understand what an idiot I’d been. Without looking at him, I said quietly, “For two reasons. First, I couldn’t give you a present in return, so your gift felt like charity; second, I didn’t want you in this house because I thought you’d judge it against your own.”
He nodded. “Well, let me tell you a few things about myself. You see me as self-assured, as being cocky and obnoxious. Would you be surprised to know it’s really self-defense?” I started to say something, but he said, “No, let me finish. When I was 7, I went to a new school. I was scared and many of the boys picked on me. When I was 9, I went to a different school. That time I decided that I wouldn’t let the same thing happen again. Even though I was scared, I acted like I was in charge. For some reason, all the kids fell for it and began seeing me as a leader. So when I came here to school, I was scared again, and I acted the same way. You were right. It was an act. I got away with it, but it’s not really me. I’m sometimes still the scared kid I was when I was 7.
“As for being a ball hog, I guess I plead guilty. It’s part of the same act but I also hate to lose. Maybe that’s because my dad always saw me as a loser. And I admit to being bossy in the group. I’m sorry and I’ll try to do better next time.
“Now, about your home. In the first place, I don’t judge your home. You think I’m lucky to live in a big, expensive house, and in a way I am, but I rattle around in that house, and it is a house, not a home. My parents provide for me, but I’ve never heard either one of them say they loved me. What I did overhear one time was that I was an accident. They didn’t want children. I was an intruder. I think the only person in my house who cares about me is Viola. You have no idea what I would give to have brothers and sisters. I would trade my life for yours in a minute. I guess, when we were working on the project, I unconsciously began to think of you as a brother. That’s why I wanted to give you a Christmas present. It wasn’t charity. I wanted to give you the gift because, for some reason, I liked you, even though it was clear you didn’t like me. And I really didn’t want anything in return. I don’t judge you. I don’t judge your home or your family, except to feel jealous of what you have, but you’ve been judging me from the beginning, and that really hurts.”
We were both crying by then, and we were silent for a long time, each lost in his own thoughts.
At last I said, in a very small voice, “I’m sorry. I guess I’ve been wrong all along. You used the word ‘jealous’ a minute ago, and I suppose that’s what I’ve been. You seemed to be everything I wanted to be but wasn’t. I wanted to have your self-assurance. I wanted to have your sports skills. I wanted a life where I didn’t have to worry about money all the time. One thing I didn’t mention was how good looking you are. Every day I look in the mirror and I see an ugly, zit-covered face. You’ll never have a problem getting a date to a prom, but I will.”
“Oh, you’ll get a date. Would you rather go to a prom with someone who dated you because they thought you were good looking or someone who knew you and knew what a good person you were?”
I thought about that for a minute and then nodded. “I’m sorry for how I’ve behaved. I never knew I was hurting you. I’m really ashamed of myself. Do you think we could ever be friends after what I’ve done?”
Tanner stood up and gave me a hug. “I would like that better than anything in the world.”
We talked some more before he said he had to go. Downstairs I introduced him to Mom, and he apologized for barging in. Then he turned to Max and apologized for pushing him out of his way. “I hope from now on we can really get to know and enjoy each other,” he said to me. Then he gave me another hug and departed.
“Get to know and enjoy each other” we certainly did. Tanner invited me to his house the Sunday after school began again. We went up to his bedroom and sat on his bed talking. Mostly we talked about the new book we were reading, To Kill A Mockingbird. We decided we liked it, but it got into something I’d never talked about with anybody before ̶ race and race relations. Neither Tanner nor I knew any Negroes except Viola, and we had never thought of her as being different. We did know that things were different in the South, but we had just never thought about it. We discussed the first part of the trial, which was as far as we had read in class, and we were angry that someone could be hanged for what Tom Robinson had supposedly done. We weren’t even sure he had done it. We were both rooting for Atticus to save him.
Later, as I got up to head home, Tanner followed me and gently pushed me up against the closed door. His blue eyes were fixed on mine. He moved forward and kissed me on the mouth. I was stunned. But then I realized that I really liked the kiss. Before I knew it, my arms were around him pulling him tight against me and my mouth was responding to his kiss. We stood that way for perhaps a minute, and then I felt his tongue on my lips. I don’t know why, but I opened my mouth and his tongue entered, moving around touching every bit of the inside of my mouth. A little chill went up my back. When he withdrew his tongue, I moved my tongue into his mouth, enjoying the sensation. Finally, we pulled apart. Sparks seemed to fly between us as our eyes remained locked on each other.
“Did I shock you?” he asked quietly.
“At first, but then I really liked it.”
“I was scared you’d get mad or hit me or something.”
“Never. How did you know I liked boys?”
“I didn’t really. I did see you eyeing some of the guys in the locker room, but I think we all do that. I just decided I had to take the chance.”
I nodded before I leaned into him again and began kissing him. When we broke apart, he said in a husky voice, “I want you to come next Friday and stay for the weekend.”
I wasn’t sure what he had in mind, but the idea excited me. It also scared me. Were we really queer? Were we homos? Faggots? Fairies? There were so many words and all of them were putdowns.
At last I asked, “Can I think about it?” He agreed and I told him I’d let him know by Tuesday morning.
At home, I mentioned to Mom that Tanner had invited me to his house to stay over. She said, “That’s nice dear,” and that was that. But I fretted about it all through school on Monday. Both Sunday and Monday nights I tossed and turned, trying to figure out what to do. Finally, on Monday night, I thought, so what if I try it? If I don’t like, I won’t have to go again. It’s not the end of the world. If I do like it then I guess I’ll have to figure out how to deal with it.
Tuesday morning I was sitting in homeroom before school began, waiting for Tanner. As usual, he entered and took his seat just as the bell was ringing. At first he didn’t look at me, but finally he turned his head towards me with a quizzical look on his face. I nodded once. He nodded back and turned towards the front of the room, grinning.
As the week progressed I grew more and more nervous. On Friday, I packed a laundry bag with clothes and things I thought I’d need for the weekend. When I got to school, I shoved it into my locker and went to homeroom. I was so nervous that day I don’t think I heard a word the teachers said. I just went through the motions.
At the end of the school day, I retrieved my things from my locker and trudged to Tanner’s bus with the laundry bag hanging from my shoulder. By the time we sat on the bus I was so nervous my leg was jiggling up and down. Tanner put his hand on my thigh to calm the jiggling, but that made me even more nervous.
At Tanner’s house, we went in through the living room, saying hi to his mother, who always seemed to be in the same place on the sofa. I wondered if she was still reading the same magazine. As we walked into the kitchen, we were greeted by Viola, who, as usual, had a snack ready for us.
We went upstairs after we finished our snack. I put my bags in Tanner’s room and then we went into the games room and had a few wild games of ping pong. We had decided that we didn’t want to do anything about kissing and stuff while his parents were still up.
Dinner was odd. Tanner and I talked with each other and his parents talked with each other. Neither adult ever said anything to us, and we never said anything to them. Red wine was served with the meal. I had never had wine or anything else alcoholic. I sipped it and found it was quite good. I only drank the one glass because I didn’t want to be drunk that night.
After dinner, Tanner and I returned to the games room and played chess. He was very competitive, but I did manage to win one of the three games.
As we chatted, Tanner said, “I just learned something about Viola.”
She has three kids, and she only sees them on Sundays, when she has time off.”
“Oh,” I said. “So why doesn’t she get a different job so she can be home more?”
“I think it’s because of the money. She needs it to care for her kids and I guess this job pays pretty well.”
I was glad my mom didn’t have it that hard. I would hate not seeing her for days and days.
Finally, looking at his watch, Tanner decided his parents had surely gone to bed and it was time for us to get ready for bed too. I knew he had a bathroom with a walk-in shower, but I didn’t know where his parents’ bedroom was. As if reading my mind, he said, “My parents’ bedrooms are on the other side of the house and they can’t hear a thing from here.”
“Do your parents have separate bedrooms?”
“Yeah, I guess they didn’t want to make the same mistake again.” He smiled rather ruefully and suggested I go in the bathroom first, so I went in, peed, and brushed my teeth. Then I washed my armpits and put deodorant on.
When I walked back into his bedroom, Tanner was standing there with nothing on but his aqua boxers, his erection pushing out the fabric. I had wondered how this was going to work, and I had brought a pair of pajamas, but it was pretty obvious I wouldn’t be using them. Tanner went into the bathroom while I stripped down to my white jockeys. I too had a very hard cock.
Tanner returned, taking the time to turn off the overhead light and pointing the light on his desk towards the far wall so the bed was only dimly lit. The covers had been pulled back. Tanner got into bed and motioned for me to get in beside him. We turned towards each other and began kissing. I could feel his erection pressing against mine as he held me close. When we removed our shorts, we just naturally began to masturbate each other. Wow, did it feel good! After we both came and cleaned up, we fell asleep but awoke in the night. Tanner leaned over me and took my penis in his mouth. From then on, we were hooked.
I don’t know how many times I came that night, but by morning I was exhausted. I lay in a kind of haze while Tanner slowly awoke. Finally he said, “C’mon, let’s take a shower.”
“Together?” I asked.
“Sure, I want to get a closer look at what I was holding and feeling last night.” We both laughed.
In the shower, we made a pretense of washing before Tanner reached over, saying he wanted to wash my privates. So he washed mine and I washed his. Then he turned me around and washed my butt, being careful to wash the crack.
When I had done the same for him, he turned the water off and we grabbed towels. He motioned for me to turn around and then he dried my back and my butt, giving it just as much attention as he had when he washed it.
Dressed and ready at last, we went down to breakfast, which Viola served us in the kitchen. I found I was starved, and I guess Tanner was too, because in a few minutes a huge pile of pancakes and a whole dish full of sausages disappeared. Man, it was delicious!
After breakfast we went outside and walked around for a while. Tanner admitted to being pretty tired and so did I, but we kept walking until we came to the grocery store where I hoped to work when I turned 16. We went in the store and greeted Mr. Carleton, the owner. He asked if we wanted to buy anything. I said no, we had just dropped in to say hello. Tanner did wind up buying a couple of comic books, and before we left, Mr. Carleton gave us each a couple of candy bars and told us to have a good time. Saturday and Sunday nights were repeats of Friday night except that we got to the oral sex sooner.
When we got on the bus Monday morning, we could barely walk.
I spent the next weekend at Tanner’s again. We tried to pace ourselves a little more and, when we got on the bus on Monday, we weren’t quite as wiped out. I knew we couldn’t do this every weekend because Mom was making noises about hardly ever seeing me. And of course, I missed Max and Will and Jessica, and especially, I must admit, Aggie. From then on, Tanner and I alternated weekends with me at his house one weekend and me at home the next. Of course, we were horny teenagers and we wanted more, but we had to settle for what worked. And by then my feelings were more than just enjoying sex. I had begun to love him.
One time we talked about our love and whether we would always be together. I said I wanted to be, and he agreed, but it turned out that “Always” was a long time.
Tanner and I both had our 16th birthdays in March. Tanner was given a new bicycle, although he couldn’t really figure out why, since his old bike was still working well. He gave the old bike to me, saying that it wasn’t a birthday present but something that could make it easier for us to get together. I knew that was just an excuse, but I accepted the bike anyway.
For me the birthday meant I could finally get a job. Mr. Carleton hired me to work at the grocery store as a stock clerk and cleaner. My bicycle meant that I didn’t have to walk to and from the store each day. The job did cut down on the time Tanner and I could spend together but he understood. At first, I gave all my earnings to Mom for the family budget, but after a few weeks, she insisted that I keep a percentage of it for myself. Since I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to buy that wouldn’t be a waste of money, I opened a savings account and deposited my money, which I called my college fund.
All summer it seemed that Tanner and I were together whenever I wasn’t working. We went for long bike rides. We swam in his pool and he invited my brothers and sister to swim as well. Sometimes we just sat around and talked or stayed in my little yard and played with Aggie, who had become very fond of Tanner. Always horny, we spent many nights in his bed.
On the Saturday of the Labor Day weekend, I got a phone call from Tanner, who said, “I need to talk with you. Can you come over?” I agreed and rode my bike to his house. Tanner met me at the door and immediately escorted me up to his room.
When we were settled there, Tanner said, “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
I wondered what it could be. Was he sick? Was he going to halt our times together? I could see tears in his eyes. “What is it, Tanner?”
“We’re moving back to Boston.”
I was shocked. The thought had never occurred to me. I knew the family had moved several times in the past, but I thought they were comfortably settled. “Why?” I asked.
“My father has decided that commuting to his job in Boston every day is tiring and a waste of time, and he doesn’t want to do it anymore.”
“Shit! When are you going?”
“In just a few days. I’m really pissed off. I finally found a place I like, a school I like, and a friend I…I love.” By then we both had tears in our eyes and were trying to control ourselves so we didn’t burst out crying. That would have been humiliating for both of us.
“Won’t I ever see you again?”
“I don’t know.” And that was that.
A few days later, Tanner came to my house to say goodbye. He had ridden over on his new bike. “I want you to have this,” he said. “I won’t have any use for it at my new house. Why don’t you give the old one to Max?” I said I would and then I gave him a long hug and kiss. I knew we were outside on the walk, but at that point I didn’t care who saw us.
He came in the house and said goodbye to my mother and my brothers and sister. Then he picked up Aggie and gave her a long hug and kiss, saying, “I’m going to miss you too.” Tanner and I both had tears in our eyes. When it was time for him to go, I offered to go with him to his house, but he said he’d rather walk alone, that he had some thinking to do.
When Tanner was settled in Boston, he called me, but really all we could talk about was how unhappy we were. For a time, we talked every night on the phone. He invited me to visit at his new home, but I couldn’t take the time off from school and work.
As we settled into the new school year, our calls became less frequent. Tanner wanted me to visit him for Christmas. Mom and I talked about it, but I didn’t feel I could leave my family at that time.
In the following summer, Tanner came and visited us for a week. I had bought an inflatable mattress which would fit between my bed and the bunk beds. Aggie spent the nights bouncing back and forth between the mattress and my bed. Of course, we couldn’t do anything in bed with my two brothers right there. The most we did was to kiss and jerk each other off or give quick blow jobs in the bathroom. That was far from satisfactory. At the end of the week, we kissed goodbye and I waved as he left in his mother’s car. That was the last time I saw him.
Throughout high school, we talked on the phone several times a week. Finally, one day in our senior year, he said, “Owen, I have some news.”
“I have a new boyfriend. His name is Jim.” I was stunned. Somehow, I had never thought of that possibility. I hung up without saying anything. I was hurt, but, as I thought about it, I realized it was for the best. Neither of us should go through life pining for the other.
I called him a couple of days later and told him I was happy for him and Jim. He thanked me and encouraged me to find someone too.
After high school, despite my meager savings account, I didn’t go to college. I had no interest in it. Instead, I got a job as a teller in a local bank. One day in November, a young man came into the bank to make a deposit. Since we were about the same age and it was a slow morning, we chatted for a few minutes. He told me his name was Michael Swan, that he was studying music privately, and that he was also the new organist and choir director at the Congregational church in town. I suggested that he wait a few minutes and we could go to lunch together.
Lunch was nothing more than coffee and a hamburger, but we talked amiably until I had to go back to work. Throughout the afternoon, when I had moments free, I thought about him.
Michael and I had not exchanged contact information, so I had to wait until he came into the bank again. The next day, he came just before my lunch break. He had no banking business, so it was clear that he had come to see me. Again we went to lunch together. This time we exchanged phone numbers and addresses.
On Friday, he came just before lunch and, as we ate, he invited me to his apartment for dinner the next night.
His apartment was tiny, a studio apartment above some stores on Main Street. When I arrived and knocked, he opened the door. As I stepped in, he gave me a big hug. At first I was surprised, but then I leaned into the hug and kissed him. I don’t remember much about the dinner. I know there was wine involved. We spent the entire dinner just gazing at each other. After dinner, without a word, we went into his bedroom, and by the time I had to leave, we had explored every inch of each other’s bodies.
I believe that was the first night I didn’t think about Tanner at all. In a few weeks I had moved in with Michael. At that point I didn’t know whether I was in love with Michael or whether I was just enjoying the sex, but it didn’t seem to matter.
In the end, Michael and I never parted. He got a job at a big church in Cleveland and I moved with him.
Meanwhile, Tanner and I did occasionally communicate. He had remained with Jim, and after their graduation, they moved to New York.
Over the following years the time between Tanner’s letters grew longer and longer. From something he said one time, I wondered if there was something wrong.
The day before my 42nd birthday, I got a letter from New York, but it wasn’t from Tanner. Opening it, I realized it was from Tanner’s partner, Jim. As I read, I felt a shock go through me. Jim wrote that Tanner had died of AIDs. Tanner hadn’t wanted to tell me because he was afraid I would insist on going to New York. He didn’t want me to see him so sick, and there was nothing I could do.
Inside the letter was a notecard. Jim said that he had written the card as Tanner dictated a few days before he died.
It read, “My dear, dear Owen, I’m so sorry about how things turned out for us. You were my first love and you have always had a special place in my heart. To this day, I love you. Take care of yourself and savor your love with Michael.”
I wrote back, asking Jim about a funeral service, but there wasn’t to be one. Tanner didn’t want one. He wanted to be cremated and that had already happened.
I never had a chance to say goodbye. My life with Michael went on. We loved each other for many years but in a part of my heart, I always mourned Tanner. As I had been his, Tanner was my first love.